Updated: May 24
Many video games use in-game time limits. Done well, a time limit can add challenge and a sense of urgency. Done poorly, they add nothing and can ruin the player experience. In these cases, the game would benefit from allowing the player to turn them off.
But what games use time limits well, and which games do not. Let’s dive in and find out.
How effectively a game uses time limits will usually depend on the type of time limit the game uses, since they come in a variety of forms. We will investigate each in turn.
(NB - I’m leaving out games where a time limit is integral to the game - such as racing games - for obvious reasons.)
(I’m also leaving out survival games where hunger, thirst, sleep deprivation etc. act as time limits of sorts since I have touched on these already in another article.)
These are the simplest time limits, and the least sensical. You (the player/s) must complete the level within a set time. If not, you die for no adequately explained in-game reason. How long you had left was often shown via a countdown timer, with each second ticking away serving as a reminder to hurry up.
Time limits such as these were common in the coin-op arcade games of the ‘80s and ‘90s. They were used to ensure a single player couldn’t hog a cabinet.
Secondly, they introduced additional challenges, which meant players were more likely to die in-game. This was good for arcade owners since more in-game deaths = more coins inserted = more profit.
This countdown timer mechanic was then carried over into many of the home gaming systems of the 8- and 16-bit eras. There were both direct and indirect reasons for this.
The direct reason was simple - many games of the era were arcade conversions, which naturally carried over the time limits inherent to their arcade ‘parents’.
The indirect reason was due to influence - many of the home gaming originals back then were heavily inspired by games in the arcades.
I posit that these are the worst form of time limits for home systems since;
A - they make no in-game sense.
B - they can be rage-quittingly frustrating.
C - they are carryovers from a monetisation model that isn’t found in home gaming.
That said, I will concede that countdown time limits can add an element of tension if it matches the size of the map/level. Retail Turrican 1 and 2 got this right. Their maps were just large enough to be fully explored within the time limit if you knew what to do, where to go and didn’t delay.
This resulted in multiple ‘just in the nick of time’ moments where the player reached the exit with only seconds to spare. These were pretty exciting, and created a great sense of relief and achievement when you crossed the finish line.
But players who didn’t want a frantic race for the finish could simply forego exploration and take the direct route, and thus complete the level with minutes to spare.
A countdown time limit can cause unnecessary misery however if:
A - it does not match the size of the map.
B - there is no shortcut or direct route.
C - if there is no way to extend the time limit.
Many of their maps were over twice the size of the original Turrican 1 and 2 maps - often achieved by merging two or more of the retail maps together - but the time limit was now insufficient to explore them in their entirety.
To fully explore a level invariably meant losing a life to the timer, although this was compensated for by the additional lives you collected whilst exploring. By having to accept that timer-related death was inevitable, it lost the sense of urgency the retail games possessed.
It is perhaps worth noting that the ‘Turrican-likes’ that were developed later either used a different time limit mechanic - such as in Hurrican - or did away with time limits entirely, as in the superb Gunlord (now available on Nintendo Switch).
Event Specific Countdown Timers
“Attention, emergency, you now have five minutes to reach minimum safe distance.” (Remember that from Aliens?)
These countdown time limits are only imposed due to specific in-game events, such as setting off a self-destruct sequence or similar. I posit these are superior since there is at least an in-game explanation for them.
I would argue that they are most impactful when they are used sparingly, and especially so in games that do not otherwise have time limits at all. Introducing a time limit for these sections creates a change of pace - literally - and they may force cautious players out of their comfort zones.
The sequence near the start of Super Metroid is a particularly good example of this, as it contrasts well with the ‘explore at your leisure’ pace of the rest of the game.
Super Metroid Escape from Station
Video by naswinger
An example of something similar, but done badly, are the missions in The Simpsons Hit and Run. These usually involved getting from A to B before the timer reaches zero.
The game is notorious for having excessively strict time limits which required near-perfect runs to complete successfully. One crash or missed turn and you might as well give up and start again. This was rage quit inducing and it ruined the game. Considering the game was ostensibly aimed at children, this was an unforgivable Design Sin.
Environmental time limits involve the environment killing you if you don’t hurry up. A common example of this is the underwater levels found in many of the 8- and 16-bit era games. In these, if you didn’t reach the surface in time (or a strategically placed air bubble) you either lost health as in Half-Life, or simply drowned on the spot as in Sonic the Hedgehog (who, presumably, never learnt to swim.)
