Dead On Time
Something I like (I'm not sure why) is when the title of a game is clever enough in itself to tell you almost everything you need to know. Dead On Time is a great title. Firstly, because the game is played against the clock, and secondly, because you die when the clock hits zero.
The game itself is an overhead shooter but - before you groan and move on - it's quirky enough to be something of a new genre in itself. There's no number of lives, and no energy bar either. Instead, there's simply the timer which relentlessly ticks down to zero.
You are somewhere in deep space where different coloured formations of aliens snake about loosing off bullets towards you. There are two modes of play (which we'll get to in a minute) but in each the aim is to stay alive for as long as possible. The art of staying alive is not to let that timer reach zero. It will get there a whole lot sooner if you collide with the formations or if any of their bullets smash into you - so you first need to master the art of controlling your spaceship.
It moves zippily. In fact, it's a little too fast; find yourself in the line of fire from one alien and taking evasive action can very quickly fling you directly into an alien that's on the other side of the screen. On top of this, aliens come in from the left, right, top and bottom of the playing arena without any warning at all, meaning if you hug the sides of the screen, you'll have no time to get out of their way.
And if that's not tough enough for you, these aliens, once they have entered the playing area, never venture into the outer sections of screen again. So if your playing strategy is to try and pick them off as they glide into your own firing line from the safety of one of the four corners, that won't work.
These factors mean Dead On Time takes a lot of practice; the first few times you play, death is likely to come within seconds rather than minutes. However, once you have developed a strategy, you come to recognise there are usually four aliens in a "chain" and, if you manage to get them all, they leave behind a bonus capsule which, if collected, extends that ever-decreasing timer.
The capsule also has some other qualities - collect three of the same colour and you'll become immune to bullets in that colour for eight seconds. This functionality is incredibly difficult to keep track of. As noted, if you want to stand any chance of staying alive, you need to be inside of the 2" border area of the screen. Trying to remember which capsule colours you've collected whilst dealing with up to 16+ aliens in this small rectangle is really one challenge too far.
Dead On Time has an Arcade and a Score Challenge mode. It also has either joystick or keyboard control. I'm sure the default Arcade mode and joystick option suits some players, although it seemed odd that the menu to deselect these was operated by keyboard only; Score Challenge games last a lot longer than Arcade ones too. So personally I would've thought Score Challenge and keyboard were more sensible defaults. Still, the options are easily altered... once you appreciate how they work.
I've concentrated a lot on playability, and less on sound and graphics, which are, in a word, superb. Suitably up-beat music plays throughout the action and the graphics are multi-coloured and sinister enough for their purpose. One effect I didn't like however was the way the parallax stars altered direction as you manoeuvred your craft. This effect gives the illusion that you can actually fly away into other sections of space. You can't - and this effect is distracting, odd and unnecessary, as are the stars themselves. Sometimes less is more.
In all, it's very tough but also very configurable... and playing against the timer not only works well but is certainly a quirk I've never seen before.