Ulf on: Super TIME Force ULTRA
The year is 198X and professor Repeatski has just discovered the formula for time travel. Awesome! Probably. And hopefully unrelated to all of the crazy apocalyptic stuff that suddenly starts happening across time and space.
Luckily, you are the Super T.I.M.E. Force, so time can rest easy knowing that you are there to fix and/or cause all of its problems.
So this game is amazing. It’s fun, it’s funny, and it’s delightfully pixel-chunky. You definitely should own it. You definitely should play it. I cannot recommend it enough and it will always hold a special place in my heart.
This is due in no small part to the fact that I was lucky enough to meet some of the radical folks from Capy when they brought one of the game’s earlier builds to PAX East. In addition to naturally just wanting to cheer on and support the cool people I’d met, STFU will always be special to me in that I got to watch it ‘grow up’ over the subsequent several PAX Easts before its XBLA release in 2014. I got to have an appreciation for just how much work Capy put into exploring and refining the mechanisms of the game and their understanding of what they could do with it. The time spent polishing shows not just in the exquisite art that covers it front to back, but in the depth of its incredibly tight, surprisingly strategic gameplay. There are so many wonderful layers to this game’s mechanics.
At the surface, if you die (and you will – its designed to be quite hardcore and it’s all one-hit kills) you can rewind to retry – however far back you feel like – and reinsert as a new attempt alongside your previous selves. This makes for the central mechanism and core gameplay loop of the game: what starts as a punishing and crazy bullet hell of a run-and-gun level slowly becomes a battleground chock-full of an army of you’s blasting their way through the would-be-impossible-solo obstacles and racing past each other’s corpses.
Where this gets particularly interesting (and fairly impressive on the under-the-hood tech side of things) is in STFU’s execution of one of the most enticing aspects of any time-travel conceit: changing the past and rescuing the dead. If you get shot, exploded, crushed, or otherwise die in any one of the wonderfully goofily animated pixely deaths that STFU throws at you, any subsequent runs you make give you the potential opportunity to block that bullet, kill the killer before they kill you, destroy the debris before it crushes you, or otherwise rescue your past self. Doing so allows you to pick up their time-ghost as a shield – allowing you to take one extra hit before dying yourself – and adds their supercharged attack to your own. As you begin understanding the interactions between the core characters and the combos of their unique abilities, you will start to make more conscious decisions about who to respawn as and when to take the most advantage of their combined powers – thus conserving lives, saving time, and powering up.
But it is STFU’s level design that fascinates and impresses me the most. Each stage is absolutely littered with gags, references, and in-jokes, all rendered in unique, hand-crafted pixel glory. You might miss them on your first pass, as danger lurks around every corner and within every exploding barrel and there’s often far more pressing bullet-shaped matters to focus on, but they’ll be there for you to find while rewinding and retracing your steps or exploring alternate branches. Enemies are ever-present, and remain threatening even as your time-clone army builds, due to always focusing on the ‘you’ you’re actively playing as in your current run and only existing when current you is in range for them to matter (just off screen). Thus, their placement guarding intuitive paths or blasting covering fire through convenient jump-arcs is never trivialized, especially as you shave off run time and reach areas ahead of ‘yourselves.’ Difficulty spikes and varies (but usually due to the curious nature of the game allowing you to accidentally create small puzzles for yourself: “How am I going to rescue me from that?”), but feels well tuned to consistently grant more casual players a ‘just in time’ victory with a precious few seconds and rewinds left, while offering hardcore players ways to push themselves towards greater challenges. Sections of levels can be frustrating, but never feel unfair, as, after all, time is on your side.
As you dig deeper into how the other collectables and powerups work (the extra-life ‘glorbs’ and hyper-slow-mo ‘shards,’ carefully placed across each map), you realize that you have to be fairly tactical in their use. Some enemies carrying a glorb will launch it when killed – killing them too soon may cause it to be flung far ahead of you, requiring you to backtrack on the timeline to optimize, save time, and try and reach that point early enough (but without killing the enemy any sooner!) in order to catch it before it shatters on the ground. Activating a shard speeds you up and slows the world down for a massive power boost, but it remains consumed from that time onward. Often, you may want to consciously avoid activating a shard when you initially discover it, so that you can turn it on fairly late, die or time out, then activate it sooner and sooner on subsequent runs so that each life gets its benefits.
And then, if you’re going for the speedrun secrets… you’ve got to reevaluate everything.