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Time Crisis focuses on shooting all on-screen enemies in an area while taking cover. Successful players must proceed to the next area or level. The franchise's distinctive feature, a foot pedal, controls whether the player's character takes cover (and is thus invulnerable but unable to shoot) or attacks (which makes the player vulnerable). Players are required to take cover to reload their gun. A countdown clock, recharged by clearing an area and stage of enemies, forces the player to take risks by remaining vulnerable most of the time, shooting quickly at any enemy on sight.
This time limit prevents the player from taking cover indefinitely. In Time Crisis and Project Titan, after the clearance of an area the game adds only a partial amount of time to the clock while the timer keeps running down. The game ends if the timer reaches zero. In the two-player installments, the clock runs only when the player is fighting and makes his/her moves, with the timer resetting back to a certain amount of seconds when a portion of a battle area is cleared. Also, the player only loses one life when time runs out.
In the first Time Crisis, enemies fired "unannounced" direct hits, which caused problems because players did not know when they would be hit. Different-colored enemies provided different accuracy-levels (with red soldiers the most accurate). Project Titan attempted to address that problem using "different colored bullets", but this did not fix the "unannounced" direct hit problem. This problem was fixed in Time Crisis II; life-threatening shots are indicated with a red flash (known as a "deadly eye") which gives the player time to release the pedal.
The setting of each Time Crisis revolves around a serious threat to the world. The V.S.S.E., a covert organization, must send in its highly-skilled agents to eliminate any security threats. The first Time Crisis had three stages with four screens (areas where fighting occurs) each. The second and third installment has three stages each with three screens. The fourth installment adds a prologue with the three stages each with three screens. In the third and fourth installments, supporters from various organizations come in to assist the V.S.S.E. agents: sometimes to aid them in their mission, sometimes to protect their own reputations. Crisis Zone has a different plot. It takes place in the United Kingdom and concerns around the S.T.F. (or Special Tactical Force)'s attempt to destroy the U.R.D.A., a terrorist organization. Razing Storm and Time Crisis: Razing Storm, which takes place in the near-future, concerns around an elite task force known as S.C.A.R. (Strategic Combat and Rescue) being sent to a South America country under a bloody revolution to capture the mastermind who has orchestrated an attack on the United States together with several international military organizations, while battling terrorists and renegade soldiers that joined him.
Each Time Crisis game features a different protagonists (each of them a field agent of V.S.S.E.), supporters, a S.T.F. operative, and members of S.C.A.R.:
- Richard Miller is featured in Time Crisis and Time Crisis: Project Titan.
- Keith Martin is featured in Time Crisis II as the first playable character.
- Robert Baxter is featured in Time Crisis II as the second playable character.
- Alan Dunaway is featured in Time Crisis 3 as the first playable character. He becomes one of the opponents in the final Crisis Mission.
- Wesley Lambert is featured in Time Crisis 3 as the second playable character. He becomes one of the opponents in the final Crisis Mission.
- Alicia Winston is featured in Time Crisis 3 as an exclusive playable character to the PlayStation 2 version of the game. She appears as a non-playable supporter in the arcades.
- Giorgio Bruno is featured in Time Crisis 4 as the first playable character. He becomes one of the opponents in the final Crisis Mission.
- Evan Bernard is featured in Time Crisis 4 as the second playable character. He becomes one of the opponents in the final Crisis Mission.
- William Rush appears in Time Crisis 4 as an exclusive playable character to the PlayStation 3 version of the game. He appears as a non-playable supporter in the arcades.
- An unnamed V.S.S.E. trainee, often referred as the Mystery Character is featured in Time Crisis 4 as an exclusive extra playable character to the PlayStation 3 version of the game. He was the only player character in the Crisis Mission mode.
- Claude McGarren is featured in Crisis Zone for the PlayStation 2 as the only playable character. His name was Croad MacGalain in the arcade version of Crisis Zone.
- Alpha One is featured in Razing Storm and Time Crisis: Razing Storm as the first playable character.
