"I will never employ any device with a digital countdown. If I find that such a device is absolutely unavoidable, I will set it to activate when the counter reaches 1:17 and the hero is just putting his plan into operation."
In many cases, for whatever reason — be it the alignment of planets, a scheduled public event to sabotage, a "you have one hour to comply or..." threat, or just a plain old Time Bomb — the villain's plot is time sensitive: It will succeed at a given moment and not one second sooner. The hero has until that moment to stop the villain.
Naturally, things will go down to the wire and the hero will foil the evil scheme at the last possible second. It's especially powerful when combined with Real Time... even if it takes a Magic Countdown to line things up properly. This is a frequently used but still effective method of adding more tension to the story. Compare When the Clock Strikes Twelve and Right on the Tick.
One variant is that a specific time isn't the point of success; the villain must instead be stopped before he collects all the Plot Coupons or kills all of his intended victims. In this case, the hero will stop the last, and only the last, step in the evil plan. This sucks in the case of victims, since all but the last victim are still dead, but hey, at least the villain didn't win...
In other cases, time itself is the foe with the help of some random coincidences that impede the hero's progress. Interestingly, the audience will probably buy these coincidences since they come off, if done well, as an application of Finagle's Law. Usually, such a sequence will serve as a dramatic finale.
The video game equivalent is the Timed Mission. The video game subversion is Take Your Time, where they TELL you that it's a Race Against The Clock, but you're not penalized for going at your own pace.
A rather specific subtrope is You Have 48 Hours.
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Anime and Manga
The whole Saint Seiya series is based on this for every single one of its arcs. In the first one the heroes have to reach the Pope after having to go through 12 temples protected by fierce warriors in less than 12 hours or else their Goddess would die. In the second arc of the anime, the heroes have to gather 7 saphirs to break the spell on the filler's baddy before dusk or else their Goddess would die. In the third arc, they need to break the pillars of the 7 seas before the world gets completely flooded and before their Goddess turned human pillar drowns or else their Goddess would die (and the world would drown). In the final arc, they need to defeat Hades and rescue their Goddess before the alignment of the planets or else their Goddess would die. Notice a regular pattern? Finally, in the new manga Next Dimension, they have 3 days to go to the past and break Hades' sword or else... the hero would die (but their Goddess too just for good measure).
A subplot in Captain Tsubasa has Ken "Karate Keeper" Wakashimazu defying his parents because he wants to play soccer and not become the Heir to the Dojo. In the original manga and old series, his father gives him one year to reach the championship with the Toho team; if not, he'll have to come back home and inherit the dojo. When Ken fulfills his word, Mr. Wakashimazu gives him his blessings.
In Glass Mask, Tsukikage gives her pupil Maya Kitajima two years to win an award as prestigious as one that her rival Ayumi Himekawa has just won, or else Ayumi gets the ''Crimson Goddess role without further contest.
In the Digimon Movie Our War Game, a virus called Diablomon has caused a nuclear missile to launch, somewhere in the world. Diablomon sends a menacing but childish email to them, asking, "which one has the clock?". They then have ten minutes to destroy the various copies he's making of himself, finding the one with the clock that controls the missile. Could be considered a Time Bomb.
In Future War 198X Wataru has only one hour of oxygen left up in outer space and must find some way to stop the Communists from pressing the Big Red Button and destroying the world with nukes.
In Oto x Maho, Kanata imposes a race against the clock on HIMSELF, transforming to start fighting, then telling the student council president on the other side of the door to the roof to count to 10, then open the door. If he does not kill the enemy in 10 seconds, then transform back to his normal form, his job as a MagicalGirl will be exposed.
Yugi, Judai and Yusei in Yu-Gi-Oh! Tenth Anniversary Movie need to defeat Paradox before Pegasus arrives at Domino City for his event after the Crimson Dragon gave them another chance to stop Paradox from destroying Domino City and killing Pegasus and everyone else in the city. Not to mention stopping Paradox from destroying reality as they know it.
