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Review: Clockwork Aquario [PS4]

A project worth restoring

In 1992, developer Westone started work on their final arcade game, consisting of most of the staff that worked on their massively successful Wonder Boy franchise for SEGA. After two years of development, project Clockwork Aquario was canceled in 1994 due to poor testing and shifts in the arcade industry. The cancellation devastated the team and pushed them to focus on developing console games over arcade boards from then on. 

The story should’ve ended there – a prototype lost in gaming history like so many before it. Yet somehow in 2020, ININ and Strictly Limited Games secured the rights to finish the game from SEGA. They announced that the game would finally have a release on PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch! Now Clockwork Aquario has been restored and is playable on home consoles. But how did this all come about? And is the game worth it after all this time? Let’s dive in.

What is Clockwork Aquario & who is Westone?

Clockwork Aquario started in 1992 as a challenge for the development studio Westone. The studio was one of SEGA’s most successful developers during the late 80’s and early ’90s for arcade games, largely due to the massive popularity of the Wonder Boy/Monster World franchise. The idea was that the team would push the new SEGA System 18 board to the limit with a new franchise. Ryuichi Nishizawa served as the head designer alongside programmer Takanori Kurihara, artist Mina Morioka, and composer Shinichi Sakamoto. 

The team’s goal was to create something similar to Wonder Boy III: Monster Lair that would focus heavily on co-op between two players. The game was in development for over a year before being shown publicly in 1993. The game was still in its alpha build when first revealed to testers. Nonetheless, the poor reception from play tester and the arcade industry’s shift from 2D games to 3D and fighting games led to SEGA canceling Clockwork Aquario in 1994 to pursue these new ventures.

A glimmer of hope

For years, hardcore fans of Westone and arcade games believed the game was unsalvageable. But little hints were given by former developers that one day it could see the light of play. Sakamoto released the soundtrack in 2006 to positive reception. Clockwork’s source code was revealed in 2013 when it was transferred from Westone to M2 after the studio shut down. Fans started to wonder if a restoration project could be completed with the source code available in some capacity. And in 2020, Strictly Limited Games and ININ decided to get the rights from SEGA to give it a whirl. Nishizawa agreed to help patch the lost code, and the project would finally be in players’ hands in 2020.

Unfortunately, the team realized there were a lot more graphical elements missing than they anticipated, so the release was delayed to 2021. Now with the game finally released, it’s finally time to talk about if it was worth it, huh?

Mario meets Wonder Boy

Clockwork Aquario feels like a mixture of Super Mario Bros and Wonder Boy III: Monster Lair with a tiny sprinkle of Ghost N’ Goblins. The main objective of the game is to run and jump your way through levels by stomping or hitting enemies in your path to reach the boss fight. Enemies take two hits to defeat, or you can throw them after you slap or jump on them – as long as you don’t hit them twice! Utilizing this mechanic can help lead to massive bonuses and getting your path cleared enemy-wise.

It’s a genuinely neat mechanic that I have personally never seen in a platforming game like this. Figuring out how the levels and enemy patterns are designed to take advantage of the move is one of the most enjoyable elements of the game. Be wary that you also only have two hits like in Ghost N’ Goblins. Reckless play will have you losing lives quickly. 

Meet Hack, Elle and Gash!

You have three characters to choose from: Hack Rondo, Elle Moon, or the robot Gash. Each player feels differently in one way or another. Hack is the balance of power and speed, Elle is faster than the other two, and Gash has a wide attack range while moving slower. The differences are small but noticeable and you can usually take a level or two to figure out whose style you enjoy the most to play. I found that starting with Hack was a great way to learn the game, but then switching to Gash due to his attack range made bosses much more manageable.

