Look, up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s… Abraham Lincoln? Who… is a bird?
It only takes a few minutes playing Time Survivors, a new Vampire Survivors-like, before you’re in control of the sixteenth American president, flapping his arms and flying over ancient Egypt, massacring aliens with a yo-yo and summoning cherry trees from the ground like an all-powerful god. This game is a deeply silly experience. It’s wild, it’s outrageous, it’s completely absurd. So consistently absurd, even, that by the point Honest Abe takes flight you might not even clock just how weird that is.
A smorgasbord of ahistorical scenarios, Time Survivors pushes a memey vein of comedy into the genre, ripping various names from history out of their own time to battle monsters and dinosaurs. It’s a kind of humor very familiar to anyone who was online in the late 2000s, when Pirates vs. Ninjas was the ruling debate and saying Chuck Norris’ name was enough to count as humor; an age where Lincoln was a vampire hunter and Pride and Prejudice had zombies. Mainstream comedy has long since moved on.
But even if you do find the idea of Vincent Van Gogh, one-person killing machine, hilarious (and to be clear, I’m not immune), the joke doesn’t last long. You can really only laugh so much at Nero of Rome spewing fire or Nikola Tesla summoning lightning, because these aren’t jokes built to last. They are static, unchanging; wallpaper comedy painted over the exterior of the game to give it a lighthearted atmosphere. And while there are genuinely clever bits, other attempts—such as Nobunaga Oda being unlockable via using a shuriken a lot (get it, because he’s Japanese?)—are groan-worthy flops, as lazy and tired as they come.
It’s lucky for everyone then, that the real comedy of Time Survivors has nothing to do with its anachronisms.
Recognizing the inherent absurdity of a genre defined by the maniacal glee of your screen being filled with baddies, bizarre abilities, and visual noise, Time Survivors leans all the way in, mechanically embracing the chaos. Many weapons are physics-based and act in unpredictable ways, leading to laugh-out-loud moments of panic as you try to wrangle your own character. Special power-ups litter the map that grant huge benefits if you can survive their cursed side effects, like as pots containing strong monsters or enemies exploding into bullets.
Periodic challenges tasking you with staying inside a circle filled with unkillable bugs zipping around create a rhythmic ebb and flow of unpredictability and improvisation.
The result is something hilarious in the way only games can be, successes and mistakes alike creating slapstick moments you want to tell your friends about.
And the visual style makes it funnier. Time Survivors serves up a cacophony of clashing aesthetics, ideas of “prettiness” or “good taste” thrown out the window for blown-out pixel art, overly realistic effects, and simple, jerking CG models smashed together in unholy unison. While the idea of Mulan fighting dinosaurs stops being funny after a couple minutes, I was still laughing hours later watching those same creakily dinos hobble about while a fresh power-up grew so large on my screen it was impossible to even tell what it was supposed to be.
None of that comes close to the joy I felt in my heart when Time Survivors suddenly switched genres. Vampire Survivors-likes have always been indebted to bullet hell styled shoot-em-ups—those games defined by enemy attacks so numerous that they become psychedelic patterns to doge—and Time Survivors makes this connection perfectly explicit, some stages transforming into side-scrollers complete with Space Invader enemies blasting colored pellets your way, the endless waves of monsters transplanted into a whole new perspective.
These stages aren’t well balanced: the unpredictability of the enemy hordes and item pick-ups regularly create impossible situations, and unclear geometry causes more than a few deaths, but that rough imperfection is exactly what makes it all sing. Being violently flung from genre to genre, the game struggling to keep up just as much as I was, was a delight. In these moments, Time Survivors shows its full potential; a joyous digital celebration of silly chaos.
And it’s commendable that a videogame has finally posed one of history’s great questions, as simple and complex as life itself: how funny is Nikola Tesla punching a velociraptor?
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