Platforms: PS Vita (Reviewed), PS4, PC, Xbox One, Xbox 360
Retro-styled shooters are good at delivering massive thrills via simplicity. Since the days of Contra and Metal Slug, 2D shoot 'em ups have remained tied to one mantra: shoot all the things in front of you and blow stuff up for maximum awesomeness. That's changed in recent times, and now 2D shooters strive to give players a unique hook that helps the games stand out from the pack.
Galak-Z has a great upgrade system and slightly forgiving roguelike mechanics. Shutshimi: Seriously Swole tosses you into bite-sized, 10-second stages. Then there's Capybara Games' Super Time Force Ultra which, after debuting on the Xbox One and Steam last year, is now making its rounds on the PlayStation 4 and Vita. The game essentially turns you into a time-traveling, gun-toting hero, and though we've seen both of these elements in other games, this effort blends them together quite beautifully.
As a member of the titular Super Time Force, it's your duty to travel through various eras to leave your mark on history and save the day. From the dinosaur-inhabited land of 1,000,000 BC all the way to dystopian, Mad Max-inspired 199X, Super Time Force Ultra takes you for one big ride through time. Each era, regardless of whether it's the distant future or all-too-familiar past, is loaded with enemies, obstacles, and landmarks that accurately represent a specific time.
Each level gives you the objective of reaching the end whilst simultaneously blasting away at baddies. Depending on the depicted era, these baddies can either by spiked shoulder pad-wearing goons or vicious dinosaurs. The goal always remains the same: use your guns to shoot them — all for the greater good! Seriously, who cares if you're altering time itself? The important thing is that your intentions, and the intentions of your inept, dual eye patch-wearing commander, are in the right place.
You begin with three characters, each with unique abilities and weapons. These weapons include a pistol, rifle, and shield. Tapping the fire button unleashes quick shots (melee attacks with the shield), while holding then releasing lets out burst fire or a strong blast (or protective orb that stays on the screen for a couple of seconds if you're using the shield), respectively.
There are unlockable characters, making the Super Time Force grow in numbers and strength and giving you access to more weapons and strategies. Using a character with a shotgun makes for a different experience than using a character who wields a sword. And mixing and matching characters makes everything all the more enjoyable and allows for a wide array of strategies to take down bad guys.
Rewind time and undo your blunders
Should a member of the Super Time Force meet his or her demise, you have the ability to rewind time. This is largely dependent on whether you have enough tokens to do so, but because you start out a level with 30 of these tokens, there's some leniency involved if you want to go back and undo a mistake.
Rewinding doesn't reset the level. Instead, if you kill a bunch of dudes, die, and rewind, you'll see an opaque version of the last character you played as running around and repeating everything you did on that last run, including killing enemies. This mechanic is especially effective during boss battles as all of the damage your past and current characters dish out is stacked up.
You'd think this would make Super Time Force Ultra an easy game, but that's not the case at all. Each level has a time limit, and because boss battles in particular can be tough, rewinding and taking on major enemies together with your past selves allows you to shave some time off the battles so you can reach the end in time.
Super Time Force Ultra totally could've worked had it just been a straight-up shoot-fest. It probably wouldn't have warranted a review score higher than an 8 or even a 7, but it would've been a fully functional, highly entertaining thrill ride akin to shmups of the '80s and '90s. Thankfully, the minds at Capy decided to throw in that sweet rewind mechanic that boosts the game's fun factor by a large margin.
It's worth mentioning that because of all of the rewinding you do, you'll spend a lot of time in every level. What would probably be a two-minute run in a standard shmup becomes an extended replaying of the same areas. Because there's a lot of fun to be had for the most part, that's not exactly a major problem, but it does become noticeable, especially during later boss battles where it seems like all you're doing is rewinding and replaying the last 10 seconds over and over again.
Of cat videos and LOLZ
Super Time Force Ultra proudly boasts lots of referential writing. From obvious references to Mad Max to poking fun at Internet culture (your commander loves cat videos), the game takes advantage of its time traveling tropes by accompanying all of the era-hopping with nods to different aspects of popular culture. And though it does it a lot, it never gets old because the game doesn't just recycle jokes — every nod and wink is unique to different cultural elements.
The commander who gives you your orders is written magnificently. His insane ramblings are pure gold, and the lines of dialogue are brilliant. He always has plenty to say, and, more often than not, it's utterly hilarious. And again, the dude's wearing two eye patches, which is just great.
Pixel explosions en masse
The great thing about retro throwbacks is that they can be graphically familiar despite taking advantage of modern technology. What you get with Super Time Force Ultra is a rich painting filled with pixels and an assortment of colors. The game looks incredible, the animations are seamless, and the bursts of fire and explosions are all a wonderful thunderstorm of colorful pixel bits. Speaking of which, all of those colors and pixels look extraordinary on the Vita's screen, which is where I played the game to completion.
Also impressive on the presentation side is the soundtrack. Each theme is fun to listen to while you blast dinosaurs, rewind time, and blast dinosaurs again. The soundtrack is fast-paced and appropriately action-themed, with plenty of memorable tracks.
A commentary on shooters and time mechanics
I didn't bring up Shutshimi earlier in this review just for the sake of mentioning recent shmups (though I did bring up Galak-Z for that reason). Because I played Super Time Force Ultra immediately following Shutshimi, I was able to draw parallels between the two. Ultimately, they're vastly different games, but it's interesting to note the reliance of time in both titles, specifically how they can do something different with the time mechanic.
Whereas Shutshimi is all about surviving 10 seconds of bullet-hell mayhem and frantically choosing from a pool of upgrades also within 10 seconds, Super Time Force Ultra utilizes time much like the famous indie game Braid did. The result is an experience where you're allowed a bit of elbow room should you make an error in judgment. It's not as punishing as Shutshimi, but it's still difficult, and it's still relentlessly tough in its own right.
This brings to mind a query I've been pondering since playing the two games: where do indie shooters go next? I'm excited at the prospect of devs doing something unique with the genre in the future. To that end, and in regards to time-based mechanics, I'm especially optimistic about a future where shmups will continue to explore time-themed gameplay to create something that stands out from the norm.
Wherever shooters do go next, it's obvious that Super Time Force Ultra will be able to, well, withstand the test of time.