Gaming history is littered with high profile rivalries, mighty companies locked in epic battles for the hearts and souls of players everywhere. Who can forget plucky young Sega taking on the all-conquering Nintendo? Or the time Sega fought against the unstoppable popularity and deep pockets of Sony? Or all those years Sega was engaged in bitter combat with its mightiest foe of all – Sega?
PC vs Macintosh, Amiga vs ST, VMU vs PocketStation… there’s not a single collection of plastic and microchips that couldn’t be turned into the sworn enemy of another eerily similar collection of plastic and microchips with a different logo on its cardboard packaging, and this was never more true than in the most expensive and technologically advanced gaming arena of the nineties: Arcades. The genre trends, the hardware advancements… all of the most exciting cutting-edge games were found in arcades first, and the accuracy of their home ports could influence the fate of entire consoles. It was here that Sega and Namco clashed, both fiercely determined to out-do the other and unleashing a seemingly endless barrage of creativity and all-time classics in the process: Sega created Daytona USA, Namco developed Ridge Racer. Sega gave the world Virtua Fighter, Namco responded with Tekken. Sega had Virtua Cop…
…and Namco came up with Time Crisis – in the very same year Sega followed up their earlier light gun revival with the brilliant Virtua Cop 2.
My very short and highly cherry-picked list of names makes Namco sound like something of a reactionary developer, constantly on the back foot and only showing up if they could find a way to repackage somebody else’s good ideas. While nobody should seriously dispute the impact or innovation of Sega’s Virtua line or a million other in-house classics, to leave this era’s duelling at “Sega’s games released first” would be only true in some select instances (albeit industry-changing ones) and immensely unfair to the talent working at Namco at the time. There’s nothing more than a few slim months between Daytona USA and Ridge Racer’s arcade debut, certainly not enough time to suggest with a straight face that Namco hastily knocked out their legendary street-drifting racer in direct response to Sega’s lyrical stock car extravaganza, and if we take a broader look at their libraries which one of them was it who pioneered twin stick 3D sci-fi arena combat…? Oh that was Namco with the wonderfully skiddy Cyber Sled, predating Sega’s Virtual On by several years.
Not that copying an opponent’s successful blueprint would be the easiest thing to do in any case: Gaming is littered with “Titles that play a bit like [X]” and well-meaning “Spiritual successors” and most of them aren’t very good, and that’s because most of them fail to identify the little spark of genius that really brings the idea they’re imitating to life. Think of all the games “inspired by” Resident Evil that think they’ve captured the very essence of classic survival horror just because they make you spend a lot of time collecting oddly-shaped keys, those that try to insist “Plays like Doom” is any time a guy in a maze is given a shotgun, or that an 8-bit style platformer’s authentically eighties because it’s laden with spikes and suffering.
Namco were always – and still are – better than that.
Namco understood Virtua Cop’s refresh of the light gun genre was more than about recreating the same old tired shooting galleries with crisp texture-mapped polygons, and it’s easy to see that they independently examined all the possibilities that could come from using full 3D and limb-aware enemy damage and came to their own conclusions. The arcade cabinet’s gun blowback feature gave Time Crisis a premium feel, and their own easy-to-understand gameplay twist – the foot pedal and the cover/reload mechanic that goes with it (recreated at home on the pleasantly tactile G-Con 45 with the buttons on either side – or for those of us brave enough to do it, via a second PlayStation controller carefully positioned under a hopefully gentle toe on the carpet) – was always clearly something more than a cute novelty to steal a few credits from the curious before they moved on: Being able to duck behind cover is a dramatic and tactical addition to the light gun formula that completely changes your relationship to the game and the rapidly draining timer that accompanies it applies constant external pressure as you briefly retreat from another hail of bullets, pushing you to pick the moment to put yourself in harm’s way, every second of safety a second closer to a continue-sapping time over. Not that you ever feel all that safe anyway; your latest hidey-hole always an improvised scrap of security in an ever-changing landscape, glimpses of enemy movement between the slats in a wooden crate or just over the top of the stone ledge you’re ducking behind an unwelcome reminder of what’s waiting for you when you finally make your move.
