A Question of Time: Best Videogame Countdowns (the 2D years) 24/05/2011Posted by jspanero in Features.
Tags: best videogame countdowns, bubble bobble, out run, prince of persia, super mario bros, super metroid
trackback …only when the clock stops does time come to life. ~William Faulkner
Time. You can’t anticipate it, freeze it or bring it back, but you can certainly waste it. For such an abstract concept, time oversees most of the decisions we make in life, both in the short term (like the cinema listings for tonight) or in the long run (the realisation that you’ve spent ten years in the same job). Because of its inescapable and ruthless nature, humankind has always had a long fascination with time, or rather with the names and conventions created to frame it: calendars, the ticking of the clocks, birthdays and anniversaries, even to the point of creating numeric representations to tally up its passing and add a sense of importance to our menial existence.
It’s precisely because of this that many videogames, specially those with a need to tell a STORY, deal with issues such as growing up, growing old and the passing of time, or advance their plot by using flashbacks or flashforwards, very much in the style of other mediums like cinema or literature. One of videogame’s most memorable flashbacks involves a certain platinum-haired egomaniac burning down a whole town in a bout of controlled rage (and if you are not sure what I am talking about here, maybe you have reached the wrong website). Role-playing games, with their need to pad out a story to reach a dizzying number of hours of gameplay, are in fact the masters of giving the player a sense of journey, from humble beginnings to masters of the universe in exchange for the time invested in front of the screen.
Other genres, like racers and some platformers, choose to make time their raison d’être, not just as a plot device but as a determining element in gameplay, meaning it’s game over if the countdown reaches zero. Some games are built on a constant necessity of reaching the next checkpoint, others bring out the clock at specific moments to tighten the screws of lethargic gamers. Let’s have a look, in chronological order, at some of the GREATEST VIDEOGAME COUNTDOWNS:
Super Mario Bros (1985):
Show me a player who doesn’t get jittery when listening to this and I’ll show you a liar. The little coda that plays in most Super Mario Bros games when the timer goes below 100 seconds not only has become one of the most recognisable ditties in gaming history, it has also laid out the grounds for future musical cues in games (see entry below). If you were stuck in a particularly difficult level of Super Mario Bros and suddenly heard the bell ringing, followed by the music suddenly speeding up, you knew you had to stop the fruitless search for hidden blocks in that particular stage and hurry towards the finishing line. Ironically, as anyone who’s ever played SMB can attest, encouraging you to go faster in a game that relies on reflex and momentum as much as a 2D Mario platformer does can only result in tears.
Super Mario Bros, for a game with no templates to draw inspiration from, also manages to strike a healthy balance between giving the player enough time to explore each of the levels and at the same time keep him on a tight leash so they never forget that the only way is forward. How Nintendo managed to craft this so perfectly in a time where the concept of ‘testing’ probably involved getting Koji Kondo to play the game in his lunch break is probably part of the reason why they are still very much in business 25 years later.
Bubble Bobble (1986):
An heir of the SMB school of punishing players who wandered around for too long by speeding up the music, and in this case upping the difficulty too – enemies would turn fury red and double their speed after the first 30 seconds of each stage had played out, whilst an invincible and utterly terrifying white ghost would appear soon afterwards chasing the player across the screen, only retreating once it had claimed their life.
Bubble Bobble had, in truth, a less than honest intention behind the countdown that would play in every single one of its 100 levels: the game was originally an arcade, so Taito had to find a way of making players slot one more coin into the machine whilst still offering a decent 1 credit experience – the more you paid, the more you played, and the more you played, the better you would become at clearing off the levels, thus avoiding the arrival of the dreaded Hurry! message flashing in the middle of the screen.
Out Run (1986):
Many racing games before Out Run encouraged players to accelerate and steer like pros in order to shave some precious seconds off the clock, but not that many offered the JOURNEY experience the Yu Suzuki game effortlessly recreated. Avoiding the constraints of closed circuits, Out Run took the player on a trek right from the start in a crowded beach, immortal calypso beats on your stereo, across deserts, neon-lit metropolises and mountain ranges all the way to the finish line. If you were good enough to stay on track and not crash against the competing traffic, the track would split in two right before the next checkpoint, giving you the option of uncovering two new landscapes.
The game was cunningly crafted so checkpoint times would be cumulative and a few driving mistakes allowed, meaning a flawless execution on earlier stages would allow the player more time to race (and crash) in the latter (and harder) scenarios. In a game so reminiscent of the laid-back abandonment of holiday time, the clock in the top left corner effectively acted as the return ticket in your wallet, unforgiving reminder of the inexorable return to reality.
Prince of Persia (1989):
It’s hard to believe this nowadays but when the first Prince of Persia was released in 1989, gamers paid full price for a game that defiantly gave them one hour of real time to reach its ending or else they would be condemning the standard kidnapped princess to a lifetime of sexual slavery with the evil, old and probably smelly vizier Jaffar (in a slightly darker retelling of the flimsy Super Mario Bros plot). An hourglass worth 60 precious minutes was turned upside down during the introduction of the game and off you went, from the deep dungeons of the palace riddled with pesky guards and booby traps, unto the ivory tower where the damsel in distress was kept, with a few occasional reminders of the time left flashing onscreen as the only help along the way.
It is rare, and slightly infurating at times, that an ability-based platform with jumps so tightly measured they put Tomb Raider to shame, chooses to add an extra layer of pressure on the player with a timer, however unlimited continues try to even this out to some extent. Interestingly enough, the hourglass would become a key element of Prince of Persia‘s noughties revamp The Sands of Time (but that, as Scheherazade would say, is another Arabian night story).
Super Metroid (1994):
Nintendo’s 16-bit intergalactic opus gets so many things right that it’s easy to overlook some of the subtler cogs at work in this masterpiece, mainly its wily storytelling. Thurst upon the surface of planet Zebes, bounty hunter Samus Aran slowly begins a hellish descent into her enemy’s lair, but save for a short introduction, there is no written text, no dialogue and no proper cutscenes to speak of in the whole game. Instead, every so often the player will be witness (or in most cases, active participant) to certain scenarios that advance the plot without the need to break the game’s pace, like Samus’ encounters with the friendly wildlife of Zebes, the vestiges of the extinct Chozo civilization or some of the nasty boss encounters. These settings contribute to set the mood for the game, but none gives a better sense of awesome epicness than the two countdown escapes that frame the beginning and end of this adventure.
In the game’s prologue, Samus arrives at a research lab station after receiving a distress signal, only to find her nemesis Ridley snatching away the last remaining Metroid in captivity and hitting the self-destruct button of the space station on his way out, prompting our heroine to run for her life. Although the countdown in itself is not too taxing as the player is given about twice the time they realistically need to reach the exit, some nifty touches (the gas leaks and falling debris that slows Samus down, the camera tilting courtesy of good old Mode 7 and that music) already send the signal out: this is not a conventional adventure. In fact, what in other games would constitute THE pinnacle passage, Super Metroid boldly gives it away in the first five minutes of gameplay only to then confidently surpass it in one of the best playable endings ever. No spoilers ahead, but suffice to say the game ends the same manic way it starts, with a race against the clock amidst a crumbling planet, however the stakes are so high by this point and the heart is pumping with such agitation because of what’s just happened that it becomes the ultimate countdown to the credits sequence. Billy Wilder always advocated the “end effect” in films – Super Metroid proves the case for videogames, leaving the player on a high, quite literally, beyond the stratosphere.
•••••Part II of A Question of Time will be revisiting some of the most famous countdowns in 3D games from the 90′s and 00′s and yes, zombies and Alaskan nuclear facilites will most definitely feature.