Welcome back to Franchise Festival, a fortnightly column where we explore and discuss noteworthy video game series from the last four decades. Older entries can be found in the archive here.
This week we’ll be covering the history of Time Crisis. Arcade cabinet photographs are from the Time Crisis wiki unless otherwise indicated. For more on Namco’s history, see Franchise Festival #30: Ridge Racer.
The light gun shooter genre of video games can trace its roots to carnival games of the 19th Century. This experience evolved throughout the 20th Century, first into mechanical midway amusements and then into interactive films as early as 1912. Light guns themselves – sidearm facsimiles that operated by beaming a ray of light at targets wired with reactive sensors – made their debut in the 1930s. By combining these toys with an immersive cabinet and reactive mechanical audio, Namco and Sega respectively produced the most technologically impressive versions of the original light gun concept in 1965’s Periscope and 1969’s Duck Hunt; the latter was the first electromechanical shooter to integrate animated on-screen targets.
The genre’s next phase would be digital, as Sega and Atari debuted cathode-ray tube-based shooters with 1974’s Balloon Gun and Qwak. Nintendo’s 1984 interpretation of Duck Hunt would popularize the concept on home consoles when it launched for the studio’s Famicom and Nintendo Entertainment System in 1985. Following a brief period in which digitized live actors populated light gun shooters, Sega would once again revolutionize arcades with the fully polygonal Virtua Cop (1994). This set the stage for Namco, Sega’s former collaborator on Periscope, to develop one of the genre’s most unique series in the mid-1990s.
Time Crisis (1995)
Time Crisis was designed by Hirofuki Kami and Takashi Satsukawa for Namco’s System 22 arcade board and released worldwide in December 1995. Its gameplay is reminiscent of Virtua Cop, insofar as the player fires a light gun at targets on-screen to defeat them and move on to subsequent areas, but it innovates on this basic foundation through the addition of a foot pedal. When this pedal is tapped, the protagonist’s leaves cover to fire on enemies; when the pedal is released, the protagonist returns to safety and reloads. The evident advantage of cover invincibility is mitigated through a ticking countdown timer during each combat encounter.
The plot, depicted through a standard arcade attract mode and in-game cutscenes, is surprisingly robust for a rail shooter. The events of the game are set in motion by the fall of a corrupt government in the fictional country of Sercia and the installation of a new democratic government by the international organization VSSE. President MacPherson’s daughter is kidnapped by a member of the former regime and held hostage at a fortified island facility, leading the VSSE to dispatch player character Richard Miller on a one-man rescue mission.
A PlayStation port, developed alongside its arcade source material by an independent Namco team, was released in Japan on June 27, 1997 and in North America and Europe the following Autumn. Cover mechanics are handled in this version with buttons on the Guncon peripheral rather than a pedal. Graphical fidelity is reduced and the framerate is slimmed down to 30 frames per second, but these technical compromises are offset by a bonus campaign in which Richard Miller infiltrates an arms factory posing as a humble Sercian hotel. Branching paths that hinge on the player’s performance enhance replay value and offer the opportunity to challenge hidden boss enemies.
Time Crisis II (1997/1998)
The second entry in Namco’s flagship rail shooter franchise was developed for the studio’s next generation of arcade hardware, the System 23 board, and released in Japan during December 1997; a North American localization followed in February 1998. The most significant mechanical improvement is the addition of a second player character with their own screen, sidearm, and pedal, bringing Time Crisis up to the standards established by Sega’s Virtua Cop (1994) and House of the Dead (1996). A new on-screen system called crisis flash also makes it clearer to the player when leaving cover would result in immediate damage from an enemy attack.
Players control a pair of partners – VSSE agents Keith Martin and Robert Baxter – as they work to save their colleague Christi Ryan from mercenaries hired by sinister tech company NeoDyne. Christi has been kidnapped because she uncovered NeoDyne CEO Ernesto Diaz’s plan to launch a nuclear-equipped satellite into Earth’s orbit and sell access to whoever is willing to pay. While this story is largely separate from that of Time Crisis, hired gunman Wild Dog returns as a lieutenant of Diaz.
A PlayStation 2 port featuring updated graphics followed three years after the game’s initial publication. Minigames, as well as a multiplayer mode that required two televisions and an iLink cable, were also added to enhance replay value. Unfortunately, the absence of any additional single-player stages meant that this enhanced port received less critical acclaim than the technically-compromised PlayStation version of Time Crisis.