The second half of Steins;Gate features Okabe trying to get enough clues as to how to undo the changes he previously did to the past before Mayuri dies, always at 8 PM. Every time he succeeds, the deadline gets delayed for 24 more hours.
In the Alabasta Arc, Crocodile hid a huge Time Bomb somewhere in Alabasta, prompting the Straw Hats and Vivi to search for it. The Marines even helped them out because the situation was that bad.
In the Thriller Bark Arc, some of the Straw Hats' shadows, as well as their allies', were stolen by Gekko Moriah, and as a result will die should they get hit by direct sunlight. This means they have to kick Moriah and Oars' asses before the sun rises.
In the Yu-Gi-Oh! TCG, there is a card called Final Countdown that will end the game making the user the winner in 20 turns after being used, it can even be sped up by 1 turn by using the Pyro Clock of Destiny Trap Card. So it turns out to be a Race Against the Clock to defeat the opponent before the 20th turn is reached.
The Magic: The Gathering card Darksteel Reactor has the exact same effect. Since it uses charge counters to mark how many turns have passed and comes from a block in which charge counters are a major mechanic, there are many ways to speed it up. (For example, Energy Chamber puts a charge counter on any of your artifacts once each turn, thus functionally cutting the Reactor's "clock" in half.)
In Final Crisis, the Guardians of the Universe tell Hal Jordan and his fellow Green Lanterns that: "You have 24 hours to save the universe."
In My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic (IDW)The Mane 6 have to find and rescue the CMC in three days, and it will apparently take three days just to reach the Changeling Kingdom. Secretariat Comet will also be flying over Equestria in three days, which Twilight believes is connected to Queen Chrysalis's plot.
A more serious example would be much later, in "Our Solemn Hour"; Holographic Retro sets up an extremely hazardous maze that Calvin and Hobbes must escape from within an hour, or else they'll be crushed by the ceiling. They just barely make it, and then Calvin and Retro have their showdown...
The Powers Of Harmony: Right from the beginning of the story, it's made clear that the Guards only have three months to guide the Mane Six in coming into their new powers and recharging the Elements of Harmony before something happens. We gets hints and bits of information about this, until we find out that it's referring to how long until the barrier spell over the Gates of Tartarus collapses, unleashing the armies of Nightmare Moon.
The Final Battle of The Immortal Game becomes one of these as the heroes have to rush to defeat Titan before his free will-removing spell is finished and unleashed. Twilight Sparkle manages to disrupt the spell at the last minute by jumping into, inadvertently giving herself the power to defeat Titan in the process.
Happens a number of times in Seeing The Pattern, due to Pinkamina only receiving her final clue to the victim's identity on the day they are fated to die.
In the Star Trek fanfic Memories Born Of Fire, McCoy has to make an antidote to the poison Kirk consumed in 6 hours or he will die. A second race begins when Kirk has an allergic reaction to something in the first antidote.
Misunderstandings: Due to a sabotage of one of Twilight's experiments, Peter's connection to Earth has been cut off, and the magic he has been draining will build up in that broken tube to the critical point after which Peter will explode, in at least three weeks time. Soon ponies start assembling in the Golden Oaks Library, and Twilight's own team of scientist are racing to find a solution.
Brave: Merida must break a beastly curse she has accidentally released on her mother by "mending the bond torn by pride" before the second sunrise.
Frozen: The second half of the movie becomes this after Elsa strikes Anna's heart with ice magic. The countdown timer isn't a clock; it's Anna's hair.
Films - Live-Action
In Aliens the "Big Computer That Controls Everything" announces that the coolant system has shut down and the reactors will overheat and explode. Bishop estimates that they have approximately four hours before that, and later on the computer inside the reactor starts giving them a precise countdown.
The latter type of Race Against the Clock happens in Back to the Future, which is often described as being a chase scene despite its lack of pursuers. (The film's villain had already been defeated by that point.)
Part III has one as well, set up very similarly to the first movie, with at least three elements working against the heroes.
