Retro Review: Time Pilot is a timeless classic0 Comments
Reviewed on: Arcade
Also available on: Xbox Live Arcade, Atari 2600, PlayStation 1
Developer: Yoshiki Okamoto
Long before Castlevania, Gradius, and Metal Gear made the Konami name into one of the hottest names in video game history, the company was quietly responsible for some the most iconic names of the first golden age of the arcade. Konami produced and licensed a small army of arcade hits to various American companies during the early 1980s, including Frogger, Scramble, Super Cobra, and Gyruss. Another title that came out during this amazing yet understated run was 1982's Time Pilot, which was distributed by Centuri in gamerooms across North America.
In this game, you take control of a fighter jet that can travel through time. You start in 1910, battling biplanes before facing off against a blimp. You then transport to 1940, where you shoot down World War II planes en route to taking out a B-25. Next up is 1970, where you do battle with helicopters and a boss enemy in the form of a CH-46. After that, you arrive in the then-modern day of 1982/1983, where you open fire on jets and a B-52 bomber. Finally, you travel to the then-future of 2001, where you take on flying saucers. After destroying the boss saucer, you then return to 1910, starting the game over again at a higher difficulty level.
Time Pilot allows the player to fly and fire in any direction as the screen scrolls along, a novel idea in 1982. Prior to this game and Williams' Sinistar, released around the same time, the only free-roaming flying games took place on a single screen. Namco's underrated Bosconian included scrolling, but only in limited directions. In Time Pilot, the player can fly in curves and even full loops and circles, and it does it well, providing the gamer with a feel of complete flight control few other titles from this era do.
Boss enemies appear only after a specific number of enemies have been destroyed. An indicator at the bottom left of the screen tells the player how close — or far — they are from the appearance of the boss. Boss enemies are typically of little threat, but enemy attackers don't stop coming in once the boss battles begin. You can destroy the boss by either shooting it down or by ramming into it, the latter of which comes with the price of one of your lives.
Skilled players have plenty of chances to push up high scores in Time Pilot, an extra element that almost creates a game within a game. Periodically, a small alert sound will echo through the speakers, followed by an enemy formation. Destroying this formation quickly will give extra bonus points to the player, who must finish them off while continuing to dodge other attacks. Also, in every stage except 2001, a parachuter will periodically appear on the screen. Collecting him will net increasingly larger bonus points, starting at 1,000 points and climbing by 1,000 points with each successive one up to 5,000 points. Mastering these elements can increase one's score very quickly, even to the point of letting the player bank numerous extra lives for those more challenging stages. It comes at a risk, however, as enemies and enemy fire never stops long enough to make it easy.
The on-screen characters are fairly basic, though colorful and clear. The clouds are part of layered backgrounds, a novel feature for the time, though slightly annoying at times as they can obscure the action when they pass between the sprites and the player. The sound effects are basic yet stellar, with a specific personality to them that not only clearly defines what enemies are on the screen, but stand out today as the influence for the distinctive Konami sound effects still to come.
Unlike some games from the early 1980s, Time Pilot doesn't come with a tremendous barrier of entry for the new player. Someone who has never seen the game before can instantly dive in and feel like they got their monies worth. At the same time, the more experienced player can advance in through the game quickly without the effort feeling tiresome or too easy. This is the kind of balance that made other early 1980s games such as Galaga, Centipede, and Pac-Man into perennial classics, making the comparatively obscurity experienced by Time Pilot all the more puzzling.
Perhaps Time Pilot is largely forgotten due to timing and a lack of large scale home console releases. Most people never saw the game until 1983, the very year both the arcade and home console markets in North America were suffering. An Atari 2600 port hardly saw the light of day, and suffers badly from the limitations in both the hardware and controls. The ColecoVision port, also limited in release, is decent but lacks in speed and color. 1998's Konami Arcade Classics on the original PlayStation finally brought a true arcade port home, but the disc saw limited release. The Xbox Live Arcade port is spot on and controls perfectly with the Xbox 360 controller, and is the recommended version for those without access to the original arcade version.
All in all, Time Pilot is an incredibly fun game that has aged incredibly well. Older players who may have never seen it when new or who haven't touched it since those days should take it for a spin again. Younger players who are getting into the whole retro game movement today will take to it quickly, wondering all the while how it isn't better remembered. It is somewhat ironic that the game involves time travel, as Time Pilot's gameplay is timeless in and of itself.