Time Crisis 3 (2002)
Time Crisis 3 represents several firsts for the series. With an eye to the increasing popularity of home consoles over arcades, it was the first title developed for the Namco’s PlayStation 2-based System 246 boards. It’s the first franchise entry to include multiple gun types – the standard pistol, a machine-gun, a shotgun, and a grenade launcher – which are respectively characterized by infinite ammo, rapid-fire, high power, and wide spread; ammunition for the latter three guns can be acquired by defeating special enemies dressed in yellow. Finally, it’s the first Time Crisis to have been published first in North America (on September 16, 2002) before coming to Japan in April 2003.
The story is set six years after the events of Time Crisis II, when the Mediterranean island of Lukano is invaded and conquered by the Zagorian Federation. Acting on intelligence provided by a woman named Alicia Winston, VSSE agent protagonists Alan Dunaway and Wesley Lambert are dispatched to infiltrate the country, save kidnapped members of the Lukano Liberation Force, and overthrowing Dictator Giorgio Zott. Along the way, they encounter and defeat returning villain Wild Dog.
System 246’s similarity to the PlayStation 2 architecture made producing a home console port relatively straightforward. This version, released in North America and Europe in October 2003 and then in Japan the following month, is true to the audio/visual presentation of its arcade source material while also integrating additional gameplay modes. Having perhaps learned a lesson from criticism directed at Time Crisis 3, Namco included a supplementary series of stages that allow the player to control Alicia as she rescues hostages during the Lukano invasion. Controller support also allows the player to control on-screen action with a traditional DualShock 2 gamepad rather than a Guncon device.
Time Crisis 4 (2006)
Time Crisis’ fourth outing was released worldwide in standard and oversized two-screen arcade configurations in 2006. As the first Time Crisis title developed for high-definition screens, it replaces traditional cathode-ray light gun technology with a new infrared (IR) input mechanism. It also iterates on Time Crisis 3’s multiple weapon setup with vehicle sequences in which players fire on targets from mounted guns loaded with infinite ammo. Finally, multi-screen battles require the players to tap a button to juggle multiple perspectives featuring attacking enemies before they can move on to a new area.
Time Crisis 4’s plot begins when VSSE agents Giorgio Bruno and Evan Bernard learn of a terrorist plot to steal a new bio-organic weapon known as Terror Bites from the United States government. Accompanied by US Army operative William Rush, Bruno and Bernard travel to Wyoming and discover the identity of the terrorist group: the Biological Weapons Special Operations Unit. After they fail to halt the group from obtaining Terror Bites, Bruno and Bernard make their way to Colorado’s Buckley Air Force Base and help defend it from a bio-organic weapon attack. Wild Dog inexplicably returns as a boss enemy and is once again blown up.
A PlayStation 3 port released in North America on November 20, 2007, and then in Japan on December 20, 2007, offers the most substantial additions of any home console port so far. This version introduces the core series’ first free-roaming first-person shooter experience, in which the player completes goals as Rush during the events of the Arcade Mode’s story. A handful of additional challenges and minigames round out the package with additional replay value.
Time Crisis 5 (2015)
Namco finally abandoned the use of proprietary technology for Time Crisis 5, opting instead to build the game in Unreal Engine 5 ahead of its worldwide arcade launch in March 2015. The cabinet’s twin 55-inch HD screens luxuriate in every detail of a campy presentation that owes much to Sega’s Yakuza franchise, while the introduction of a second pedal allows each player to switch between two positions in combat encounters to flank covered enemies and enhanced controllers simulate the recoil of real-world firearms. Integration with Namco Bandai’s Bana Passport system permits players to save data to a physical card so they can track their score or continue from an advanced stage on separate play sessions.
The opening cutscene introduces protagonists Luke O’Neil and Marc Godart, a pair of VSSE agents tasked with infiltrating a hotel and recovering a mysterious briefcase from the miraculously revived Wild Dog, and air support led by Catherine Ricci. The action then heats up as Like and Marc pursue Wild Dog in a helicopter and on motorcycles through crowded city streets in Stages 2 and 3. High-intensity setpieces are emphasized through Evasion Activities and Crisis Events, moments in which the action slows and players must respectively tap the appropriate pedal or fire on specific targets within a brief period of time.
While no home console port has been published at the time of writing, an expanded version was released in arcades on August 20, 2015. Time Crisis 5: True Mastermind Edition expands on the plot of Time Crisis 5 with three additional stages revealing a VSSE traitor behind Wild Dog’s nefarious actions and the Terror Bites incident of Time Crisis 4. Time Crisis II’s Keith Martin and Robert Baxter – each suspected of being the mole – return in the series’ most cartoonish series of events so far, culminating in a fight with an oversized robot on an aircraft carrier and a final duel on-board a fighter jet.
