Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Tick Tock

By C.T. Hutt

Bowser, King of the Koopas, likes to think that he is the most dangerous thing in the entire mushroom kingdom. He controls legions of baddies, reigns over the land in a castle of darkness and fire, and can kidnap a princess with the wave of a claw. But for all his bluster, Bowser is a lightweight in comparison to the deadliest device Mario ever faced: the ticking clock.

I remember the very first time I played Super Mario Brothers I was so enchanted by being able to control my little avatar on the screen that I didn’t pay attention to the time. After my 399 seconds had elapsed, Mario suddenly died. When I asked my mother why, she calmly informed me that after the time ran out the bad guy used evil magic to suck all the oxygen out of the air causing Mario to suffocate. This made just about as much sense as everything else in Super Mario Brothers, so I simply accepted it and moved on. It was only recently that I gave the ticking clock a second thought.

Super Mario Brothers was hardly the only title to feature this fiendish device. In most cases the clock’s presence required no explanation; finish before the time runs out or you die. For example, the developers of the infamous Contra included one; presumably they felt that their game was too easy without one. In some cases players were furnished with at least a thin rationale for the ticking clock’s presence. In the original Prince of Persia, the evil Vizier Jaffar gives the princess one hour to marry him or be killed, thus giving players an incentive to haul ass.

For the most part an actual clock counting away the seconds between life and death has disappeared from games. Occasionally one will show up letting you know how long you have to escape the collapsing tower or save the hostages or whatever else, but only rarely. The ticking clock’s time has run out, we no longer need it to encourage us to progress forward. The new ticking clock is danger. If you decide to rest on your laurels while playing Left 4 Dead 2, it won’t take long until an army of irate zombies shows up to encourage you to move on. If you hesitate before jumping off of a burning truck in Uncharted 2, it goes careening over a cliff and you end up like Wile E. Coyote.

As we move closer to the brass ring of realism with improvements in graphics and game play, I imagine we will see more and more peripheral data like the ticking clock, the life bar, the ammunition counter, and eventually all start screens and menus disappear. Such evolutions require less and less imagination and justification on the part of the gamer (no more anti-oxygen spells etc.) and improve our overall immersion in the gaming experience. There is a lot that modern developers can learn by looking back at video games of yore, but there are some shortcuts that early developers had to use which are no longer necessary for the gaming experience. The ticking clock is a thing of the past, and it’s only a matter of time until all the other peripheral distractions fade away and nothing stands between us and our adventures.


  1. Ahem, New Super Mario Brothers Wii just came out and it makes use of the clock. And believe me, when you play in 4 it's not uncommon to run out of time...

  2. Ciro,

    I don’t deny that the ticking clock is still present in some titles. I just question its relevance and the relevance of most other peripheries. It seems like a rather lazy way of forcing game progression without providing an explanation.


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