Lampshaded in Galaxy Quest when Tim Allen and Sigourney Weaver fight their way through numerous obstacles to the "Big Red Button" which stops the explosion and press it with 17 seconds left ... only to see it continue to count down, eventually to stop with one second left ... because that was a requirement of this trope.
Outland. In the space-mining colony on Io, a large digital clock is in the bar showing the exact time-till-arrival of the weekly supply shuttle. When word gets out that two hitmen are arriving on the 12:00 shuttle to kill the protagonist, the clock takes on the role of the Ticking Countdown of Doom. The protagonist has actually completed his preparations hours before; the deadline only serves to rack up his (and the audience's) tension.
The film Moon pays Homage to Outland with a similar plot device.
"You have thirteen hours in which to solve the Labyrinth before your baby brother...becomes one of us forever. Such a pity..."
A variation is used in the film Godzilla vs. Destoroyah. In the film, Godzilla himself becomes something of a ticking nuclear time bomb as he's quickly going to explode/meltdown as soon as his heart reaches critical mass. The human characters even measure how high his body temperature is before he goes critical.
Of course, it's partially subverted in a sense that the human protagonists FAIL in stopping Godzilla from reaching critical mass. Luckily, Godzilla Jr. absorbs the majority of radiation his "father" gives off and is brought back to life, growing into an adult Godzilla.
Both often subverted these days, in that the deadline is missed but the Love Interest decided not to go through with it.
Run, Lola, Run. Lola's boyfriend Manny has a meeting with some mobsters, and he just lost the money he was supposed to hand off to them. The meeting's in twenty minutes, so Lola and Manny have that long to get the money back.
Used in numerous James Bond films - the Connery films often had the counter finishing at 0-0-7; by the Moore era the producers pushed it to the limit by having Bond disable the weapon right on 0-0-0.
Bill and Ted only have a day to travel back in time to get various historical figures for their history report, or Ted will be shipped off to military school in Alaska.
In a twist it is the heroes' unfortunate actions in L: change the WorLd that are time sensitive. Maki is the one who injected herself with a lethal virus to begin with, and it has to be cured before it becomes active or she could kill innocent bystanders. L likewise has one more week to live after writing his own name in the Death Note to catch Kira and has to get the new problem solved before he dies.
The X-Files: Fight the Future: Agent Mulder has 96 hours to reach specific coordinates in Antarctica, find Agent Scully in a giant spacecraft and administer her with a weak vaccine against the virus she's been infected with.
Flash Gordon. Flash only has a limited amount to time to stop Emperor Ming before the Moon crashes into the Earth. This is mentioned periodically throughout the movie and has a timed countdown at the end.
Something similar happens in The Killing Room (2009). The protagonists are locked in a room and told that only one of them will get out alive. They're given a test question that requires a numerical answer, and the person whose answer is furthest from the correct one will be killed. A digital clock counts down the time until they have to give the answer. There's actually plenty of time to think up the answer (several hours), as the point is to put as much psychological pressure on the occupants as possible and seeing the clock adds to this.
Brewsters Millions, a novel twice adapted into films, in which the protagonist will inherit a large sum of money, but only if he can completely waste a smaller amount of money in thirty days (spend thirty million to inherit three hundred million in the later Richard Pryor film adaptation).
Whereas in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Harry is told he only has an hour to complete the Second Task of the tournament—and afterward, everyone laughs at him for having taken that part of the instructions seriously.
In Gone , Sam and Caine have eleven days to figure out how to not disappear when they turn fifteen.
During Galaxy of Fear: The Doomsday Ship the computer announces that the engines will overload in fifteen minutes. While our heroes reach an Escape Pod, they leave it to help a Crying Little Kid, and then a Jerkass locks them in a closet for trying to get in front of him - when they get out there are seconds left and the escape pods have all left. Fortunately, the ship's engines don't overload.
A recurring theme in the various mythological novels by Rick Riordan. Often justified, as various times (solstices, equinoxes, sunrise, sunset, birthdays) have supernatural power.
The Lightning Thief: they must find the Master Bolt before the summer solstice (this particular deadline was set by Zeus).
