[“Might Have Been” is a column by Todd Ciolek that explores the ways in which promising games, characters, concepts, and companies failed. This week’s edition looks at Taito's Time Gal, released in the arcade in 1985, for the Sega CD in 1993, and for the PlayStation in 1996.]

Dragon’s Lair was not a good game. It didn’t really need to be. The typical arcade patrons of 1983 were quite willing to forgive awful, barely extant game structure as long as they could watch beautiful, seamless, laserdisc-streamed animation from the guy who directed The Secret of Nimh. And the laserdisc games that followed, from Don Bluth’s own Space Ace to half-cohesive anime collages like the Lupin-derived Cliff Hanger, didn’t have to be good, either, so long as they had cartoon visuals to smooth over their cheap, sudden deaths.

Time Gal was too late to ride that train. It was 1985 by the time Taito shipped it to Japanese arcades, and players were getting tired of laserdisc games that killed them over and over, with each death earning only a few more seconds’ worth of cartoon. Full-motion video games limped along into the next decade, spawning the likes of Time Traveler and far too much of the Sega CD catalog, but it was essentially over by the mid-’80s, when Time Gal’s arcade arrival was pricey, hard to translate, and too mired in anime atmosphere to interest a post-Atari America.

But Time Gal deserved better. Her title is a cut above the genre standard, with a bit more personality and cohesion than the usual live-action mishmash. More importantly, she was perhaps the world’s first human heroine from a video game. Sure, there’s Ms. Pac-Man, the mother marsupial from Kangaroo, the masked astronaut Toby from Baraduke, and the babysitter from Halloween on the Atari 2600, but Time Gal was the first game woman who wasn’t a cutesy abstraction, a by-product of a license, or ostensibly male.

Pattern Recognition

In the briefest possible intro, the year 4001 finds a bearded, cackling villain named Luda stealing an experimental time machine in a bid for temporal world domination. Reika “Time Gal” Kirishima, apparently not needing a large time-traveling apparatus of her own, simply warps off in pursuit of Luda, not bothering to put on protective clothing or pack anything more damaging than a laser pistol. With her green hair and half-dressed look, she’s pretty much the bikini-clad alien princess Lum from Urusei Yatsura, which by 1985 was too popular for the ever-derivative game industry not to emulate.

Time Gal has no undercurrent plot to speak of, as its true narrative lies in the various time periods Reika runs through. The game’s video clips show her leaping to the ages of dinosaurs, Neanderthal colonies, Roman coliseums, pirate ships, World War II naval battles, modern army firefights, a future of laser-spewing robots, and the lawless world of 2001, when mohawked thugs on hoverbikes roam the post-apocalyptic freeways.

Each setting puts Time Gal in a deadly situation every few seconds, be it a fire-breathing prehistoric Godzilla, an iceberg avalanche, or the bloated alien spiders that appear to have eaten a spaceship’s crew in 3999 A.D. Time Gal dodges most of what’s thrown her way, but she’ll occasionally draw her pistol and fry the opposition. As in Dragon’s Lair, pieces of scenery will light up, and the player’s required to press the joystick in their direction, jab the game’s one button to activate Time Gal’s laser, or freeze everything with her Time Stop command. As with most full-motion-video games, death is all around, and no one could possibly guide Time Gal to her quest’s end without a few dozen scenes of her getting scorched by lava, stomped by dinosaurs, pummeled by cavemen, smashed by mine carts, vaporized by mecha, or blown to pieces by the U.S. Army. Her constant demises are more comical than brutal, often turning her into a yelping, super-deformed little woman. And like any constantly destroyed cartoon character, she’ll always be back for more.

Time enough for sexism

Taito clearly intended for Time Gal to simulate an anime film, just as Dragon’s Lair was a Bluth movie condensed into half an hour. All of Time Gal’s animation was provided by Toei's studios, which had built a sizeable cartoon catalog by the 1980s, and it’s impressively fluid and detailed, occasionally approaching theatrical anime in quality. Granted, it’s never as pretty as Bluth’s laserdisc inventions, as Toei still used most of the shortcuts common to Japanese animation. Perhaps that’s a blessing. Time Gal’s lower frame rate makes it a little easier to play.

Time Gal herself is a fairly appealing lead, and she’s never at a loss for commentary, whether it’s a girlish squeal of delight as she evades a patrol ship or a shriek of alarm as a mechanical serpent chases her down the corridors of Luda’s palace. She’ll even throw out brief remarks or one-sided conversations, as seen when she flirts with a huge, unsmiling Roman gladiator. Misogyny creeps in, of course: Time Gal’s already skimpy clothes get ripped away by T-Rexes and Fist of the North Star mutants alike, and she’ll scream about being struck on the chest or getting bitten on her partially exposed rear. Pioneers are not always proud.

If Time Gal wasn’t a feminist icon, she at least had some pull in an era where many game characters didn’t even have names. The laserdisc-game craze may have set gameplay back, but it also allowed fully realized leads with their own stories and visual style. Taito had a potential mascot on their hands, and with some care, Time Gal might have starred in her own (probably awful) TV series or spun off some side-scrolling NES games. If Dragon’s Lair could do it in America, Time Gal could’ve done it in Japan.

Quiet, Reika. Samus is talking.

Yet Time Gal found no such legacy. The original game was never released outside of Japan, and a port for the Pioneer LaserActive was almost as obscure for Western audiences. It wasn’t until Wolfteam and Telenet’s Sega CD title that Time Gal showed up on a mainstream North American console. Wolfteam’s version mimics the arcade closely, adding in a theme song and a few new extras. Renovation, Telenet’s North American branch, went through the trouble of dubbing Time Gal in English, though they also censored a few of her more suggestive untimely demises. The most accessible version of Time Gal, however, is a later PlayStation port. Released in a two-pack with Ninja Hayate, this most recent edition of Time Gal is an accurate recreation of the original arcade game, though it lacks the bonus material of the Sega CD one.

Time Gal later resurfaced in an unlikely place: Alfa System’s Shikigami no Shiro III (Castle of Shikigami III in the U.S.), which featured a redesigned Reika Kirishima in its cast of selectable characters. No mere inside joke, Reika is identified in the manual as Time Gal, a teenage police officer who’s perpetually disbelieved when it comes to her ability to travel through time. Aptly enough, her special attack immobilizes enemies and their projectiles. And she’s still an overenthusiastic chatterbox.

Watch and never learn

Like most laserdisc games, Time Gal is (and always was) more fun to watch than play. It’s frustrating and rigid when attempted today, and anyone interested is better off accessing the Sega CD version’s play-through feature. Or you can just watch Time Gal’s collected death scenes, which play out like some plotless sci-fi version of the Looney Tunes short Duck Amuck, except that instead of Daffy being tormented by an unseen animator, Time Gal is at the mercy of some overworked anime in-betweener who’s just gone through an ugly divorce.

Time Gal will never be a classic in anyone’s eyes, and calling it one of the best full-motion-video games is still an insult. Yet there’s something charming and undeniably unique about Time Gal’s constant deaths, her shrill narration, and her hectic scenery changes. It helps that she’s an early trend-setter. The modern era may have game heroines with varying degrees of dignity, but Time Gal was there at the start.

[Todd Ciolek is a freelance jerk in New York City.]