Developer: Trainwreck Studios
Release Date: June 12, 2007
It's not always seen as one of the classics of the early 1980s, or even always remembered. It's not Space Invaders or 1941 or any of the more popular plane shooters of its era, but it's undeniable that Konami's Time Pilot (and its sequel, Time Pilot '84) has a place in the hearts of many a gamer, and its influence on the genre with its full 360-degree rotation and free-roaming shooting has left a lasting impression on the genre. It's truly a tragedy, then, that the series has never seen any revitalization, save for being released on the earlier Konami Arcade Classics cartridge.
Or has it?
Imagine my surprise when I came across Time Ace, with its distinctive-yet-familiar "fly a biplane through time" gimmick. Yes, it was obvious from the box alone that Time Ace was meant as a spiritual successor to the early '80s arcade hit. Was it worthy of bearing the legacy of its predecessor, though?
Time Ace is the story about possibly mad-but-definitely inspired scientist Dr. Clock and his colleague Dr. Scythe. The two are working together on a time travel machine, when one of them — jealous of the other one for some inexplicable reason — steals it and goes on a merry trip through time, starting wars and generally being evil. Take a look at their names, and guess which one is the good guy here. If you deduced you would be playing as Dr. Scythe, you have perhaps a lesson or two to learn about generic stereotyping.
Yes, Time Ace puts you in the boots and goggles of Dr. Clock, eccentric inventor out to save the world with nothing but his wits and a biplane with a time machine strapped to it. Oddly enough, your biplane is loaded for bear; not only does it have a standard machine gun, but it also has missiles, bombs and other special weapons.
All in all, though, Time Ace feels more like Starfox than Time Pilot, and not just visually, either. While it's far from a compelling plot that will glue you to your chair (a lot of it feels somewhat hokey and contrived, and this is from someone who can stomach the storylines of many politically charged strategy RPGs), the story actually moves along at a fairly even pace between levels, bridging the gap fairly well, similar to how things were paced in the more recent Starfox titles. Sadly, the visuals are also reminiscent of Starfox, but less what we saw on the GameCube and more the blocky, ill-defined polygonal mess of the original, first-gen 3D SNES title. The main ship sports a nice amount of detail, and given the fact they're flying at you constantly, the enemy planes and projectiles you'll be dodging are acceptable, but the landscapes are listless, ugly and sometimes downright nonsensical. Apparently, if this game is to be believed, New York City sits at the mouth of a yawning desert canyon. I can hear the nation's geography teachers weeping.
Sadly, the poor examples only keep going after that. Weapon selection is similar to games such as Nanostray, but incredibly downgraded. There are a few types of power-ups in the game: power-ups for your normal weapon, ammo for your anachronistic lasers or missiles (all planes in shoot-'em-ups are required by law to have lasers or missiles after the Gradius Treaty of 1983), screen-clearing bombs, energy shields and a speed booster. The latter three are selected on the touch-screen, which is a bit frustrating if you want to blow up some enemies and end up just blasting forward anyway. This is doubly frustrating as, much like similar titles, Time Ace is completely and totally linear. It's a shooter on rails, and while that may work for fast-paced, action-packed arcade titles, the fact is that Time Ace plods along slowly, with enemy AI which has the power to shoot through solid objects and yet still manages to miss as long as you practice the fiendishly difficult skill of moving from left to right.
Even more frustrating is that the exploration deterrent (a device such as invisible walls or forced redirection meant to keep intact the linear "on rails" feel by prohibiting free roaming) is an autopilot that seems to be utterly asinine in its steering, quite often steering you straight into objects you were trying to avoid in the first place. This is where the true difficulty of Time Ace lies, as the only way to possibly die is to crash into another object; even while I was moving in a straight line through much of the beginning levels, enemy pilots still shot like Imperial Stormtroopers at a blindfold convention.
Ironically, the facet where most bog-standard games fall short is where Time Ace excels. The music is a combination of rocking and orchestral, a high-energy atmosphere that sticks with you and feels more at home in a game such as Ace Combat or Mech Warrior. The minimal voice acting is a bit grating on the ears, and the sound effects are watered-down and bland, but the music is certainly top-notch. If only the same could be said about the replay value. Even on the hardest difficulty setting, Time Ace is over and done in less than three hours for a gamer with even modest skills, and the multiplayer is stark and bare, offering multicard-only deathmatch-style gameplay with absolutely no alternate options or WiFi support. There are a few post-stage mini-games which allow you to repair your ship by rewiring systems or welding the hull of your plane, and the multiple planes you're given throughout the storyline will add slightly more variety to things here and there, but all in all, it feels like tacked-on novelty with no real purpose.
Trainwreck Studios tried with Time Ace. They tried hard. But it's obvious that while they do have some skill in game design (some of the less prohibitive levels, especially later in the game, are quite enjoyable), their first attempt lived up to the company's unfortunate name. Time Ace is exactly what it sounds like: one part Time Pilot, one part Ace Combat and one part train wreck. Even for $20, approach with caution; if you're a die-hard gamer, the flaws will turn you off of the game almost immediately, though more casual gamers may be able to look past the quirks and unpleasant distractions and find something fairly playable.