Another trope is the rising lava/sinking level mechanic seen in many games. Rainbow Islands is one of the best examples of this, as it forms the game’s core story element and gameplay mechanic - all of the eponymous Rainbow Islands are sinking into the sea.
Rainbow Islands Arcade
When the music speeds up, you should too!
Video by AL82 Retrogaming Longplays
I argue environmental time limits too are superior to arbitrary time limits, as not only do they have an in-game explanation, they may also offer a chance of recovery.
For example, in Rainbow Islands, even when the island starts sinking you can still complete the level by reaching the exit at the top. However, you must hurry, because you will lose a life if the water reaches you. (Presumably, Bubby and Bobby never learnt to swim either.)
I posit that all the above (except possibly Rainbow Islands) are examples of ‘hard’ time limits, in that once the time limit is reached, failure is all but guaranteed if you don’t get a move on.
Soft Time Limits
But there is another less easily defined type of videogame time limit, which (for want of a better) I will call ‘soft’ time limits. With a soft time limit, failure isn’t guaranteed, even if you do take your sweet time. However, the game will become more difficult which discourages dawdling.
The superb (and completely free) Turrican-Like Hurrican has an intriguing time limit mechanic. If the timer runs out, you will be attacked by a giant floating metal skull thing (technical name ;-) ). If it touches you, it’s instant death, and it appears to be invulnerable to your weapons so you can’t destroy it. However, you can drive it back with enough firepower. Because of this, you can still complete the level, although it will be difficult.
The countdown timer can be extended by collecting enough of the crystals that are liberally scattered around the level, thus balancing out the time taken to explore it. But if you forgo exploration and make a bee-line for the exit, you can complete the level with minutes to spare, with or without crystals.
Even better, if you manage to pick up enough crystals after it has started attacking you it will despawn - for a while.
Hurrican Level One and Time's Up Boss
Back off bud!
Video by Nomad's Reviews Plays
A more modern example is the mysterious ‘Black Stalker’ from Chernobylite. Take too long exploring a map and he will teleport in and chase you relentlessly. In the early game, his appearance is your cue to teleport back home, since you don’t have the ordnance to fight him.
Thankfully, the player has some control over this, as his arrival can be delayed by using resources (acquired whilst exploring) to create inhibitors. So again, the time taken to explore is balanced out.
Later in the game, his timer-related appearances become almost a non-threat since you will have crafted the weapons to beat him, weapons crafted from - you guessed it - the resources gathered when exploring.
This is also an example of what I call a ‘hidden’ time limit since you do not have an on-screen timer, O2 bar or similar telling you how long you have. Instead, you can only infer it by how unstable the weather is getting - if you start seeing green lightning, your time is getting short.
If you take too long to complete a mission the enemy will send Hunter Killer teams after you. These are not unique mini-bosses like the Black Stalker, they are simply wings of fighters that outmatch anything you or your A.I. wingmen have.
This, combined with Bem Cavalgar’s scarily competent enemy A.I., means you are unlikely to last long once they show up. Mission success isn’t impossible now, but the odds will be so stacked against you that discretion will probably be the better part of valour (i.e., it’s time to jump back to base). You can see the results of not doing so in time in the video below.
Bem Cavalgar mod for FreeSpace 2: Mission 01A - Depth Charge
Video by Nomad's Reviews Plays
I posit that time limits in games should only be introduced when;
A - it makes in-game sense to do so.
B - only when it will enhance the experience of a game instead of hampering it.
Secondly, ‘soft’ time limits are preferable as they still allow gameplay to continue to some degree.
Lastly, where possible, the player should have some way of extending the time limit via their in-game actions, since player agency is a good thing and thus should be encouraged.
But that’s just my thoughts, what are yours? Do you love time limits or loathe them? Do you have any tales of notable examples of in-game time limits, either good or bad? If so, please do share them in the comments section below, we would love to hear them.
Final Fight Image
By Capcom - http://www.neo-geo.com/reviews/neo-reviews/BurningFigt/burnfight.htm, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40427559
By Video-game emulator and the game itself, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15414149
Iain is a 40+ author and gamer from England, who started his gaming journey on the Atari 2600 36(ish) years ago. His specialities include obscure cult classics, retro games, mods and fan remakes. He hates all sports games and is allergic to online multiplayer. Since he is British, his body is about 60% tea. He can be reached via email at email@example.com
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