Sea of Monsters: Variant - they must find the Golden Fleece before the camp's barriers fail completely, and it is overrun by monsters.
The Titan's Curse: they must free Artemis in time for her to attend the annual conference of the gods (held on the winter solstice), so she can push for the gods to prepare for war against the Titans.
Battle of the Labyrinth: Variant - they must find Daedalus before Luke's army can find Ariadne's String and use it to attack camp via the Labyrinth. They fail, and the camp is attacked. However, Grover uses the power of Pan to help win the battle.
Subverted in The Last Olympian: the final battle does go down on Percy's Dangerous Sixteenth Birthday, as per the prophecy, but that's fate itself at work.
The Red Pyramid: They must stop Set before dawn on his birthday.
In the same novel, they can't use portals during the Demon Days. As Set is in Phoenix, Arizona, and they start off in Egypt, they are in a bit of a hurry. They make it to America just in time, and get to Phoenix by other means.
The Throne of Fire: Apophis will rise on the spring equinox, as will Ra.
Seven Days in May. The US President believes the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is plotting a military coup under cover of a mobilisation exercise to be held in seven days. Because the general is highly popular, the President can't dismiss him without proof, so his staff have that long to find evidence of the conspiracy.
Inverted in Star Trek: TOS where the good guys essentially gave the bad guys an ultimatum; "Back off or we blow ourselves — and you — to smithereens" and then start the clock ticking.
This returns in every Star Trek series. Threatening to self-destruct seems to be a fairly common tactic among Starfleet captains.
Lampshaded in an episode on NCIS where a group of marines in a training exercise find an armed bomb with about 3 minutes left on the clock. 10 seconds later the bomb goes off and the Gunnery Sgt. reminds them of Evil Overlord Rule #15: Never assume a bomb's timer is accurate.
Robin Hood features an episode where the Sheriff goes missing, and must be found by sunset or Nottingham will be destroyed.
The Real Time episode of Mash, "Life Time": the surgeons have to perform a critical operation in the time frame of the episode. This is further dramatized by a ticking clock counter superposed on the lower right corner of the screen.
Used very often in MacGyver. Of course, the timer is sometimes set by our hero himself.
In LOST, according to Ms. Hawking, Ben has only 70 hours to reunite the Oceanic 6 and (presumably) return to the island or "God help us all."
Happens in an episode of the original Battlestar Galactica. Strangely, the writers got confused and the meaning of the timer changed mid-plot.
The first episode (post-miniseries-pilot) of the new series featured a recurring countdown of exactly 33 minutes between Cylon attacks on the colonial fleet.
In the episode "Endgame" of Babylon 5 the liberation fleet must destroy the Earth orbital defense system redirected at the planet's surface by the insane governor before it opens fire.
This is a key aspect of the premise of Stargate Universe - the main cast does not have full control of the Destiny, and it only stops at a given location for a few hours at a time before jumping back into FTL. Anyone not on board the ship at this time is left behind.
On Prison Break, they're usually racing against a season-long clock and a tinier clock in a number of episodes.
In the season 1 episode "Ability", Olivia disarms a timed bomb on the top of a skyscraper by turning out a set of small lights only by staring at them, succeeding with two seconds left on the timer.
The season 4 episode "Worlds Apart" is a bit of an unusual example in two respects. First, the heroes still have roughly 8 minutes left on the clock when they sever the connection between the universes to stop an Earth-Shattering Kaboom. Second, they could have done that at any time — they just weren't thrilled about the side effects, so they wait on doing it until it becomes clear that it's the only viable option.
Lampshaded in the troperiffic 200th episode of Stargate SG-1 when the Cloud Cuckoo Lander movie producer takes a sarcastic comment about having a ticking clock on the screen seriously.
Game Shows: Although game shows don't have actual villains — unless you count the producers who may deny a contestant a prize — many give contestants very short time limits (usually 30 seconds or less) to complete a task. Other game shows require a contestant to complete a task in less time than the shortest time posted by a previous contestant. Some examples:
Whew! actually did have a Gauntlet of Villains for its end game against the clock.
