Timecop is the story of Johnny Time, a tough but honest cop who performs his duties admirably. There's just one problem: he never has enough time, not to bust all the perps in the city and still have room in his schedule for his new wife, Mrs. Cynthia Time. One fateful night, while trying to prevent the theft of Greek antiquities from a local museum, Johnny Time cries out in anguish "if only there was more time!"... but the gods of Ancient Greece were listening, and they are both cruel and capricious. They used their powers to freeze time across the world - apart from Johnny Time, who now has all the time in the world. Can he find a way to reverse his terrible fate and reunite with his beloved wife? The only way to find out is to play Cryo Interactive's 1995 SNES adventure Timecop!
And now join me back in our dismal and joyless real-world universe, where I can tell you that Timecop on the SNES is actually a terrible action-platformer loosely based on the Jean-Claude Van Damme film of the same name. That's the film where JCVD is a cop who travels through time, stopping villains before they can irreperably damage the present by fiddling with the past. The most memorable part of the movie is when Van Damme's character defeats the villainous senator McComb - played by Ron Silver in a manner that suggests the producers really wanted Alan Rickman circa Die Hard - by kicking him into a version of himself from the past, and when the two senators touch they freak out and melt like a slug dipped in salt. This is because "same matter cannot occupy same space," apparently. Look, if you want a movie that features good, solid scientific theory then don't watch one about time-travel.
Rather than following the plot of the film, Timecop: The Videogame goes down the route of creating a sequel, because the world the original movie created was too rich and detailed to be allowed to go unexploited. So, Max Walker, the hero of the movie and not played by Van Damme in this game, is about to retire from the Time Enforcement Commision, turning over his role as protector of the time-tubes to a new system called Timescan. Then Walker notices that some equipment in the lab has a new logo on it, and he uses this information to surmise that history is being altered by one Dr. Hans Kleindast, original inventor of the time-travel process. From what I can tell, Kleindast was believed to have died during the first time-travel experiments, but it turns out he's very much alive. Well, apart for the piece of his brain that tells him how to dress, that's long since perished.
Maniacal dentists... of the future!! Professor Kleindast, ladies and gentlemen. Fair play to the developers, he definitely looks like a villain from a vaguely-cyberpunkish nineties videogame. He also looks like a proper tit. I can't tell if those are supposed to be mechanical attachments above his glasses or giant Groucho Marx eyebrows. At least he seems to be having fun.
Kleindast's complete mastery over the flow of time means that he's grown bored, so instead of the usual plot of a hero trying to stop a villain for truth and justice and soforth, the set-up for Timecop is actually that Kleindast picked Walker to do battle with throughout the ages as "a worthy opponent on the board of time," and to that end Walker is strapped into a time machine and launched into the unknown. "Let the duel begins!" says Professor Kleindast, who is not a professor of English it seems, and thus begins Timecop.
The first stage is TEC Headquarters in 2005. 2005 was the future when this game was released, but it's the past now and it's the present day in terms of the game's setting, so Timecop really does have time covered in all directions.
TEC Headquarters is a hostile place, patrolled by naval officers in dress uniform whose anger at the constant wisecracks about An Officer and a Gentleman has been channelled into their relentless efforts to see Walker dead. That's Walker in the black, fending off a navy man with the rarely-seen "Drunkard Climbs the Fence" style of kung-fu. Timecop is a standard walk-and-bash adventure for the most part - Walker can kick, punch and fire his gun to defeat his foes, (who are also his co-workers, I guess?) but unfortunately his physical attacks have the range, power and speed of a seaslug who's only taking karate lessons because his parents forced him to, and his gun has a very limited amount of ammunition. Enemies also take multiple hits to defeat however you attack them, but I'll leave it to you to decide whether that means Walker's punches are as powerful as a bullet or if his superiors issued him with pistol that has the stopping power of a gentle kick to the ankle. To help you make your mind up, I should point out that the TEC building runs on steam power, and hazardous gouts of boiling water randomly spray out at you as you traverse the level. Maybe there was a typo and I've actually been sent back to 1905.
