In 1987, SNK released a top-down arcade shoot-em-up game in Japan called Battle Field. At its release, it was praised for its advanced graphics and its difficulty, and it was subsequently ported to several other systems (with a name change to Time Soldiers), such as the Amiga, Commodore 64, and Sega Master System. If you’re familiar with older arcade titles, then you’ll find it very similar to Ikari Warriors. The original controls in the arcade cabinet used a rotary joystick, which allowed the player to change the direction he was facing while shooting at the same time. Recently, SNK has been bringing back its classic arcade games to the modern era in the form of Playstation Minis, the latest of which is Time Soldiers. While some of these retro titles translate well onto a modern console, Time Soldiers suffers from not having a rotary joystick to use on the PS3 controller. What used to be a difficult but manageable title becomes almost impossible to play without a lot of time dedicated to getting used to the new control scheme.
The premise of the game is about what you’d expect from a late 80s arcade game. The player’s comrades have been kidnapped by an evil villain, so he must travel through time to find them. It basically amounts to running through each level, shooting everything that moves, and defeating a boss at the end. The game’s difficulty comes from the sheer number of bullets flying at you at any given time. There’s usually a minimum of three enemies trying to kill you, but most of the time you’re dodging ten to fifteen of them. Some shoot rockets, others shoot bullets, but all of them have the sole purpose of killing you. And they usually do a pretty good job of it, especially since you don’t have the use of a rotary joystick.
For those of you that didn’t game it up in the arcades back in the day, a rotary joystick works exactly like a standard joystick, with one exception. The knob of the joystick also rotates, which can give you much better control for a top down shooter. You can be moving in one direction and turn in a completely different direction, all while mashing the fire button with your other hand. The modern day equivalent would be twin-stick shooters, which use one analog stick to move and the other to rotate and fire. When I first saw Time Soldiers, that’s what I assumed the controls would be mapped to. But as soon as I started playing, I realized that I had no idea how to turn my character. My feeble mind couldn’t comprehend that there might be a game that didn’t use the other analog stick to turn. This wasn’t a problem for the first few minutes of the game. The enemies were gracious enough to stay in front of me, and I made it through without too much difficulty. But then it began to get worse. Since the screen scrolls along at a decent clip, the enemies began to flank me. As soon as they did that, I needed to turn. And I couldn’t, at least not until I realized that the L1 and R1 buttons are mapped to turning. And this is my only complaint with the game. I enjoy difficult, retro games, and I enjoy top down shooters, but I hate bad control schemes. The turning is hard to precisely control, and I found that I had to focus so much on turning exactly where I wanted to that I’d lose track of all the enemies and their bullets, causing me to die.
If it weren’t for the turning issue, this game would be just as fun as it was in the arcade. For a quick gaming session, you can’t beat a top-down shooter. Even if you die a lot, you still get as many continues as you need. SNK even mapped inserting a coin to the triangle button, and you have unlimited coins! It takes constant monitoring of the situation to successfully navigate through each level, since each enemy requires a different strategy. Some shoot rockets instead of bullets, and rockets are much more difficult to dodge (although you can shoot them to blow them up). Other enemies have much more health, so it can be a good strategy to save them for later, and concentrate on the enemies that die in one shot.
If you’re willing to work with the awful turning controls for a while, chances are you can master them and play through the game successfully. After all, the rotary joystick also had a learning curve. I’d argue that the joystick is a bit more of an intuitive control for turning, though. But overall, it’s great that SNK is taking the time to dust off these classic games and introduce them to a new generation of gamers. Time Soldiers isn’t the only game they’ve brought back, so make sure to check them all out on the Playstation Network.