- Alpha Two is featured in Razing Storm and Time Crisis: Razing Storm as the second playable character.
In addition, each Time Crisis game features a different set of chief antagonists:
While the games have some contributing antagonists in addition to the aforementioned chief antagonists, all Time Crisis antagonists have employed and/or conspired with a mercenary named Wild Dog – the only character to appear in all of the main Time Crisis video games. At the end of every battle, after the player has defeated him, he will detonate himself and appear to die. After Richard Miller shot off his left arm in Time Crisis, Wild Dog outfitted it with a gatling gun arm (the "gun arm"), which would later receive upgrades such as a flamethrower and a rocket launcher in Time Crisis 3, and later a grappling hook and a tractor beam in Time Crisis 4. Wild Dog has other pals, including a younger partner (and apprentice) named Wild Fang (who appears in Time Crisis 3 and the PlayStation 3 port of Time Crisis 4):
- Sherudo Garo—whose plot provides the central focus in Time Crisis although he is not the main chief antagonist in the game in the second stage.
- Kantaris—who is the chief antagonist of Time Crisis in the extra story mode, and was in the first level of Time Crisis: Project Titan.
- Ricardo Blanco—whose plot is the central focus in Time Crisis: Project Titan although he is not the main chief antagonist in the game on the second stage.
- Ernesto Diaz — the chief antagonist of Time Crisis II.
- Giorgio Zott—who is the chief antagonist of Time Crisis 3
- Gregory Barrows—who is the chief antagonist of Time Crisis 4, his plot is shrouded in mystery and must be discovered during in-gameplay.
- Derrick Lynch, the chief antagonist of Crisis Zone is the U.R.D.A.'s leader. He wants to destroy London with the Garland Square's nuclear reactor, Geyser One. He is named after one of Time Crisis's creators.
- Jared Hunter—who is the chief antagonist of the Crisis Zone side storyline, the Grassmarket District crisis. He kidnaps the S.T.F. Commander's daughter, Melissa Kessler, and plans to avenge Derrick Lynch.
- An unknown rebel leader—who is the chief antagonist of the Razing Storm, he led a rebellion movement against a South American nation, while at the same time betraying and attacking the U.S.
- A followup exclusive to the PlayStation, Time Crisis: Project Titan, came out in 2001 featuring a new multihiding system. It serves as a side story to Time Crisis
- A two-player sequel, titled Time Crisis II, featured two machines linking together, allowing players to cover each other. Each player dispatches enemies on slightly different routes, creating unique environments to defend themselves on.
- The spin-off to this game, Crisis Zone (also supervised by Takashi Sano), was also produced. While Crisis Zone had similar play mechanics as with Time Crisis, Crisis Zone featured solo play with a fully-automatic machine gun (as opposed to the standard pistol), interactive backgrounds, and a different storyline centering through the anti-terrorist tasks of elite S.T.F. trooper Claude McGarren (spelled "Croad MacGalain" in the arcade version). A PlayStation 2 remake of the title has been released in 2004 and is a subtitle to its full name, Time Crisis: Crisis Zone, likely to denote that the port had undergone major (if not total) cosmetic and technical changes.
- In 2003, Namco released a direct sequel called Time Crisis 3. It granted four different weapons available at the start (handgun, machine gun, shotgun and grenade launcher). The ammo of the latter three had to be recharged during play.
- In 2006, Time Crisis 4 was released in August and introduced a refined multihiding system (similar to the one featured in Time Crisis: Project Titan) where the player can move the gun in a certain direction to move the character's position in certain areas of the game regardless whether or not the player was hiding or attacking. A PlayStation 3 version was released in 2007 in the United States and Japan, and released a year later in other territories.
- Time Crisis Strike was released by Namco in January 2009 for the iPhone OS. It is actually an alternate version of Time Crisis 3.
- In 2009, another spin-off game, Razing Storm was released. It will be re-released in 2010 under the name Time Crisis: Razing Storm exclusively for the PlayStation 3 with the PlayStation Move.