I’d have probably never heard of Clockwork Aquario if it had ever been released back in the early nineties as originally planned! At least until it appeared as filler on some retro compilation, in which case I’d have probably fallen in love with it just like I eventually did with Flicky or even Wonder Boy. But after all those Wonder Boys, the idea was that Westone Bit Entertainment were going to ramp their trademark platform action up to eleven, taking Sega’s System 18 hardware to its limits and beyond, in ways that not even Shadow Dancer or Alien Storm had a couple of years earlier. The problem was that by the time it was ready to be tested on arcade audiences in 1993, it was competing with both a glut of classic fighters like Mortal Kombat II, Samurai Shodown and Virtua Fighter, not to mention some serious racing powerhouses like Daytona USA and Ridge Racer. Doesn’t matter how good a fantasy platformer looks in that company, and that was that for the best part of three decades…
By which time, we’d all become less obsessed with 3D fighting games and learnt to appreciate 2D pixel art over again, and to that end Strictly Limited Games started digging around in long lost source code, and together with the support of some of the original creators, cooperation with ININ Games and the blessing of Sega, started the meticulous process of bringing it back to life. And here we are now, the freshest 27-year old game you’ll ever come across, which, by the way, I was kindly provided a review code for on Nintendo Switch, and it’s also available for PlayStation 4 if that’s your poison. And if you’re quick, there’s a bunch of cool collector’s editions at Strictly Limited Games, although not many that aren’t already sold out by the looks of things as I write.
Right, before we dive into the very comprehensive title screen, we’re going to leave it sitting for a few seconds so the attract mode can pass on its gloriously simple tale of megalomania! A series of mysterious events is happening in various places – it’s that no-good but very dapper fishy-duckbilled beast-thing Dr.Hangyo and his crew, plotting to take over the world. Three people head off to his strange land of Aquario, spreading out at the bottom of the sea, to destroy their ambition. Or at least I think that’s what some of those words are trying to tell us as they appear across the top of a series of beautifully bold, partially animated cartoon cutscenes.
Those three people, conveniently, are your three playable characters, Huck Londo, Elle Moon and the giant robot Gush. You get to choose your favourite at the start of the game, and that’s either solo or together with your favorite Player 2 in co-op mode. This offers a bit of variety in gameplay, but I found playing as anything other than Huck to be a bit of a detriment. For example, with Elle the attacks seemed a bit lightweight and their timing slightly out of sync with what my brain was demanding of her, and Gush just felt a bit unwieldy. I’m sure they have their own merits too, but these are never spelt out, and honestly it was never obvious enough for me to work it out for myself in the time I spent playing as them (although I’m guessing agility and power are probably what we’re respectively looking at).
Run out of lives then choose to continue rather than game over will also allow you to choose a different character, but this is also where that comprehensive title screen I mentioned comes into play. You’ve got no less than five different game modes, with the first four increasing in difficulty by decreasing the number of credits at your disposal to reach the end of the game. Training Mode is where you get used to the game mechanics, and you’ve got unlimited credits but the game ends after Stage 2. I have to say that this was a little pointless – there’s no training (which we’ll come back to), and you’re just playing the first two levels, which aren’t necessarily easy, but don’t need any more credits to complete than the other modes offer.
Next up is Easy Mode, and here you have nine credits to beat the game. Normal Mode then gives you five credits, and Hard Mode gives you three. Beat the game on any difficulty and you unlock Arcade Mode, and this is where the purist will want to get to… As well as regular coin-feeding, it allows you to check and modify various arcade board settings, as well as entering Service Mode during the game. And it’s a right old nerd-fest! There’s tests to run on memory, inputs, outputs, sound, CRT and VDP, and there’s more DIP-switch settings to mess around with than you can shake a stick at! There’s also a bookkeeping screen for monitoring the coin chutes, games played, average, longest, shortest and overall game times, and even a timing histogram!
