[A critical eye takes time to develop. RetRose Tinted is a regular feature in which I re-examine games of yesteryear to see if my memories of them live up to the reality.]
I have always had a keen interest in the concepts of time travel. Since I've never been intelligent or motivated enough to develop a time travel theory of my own (and then use it to engage in a highly dangerous experiment where I find myself leaping from life to life, striving... you get the idea), I nurtured the interest through the various forms of media I consume.
Time Pilot is the very first game I can recall playing in which the concept of traveling through time was central to play. That's not the only first, however. It's also the first arcade title I can remember having a real, linear progression to the game. Every time I played, I felt like I was actually moving forward instead of simply playing the same levels over and over with faster opponents.
I wonder how good the game is now.
In Time Pilot, you play as the pilot of a futuristic fighter jet, traveling through time and laying waste to the inferior crafts from that time period. Oh, sure, the game's description says that you're trying to save other pilots who have been trapped in other eras but I don't buy that line any longer. I prefer to think of myself as the villain, traveling through time and obliterating all that stand in the path of my designs on the future. Sure, I'm still picking up stranded, parachuting pilots but I intend to force them to join my slave ranks.
The game itself is a pretty straightforward shooter. Your ship is in the center of the screen and you rotate it to change direction and face enemies. Your ship can pivot into 32 positions and the way the ship moves is smooth as silk, effortlessly responding to your every command. It's a tight, nimble game to play.
Each of the five levels represents a different time period. It begins around the birth of aerial combat in the 1920's. As you progress through other times, the ships you fight change to reflect the period, with helicopters and jets appearing in the latter portion of the 20th century. Eventually, you'll reach the distant future of the year 2001 where we have either made contact with an alien intelligence which is clearly evil and must be destroyed at all costs or the design of aircraft was expected to change dramatically in the twenty years between when the game was made and the time it seeks to represent.
As you shoot down enemy craft, a bar at the bottom of the screen diminishes. On each level, you are tasked with eliminating fifty-six ships. Once you have managed to accomplish this, you are faced with taking down a period-appropriate "mothership." These ships take seven hits to shoot down and fire off attacks much more frequently than smaller foes. On the plus side, their considerably larger size eliminates their maneuverability and they travel in a straight line across the screen, which makes them easier to kill.
The battles against motherships were something that I've always found fascinating about Time Pilot. Granted, they aren't particularly novel in and of themselves. It's a boss fight and we've been doing those forever. The neat thing about this game is that kamikaze tactics actually work. If you take out the mothership by crashing into it, it's still destroyed and you're still sent to the next level. The only difference is that you're down one ship and don't reap the scoring benefits of destroying the mothership. Not a very effective means of victory but a rather cool element nonetheless.
If you destroy the mothership, you are launched through time into the next era chronologically. Completing the fifth stage brings you back around the the first and you get to do it all over again against faster ships which attack more frequently. At least, that's what I'm told. I have never managed to complete the level set in 2001, generally because as much as I enjoy the game, I don't have particular skill at it.
One of the things that I really like about Time Pilot are the number of chances for players to score bonus points. For an older game, there are a lot of bonus opportunities. The easiest to collect are stray pilots, who will appear at random as you travel and are essentially just point pickups. On levels which follow the first, there's also a bonus mothership which will appear periodically and award a good boost to your score. The best, however, are formations.
I don't mean "best" as in "most frequent" or "easiest to score." I just think it's the coolest one. Occasionally, you'll hear a brief alarm -- it sounds like "pew-pew-pew" -- and a group of ships will come onscreen in a formation as a unit. If you can take them all out in time, you'll score bonus points. It's great because it puts the pressure on the player, both as an opportunity and as a warning that a bunch of enemies are coming.
I love Time Pilot, primarily because of its casual nature. It's so easy to just start the game up and play a few rounds without any long-term commitment and, for that, it became one of my old standbys growing up. After playing it again, its appeal is in no way diminished. It remains fun, challenging and addictive and I would highly recommend you give it a play, either in an actual arcade or by picking up the Xbox Live Arcade version.