The series’ first spinoff, Crisis Zone, launched worldwide in arcades on March 29, 1999. Its cover-based rail-shooter gameplay is primarily distinguished from Time Crisis by a level select screen and the use of a machine gun rather than the traditional pistol; rapid-fire weapons wouldn’t make their debut in the core series until 2002’s Time Crisis 3. Rather than focus on the VSSE, the game highlights the exploits of Special Tactics Force leader Claude McGerran as he battles terrorists at a luxury apartment complex in London. An enhanced PlayStation 2 port featuring additional missions and weapons was developed by Tose and released for North American, European, and South Korean markets in Fall 2004.
The series’ first home console exclusive, Time Crisis: Project Titan, was developed for the PlayStation by Flying Tiger Entertainment and published by Namco in Europe and Japan during April 2001; a North American localization followed on June 20, 2001. Its plot sees Time Crisis’ Richard Miller trying to clear his name by hunting down assassin Ricardo Blanco after Blanco impersonates Miller while assassinating Xavier Serrano, the president of a fictional island nation called Caruba. Project Titan was highly influential on its source material, as it debuted the multi-screen battles that would define the best moments of Time Crisis 4 and Time Crisis 5.
As was then the style among Japanese game studios, Java-based mobile spinoffs were also released for J2ME devices. In the first of these, Namco Bandai-developed 3D rail shooter Time Crisis Mobile (2006), players take on the role of Time Crisis 3 protagonist Richard Miller as he infiltrates and saves hostages from an enemy compound. An enhanced port of the game called Time Crisis Strike was later re-released on iOS and Android devices in January 2009.
The second J2ME title, Time Crisis Elite (2009), was developed by Gamelion Inc. and represents a rare example of a first-person rail shooter depicted entirely through sprite-based graphics. Players are confronted with a groups of enemies arranged on a 3×3 grid and make use of their dialpad’s 1-9 keys to fire on the associated grid space while intermittently tapping 0 to duck into cover to avoid enemy attacks. Though the main attraction is a surprisingly lengthy story-based arcade mode that centers on agent Nate Rush – no known relation to Time Crisis 4‘s William Rush – players can also challenge themselves to hold out against endless waves of enemies in a survival mode.
The series’ last mobile spinoff was Time Crisis 2nd Strike (2010), a direct sequel to Time Crisis Mobile / Time Crisis Strike and prequel to Time Crisis 4. Its story mode, which replaces light guns with finger taps but otherwise hews closely to the gameplay style of its arcade source material, sees VSSE agent Giorgio Bruno setting out on a mission to save Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Chief Walter Burns. Thanks to the presence of accelerometers in the iOS and Android hardware for which it was published, the player is able to duck into cover by tilting their device.
Razing Storm, the series’ latest arcade spinoff at the time of writing, is also the only one developed in-house at Namco Bandai. In the 2009 arcade original, players controls Strategic Combat and Rescue agents as they battle Paolo Guerra and his army in South America following a terrorist attack in the United States. The machine gun-based shooting is largely informed by Crisis Zone, though Razing Storm is set apart by its emphasis on racking up combos by shooting enemies and environmental features as quickly as possible. A home console port that includes an extended plot and a free-roaming first-person shooter mode inspired by Time Crisis 4 made its way to the PlayStation 3 under the name Time Crisis: Razing Storm in October 2010.
In spite of its superficial similarity to Virtua Cop, Time Crisis managed to establish its identity through the idiosyncratic use of a foot pedal. Cover mechanics dramatically alter the flow of traditional rail shooters, as they encourage players to rapidly weigh the risk of taking damage against the reward of slaying enemies before a countdown timer runs out. The disappearance of arcades from much of North America, Europe, and Japan may herald diminished sales for Namco’s over-the-top rail shooter franchise, but one hopes that its success on home consoles in the past means that it can carve out a place in the home console market in the decade to come.
What do you think about Time Crisis? What’s your favorite series entry and why? How about your favorite wacky boss? Let’s discuss in the comments below.
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As ever, here is a tentative list of upcoming articles:
- #119: Kentucky Route Zero – March 18
- #120: Fallout – April 1
- #121: Snowboard Kids – April 15
- #122: Drakengard / Nier – April 29
- #123: Valkyria Chronicles – May 13