Okay, playing the game in Arcade Mode (even after I’d tried to break it by pressing all those DIP-switches at once!) didn’t actually feel any different to any of the other modes, but I do love this attention to detail, and it doesn’t stop there! As well as all these modes and things, there’s the Bonus Stage Mini Game, and this unlocks after Stage 3 has been completed on any difficulty. Usually, this mini-game only appears in the two-player mode between Stages 3 and 4, and while it’s nice it’s there on the menu, you still need two players regardless, and if you’ve got two players then you’re probably going to see it in the normal course of play regardless. And unfortunately I didn’t have a second player regardless!
Just to close on other extras, as usual with ININ there’s a ton of display and shader options for whatever your retro visual fancy. There’s also a really cool gallery that shows (and explains) artwork and development screenshots, even going as far as some of the corrupt source material from the original code that the game was rebuilt from. You’ve also got the full soundtrack accessible track by track here, as well as some very flamboyant remixed versions. And this soundtrack is without doubt one of the game’s high points, produced by Shinichi Sakamoto, the original Westone composer for the unreleased game as well as a bunch of Wonder Boy games including Monster Land, Monster Lair and Dragon’s Trap. Imagine Mario if he was Caribbean rather than Italian and you’ve got something like the vibe here – it’s a joy! There’s a calypso dreaminess to everything, from the more reflective moments of tropical piano melody to almost rave-like big techno beats; and it’s usually veering towards the latter, and never hangs around either, continuously punctuated by brash and booming sound effects.
I’d love to gush about the brash and booming (relatively speaking!) graphics now too, but this far in it’s probably worth at least a mention of playing the game itself! And you know we talked about all those different games modes? Well, in reality there’s no easy mode or normal mode or arcade mode, because for all the rebuilding that’s gone on, Clockwork Aquario still has the beating heart of a 1992 side-scrolling 2D platformer, so it’s hard mode all the way! For comparison, it feels a little bit Wonder Boy III, a little bit Sonic and a little bit Mega Man, and I’d definitely reference later games in that series as far as level design is concerned too. To put an end to Dr. Hangyo’s nefarious plans (which seem to involve robot fish, disembodied zombies and stomping on little kids’ sandcastles according to the attract mode!), you’re running and punching or head-butting or jumping your way through Aquario, where one hit generally stuns the mass of mostly aquatic enemies so you can then grab them and chuck them in any direction. You can chuck them at other enemies, or-hard to-reach collectible Dr. Hangyo balloons (and there’s more of those than enemies), or even at second players for them to catch and use. In fact, if you’ve got a second player you can chuck them too!
I think enough of those balloons might reward you with an extra life, though it’s hard to tell exactly what triggers that. And there’s other items to collect, including a refillable invincibility gauge, health wares and a star-firing super weapon, which if you’re really lucky you’ll find just before one of the mini-bosses that holds the key to the final boss’ arena on each level, or while you’re having it out with the bosses themselves. Otherwise, it’s a case of learning their relatively simple attack patterns and ducking, jumping and chucking stunned enemies until their life bar is gone and they explode leaving an exposed Dr. Hangyo escaping to his next escapade. Again, I’m feeling Mega Man with these bosses, and not just because they’re operated by an evil doctor; apart from the very last one they’re never quite as brutal or obtuse, but the challenge is similarly all in learning their attacks and weaknesses.
The platforming itself isn’t massively sadistic, although you generally need your wits about you, whether it’s to avoid a deadly enemy touch as you travel up a maze of conveyor belts, or to simply spot the fire-spitting sea urchin almost hidden behind some plant-life. It’s fair on the whole though, and when you die it’s usually down to having not quite learnt the lie of the level yet or just being impatient! You’ve got three lives to play with, but each life takes two hits, a bit like Ghosts ‘n Goblins… and also like that, the first hit is going to leave you looking worse for wear, though here it’s a case of each character becoming bedraggled in their own way rather than being consigned to their underwear!
