Top 7... Greatest uses of time control in gaming

Flat circles and whatnot

Time travel is as awesome as it is confusing. The ability to slow down, speed up, or halt the passage of time has always been a power fantasy for humankind--but in video games, it's actually possible. Of course, when you can control the flow of the passing seconds or alter causal timelines, things can get pretty complicated. It takes a special kind of game to get temporal mastery just right.

Many games involve time travel in one way or another, letting you warp back to the past or leap into the future. But today, we're looking at those games that make time-warping an actual gameplay mechanic--so classics like Chrono Trigger, The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, and Timesplitters: Future Perfect aren't eligible, despite their excellence. Instead, these seven games all give you the power to bend time to your will, creating some pretty unconventional experiences in the process. So open up "Power of Love" by Huey Lewis and the News in a new browser tab, and let's look at the most radical uses of time manipulation as gameplay.

7. Singularity

What can't Russian scientists achieve? This oft-overlooked shooter posits that the Soviet Union had devised time-distorting technology way back in 1955, testing the effects of the arm-mounted TMD device on the secluded island of Katorga-12. As a personality-free soldier, your recon mission veers into supernatural territory almost immediately, with some survival horror mixed in for good measure. Besides being one of the few games where the bad guys actually win, Singularity has some pretty nifty ideas for how time manipulation can benefit you in an FPS.

Objects in the environment can be individually phased in or out of the past, letting you morph dilapidated ammo crates into usable munitions or warp a steel staircase into a rusted, crumbling passageway. This also works on enemies, letting you age their physical bodies into dust or slow them to a crawl. Besides the puzzles and combat, Singularity also used time travel to create some atypical scenarios of psychological horror. When you keep finding notes from your past (or is it future) selves telling you not to trust anyone, including yourself, how does one even deal?

6. Super Scribblenauts

Scribblenauts is something that people assumed would never exist: a game that can handle pretty much any (kid-friendly) input you throw at it. Type in any combination of adjectives and nouns you can think of, and Scribblenauts will usually give you something to laugh about. It also turns the act of puzzle-solving into a test of your creativity. Sure, you could just punch in "Dinosaur" and ride a Velociraptor into the sunset. But why do that when you could conjure up a "Time Machine" and go domesticate the real deal?

Despite all the sequels, playing around with time travel is at its best in Super Scribblenauts for DS. Hopping into a Time Machine will whisk you away to the age of dinosaurs, ancient Egypt, medieval times, the Wild West, or a Terminator-style future. Or, if you're really lucky--as in, there's less than a five percent chance--you might stumble into a secret level. And what do you encounter there? Another Maxwell (that's you), who's just arrived in a separate Time Machine. As Bill and Ted once said, "Strange things are afoot at the Circle K."

5. Dishonored

Most gamers remember Dishonored for its rich steampunk setting, but it's also one of the best time manipulation games on the market. This first-person adventure mimics Thief's open-ended stealth gameplay, casting you as Corvo Attanno, an expert assassin with a freakin' sweet mask. After being framed for the murder of the Empress you swore to protect, you must systematically eliminate everyone who betrayed you with the help of supernatural abilities. For my money, this is one of the best revenge stories in recent memory.

That doesn't really sound like it has anything to do with time travel, right? That's where Corvo's Bend Time ability comes in. This superhuman ability initially lets you slow time, plucking incoming bullets out of the air or dashing up to enemies and making them intimately familiar with the sharp end of your sword. With upgrades, you can stop time entirely, firing off a plethora of arrows in an instant before watching them all sail into baddies' skulls once time resumes. If you're feeling really creative, you can even stop time, possess and reposition multiple enemies, and have them all shoot one another in a time-warped Mexican standoff.

4. Blinx the Time Sweeper

When it comes to the hierarchy of would-be console mascots, Xbox's edgy, bipedal cat Blinx is well below Crash Bandicoot but safely above the likes of Bubsy. In Blinx's universe, time travelers are basically super-powered custodians, cleaning up any distortions in the spacetime continuum like a janitor mops up a fourth grader's vomit. To help drive this analogy home, Blinx actually wields a juiced-up vacuum cleaner--because if you're going to make an ahead-of-its-time platformer, why not add household cleaning to the mix?

Despite lugging around a Hoover as a weapon, Blinx's suite of time-manipulation abilities is actually pretty impressive, especially by 2002 standards. They all correspond to the controls of a VCR (remember those, kids?), letting you Rewind, Fast Forward, Pause, and Slow time, or Record a copy of yourself to solve multi-input puzzles. If you can tolerate the disjointed feel of the environments and a stereotypically bad platforming camera, Blinx the Time Sweeper is a neat curiosity from the original Xbox's eclectic library.

3. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

Before Altair or Ezio, Ubisoft's premier acrobatic blade-wielder was the Prince of Persia. This 2003 reboot of an ancient PC franchise has it all: riveting combat, satisfying platforming, vibrant visuals, and a unique framing device with the Prince narrating his own adventure. In fact, the entire game is a retelling of something that hasn't happened yet--try to wrap your head around that one. All you really need to know is that you've got a magical dagger and your wits to take down legions of ghoulish monsters made of sand.

Slowing the clock to dominate in combat had been done before Sands of Time, most notably by Max Payne. But PoP: SoT revolutionized the idea of time travel as a do-over, adding forgiveness to platforming and sword fights alike and letting you learn from your mistakes instantly. Watching your death play out in reverse is just an added bonus, complete with that unforgettable BOOM-then-backwards-breathing sound effect that plays upon activation.

2. Super Time Force

At this point, it's pretty much an indisputable fact that Capybara Games can do no wrong. The latest exhibit is Super Time Force, the 2D run-'n'-gunner that's as much about quantum physics as it is shootin' up robots. It's similar to Contra 3, if Contra was based on a Saturday morning cartoon from the '90s with zany dialogue and even zanier characters. Any game that lets you play as a simulacrum of Denver, the Last Dinosaur is a winner in my book.

But beyond the tubular 16-bit graphics and chaotic action, Super Time Force's main draw is its time-distorting method of single-player co-op. When you die--or at any time, actually--you can rewind back to whatever point you like and start a new timeline as another character. Plan things right, and you can eliminate your cause of death, creating the effect of your old self morphing into a DBZ-esque fusion power-up. Mix the at-will rewinding of reality with hidden slow-mo activators, and you've got one of the greatest time-bending games around. That just leaves...

1. Braid

I know, I know--Braid is a totally cliche #1 pick. But no other game has explored time manipulation as a game mechanic better than Tim's journey through his own fragmented memories. Jonathan Blow's claim to indie fame set a precedent for cerebral 2D platformers, with its ingeniously designed puzzles, painterly art style, and layered story. As it turns out, Tim's journey is just an allegory for...well, it's really up to you to decide.

Braid's got pretty much the full spectrum of time-warping possibilities: rewinding time, asynchronous objects that exist outside the timeline, linking the flow of time to your movements, collaboration with your time-displaced shadow, and a localized field of slow motion. With each new world, your brain has to jump through an entirely new set of hoops, slowly but surely learning how to use these newfound time control powers to your advantage. By the time you reach Braid's end, you feel like a bonafide time wizard--and really, what more could you ask for?

Outta time

Did your favorite game featuring temporal shenanigans not make the list? Perhaps you've got a soft spot for The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom (pictured above)? Let your voice be heard in the comments--just know that if you post a controversial claim, you (probably) won't be able to go back in time and retract it.

And if you're looking for more, check out Top 7... Awesome unlockables that were WAY too hidden and The 9 worst X-Men titles in gaming's history.