Perhaps it’s because I’m a jaded new-school gamer who hates whimsy and fun, but I could never get into the current indie pixel-art trend. Sure, the minimalist look of the 8 and 16-bit days has aged much better than more current generations of games, but the huge number of “throwback” and “retro” visual styles in 2D indie games has made them all seem a bit homogenous. This is what makes Cabybara’s Super Time Force so surprising to me; not only does it inject new life into a genre that has been unable to escape the niche for several years, but its art style feels right at home. In fact, it might just be my favorite game so far this year.
Super Time Force begins in 198X just as protagonist Dr. Repeatski has discovered the secret behind time travel. Immediately, he witnesses the apocalypse and is greeted by a future version of himself who has created the Super Time Force, a super-powered team of soldiers each possessing different skills and special abilities. Together, they travel through time to stop the Blounbots, an invading force led by the bumbling but determined Dr. Infinity.
But after stopping the initial attack and saving the world, the Super Time Force is left with nothing to defend against. So what is the team to do to keep itself occupied? Why, go throughout history to “make it more awesome,” of course! Together, the team travels to Atlantis to stop it from sinking in an attempt to make it the 51st state in the union, stop the dinosaurs from dying off — just because they felt like it — and travel to the future to get all the plugins and updates for their internet browser that they could ever need. The story is beyond dumb, but the writers know it, and the dialogue and exposition for each mission make you well aware of that. Below the year, each new chapter gives the date and time that the Super Time Force arrives. Dates listed include “your birthday” and “garbage day,” while times include “4:21” — presumably to make all the stoners happy — and “hammer time.” I laughed at every single one of them.
The time travel component isn’t just limited to the story, however. The game is a 2D side-scrolling shooter in the same vein as Contra and Metal Slug, but Super Time Force utilizes a “time-out” system to allow you to rewind time and retry certain sections. This isn’t just to make the game easier; instead of simply starting you back at a point before death, rewinding the game puts you alongside your former self, letting you spawn as any of the several different members of the Super Time Force. What this allows you to do is effectively multiply your firepower every time you rewind, eventually making your team a nearly unstoppable killing machine. The catch is that each level only gives you 30 time-outs, but with only 60 seconds per mission, it’s necessary to rewind several times back to the beginning of a level and get as far as you can so that your next self can make more progress. It sounds confusing, but the system becomes second nature almost immediately.
Scattered throughout each level are “Glorbs,” which award you extra time-outs, and time coins that can come in handy when trying to bolt to the end of a level. In addition, you can reveal special shards by using time-outs, allowing you to slow down time and navigate the most enemy-laden sections of a level. These are all fairly easy to find, but some levels also include potential new members of the Super Time Force, who you must get to before they’re killed by enemies. Most of these characters aren’t as well-rounded as the original bunch, but with names like “Zackasauras” (a skateboarding dinosaur from the year 1,000,000 B.C.) and anthropomorphic sea mammal “Dolphin Lundgren,” it’s worth it to just have them on the team for a laugh.
With all the emphasis put on its time-travelling mechanic, I was surprised by how well Super Time Force handled its 2D shooting. Controls are as smooth as butter, with a tap of the X button firing a normal shot while holding it down fires off a special ability, and the weight of the characters reminded me slightly of the newer Rayman games. Each character’s abilities make them useful for specific parts of each level, and I found two of the original characters to be my favorite for the majority of the game. “Jean Rambois,” an obvious play on John Rambo, fires off a scattershot similar to the classic Contra games, while “Aimy McKillin” uses a sniper rifle that can shoot through walls to help clear the way for subsequent rewinds. This is how I enjoyed the game, and while I felt that a few of the characters were less than useless, there were a few others that just didn’t happen to suit my playstyle. With the ability to rewind and switch out characters so regularly, experimentation is the name of the game! At least it would be if it weren’t already Super Time Force.
Although the majority of Super Time Force isn’t nearly as difficult as comparable run and gun games, the time-out mechanic makes the few spikes that are there even more frustrating. Reaching a boss with only a few seconds left and attempting to rewind a dozen times to send 12 different soldiers at him sounds fun, but several of these required me to restart an entire level just so I could have a few extra seconds to fight them. Still, that’s part of the appeal; racing through a level just so you have enough time to actually get to the end — and with enough time-outs to quickly kill the boss — is extremely rewarding. On the Xbox One, you can also record your final playthrough of any level, letting you see every version of yourself fighting in unison to get to the end in under a minute.
I didn’t expect all that much out of Super Time Force. In fact, I thought it might just blend in with the rest of the indie crowd, but the game proves that execution is just as important as concept. Without its brilliantly designed levels, fluid combat and hilarious writing, the game would be just another throwback to a time long past. As it stands, however, Super Time Force is one of the best games that I’ve played in a very long time, and far more unique than its basic premise would suggest.