If you were an expert pilot who could travel through time, would you A) take over the world B) defend it from the kinds of people who would take over the world or C) fly back to the 80's and get rich betting on sports? In Time Ace, a new Konami rail shooter for the Nintendo DS, the decision is made for you. Instead of seizing a millennium's worth of royal rights or following in the fat footsteps of Biff Tannen, you thwart the anachronistic schemes of the evil Dr. Scythe as the scruffy Dr. Clock and, ultimately, save time as you know it. It's kind of ironic. After all, as you're saving time in the game, you're killing it at a bus stop or in a line and probably having a decent bit of fun. Unfortunately, your intrepid hero is so capable, he defeats Scythe in a measly few hours. Talk about a brief history of time. By the same token, this isn't an amazing journey back to the future. Time Ace has its share of bogies, such as rather poor graphics, funky mechanics, and a dumb plot to name a few, but at least it comes with a budget price tag.
The game begins with Dr. Clock and his assistant, Scythe, working in a lab on the time machine. Clock presumably leaves in his car called the Deathtrap to go spend an evening with his wife, Widow. But while Clock is gone, Scythe steals the time machine. Even more surprising than Scythe's theft of the only time machine in the world is the fact that Clock can still travel through the ages in his rusty old biplane.
And so, improbably, the game begins as you travel back in time to World War I where Scythe is hijacking a train full of weapons. Because this is a rail shooter, your plane is in the middle of the screen, traveling in a set direction. You can move up, down, left or right, shoot your machine guns, and barrel roll. As you fly onward, firing and rolling, enemies approach you on their own sets of rails. These almost always include a cluster of three planes and a tank on the ground.
If you can handle three planes and a tank, you can beat Time Ace. Actually, scratch that: You don't have to handle anything if you don't want to. Because this is a rail shooter, enemies you fly past are as good as dead. Additionally, your enemies will always be one step behind, firing at where you were, instead of where you will be because they can't lead you with their shots. All you have to do is keep moving, and you don't really have any choice on account of, well, this is a rail shooter.
While it sounds silly, in all seriousness, you can literally fly through the majority of the game. The only parts you can't avoid are boss and miniboss fights. In these, you're given free range of motion, except you can only stray so far from your target, which is usually a big ship. If you shoot it, preferably with rockets, it blows up, and you continue. It sounds simple, but if you don't have any rockets, it can be a nightmare, especially in the early parts of the game.
But as you play, you'll learn to kill enough enemies so that you always have rockets and turbo. Eventually your aim will also improve to the point that you can snipe enemies on the horizon with a few well-placed shots while angling away from incoming fire. But all this changes as you begin to collect gun upgrades, which are rare but very powerful. In any given level, you can upgrade your blasters to at least four times their original strength. Once you get the second upgrade, things go from simply decent to outright fun. You go from handling three planes and a tank, to blasting through six planes and two tanks, giant tanks, laser towers and sometimes even nine planes. And a tank. Obviously, the unit variety leaves a bit to be desired, but deftly zapping these targets with your giant space lasers feels definitively sweet.
You shouldn't have to figure this out though. The game should've started this way; things should have gotten twice as crazy and hectic, with lasers or bombs flying every which way and hardly a clear lane for you to fly through. Your only hope would be the careful and judicious use of super-duper power-ups, lock-on mechanisms, and artificial intelligence controlled drones. These are all the trappings of old 2D shooters, such as Gradius, yet they haven't made it into Time Ace's present time. Instead, you're stuck with three generic power-ups: a smart bomb that kills everything on the screen, a shield that renders you momentarily invincible, and a speed boost. Not only are they uninspired, but they're also unnecessary; you can easily beat the game without ever using any of them.
If only you were obliterating better looking civilizations. Your ship doesn't look too shabby, but enemy vessels are hardly more complex than paper airplanes, and they blend directly into the blurry backgrounds. The game engine is so weak and the DS so overtaxed, it has to resort to flashing red polygons to tell you you're hitting your targets. But Time Ace's developers deserve some credit for creating a 3D game with a lot of action that never suffers from slowdown. It isn't pretty, but at least it doesn't look like a slide show. The game sounds fine, though there are never any audio cues, so you don't even need the volume on to get the full experience.
As an afterthought, the game includes wireless multiplayer dogfighting for up to four players but no downloadable demo or online play. If you are on a trip or car ride with a friend who also has Time Ace, you might squeeze in a half hour of fun from this rocky mode, but only if you talk a lot of smack and cheat constantly. Otherwise, the short single-player game is all you get for $20.
Whether or not that price is worth five hours of reasonable rail shooting is up to you, though you have the luxury of knowing either choice is a fine one. If you pass on Time Ace, you'll never wish you could go back in time and play it; if you do get Time Ace, you won't find yourself wishing you could go back and not play it. Either way, time is on your side.