Let's say you own a small castle in the middle of Derbyshire. It's surrounded by a moat. Owing to an interesting disease, were you to fall in the moat you would die. How do you leave the castle? (Having been airlifted there by a Huey UH-1N, the type of helicopter used extensively in Vietnam, or you were born there, or something, look, it's a metaphor, leave me alone.)
You employ two firms to solve the problem. The first laboriously builds a series of platforms leading up from the courtyard, angling diagonally between the walls until it crests the parapet, leaning at a shallow angle over the water eventually to reach the ground.
The second firm presses a button and lowers the drawbridge.
This, then, is the fundamental difference between Lemmings and Timekeepers, apart from the disparate viewpoints and contrasting graphical styles. And the calculation of expendables, and the use of monsters. (And the booby traps.) Lemmings 'make' but timekeepers 'do'. I much prefer Vulcan's approach: for me, the crushingly pedantic reliance upon pixel-perfect lem placement soiled the first Lemmings, and by the third game provoked wishes of violent death for the programmers.
No such problems in Timekeepers - everything's done in squares, so you can only alter the route, not change the landscape. Further pleasantness comes in the solidity of the little blokes (the tims, if you will). (And you, I fear, will - Ed.) There's never a confusing morass of threshing bodies, because if one time hits another, he turns away. Nor is there a time limit, or lock on the number of icons you can place upon the board. (You influence tims by laying commands in their paths - the four directions, a clock to stop them awhile, a foot to oblige them to jump, a, er, 'doing action', a, um, (cripes) 'being aggressive' and a rubber to erase unwanted instructions.) In all, nothing that is out of your control appears in the game.
We'll now step through as if playing a level of the game in the fine tradition of AMIGA POWER, and not because it's eight o' clock in the evening but ludicrously still too hot to think of something clever, having instead to use old jokes and probably resort to the 'as well' device to append a sudden fact that won't easily fit where it should but can't reasonably be omitted.
The screen appears. It is overpoweringly green and brown except on the space levels where there is some dingy silver. "Platoon ready", barks the overseer in one of only three pieces of speech in the game. (Phew). You have a moment to spot obvious traps as the tims blink into existence, but can't access the icons until the last one appears and the tims look up at you.
At that moment they pause for half a second and start walking. If you've not been quick enough, three or four of the sixteen instantly fall down some holes. This is by far the worst part of the game and harkens unnecessarily to the panicky reflex of Lemmings. Fortunate, then, that you have indeed been quick enough. Your tims are safely tottering back and forth. An opposite time to scroll up and down the level, so you do.
A plan begins to take shape. You can coax a single tim from the pack and set him to work. Switches are thrown, doors opened, holes bounded over, a monster shouted into submission (one of a number of entertaining and curiously affecting animations_ and the exit pinpointed.
But of course, circumvented, because of the one-way door trap your tim tripped means his fellows would be stuck. Instead you carry on down the corridor and open a second path. Only now do you arrange the rest of the platoon, sitting back in satisfaction as they spring dutifully around your track finally to escape.
A pity that your trailblazer tim carried on unchecked to fall down a hole, but you know from an introductory message how many tims you can afford to lose before reaching the final level of the fifteen in each section (in this last you don't escape, but have to guide four or five tims simultaneously to defuse bombs) and can return at any point to an earlier one to save more. Death is not the end.
This is the brilliant thing about Timekeepers: the levels are amazingly complicated but only four or five screens long. Typically you'll pass the same point three times, each time in a different direction searching for a different switch, but because everything's packed tight you don't slip into feeling you're plodding back and forth.
There's obviously an element of being led by the nose, but after a couple of introductory mazes Vulcan start putting in deliberately drawn-out dead ends. And alternative routes that get the doors open, but trap your trailblazer. (You can always save him, which is a Good Thing. Whereas Lemmings had a hundred of the blighters whose passing was marked by a figure decreasing. Timekeepers' sixteen blokes get individual portraits in the border. When one gets killed, his picture fills in with a cross. Truly, were lems are numbers, tims evoke feelings of empathy. I wanted them to win. Especially when they got flummoxed and leaned back and looked up and blinked twice.) And exciting-looking bridges and vehicles that painstakingly deliver the tims into minefields. Damn them.
The bad thing about Timekeepers is this: there's nothing to take you by surprise. The first of a new set of levels is always a massacre, because you don't know what is jumpable, what's fightable and what kills you on contact. In space, for instance, I was baffled by a set of what I took to be mines impeding my egress (a word, incidentally, that hung above the exit in PT Barnum's show tent.
When it became too full, Barnum would shout "To the egress!" and lead an excited crowd to the curtained doorway, reasoning they would excuse the trick for its roguish ingenuity. And he ended up being played by Michael Crawford, so there you go.) Only by chance did I attempt to fight one, so discovering it was an 'alien embryo'. (But which - curses - left holes in the deck, necessitating watchfulness and quick jump placement.) Once you've identified the players, you can count on the game not piping up with something new before the next 'zone', which is strangely disappointing.
Remember those number puzzles, with a fringed square of plastic and tiles numbered one to fifteen and a gap? You might have one in a drawer somewhere, or perhaps in a box under some old clothes. Such a puzzle is a fine metaphor for Timekeepers: apparently simple, fiendishly complicated but with a compelling quality to it. I was never irritated by the game, but would always concede defeat gracefully, only to return with renewed library books and vigour.
It is cheering to see Vulcan's mission as a company - to impress us - has succeeded. We like Vulcan. They are impeccably polite. They don't take reviews personally, were sporting enough to let us put It's a Skull on the coverdisk and don't beat their wife. We just wish they wouldn't release such poor games as Valhalla and its sequel. We'd in fact prefer them to carry on writing games like Timekeepers, which is terrific fun (and apparently set for a data disk frenzy). And the box is really sweet as well.