In Depth Review: Time Pilot [X360]
Or, at least, it should have been. For all of the time I spent on this game in the arcades, the pure pleasure of the experience made it stress-free enough to virtually escape my memory banks. The irony is killing me -- this most memorable of experiences was almost forgotten. As I went through lists of arcade games I had played in my joystick-junkie youth in order to gather my thoughts for future reviews, I completely overlooked what was literally my favorite arcade shooter in even the consideration for a retrospective. "Time Pilot" rivaled even "Galaga" in my heart of hearts, and yet to my shame, I forgot it almost entirely.
Like most long forgotten pleasures, it only takes a subtle reminder of what once was to get the neurons pulsing again. As I perused the list of new XBOX Live titles less than a week ago, I saw a title that finally made me want to drop moolah into Microsoft's cash cow portal. "Time Pilot" was there. Without even the hinting screen shot, I immediately recovered from years of arcade amnesia. And whenever you recover a memory as sweet as "Time Pilot", there is always the immediate concern that some bad experience will attempt to ruin those memories. That was definitely my concern as I stewed on whether to make my first real XBOX Live Arcade purchase. I had already seen from the various demos I've downloaded that many games I liked in the arcades had less-than-stellar representations in their XBLA counterparts. "Galaga" seemed harder than it was originally, and "Pac-Man" was in my estimation a terrible port of an otherwise great game. If developers can screw with classics like "Galaga" and "Pac-Man", then what *can't* they destroy? In the end, I decided to take a chance because, while I have played many worthwhile ports of both "Galaga" and "Pac-Man" over the years, I had up to now seen no offering of "Time Pilot" on the various arcade compilations classic companies released over the years (though I have since found out that it was ported to the GBA in the "Konami's Arcade Advance" compilation), and the downloadable demo didn't give me enough of an experience to know just how much the game resembled its former self. If it was garbage, well then it was a loss of a few bucks and no hard feelings. If it was great, it would be a refreshing visit to the past, present, and sci-fi future all for the same few measly bucks.
Upon download and playing through the first few stages, any familiar gamer will realize that while this version of "Time Pilot" was given a very well-designed face lift, it is still the same great game underneath, with all of the charm and fun that made it so attractive in pay-per-play. At the same time, gamers who are experiencing it for the first time will be given an opportunity to see what all the fuss is about with graphics and sound that is up to their more modern standards. For those who, like me, prefer the old arcade look and feel, a little investigation will turn up options to play with the original graphics and sound, with no change to gameplay logic. The developers took a very wise approach of mapping the activity for their new presentation to the old presentation almost exactly, leaving the same basic engine controlling both, regardless of which one you choose to play with. This means that no one decided to mess with the gameplay that made this title so much fun. You will play all of the stages, from a pre-World War I environment in 1910, all the way up to the fancifully unrealistic 2001 flying saucer battle, with the exact same goals and level of challenge that classic gamers will remember from their glory days. You will have to maneuver around helicopters and heat-seeking missiles in the Vietnam era, avoid fighter-planes during World War II, and outwit the sleek and speedy jets flown by figurative peacetime top guns from 1982.
Gameplay is simple yet addictive. You fly an "ultra-modern" jet which has the capability to fly through time from battle to battle. All but one stage is set up at some time during the 20th Century, usually during or approximating a war time battle. The battle-front is composed with a top-down look upon your vessel as you wage war with flying craft coming at you from all angles. Your goal is to destroy as many of those as you can, while avoiding their shots and sometimes their missiles as well, until the "grand-poobah" master craft of the given time-period in which you are fighting comes out of hiding. On at least one stage, the missiles you avoid are nothing more than targeted throws at your vessel. These are extremely easy to avoid -- but as you progress through time, missiles will be of the heat-seeking variety, and will trace your path until they either destroy you, or you blow them out of the sky. Depending on the stage, you will fight fighter planes, bomber planes, helicopters, jets, and even flying saucers in the depths of an asteroid belt. Each of these craft are progressively more difficult to avoid or destroy, and their kamikaze mentality doesn't preclude the odd chase with collision as its ultimate objective. This means, of course, that running away won't help. The flying saucers are particularly difficult, given that you are never quite sure which direction they are going. Unlike other craft, they don't face in the direction they travel, which forces the gamer to keep on his toes. Their wobbly missiles aren't any help either. The 2001 stage is easily the most comical. I remember that in 1982 a lot more space travel was expected by 2001 -- more than we now know actually came about.