The story is simple enough for games of this time. Your goal is to stop the evil Dr. Hangyo from taking over the world. That’s it. Modern players, I can’t stress enough how many arcade games in the 90s had a one-sentence plot – and that’s perfectly fine for a short experience. At only five levels, you can breeze through the game in less than thirty minutes. I understand that the game is an arcade game. Thirty minutes was the average amount of time it took to beat a cabinet in the early ’90s. But as an adult now with little time to play games, I welcome with open arms shorter experiences. I know that’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s a big reason why I enjoy arcade throwbacks and shorter indie games. 

A true love letter

The element that stuck out to me the most in playing Clockwork Aquario is that you can tell that it’s a project done with love and care. From the beginning of the project back in ’92, to the restoration done by ININ to complete it. So much of the package feels like it was cared for with a keen eye with every detail. The gameplay feels smooth and responsive with modern controllers: playing on a PS5 DualSense isn’t the same as an arcade joystick, but it felt just as responsive in delay and timing as pushing the buttons on an arcade board. The art design pops immediately on every level with vibrant colors, exaggerated characters, and cutesy enemy models. The soundtrack by Shinichi Sakamoto is unbelievably catchy on almost every track. It’s a true highlight of the game for me as a massive fan of 90s gaming soundtracks. 

For those that love to fiddle with display settings to get that old-school feel, you are in luck here. ININ has added a plethora of display features that allow you to customize the display to your personal preferences. Want to have your display be 1:1 PAR or fullscreen? No problem! Want to add a soft, crispy, or razor filter to the graphics? Done! Want to use a shader style to make your monitor look like an old CRT? And then on top of that add scanline intensity, sharpness, or even add how thick you want the curves at the edges of the screen to be? You can do all that too if you want! The number of display preferences you can experiment with is bonkers.

Play history how you want

For a game that needed restoring, I can’t imagine where the team found the time to make the display options this specific? But it needs to be commended. I don’t play around with display options on my PS5, but I love playing with them on the Switch. Something about that portable screen feels so good to put into a CRT-like mode with older games. I imagine Clockwork Aquario will look excellent in CRT mode on a Switch. 

The package also comes with three difficulty modes: Easy, Normal, and Hard. The modes don’t differ in gameplay, but they do matter in how many continues you get to beat the game. There’s also a soundtrack mode that lets you listen to the original soundtrack or a remixed version by Shinichi Sakamoto. Lastly, the gallery mode shows concept art back from the 90s when the development started. It also has a letter from members of the restoration team explaining what they needed to do to bring the game back that is utterly fascinating. It gives a good reason why the delay was needed and shows examples of what it takes to restore a game like this. All this might not seem like much, but to game history nerds like me? It was all well worth reading and going through.

Is it worth the price?

As much as it seems like I am praising this game from top to bottom, I do have to be honest about one element. The price tag digitally and physically. Physical collectors have to go through Strictly Limited to buy the game for PS4 or Switch, and is currently sold out at the time of this article’s publishing. For the digital version, you are looking at $19.99 to buy the game. It might not seem bad, but I can’t stress enough how short the game is. Thirty minutes of content might not be enough for some to justify the $20 price tag. And to those people, I say wishlist the game and buy on a sale. I do think it’s worth at least trying the game due to its historical significance. But do it at a price you are comfortable with. 

Final thoughts

Clockwork Aquario is a relic of a forgotten time in SEGA’s history. One that I am glad was not lost forever, handed to a team that brought it back to life with compassion and care. The restoration is nothing but a resounding success! It’s a unique arcade platformer that has interesting mechanics with a style that is memorable from start to finish. Admittedly, I’m not sure if I can justify the $20 price tag due to its short length. It’s not a game for everyone. But if you love that old arcade feel, you owe it to yourself to save Clockwork Aquario on the wishlist of your preferred device. Snag it at the price you are comfortable with and support a win for game preservation!

Alex Lehew

28-year-old gamer, writer, content creator, weeb, and Sega fan! I'm old enough to remember when you played Sonic The Hedgehog 2 on a CRT, or how weird Revelations: Persona is. Constantly begging Atlus to make Snowboard Kids 3.
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