Episode "731": Mulder doesn't have much time to separate a boxcar with an alien-human hybrid (or was it?) and a time bomb from the rest of the train. He also needs to find out the code to open the sealed door of the aforementioned boxcar.
In "S.R.819" Mulder and Scully have one day to find out who poisoned Skinner and they need to find a cure as well.
"Beyond the Sea": The FBI and police have five days to find a pair of kidnapped teenagers who are tortured and will be found dead if the offender is not caught.
Scully: That's a grim deadline.
MacGyver: In "Nightmares", an interrogator gives MacGyver a slow-acting poison, and tells him that if he doesn't get the antidote within six hours, his death will be inevitable. There is a prominently-displayed countdown timer. MacGyver gets the antidote with two and a half minutes to spare, and makes a full recovery. It's never explained how they were able to state the time limit so exactly — the interrogator says that the poison was calibrated specially for MacGyver, but that just changes the question to how they got the medical information about MacGyver they'd need for the calibration.
Father Brown: In "The Shadow of the Scaffold", Father Brown has three days (as authorities wait for the results of her pregnancy test to come back) to solve a murder before the woman convicted of the crime hangs.
A rare music example - Madonna's hit "4 Minutes", and its accompanying video, both center around having "4 minutes to save the world"— with the video even having a countdown clock as a backdrop. (Never mind, of course, that the song lasts four seconds too long...)
Talisman: The "Lightbearers" Alternate Ending introduced in the Blood Moon expansion uses the Day/Night game mechanic to incorporate this trope. The players have a number of in-game days (varying according to the number of players) to cooperate in order to ensure that a player reaches the Crown of Command. If they manage to do so before time runs out, every player wins. However if no one has reached the Crown before night falls on the final day, everyone loses.
A number of video games, particularly the Grand Theft Auto games or Wide Open Sandbox Racing games, feature missions that are little more than pretty decorations for "get from Point A to Point B fast".
It also has a race against the clock beginning, where you have to get to the Ocarina of Time (atop a clock tower no less) in order to reset time before the moon falls. Afterwards you can reset time as much as you want.
Dead Rising - Although it's self-imposed by the main character, who requests his pilot to come for him in 72 hours.
In Portal, when you go to defeat the Big Bad, you have 5 minutes to do it before the Big Bad releases deadly neurotoxin.
The final part of the sequel plays it for laughs: turns out that not only the whole Aperture Science complex is about to collapse in five minutes, but once the countdown clock malfunctions, it turns out that in case the Exact Time to Failure was impossible to determine, a back-up self destruction system would blow everything up in 60 seconds.
Metroid: Almost every game. Prime starts out with a seven minute evacuation deadline after the first boss is killed (and falls into the power generator, which goes KABOOM!). Zero Mission has two, after killing Mother Brain and Mecha Ridley. Fusion has 3 (a lot for a game that can be completed in 4 hours or less), when the Core-X holding the Wide Beam appears (you only have to get there and kill it PLUS stop an overheat in the boiler room... in 6 minutes. Later, when you send a section of the station plummeting to the planet, you have a minute or so to escape... through a rather long path and finally, when you throw the station to the ground, you have approximately 3 minutes to get to the hangar, kill the final boss, wait for your ship, board it and fly away... which can easily take more time than given (killing the final boss can take a long time...)
In Touhou Imperishable Night, the heroines all, by some unique means, stop the sun from rising, and race to find the cause of the corrupted moon before 5:00 AM.
In the Mass Effect 2 DLC mission "The Arrival", you have only 2 days, and later 2 hours, to destroy a gateway that will let the Eldritch Abomination / Starfish Aliens known as the Reapers reach the galaxy. Unlike a lot of time sensitive video game plots, you have a live timer for this, and you get a special game over if it reaches zero.
Played straight for the Incinerator, though, unlike the fake detonator bracelet countdowns.
Actually, a lot of video games from the golden and silver ages in general had a countdown timer. It was seen as strange in 1995 when Yoshi's Island came out that there was no timer counting down from 400 or 300, which gamers were used to by this point.
