Some games you simply love to hate.
Dragon’s Lair by Rick Dyer comes to mind. Despite its amazing animation, the game was maddeningly difficult and bordered on unplayable. Sure, we’ve all met a handful of people that somehow managed to master the timing required to move through the game, but for most players it was simply a way to waste quarters. The game has experienced a second life thanks to its appearance in the second season of the show Stranger Things, introducing a whole new generation of players to the sweet, sweet aggravation it offers.
That said, it was not the most infuriating game that I ever played. That title belongs to Sega’s Time Traveler, created by…Rick Dyer. The game was billed as the “World’s First Holographic Video Game.” It came in a custom made arcade cabinet, which used a curved mirror and CRT television set to create the illusion that the characters were free-standing. The graphics were beautiful, blending the realism of the characters against the stark, somewhat surreal darkness of the “Micro-theater” where the game’s action took place. The realism of the game came from the fact that its action scenes were actually filmed by a production crew.
In the game, you controlled a time traveling cowboy named Marshal Gram. You mission was to save the world from the evil Vulcor and rescue the Princess Kyi-La. There were seven different eras that you played your way through. The levels included 50,000 B.C., the “post-apocalyptic” era of 1998, the Wild West, Middle Ages, a fictional time period called the “Age of Magic”, and the year 2173 and the year 2552. You had three lives, an action button, and one time reversal cube. The time reversal feature allowed you a second chance at a segment you had failed. There was also a mini-game available called “Hellgate,” a slot machine that could grant extra lives, time reversal cubes or credits, but could also result in the loss of time reversal cubes or all of your lives.
Like Dragon’s Lair, you watched small segment of animation and then had a very limited amount of time to perform the correct action. Performing the incorrect action lead to a brief sequence showing your character’s demise. Once all three of your lives were gone, the game was over. Of course, you could continue by dumping more change into the machine.
It’s been noted that, unlike Dragon’s Lair, Time Traveler would offer you hints and a brief tutorial, but this did little to make the gameplay any easier. Movements and actions had to be performed with surgical precision, or you would fail the sequence.
The novelty of the game meant that, despite its difficulty, it earned Sega a bundle of money. At its peak, Time Traveler apparently earned as much as $1 million a week, of which a not insignificant amount was mine. That was the bizarre paradox at the heart of Time Traveler. It was maddening, difficult to control, and the game was typically over within a few seconds or minutes at most. It was expensive. At the arcade where I played, it cost substantially more than the other games. Yet despite all of this, I couldn’t help trying it every time I visited. Typically, I’d play it, fail miserably, convince myself I would never play it again, and then repeat the process a bit later. This mysterious ability to keep players shoving quarters into the machine despite almost constant failure was the game’s true genius. It’s evil, twisted, soul sucking genius.