If you’re playing as Huck everything controls great, with a momentum to jumping that isn’t quite as nuanced as Wonder Boy’s, but you’ll be leaping about at speed and with confidence before very long. Hit boxes are reassuringly predictable too, which is half the battle for this kind of opposite to a walk in the park, especially where you’re relying on character contact over shooting stuff. I’ve already mentioned the foibles of the other pair of characters, but I think there’s a lot of personal choice involved in those and you might feel differently. I’ve also already mentioned the lack of “training mode” despite the Training Mode! There’s a depth to controlling these characters beyond what’s necessarily necessary, but I can’t quite fathom it. A bit like the very clever puns that are almost in that sentence! Anyway, for example, we have in your face basics like the invincibility gauge – I might have beaten the game but I’ve got no idea what that’s all about! It’s almost like there should be a separate button for sparking it into life, but if there is I can’t find it on my Switch Joy-Con! Similar for picking stunned enemies up and using them to briefly fly – I’m fairly sure I’ve done it a few times, but I’ve no idea how. And I’ve got a suspicion that this might also be character-specific, and they might even have their own special move sets, but again, until a bigger boy comes along and explains all of this in a YouTube video for me, I’m probably going to continue on in blissful ignorance. Which may also be the case for playing two-player, which I think the game is actually designed for (if not three-player originally)!
Despite all of that, you can’t be too down on a game that looks like Clockwork Aquario for too long! Absolutely everything is rammed with character, whether the environments, the enemies or the characters themselves, and a lot of that is down to everything being in unique motion, everywhere you look – even when you’re standing still, your little dude is impatiently blinking and chewing and clenching fists and tapping feet, full of expression like they’re going to explode if you don’t set them off on their way immediately. Actually, let the timer run down like this and that’s pretty much what happens! Losing a life is another nice example, where they come back as an angel for you to reposition and breathe life back into again, at which point they’ll whip off their angelic white robe and jump back into action. Their sprites are huge too, giving opportunity for masses of detail, from their bouncy hairstyles and light-reflecting sunglasses to their multicoloured steampunk clown fashion sense. The same goes for the enemies, all bold and bright clockwork caricature marine life, roaming about like manic cartoon versions of a giant Darius boss fish until your first strike unleashes a dazed madness across their chops! Speaking of giant bosses, you’ve got them too, although they do seem to be more focussed on scale than character, unlike their smaller minions, but they’re equally as colourful and mostly impressive all the same.
There’s barely an inch of space without something going on across all the levels, and while there’s only a handful, they all contain their own variety of madcap life, from rainbow roads in the swirling, windswept clouds to undersea industries decorated with mechanised fossils; there’s psychedelic organic forests and spikes and steaming pistons and even a surfaced submarine ploughing through the driving rain, which reminded me a lot of a level in Splatterhouse 2 on Mega Drive of all things… Mega Drive is not a bad shout for the overall atmosphere though, but we’re talking really good Mega Drive – Panorama Cotton, that kind of thing. I really can’t say enough good things about how this looks! The animation, the big sprites, the vibrant colours… it’s a masterclass in pixel art design, even if those early nineties meatheads wouldn’t know true pixel art if it was spoon fed to them; or maybe involved a load of random button presses to rip your opponents’ spine out of their backside! Oh yeah, all works great handheld on the Switch too, and that’s actually where I got my first arcade mode clear.
There’s no doubt a good few hours of unbridled fun to be had here. As much as I like the gloss, behind it there’s a really solid and addictive platformer that only ever really failed by being a bit late to the party. That addictiveness is very much down to the persistent feeling of you could do better every time you die, and equally every time you have to use up one of your limited credits. But the different modes being based on different numbers of credits definitely puts emphasis on seeing through the whole game through rather than perfecting your gameplay or chasing high scores after you’ve unlocked Arcade Mode, and for most players I don’t think they’ll care if they use nine credits or three if they finish it, when that’s what’s been set up as your objective.
But the fact that we’re even talking about playing Clockwork Aquario at all is something of a miracle after it was literally cast out and then lost in arcade oblivion for almost three decades. And as such there’s probably no greater example of both the need for video game preservation as a statement of cultural history, and also the meticulous passion of developers like these finding and restoring and rebuilding the digital past to bring that history back to life for modern gamers on modern consoles. It might be a specialist subject, but it’s beautiful thing that this exists again, especially for the first time! Is it £16.99 beautiful is up to you though – just keep in mind there’s probably more history than game here; it’s a lot of fun while it lasts, but once it’s done it doesn’t last long.
Digital versions for Nintendo Switch and PS4 are out on 30th November 2021 in Europe, followed by North America on December 14th.