Making your way through Timecop's early levels is a simple if not very enjoyable matter of walking along for a while until you find an elevator, punching - or more likely crouch-kicking - any resistance in your path. Then you ride the elevator up or down to a new floor of the building, where you do the same thing again until you happen across the blinking exit sign. The whole of the TEC building feels like the level designer slapped it together at 5:25 on Friday afternoon, which is at least consistent with the overall quality of the game. After only a couple of minutes playing it is immediately that Timecop is a very bad game and deep down you know, no matter how much you wish it wasn't true, that it's only going to get worse. For starters this is a very ugly game, but I can maybe chalk that up to personal preference because I bloody hate digitised sprites. Then there's the gameplay, which is as smooth and flowing as trying to piss out a golf ball: you plod forwards, stop to fight an enemy, move five for six paces and then stop again to fight, and again, and again. You could try turning around and running in the opposite direction when you see danger ahead, but if you do that Walker flails around and keeps sliding in the same direction thanks to his Wile E. Coyote levels of momentum... but only if you turn around while running. If you just let go of the d-pad he stops immediately. He also stops dead if you crouch. Your attacks come out slow and combat is tedious thanks to a lack of combos and miserly ammunition pick-ups. "Maybe Walker has a special move," I thought to myself, and to my surprise he does. It's an uppercut. Would you like to see it?
Wow. It has less range that your normal attacks with the added drawback of having more set-up than Noah building the bloody ark. I don't think it even does any extra damage, although that is hard to verify because I couldn't hit anything with it.
Also of note: the music in the first couple of levels. I was not looking forward to Timecop's aural delights when I heard the theme on the title screen, which was full of grating guitar samples that gave me vivid, harrowing flashbacks to the Wayne's World game, but this one isn't bad at all. I like the choice of voice sample. "FBI, get on it," it says. I wish the FBI would get on it. Maybe they could close down the TEC and take over my responsibilities so I would have to play this game any more.
After a few stages of elevator action, (but not Elevator Action, which is a far superior game,) the developers got worried that the player might be struggling with the twin concepts of horizontal and vertical movement so they chucked in a stage which is nothing but a single flat room packed with enemies. There are many small robots mixed in with the naval officers now, but that is small comfort, especially when the robots don't look like anything at all. On the plus side the flat layout means I could avoid more combat by jumping over the enemies and running away, and at least here's an in-universe reason for the flatness: this is the launching runway for Walker's time machine.
It is not a cool-looking time machine. Seeing Walker's head framed by the time machine's window like that really lets me appreciate just how utterly characterless he is. The sprites in Sensible Soccer had more personality than this, and they had less pixels in their heads than Walker does in his right foot.
With access to his time-travelling rocket sled, Walker makes his way to the San Andreas Fault circa 1945 to stop Kleindast from mining some minerals or something. Look, I wasn't really paying attention, okay? It's an underwater stage, joy of joys, and having removed any sense of verticality at the end of the last stage the developers go even further by taking away Walker's ability to punch or kick while he's underwater. I'm looking forward to stage five, which at this rate will be Walker standing in an empty black room, completely unable to move. That would be a considerable improvement on this stage, where endless octopus swarms with an unquenchable hatred for time travellers try to strangle Walker while Kleindast's troops shoot at him. When Walker jumps underwater, he does his usual walking animation, which looks as ridiculous as it sounds.
"Hey, I don't care if the playtesters hated them, it took me six months to digitise this octopus sprite and by God I'm going to make sure it sees plenty of use in this game!"
My current theory is that Cryo Interactive actually wanted to make Octopus Slaughter Simulator '95: Tons o' Tentacles Edition, but the outcry from animal welfare groups forced them to pretend they were actually making a Timecop game.
There's even an octopus boss. An octoboss, if you like. It has sad eyes. Probably because I've just killed hundreds of its children.
The final damning piece of evidence that proves Timecop was designed solely and specifically to cause me pain arrives after the octoboss, as you're forced into side-scrolling shooter segment, piloting the dorkiest-looking submarine ever to sink beneath the ocean waves through a sparse field of underwater mines and the final remnants of the now-extinct octopus species. You may have noticed that your submarine is ridiculously large, so you won't be shocked to learn that this is no Gradius-style thrill ride of near-misses and daring piloting manoeuvres between deadly obstacles. It's boring, is what it is. Very, very boring and very, very ugly. Bitter experience has taught me that you should try to avoid saying "I could do better than that" lest someone call you on it, but in this case I am one hundred percent certain that I could design a more interesting submarine than that. I have designed a more interesting submarine than that, I had some Underwater Lego when I was a kid. My Lego submarines will have had fins and rocket launchers and thematically inappropriate decorations taken from the Castle sets, which would obviously be a clear improvement on whatever this thing is supposed to be.