Automated Simulations/Epyx's Rescue at Rigel. "Sudden" Smith has 60 minutes to rescue 10 captives from an asteroid. The current time (counting up from 1) is always on the screen.
Prince of Persia was one of the first games to use this trope: Prince has only 60 minutes to save the princess. There is no count of lives, but every death results in respawning on the start of the level without restarting the timer.
Most levels in Pause Ahead have a time limit, but fortunately the player keeps moving at their current velocity and clips through everything except walls while paused, allowing the player to technically finish stages in only a second or less. Which is good, because eventually the game introduces stages with 1 second time limits and scatter hourglasses around that add only 10 seconds to the timer.
Homestuck: Nearly every time you see a countdown clock, you can be sure that a meteor is heading towards that clock, which is a pretty big impetus to get the hell out of wherever you are by whatever means necessary. The game seems to like throwing meteors at things. Oh, and there's that one countdown to the destruction of an entire universe and the creation of a sun the size of two of them.
Identified explicitly in South Park as "the ticking clock" by the candy store owner, who notes that it "works great in the movies". Another Trey Parker / Matt Stone production, Team America: World Police uses and calls attention to it (by Kim Jong Il, the Genre SavvyBig Bad of the film).
Lampshaded in the South Park movie when the Mole looks at his watch when they arrive at the USO show. Under the time is the label "Act Three: The Ticking Clock."
In the Jonny Quest: The Real Adventures episode "Escape to Questworld," Jonny, Jessie and Hadji have to get Surd to deactivate the release of his nerve gas, because their parents' protective suits will lose their effectiveness in exactly 22 hours.
In another episode, Jonny and Jessie entered a virtual reality game and it turns out Surd infected it with a virus and they cannot leave it alive without a password set by Surd. And, sure, there's a chronometer.
In Avatar: The Last Airbender, we see an example of one of the longer races against time. There's a comet coming at the end of the summer- that will give the Fire Benders incredible powers, enough to completely burn down the Earth Kingdom. So, yeah, Aang, you got till then to defeat the Fire Nation. Good luck!
He loses the race, though he and his friends end up defeating the Fire Nation at the zenith of their power anyway.
In an unfinished episode of Invader Zim, appropriately named "Ten Minutes 'Till Doom", Dib manages to knock Zim's PAK off of him. This triggers a ten minute countdown which would have appeared in the top left corner of the screen for the rest of the episode. What's it for? Well, apparently Zim can't live for longer than ten minutes without his PAK.
Wunschpunsch: Once the evil wizards cast the spell of the week, the heroes have seven hours to decipher and trigger the Curse Escape Clause or the spell's effects will be permanent.
Wheel Squad: In "Souab's Deadline", Mr. Souab's business (he's a grocer) were slow and his supplier gave him one week to pay his debt. Meanwhile, Enzo, the manager of World Mart, was given one week to bring 100% of its potential customers like he promised his plan would.
"Close Call": Mr. Rotter, the owner of World Mart, gave the beauty parlor's owner three days to do the needed repairs or he'd not renew the rental contract. Being friends with the owner's daughter, his stepdaughter persuaded him to extend the deadline.
The Powerpuff Girls had to solve a series of riddles set by "Him" within the time limit set for each riddle. They had to succeed or, otherwise, the Professor would have to pay... for the pancakes he ate at "Him"'s restaurant "Otto Time". It was all a bet between "Him" and the Professor.
Millionaire Dogs: If the pets leave the house, they must return within 48 hours or their late owner's nephew and niece get the inheritance.
Phineas and Ferb did this in "Mind Share"; after alien criminals swap minds with the kids in order to escape from jail, Phineas and friends have one hour to swap minds back before the device used to do so self-destructs.
The aliens lampshade this trope when setting up the timer, pointing out that it increases the drama.
In the Detentionaire episode “Welcome to Factory Island”, the amount of time the characters have before the factory explodes is cheerfully announced by a chipper computer system. “Quick update: no rush, but it is ten minutes 'till meltdown. Just saying!”