To win a stage and travel to the next period of time, you must destroy a given number of the craft from that period until the "mother ship" of each period arrives. A meter is shown at the bottom of the screen, dwindling down with each craft you destroy. Once you've worn down the meter, the mother ship will make a continual appearance, allowing you to fire on her through multiple passes. The period fighters will become more aggressive at this point in an attempt to defend their master vessel. Destroying the main ship requires many hits, but once it's done, the remaining fighter craft on the screen self-destruct, and your ship begins its grand transition through time to the next challenge. Along the way in your challenge for each stage (except the last one), special formations will charge you, and destroying all of the fighter craft in that formation will give a welcomed 2000-point bonus. Additionally, parachuted escapees will become visible from time to time. The game leaves it purposefully ambiguous as to whether you are rescuing these floating chaps, or just colliding with them to prevent their escape -- either way, the compounding 1000-point bonus makes it well worth going after those suckers, particularly in competitive play.
One thing that always drew me to this game in my youth was the value I could expect for an expenditure from my meager allowance. "Time Pilot" nearly always gave me more for my quarter than most other games in the various temples of arcade-dom. Spending a quarter on it was a virtual guarantee that I'd have not only a good time, but a good LONG time in relation to similar available games. If that could be said of the arcade game, then it certainly can be said for this XBOX Live Arcade offering. For the marketplace points equivalent of five "bucks", I've been graced with far more "bang" than many sixty dollar titles have been able to give me. Besides playing "lego" by switching combinations of arcade to enhanced graphics and sound in the already engrossing single-player mode, I've relished in punishing noobs who, through no fault of their own, are not as experienced and/or wise as I am in the art of competitive chrono-jet battle. Sometimes I play against opponents live while keeping my graphics back down to arcade level, knowing that their presentation is likely set to enhanced. It gives me satisfaction to know that I am able to knock their collective backsides into the first available wormhole using primitive 8-bit graphics. As someone who has been previously unable to appreciate the online gaming experience, it's to the credit of this little game, programmed in a bygone era when most quality gaming meant a trip to the mall, that I have finally seen the real value of live competitive gaming.
Admittedly, this game may not be the best example of the XBOX 360's achievement points system. As far as online offerings go, I can only really compare this game's achievement mechanics to those of the free game "Hexic". Anyone who has played that game knows that many achievements require a LOT of patience. Something as simple as 10 to 20 points can require many retries for a particular combination, or logging hundreds of games or a multitude of game points over the course of your travails in it's hexagonal puzzle world. "Time Pilot" on the other hand can hand out almost all of its 200-point allotment in one to three single-player games. All but one of the achievements are so quick and easy to accomplish that they almost seem tacked on just to satisfy some floating requirement that all XBOX 360 titles support the achievement system. While this smacks of marketing plots to interfere with legitimate gameplay, it is definitely not detrimental to the gaming experience. Those who appreciate this game and have little interest in achievements will have just as much fun with this title as they would if it had none to offer, while those looking for quick rack-up of achievement points will find it a satisfying and speedy experience.
"Time Pilot" has always been about the merging of old and new. This additive port is fitting to its pre-360 identity as one of the more timeless arcade titles. It is particularly fitting that while a brilliantly conceived modern (and thankfully, optional) facelift for the experience is provided, its presence doesn't deliver a single hit to the gameplay logic driving every sprite. This is worth mentioning again and again for the simple reason that regardless of what gamers of yesterday, today, or the imminent future require in the visual department, it will always be gameplay that matters. The classic gameplay not only survives in this picky age, but even thrives as it seeks to satisfy both the traditional and the modern gamer's aesthetic preferences. New games that defy our ability to distinguish gaming environments from reality keep on coming, and each new generation makes the last seem irrelevant on the surface, but the gameplay in "Time Pilot" is timeless.