That's more like it: a good, sensible plan to gain vast wealth using the power of time-travel. A little prosaic for a mad scientist named Professor Kleindast who dresses like an alien ambassador from a severely underfunded episode of Star Trek, but reasonable enough. Hang on, New York 1929? This stage is going to be Mafia-themed, isn't it?
I suddenly have a newfound appreciation for Empire City 1931.
Having become tired of running extortion rackets and illegal gambling, the New York mob have returned to what they love doing best: leaning out of windows and taking pot-shots at anyone who happens to be passing. The really lucky gangsters get to lean out of the window of a moving car, which must be terrible exciting for them, their tongues flapping as the breeze ruffles their fur. No, wait, that's dogs. The upshot of facing all these snipers is that I found out Walker can aim his gun upwards. Who knew? Not me, but then again I'd never had a reason to try shooting upwards until I reached this stage.
And what a stage it is, another flat and featureless area packed with enough hard-to-hit enemies to send the fun-o-meter's needle crashing from "boring" to "frustrating." Most of the action takes place in New York's famous newsstand and drugstore district - yes, if you're ever in the Big Apple, make sure you stop by this historic part of the city and you'll never worry again about where your next bottle of aspirin or celebrity gossip magazine is coming for because there's a drugstore or a newstand literally every twenty feet!
After a couple of fairly long stages spent roaming the streets of New York, Walker finds himself in the not-at-all-suspiciously named Kleindast Brokerage Bank. I suppose when you command the very power of time itself you don't need to worry so much about keeping your history-altering plans hush-hush, but Kleindast said he wanted to have a duel of wits against Walker, didn't he? A very small duel, it seems. Like, a thumb war of wits. A game of Snap of wits.
The multi-storied level "design" of the first couple of stages has returned, and it makes a welcome change from the tedium of recent levels in the the same way that developing spontaneous blindness is a welcome change from watching your parents have sex. It at least evens out the wear on the left and right buttons of my d-pad.
There's a boss at the end of the stage - a bipedal robot so ugly that I honestly thought there was a problem with its sprite, a graphical glitch, but no. It's supposed to look like that. I mean, I'm sure the artists didn't intend to create a robot so dorky that even C3PO would beat it up for it's dinner money, but that is how the finished sprite was meant to be displayed.
The robot jumps across the screen and then walks around near you on the off-chance that you'll collide and Walker will take damage, so make sure you duck under the robot when it jumps and crouch-kick it when you get the chance until it explodes. Truly, a duel of wits rarely seen outside the stories of Holmes and Moriarty!
Now Walker finds himself in the Second World War, because every time-travel game has to have a level where you fight against Nazis. Kleindast has gone back to 1944 to help the Nazis win the war, which is a helluva step up on the Ladder O' Evil from getting rich by manipulating the stock market. Kleindast hasn't left himself anywhere to go with that move, once you've become a Literal Nazi it's difficult to become more evil short of destroying the entire planet.
As for the stage itself, the briefing says that Kleindast has given the Germans advanced weaponry. This is a bare-faced lie. The Nazis have the same pitiful guns that fire the same slow-moving videogame projectiles as always, and their mortars are so weak that they barely have the velocity required to reach Walker's chest, never mind enemy lines. So Kleindast is a good guy after all, then? A double agent, a saboteur? Maybe history will vindicate Kleindast in hindsight.
At the end of the stage Walker has to fight a tank, and in this case "fight" means "stand next to and keep firing your gun." You can also use your limited supply of screen-clearing bombs, they can do the boss some damage. As long as you don't stand right in front of the tank's cannon you'll be fine, and I do mean right in front of it - because Walker is short enough to stand underneath the tank's barrel, when the tank fires a shell it kind of... dribbles out of the end of the cannon and falls in a pathetic arc, because that's the only way it can hit Walker while he's standing next to the tank. I never thought I'd know what an impotent tank would look like, but now I do. Thanks, Timecop.
