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A videogame history of bullet-time

Variations on bullet-time are legion, yet the essence remains the same. Slow down the action, make enemies say “Faaaarrrccck” in a deep bass, and allow the player some extra time to lock onto his or her prey. And if you can slot in a stylish visual trick with a spinny camera or a trip on the behind of a bullet, then so be it. It’s corny and it’s become hackneyed, but it sure as hell isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.


Above: A video history of bullet-time

You’ve no doubt come across bullet-time in your gaming career – even the old NES games inadvertently produced unforeseen John Woo-isms when too many sprites got on screen. Since then though, bullet-time has not only garnered a name but also a checkered past. In gaming, the phrase bullet-time has spread to cover everything that involves a spot of slow-motion. When talking about it in films, however, we should first track the phenomenon of bullets seen cutting through the air, which didn’t begin with The Matrix.


Cinematic origins

The very first side-on shot of a bullet in flight came in the low-budget action movie Kill and Kill Again, a film that sees its hero, Steve Chase, go up against the evil Marduk and his army of remote controlled karate slaves. You’d be advised to check out the trailer, mainly because it’s hilarious, but also because it contains part of its climactic 10 second bullet-time-slice that gives Chase enough breathing room to deflect a bullet with an ash tray.

The first ‘bullet ride’, meanwhile, in which the camera trails the path of a bullet up until the point of impact came in a night club scene in Ringo Lam’s 1992 Hong Kong actioner Full Contact. The film also starred a young Chow Yun Fat who had made slow-motion gunplay his own through the astonishing films of John Woo, such as A Better Tomorrow (1986) and Hard Boiled (1992). It was these influences that would give rise to the gunplay of Max Payne, a title that was already in development when the movie that went on to secure bullet-time’s noble place in the next decade of gaming was released, The Matrix.

The Matrix’s green-screen treatment of bullet-time was nothing short of revolutionary, yet aside from the Woo-isms of Hong Kong cinema, there was another unlikely inspiration for the Wachowski brothers’ barnstormer: the opening credits of the ’60s Japanese cartoon series Speed Racer. The Wachowskis would go on to release a live-action version of Speed Racer in 2009, but in 1999 they were content take inspiration from the way each episode’s opening contained a freeze-framed hero leaping from his car, while the camera circled around him. This bit of anime became the model for some of The Matrix’s most iconic moments.

Other early cinematic uses of bullet-time could be found in movies like the original Blade (1998) and music videos such as Korn’s Freak on a Leash (1998). But it was after The Matrix that slow-motion’s use became truly ubiquitous in rip-offs, pastiches and gaming. All these influences fed into one of the most ubiquitous of shooter mechanics of times to come. What will be known in common parlance as bullet-time until the end of civilization now goes by multiple silly names in whatever shooter it remedies, or sometimes pollutes. The term ‘bullet time’ is trademarked by Warner Bros. (prior to which it was owned by former Max Payne pushers 3D Realms) so to avoid treading on toes, many games have plowed their own slow-motion furrow in terms of naming their wares.


Bullet-time quiz bonanza!
Want to play? Simply link the correct game to the stupid synonym for ‘slow motion gameplay’. (Answers at the end of the article)

Game                                                                    Bullet-time alterno-word

Jade Empire                                                        Zed Time
FEAR                                                                     Mire
Painkiller                                                              Slow time
John Woo’s Stranglehold                                 Temporal Dilation
Doom 3: Resurrection of Evil                           Concentration Mode
Mirror’s Edge                                                       Adrenaline
Call of Juarez                                                       HellTime
TimeShift                                                              Reaction Time
Wolfenstein                                                          Reflex Time
Killing Floor                                                          Haste
Singularity                                                             Tequila Time
Dark Messiah of Might and Magic                    Focus Time



A videogaming bullet-timeline

A chronicle of 13 years of slow-motion shooting and explosions


1997 - MDK

A forgotten feature of this masterpiece, the sequel of which is reportedly having a revamp in coming months, was that as you fired off sniper shots, three windows above your scope would ‘bullet ride’ the path your former shots were already taking. MDK was ahead of its time in more ways than could be counted, and its cheeky backpack-chute hasn’t even been topped by Just Cause 2, so chalk up its window-in-window projectile-chasing as another sign of its unrepeated genius.


1999 - Unreal Tournament

Years later Unreal Tournament III would introduce its brilliant (if never used by anyone) bubbles of slow-time. However, the original UT had a slo-mo feature hidden in its console when you played bots in its practice modes. Tapping in ‘Slomo 0,1’ had you moving through molasses, ‘Slomo 0,8’ placed you in a light syrup, ‘Slomo 10’ ramped the game up to the speed of light. Let’s not forget the flyable Redeemer rounds, the bullet-ride to end them all.


1999 - Requiem: Avenging Angel

As an angel on a mission from God, one of your powers was to warp time or, in more common parlance, to slow it the hell down while you knocked seven bells out of the Fallen and broke up their wicked plan to launch a space craft that would in turn collide with heaven. Released in the shade of Half-Life, Requiem didn’t set the tills on fire but it at least brought temporal trickery to the masses. Well, some of the masses.

