An incomplete history of time-travel games

“We find ourselves in a bewildering world. We want to make sense of what we see around us and to ask: What is the nature of the universe? What is our place in it and where did it and we come from? Why is it the way it is? When will we get to the cowboy level?”

– Professor Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time


Time travel and videogames are a perfect fit. Not only does fourth-dimensional falderal justify all manner of shiny sci-fi doodaddery, but also it frees designers to set levels in any period of earthly or extraterrestrial time. Did they have fiery lava continents in prehistoric times? You betcha! Could the future hold a new ice age? Hello, slippery ice world! Does history have cowboys in it? It sure does - and now so does your game!

More canny developers incorporate time-travel elements at a gameplay level, monkeying with players’ brains in a manner that can be alternately delightful and absolutely infuriating. So we’ve taken it upon ourselves to survey 30 notable time-travel games from throughout videogame history. Our guiding spirit will be high-topped Marty McFly (whose crummy games, incidentally, won’t appear on this list); our criteria will be what every time-travel game should aim for. Which is to say, utter incomprehensibility. And cowboys.

Time Pilot (1982)

A weird hybrid of side-on and top-down shooter, Time Pilot puts you in the role of a futuristic fighter ace whose buddies have (impressively) been downed not only behind enemy lines, but in hostile periods in history. Piloting a future-century fighter jet that gets shot down regularly by World War I biplanes is as humiliating as it sounds.

Did it do your head in? Forget the game’s fourth-dimensional trappings – it’s hard enough to get your head around the notion of a world where either every craft flies sideways, or gravity ain’t shit.

Were there cowboys in it? The game includes both World Wars, but the difficulty ramps up in 1970. Not only wasn’t Konami clever enough to make you fight cowboys, they passed up the opportunity to have the pilot shoot down waves of eight-mile-high hippies.

Above: That’s entertainment! 

Time Travel Satisfaction Rating:

Ultima II: The Revenge of the Enchantress (1982)


Cult RPG series Ultima has its dark horse in Ultima II. The game sees the series’ cipher of a hero, The Stranger, track a time-bending sorceress across human history and future, as the latter attempts to destroy mankind in revenge for the events of the original Ultima. She’s eventually defeated, because she’s not smart enough to try simply intervening in those events.

Did it do your head in? In later days, it would: the only Ultima to be set on Earth, this proved to be such an unbearable anomaly that the developers inexplicably wrote the game’s setting out of series continuity.

Were there cowboys in it? There was creator stand-in Lord British, who would disguise himself as a cowboy in other games for reasons that beggar comprehension.

Above: Also, with the right amount of imagination, those horns almost look like cowboy hats 

Time Travel Satisfaction Rating:

Time-Gate (1983)

Time-Gate was one of the first ZX Spectrum games that wasn’t a conversion (read: embarrassing bastardization) of an existing arcade title. The game tasked players with fighting off waves of Squarm invaders, each level taking place before the previous in the game’s timeline; the final level was the aliens’ home planet, before the creatures had even launched their invasion. Whoa there, H.G. Wells, slow down for the dummies at the back!

Did it do your head in? Maybe not, but it did do in plenty of computers. The game’s sound code was so complex that users took to using the game as a Crysis-esque performance-test.

Above: Basically we just ran the same screenshot twice 

Were there cowboys in it? There weren’t even people in it, let alone cows to herd.

Time Travel Satisfaction Rating:


  • bonerachieved - October 27, 2009 8:39 p.m.

  • barrage7667 - October 25, 2009 9:37 p.m.

    what? no timeshift?!?!?!? i mean the entire game you are time traveling even while playing!! COME ON!!!
  • UnrealCanine - October 23, 2009 11:49 a.m.

    Why didn't you include the flash game Back to the Cubeture?
  • tgboy - October 23, 2009 6:48 a.m.

    Legacy of Kain series?
  • TriLun0r - October 22, 2009 11:44 p.m.

    lol no timeshift? good. that game sucked. saaadfaaace
  • Spybreak8 - October 22, 2009 11:19 p.m.

    Turtles time traveling in the comic books are really bad ass, that is all lol.
  • V13Dragongal - October 22, 2009 8:53 p.m.

    In sonic CD it gets hard to keep track of WHEN you are. Example, you go to the past twice, the future once, then the past 3 times, then future 5 times, past 2, then go to bed, wake up, forget everything that happened yesterday and do it all again. It dosent help that if you go forward or back far enough you start getting Day ja-vu(no idea how to spell it). Zelda was awesome however.
  • nebno6 - October 22, 2009 7:48 p.m.

  • helix92 - October 22, 2009 7:45 p.m.

    Does Assassins Creed count??
  • Spacegrass - October 22, 2009 5:06 p.m.

    I would have liked to see Serious Sam on this list; especially since, with his revolvers and coach-gun, Sam is basically a cowboy himself.
  • Yaro - October 22, 2009 4:41 p.m.

    Oh man, I'm so sad there is not legacy of kain, I mean as you play all those games or at least Soul Reaver 1 and 2 and Defiance, it's mind blowing, the finale of Soul Reaver 2 and Defiance are so...I dunno indescribable. You just stare at the credits with that awesome music and just wonder. I will never forget in my life the last line of Soul Reaver 2, "History abhors paradox." It took me quite a while to make sense of that statement, since english isn't my native language too. Anyway nice list and great article as always GR =)
  • Conman93 - October 22, 2009 3:13 p.m.

    No majoras mask??? Odd. Guess orcarina does have TIME in the title
  • Xplosive59 - October 22, 2009 3:08 p.m.

    as soon as i saw the title i knew that Chrono trigger would be in here
  • deedob - October 22, 2009 12:03 p.m.

    The Magic of Scherazade on the NES (maybe a typo there in the title :)...) was an arabian night-style where you had to keep going back and forth in time to solve puzzles. Can't go to an island to reach a temple? Travel forward in time a few hundred years when there will be no lake around the temple. Can't defeat an ennemy boss/demon thing monster? Go back in time a few millenias when he was still new to the world and beat him then. I still think it was a better "Zelda-like" game than Zelda itself. Chrono Cross/Trigger, Darkest of Days and yes... even the very known, but rarelly played DaiKatana could've been mentionned here. All games BASED on time travel.
  • Flyingwoody - October 22, 2009 3:09 a.m.

    Nice Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford reference. Awesome movie. I approve.
  • bamb0o-stick - October 22, 2009 1:36 a.m.

    I'm surprised Darkest of Days isn't mentioned in here. It was kinda fun jumping from war to war in mankind's history.
  • linkganon - October 22, 2009 1:06 a.m.

    Final Fantasy, which may or may not have had sequels, actually started the ball rolling with some half-hearted attempts at time-travel shenanigans. The game’s initial villain, Garland, believes he has created a time-loop in which to live forever, whereas his repurposed corpse turns out to be a vehicle for the ultimate evil, itself sent back in time by villains from the future. So basically it sets the tone for what would follow by being a wonderfully unintelligible load of old pants. What? this doesn't even make sense
  • CH3BURASHKA - October 21, 2009 11:27 p.m.

  • Ded - October 21, 2009 10:45 p.m.

    Aw! No Eternal Champions, I thought that was more well known than that Time Killers game :D
  • Cyberninja - October 21, 2009 10:04 p.m.

    where is eturnal darkness it was great game about time but had no cowboys

Showing 1-20 of 27 comments

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