Developer: Westone Bit Entertainment, with Restoration by Inin Games
Publisher: Strictly Limited Games, Ratalaika Games
Genre: 2D Arcade Platformer
Reviewed on: PlayStation 4
Also Available for: Nintendo Switch
In 1993, Japanese game development company Westone performed location tests for what was to be their last arcade game. Poor response led to the game’s cancellation, and for nearly three decades the game was mothballed until 2017 when Strictly Limited Games bought the rights from SEGA, three years after Westone’s liquidation. What followed was four years of a development team sifting through binary files created in applications that are themselves lost to time, creating ways to use them in the present day, and filling in pieces that had either been corrupted or gone missing entirely in order to make as faithful a recreation of the original as possible. In 2021, against all odds, Clockwork Aquario is available to the wider public for the first time.
I don’t know about you, dear reader, but as someone interested in the preservation of video games (and all art, really, but I’m trying to keep focus here) this strikes me as a fascinating triumph of archival work. This sort of effort is particularly important now, given the recent upswing of certaiN corporate INteresTs whosE Names I probably shoulDn’t invOke here lest I summon them like some sort of eldritch monstrosity squashing many attempts at the preservation of older titles which are broadly unavailable to modern audiences. While I hold that the technical illegality of said attempts has no bearing on the moral and ethical qualities of them, it’s nevertheless oddly heartwarming that in this instance, it was able to be done through entirely unassailable means.
The Basics: Clockwork Aquario is an arcade-style side-scrolling platformer for one or two players about three heroes setting out to stop the evil Dr. Hangyo’s plans for world domination by fighting their way through his underwater city-slash-staging-ground of Aquario. As something originally intended for distribution through arcades, it’s not a very long game, consisting of only five fairly short levels and a two-player bonus stage which I couldn’t figure out how to start even with two controllers. The goal of each level is simply to reach its endpoint and then fight a boss, which is always Dr. Hangyo controlling a different robot. Most of the bosses are simple and straightforward, though two of them can be a tad challenging due to some odd timing design.
Despite there being three playable characters, they all have the same moves and the only mechanical difference between them is their sizes, which affects hitbox, jump height, and how far their attack reaches. All of them can jump, slap, and pick up and throw enemies after stunning them by either slapping or hitting them with a jump from directly above or below. There’s also a star powerup which drops occasionally, granting temporary invincibility and adding projectiles to attacks. Overall it’s a pretty simple game, with the main draw for replaying it being to chase high scores (and being a faithful recreation, it includes a feature where you can input your name at the end of a game for display on an internal leaderboard), but I think that simplicity is what allows it to hold up as well as it does after thirty years. The platforming is very satisfying to get the hang of, and being able to learn the levels and get through them faster and better each time you play is fun… though I will say how exactly scoring values are determined is a tad obtuse and I’m still not entirely sure of it all.
Clockwork Aquario also looks and sounds good, even by today’s standards. The colorful, cartoony graphics are timeless in a way that really hammers home how stylization and creative direction are infinitely more important to a game’s graphics than photorealism or an extremely high framerate, and the 80s/90s anime style designs carry an irrepressible charm. A fun, energetic soundtrack – which according to the lead restorer Steve Snake was recorded in the 90s and thus is exactly as originally designed – helps tie the whole thing together.
The modern application comes with five game modes: Training, which gives unlimited credits for continuing after running out of lives but ends after Stage 2, Easy, Normal, and Hard which grant nine, five, and three credits to beat the game respectively, and Arcade Mode, which in addition to allowing the player to manually set the number of credits gives access to a variety of service options. Perplexingly, Arcade mode doesn’t unlock until after the game has been cleared on any of the other difficulties, but that’s not an especially high hurdle to clear. There is also a soundtrack player, with both the original versions by Shinichi Sakamato and a set of remixes featuring arrangements by Sakamoto, Inoblivion, Takayuki Ishii, Takuya Hanaoka, and Kaori Nakabai. Finally, the application features a gallery with an assortment of concept art, a couple of progress stills from the restoration process, and a letter from Steve Snake talking about what it was like to work on the project.
When I first started it up, I was worried that Clockwork Aquario wouldn’t be particularly noteworthy if it weren’t for its unique history. I’m still not entirely sure that it is, to be honest; though it is undoubtedly an impressive and inspiring piece of preservative work by the team at Inin, its simplicity and brevity is very much a relic of the world of early 90s arcades. On the other hand, it may not be the greatest platformer out there but you could do a lot worse, and it’s certainly worth at least an afternoon of entertainment. If nothing else, I’m at least glad that this a piece of gaming history could once again see the light of day… even if I hadn’t ever actually heard of it two weeks ago.
Like a city lost long ago to the caprice of the ocean, Clockwork Aquario rises triumphantly to the surface for a new generation to witness it.