38 comments

  • breadkiller - February 23, 2013 6:02 a.m.

    I wish you could have included non-shooter games like Prince of persia's Sand powers and Need for Speed's speedbreaker
  • Jack Slate - December 2, 2011 11 a.m.

    How could you forget Dead to Rights?? This list also forgot: Total Overdose (and it's sequel Chili Con Carnage) Rise to Honor (with Jet Li)
  • ChrisAntistasMarvelousMechanicalMolestorium - September 7, 2010 9:26 p.m.

    I have a friend thaqt had /no idea/ what bullet time was. She had apparently heard of it, because when she sat down to play some Halo for the first time, she exclaimed, "It's bullet time!" Indeed it is.
  • Johnny2900 - September 5, 2010 5:53 p.m.

    slow-motion bullet time may be over used be we can never seem to get tired of it...
  • Sleuth - September 3, 2010 1:50 a.m.

    Witch Time in Bayonetta was pretty awesome!
  • pin316 - September 2, 2010 12:28 p.m.

    Awesomeness - any article which brings back memories of Max Payne abd MDK is full of badassery. Two of the most fun games i ever played on my PC. I like the modern implementation of bullet-time effect in action games, where you get a set window of slow=motion time automatically as a reward for pulling off perfectly timed counters...it really makes sense to me, and works well (as long as it's not too easy to trigger - it should always feel like you've earned it i reckon) Also, a shout out to Stranglehold. I picked it up from the bargain bin purely on the basis of Chow Yun Fat and John Woo being involved, and i really enjoyed it - a couple of the levels got a bit messy in places, but it actually felt like playing through a John Woo film. The cinematics and set pieces were genious, the Tequila Bombs like Precision Aim and Spin Attack were a lot a fun, and the interaction with the environment (slow-motion sliding down banisters, or rolling through a corridor on a cart, or just blowing up huge pieces of the landscape) was brilliant too!
  • Dorglesisthebest - September 1, 2010 10:36 p.m.

    Killing Floors Zed time was neat, but remember it only lasts a few seconds, is unpredictable and really rather useless if you dont count the cosmetic effect.
  • santaclouse37 - September 1, 2010 7:44 p.m.

    Great article, but you forgot Matrix: Path of Neo (Just like everyone else), which, while still mediocre, was far better and more fun to play than it's older brother.
  • Boxer47 - September 1, 2010 7:38 p.m.

    Great article now I know where bullet time started. I like having that feature they should put it in a game but as an unlockable or cheat
  • Chickenfoot - September 1, 2010 5:07 p.m.

    Aw. I love timeshift. And I was really impressed with the multiplayer.
  • GamesRadarJoeMcNeilly - September 1, 2010 2:36 p.m.

    LOL @The_Tingler: when I saw that feature on the tracker, I was all, "I need to make a video for that!" It could have been much, much longer but I think it came out alright. Bayonetta would have been a good one to include, since most of the entries are (by necessity) shooters.
  • philipshaw - September 1, 2010 11:05 a.m.

    I think after the last 2 matrix films came out and were shit, is when people stopped caring about bullet time
  • pimlicosound - September 1, 2010 10:49 a.m.

    One more for the list of "games you missed": Mass Effect 2 has bullet time as the Soldier's special ability.
  • jackthemenace - September 1, 2010 8:36 a.m.

    CoJ:BiB's slow-time wasn't that bad! and the cow shooting part in the second level was hilarious! and you really shouldn't have missed out Bayonettas witch time, that was epic. But, to be fair, Slow-motion is never good as a main point, ony a helpful side-feature, like darksiders cronomancy, whcih was, in turn, pretty crap
  • MaynardJ - September 1, 2010 8:27 a.m.

    Is there any western-themed shooter that didn't have bullet time?? Gun had it too, so you could shoot flying arrows out of the air. Also, I love seeing MDK get the tribute it deserves.
  • marioman50 - September 1, 2010 7:16 a.m.

    The screen shot used for Max Payne 1 is actually from Max Payne 2. How do I know? No spikey hair and constipated grimace link
  • gbiZZle08 - September 1, 2010 4:49 a.m.

    anybody else notice that the names for bullet time for stranglehold and singularity are flipped?
  • NinjaJamez - September 1, 2010 3:35 a.m.

    the sniper rifle on resistance has a pretty useful "bullet time"
  • MrKENnedDy - September 1, 2010 3:31 a.m.

    IIRC, didn't Scarface the World is Yours have a bullet time feature. Another game that had bullet time was the Prince of Persia: Sands of Time. Sure everyone knows you could rewind time, but you could slow time down (and the Prince moved in real-time). Shame GR that you guys missed that. reCAPTCHA: wtf is bangends kong?! Is that Donkey Kong's redheaded stepson?!
  • The_Tingler - September 1, 2010 2:49 a.m.

    Excellent feature, and I'm amazed that you got that video in the magazine!

Showing 1-20 of 38 comments

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