And this suits Time Crisis’ guns-blazing movie tone to a tee (it’s not by accident the announcer calls out “Action!” at the beginning of each scene), the whole experience feeling like a thrilling tidal wave of noise and colour even by the typically heightened expectations of an arcade game. The introduction of “The one-man army” Richard Miller and the deliciously over the top evil of the rest of the cast during the attract sequence is enjoyably reminiscent of the most lovably cheesy blockbuster movie trailers of old, and from that early highlight Time Crisis’ action roller coaster adopts a “scream if you want to go faster” approach, areas swiftly descending into a glorious cacophony of bright yellow bullets, warning sirens, large “Danger!” notices flashing into existence as heavy cannons swing their long barrels around to fire directly at you or suits of armour inexplicably swing their halberds your way, and enemy forces crash through stained glass windows or blow up walls. Even the ground can collapse beneath your feet, more of Wild Dog’s bottomless well of troops rushing in to position and calling out “There he is!” “Get him!” and “Freeze!” even before the dust has settled from your unexpected fall. It’s chaotic but only in the special way something that’s been very carefully designed can be: The back and forth between the cool interiors of stone and metal and the rich sunset-soaked oranges of the outside segments offer continuity as well as visual contrast, the castle believably presented as a single location one unstoppable man is weaving in an out of and leaving a very kinetic sort of havoc in his wake. Richard himself is even considered as both a personality and a physical presence, the first-person view – his view – glancing over to the clock tower where Rachel, captured daughter of the president of Sercia, is being held whenever it appears within his field of view and taking a brief moment to look back at her after she’s been shot during the final confrontation with Wild Dog – you even have to make sure he ducks out of the way in time should a car come skidding around a corner or a construction beam come crashing down close by, and when he gets surprised by a tightly-packed group of enemies at the stop of a narrow staircase he’s forced to take a few steps back down and shoot upwards at an awkward angle.
Reacting to these rapidly evolving situations isn’t a straightforward case of shooting whoever’s closest, already pointing a gun at you, or currently the most exposed either – Time Crisis’ enemies are all colour coded, creating a satisfyingly deep web of continually shifting priorities, demanding you decide on the spot who’s the most dangerous in the room in relation not only to you but when compared against to everyone else as well. Blue troops almost (almost) always miss. Red however almost always hits – and with their first shot too. Anyone wearing full or partly green overalls is going to be holding something far more dangerous than a handgun and should probably be prioritised… but only if there aren’t any red enemies peeping out from behind a stone pillar, car, or other convenient hiding place. Brown clothed enemies are more dangerous than blue but less than red. Anyone wearing orange overalls will more than likely dash off as soon as you see them but they will award a time bonus if you can shoot them before they disappear – this makes them your top priority… if you’re sure you can accurately hit them before someone else hits you. Enemies dressed in white are a rarer “anything goes” variant designed to throw you off, their threat levels and potential equipment masked by the uniformity of their colour scheme.
In a move away from both genre tradition and the looming shadow of Virtua Cop, there are no hostages to worry about accidentally shooting, ever – whatever comes into view is either some pleasant scenery or a fresh target to be peppered with bullets as quickly as possible, as every hit shortens their death animation and either buys you a few extra seconds during a tricky later section or shaves a few precious seconds off your final clear time. As you’d expect from a game possessing the breathless pace of Time Crisis the only things the game cares about are how fast you can play and (to a lesser extent) how accurate you are – a feature emphasised by the regular updates to the on-screen leaderboard displayed throughout the always-accessible time attack mode present in both the arcade original as well as the astonishingly accurate home port. Time Crisis considers only speed to be skilful, and skilfulness can only be expressed through speed.
There’s no doubt Time Crisis was the brightest, boldest, and noisiest arcade machine around at the time: Anyone who’s stepped foot in an arcade with this machine running will have the entire opening narration burned into their memory (Sherudo Garo’s lines in particular seem to stick with me) and the pedal concept was such a natural addition to light gun games Sega would eventually repurpose it for their own imaginative use in the sadly perpetually unported Virtua Cop 3. It’s also still one of the best in the genre even when stripped of its Super System 22 arcade polish and left to fend for itself against decades of its own sequels and a broad range of alternative takes on similar ideas – Time Crisis just works. It’s endlessly exhilarating and fantastically solid, every hit landing with force, every exploding structure carrying real weight behind it – and every sunset-bathed dash to rescue Rachel as raw and refreshing as the first.