Once your brief sojourn through Nazi Germany is over - and it was very brief, clocking in at about two minutes if you jump over most of the Wehrmacht, as is most expedient - Walker moves forward in time to a future Los Angeles. Kleindast holds the city in his grip thanks to that most cyberpunk-ish of plot devices: the super-drug that is wired directly into the brain. In this case it's called Brainblast, a name that makes it sound as though it comes in a tangy cherry flavour.
There's very little to say about the gameplay here, because it's exactly the same as all the other ponderous single-plane stages. A couple of aesthetic details do stand out, though. For one, it's clear that some people appreciate everything Kleindast has done for the city, because that graffiti in the background says "Kleindast Rules." There's also graffiti that simply reads BRAINBLAST, just like when you see COCAINE or MARIJUANA painted on walls in the real world.
LA is also full of these street punks, which means an actual human person once dressed like that and allowed themselves to be filmed and digitised for inclusion in this game. There is little Timecop could do now that would make playing it a worthwhile experience, but being able to see the original footage of these punks would definitely soften the blow somewhat.
Kleindast ramps up his sinister scheme by building a rocket that will disperse Brainblast (now in Sour Tangerine Zing flavour!) into the atmosphere, causing anyone who breathes it in to become addicted. Walker rushes to the famous Los Angeles Rocket Factory, which is composed of fifty percent conveyor belts and fifty percent killer robots. In a rare flicker of humour - that's how I'm choosing to interpret it, anyway - there are signs everywhere that say "do not step on the conveyor belt." I'm going to imagine that Kleindast put these signs up in the desperate hope that Walker is such a stickler for the rules that he will be unable to disobey them and thus won't reach Kleindast before he can put his plan into motion.
Sadly for the villain, Walker is a maverick who has no problem stepping all over those conveyor belts like this game has stepped all over my desire to play another SNES game ever again, and soon he has Kleindast cornered. I hope I've made it clear to you by now that Timecop is an especially wretched game, but if you're still not getting it then here's the moment that should push you over the edge - Walker does battle with Kleindast, the game's main villain,and Kleindast fights and behaves in exactly the same way as the regular white-suited minions from the very first stage of the game, only with a bigger health bar. I've played some crap in my time but the lack of imagination shown here is truly staggering. It's like getting to the end of Final Fantasy VII and discovering that Sephiroth is just another Shinra grunt with 99,9999 HP.
Somehow, Timecop lumbers on - Kleindast managed to escape the thorough beating I gave him a moment ago - as Walker makes his way through a half-built skyscraper packed with worksite health and safety violations. Or maybe the swinging girders suspended from ropes are a decorative feature, a brutalist windchime. Whatever the case, it's the same walk right, ride an elevator, walk left, ride an elevator, repeat gameplay as before, only with the added complication of occasionally standing on a piece of wood with a nail sticking out of it. Walker's extreme susceptibility to tetanus represents one of the most ignoble deaths I've ever experienced in a videogame, so at the very least Timecop will be remembered for that.
The climactic battle arrives, and to my surprise it's something different! Walker and Kleindast fight to the death in the manner of the ancient gladiators: while flying around in jetpacks that are heavily affected by momentum. You float around taking shots at each other, and while the fact that Kleindast spends most of the battle hovering off the top of the screen where you can't reach him means I'd hesitate to call the fight fun it is leagues ahead of every other boss battle in the game and as I say, it is at least different. Some effort was expended in coming up with a unique encounter, and for that I am grateful. It's also much easier than the rest of the games "big" fights, and I'm grateful for that too.
Your reward for saving history is a full-screen image of Kleindast's jagged, pixellated mug. Then he explodes. "Reward" may have been the wrong word to use there. "Final kick in the groin" would have more appropriate.
That's Timecop, then: a terrible game that you definitely should not play. It commits every sin that an action game can - the level design is completely lacking in imagination, your character is slow and awkward to control, the boss fights are laughable and it's pretty unpleasant to look at. I don't really blame the developers though, not entirely, because Timecop has the unmistakeable air of a rush-job. I'd be shocked if Cryo weren't given an extremely tight time-frame to get this game made, resulting in it feeling almost unfinished. Still, don't play it. If you're really desperate for a Timecop fix, then watch the original movie, or Timecop: The Television Series, which has the benefit of starring the always-wonderful Kurt Fuller. Hell, you could even watch Timecop 2: The Berlin Decision. Just don't come crying to me if you do.