[Editor's Note: This retrospective was published on September 1st, 2021 and comes to us courtesy of a strange wormhole in time. Enjoy it in the spirit for which it was intended.]
When StarCraft VII came out last March, a lot of players thought the Protoss' Chronomancer faction was the first instance of time management in a real time strategy game. It seemed like a revolution being able to rewind time to undo bloody battles, manage time, and carefully chrono-clone armies.
But the fact of the matter is that none of this is new. Back in 2011, a small indie developer called Hazardous Software made a game called Achron. This was the first RTS to play in-depth with the idea of adding time travel. But you probably didn't know that, because Achron wasn't terribly successful. It did a good job presenting some impressive time gimmicks, but it did a terrible job folding them into a real time strategy game. It never found an audience. Until a company like Blizzard essentially appropriated the ideas and folded them into a polished RTS like StarCraft VII.
The surprising thing about Achron's approach was that the time travel mechanic was actually more of a control management gimmick. The basic idea was that if you rewound time -- and who wouldn't want to rewind time to replay a battle and therefore be better prepared than his opponent? -- you had limited control over your army. A bar of gradually replenishing "chronoenergy" limited how much you could do. You could only give orders to so many units, or build so many units, when you were playing in the past. This tied further into Achron's command system in which you linked units into groups that cost less chronoenergy to command. Although it was putatively about time travel, in practice, Achron was mostly about getting a leg up by drilling deeper into a complex layer of command and control.
In other words, Achron wasn't for the faint of heart or the casual of brain. It was very high concept stuff, more suited to a fancy indie games competition than the marketplace of videogames. And it disappeared accordingly, never cultivating much of a following.
I remember playing Achron when it first came out. It didn't include any documentation, and there was no easy way to set up a skirmish mode to test things. So you had to play through a drawn-out, turgid, and poorly presented campaign mode that took its sweet time revealing Achron's charms, inasmuch as it had any. It's hard enough to look at videogame graphics from 2011, back before we were accustomed to holographic displays, RichColor, and retinal authenticity effects. But Achron was rough-hewn even for 2011. You could be kind and call it functional, but without flashier production values and a friendlier introduction, it was a tough sell at best, and an eyesore at worst.
Ideally, you would try Achron as a multiplayer game, but indie RTSs have never been known for fostering communities, much less fostering communities open to new players. Getting an Achron match going meant talking a friend into learning a middling RTS with a catchy idea. I remember trying to press my friends into service with an extra press copy. Once they saw the graphics, the fiddly user interface, and that daunting timeline at the bottom centre of the screen, they bolted. Achron was one of the least user-friendly RTSs I ever plumbed.
To Hazardous' credit, they had some nifty ideas aside from their time control gimmick. Three factions with unique gameplay mechanics included humans who had to store up reserves of soldiers before building new units, a race of cybernetic robots who paired pilots with vehicles, and some weird bug/octopus things that had to mate in various coupling configurations to make new units. Eww, right? Those guys were enough to make a Zergling seem like a dignified dinner guest. But they were brain bending enough that I'll never forget trying to wrap my head around what made what. If you loved a challenge, you would have loved those bug/octopus guys.
Achron also had a unique system for spying in which you infect another player's unit with nanites, seeing from its line of sight and sharing control of it. If you think you didn't tell that tank to go there, you're probably right. Time to bring out a nanite scrubbing unit! You could also research a serviceable AI aid that would organize units into groups and automate functions like repair. Teleportation was a significant travel mode for many of the units. But unfortunately, cool ideas don't sell games until they're implemented into cool games. That was the case even back in 2011.