When Clockwork Aquario was canceled in 1994 in the midst of the Street Fighter 2 craze, its designer Ryuichi Nishigawa – Wonder Boy creator and co-founder of game developer Westone – would be forgiven for thinking that it would be the last we’d ever hear of the company’s final foray into the arcade market.
It is said that life comes in cycles and although it took 27 years, a recent clamoring for retro titles brought about the re-release of two of Nishigawa’s more famous titles (including Monster World IV), and ultimately led to indie publisher ININ reaching out to him to see if they could revive the long lost project in Aquario. Incredibly, the near-finished assets still existed – even after Westone’s liquidation in 2014 – and ININ went through the painstaking process of manually reproducing any missing files, and releasing it to current platforms.
This is akin to discovering a treasure trove of gold on a long-lost pirate ship and is nothing short of a gaming miracle, but as a game that usurped Duke Nukem Forever for the longest recorded development period (Clockwork Aquario’s 27 years to Duke Nukem’s 15) you might assume that it’s too good to be true, that this must just be a clever marketing ploy from a small opportune publisher, after all – how could a great game ever fail to see the light of day?
Luckily, the fact that it was made for the arcades meant that the 2D action-platformer was already based on the timeless pick-up-and-play formula, that’s to be enjoyed in short bursts and repeat playthroughs. It’s the original candy in the candy store.
It’s also designed like one with a brilliant vibrant colour design and sprite animation that jumps off the screen at you as you run across its levels, making you none-the-wiser that this title’s development started in the same year of the original Playstation’s release. A 16-bit poppy soundtrack that swings between Sonic the Hedgehog and Michael Jackson-inspired tracks combines well with the aesthetic, which imparts bop-inducing grooves and motivates you to continue which the sometimes-punishing difficulty can otherwise make difficult.
Enemies come in a variety of different shapes and sizes and provide a fun combo gameplay mechanic by allowing you to daze, pick up, and then throw the enemy. It is with these combos that jewels spawn to fill up a ‘one-up’ meter which, when full, provides an extra life to your character. It initially seems trivial, as you read that the easiest mode gives you 9 credits (which essentially allows for 36 hits before you need to start anew), but as it’s so easy to fall into a poor run of form even on the easiest difficulty, these extra lives are essential to your progress.
This difficulty is partly due to the zoomed-in camera that has enemies appear from the screen’s periphery at quite a speed, but also because the game has a tight collision detection that makes indecision your biggest enemy in the little space you have to maneuver.
That is, of course, until you’ve played the levels enough to know where to avoid receiving damage during the largest waves of attacks, as the game itself is only 5 levels long (with a main boss at the end of each) which unfortunately bears the game’s biggest fault – its brevity – and unless you wish to repeat the exact same levels but with fewer lives on a harder difficulty, there is little motivation to bring you back and try again.
Disappointingly, while the combo system and platforming action can be strung together for satisfying periods during the scrolling 2D map sections when it comes to level end bosses that have a fixed area, the formula fails to provide any kind of challenge, with each boss giving you a different assortment of objects to throw, but then also leaves itself open to spamming the attack button to whittle their health down in a matter of seconds.
Aside from said bosses, the majority of the other issues with the game stem from what is absent from the port with a lack of any extra features that might legitimately enhance the title. There is a multiplayer mode that allows co-op (which was also possible in the original), and there are 3 difficulty modes but there is nothing that might extend a complete speed run longer than 15 minutes at the very most.
Further replayability is also lost with the lack of online scoreboards, but while it might be asking too much to be expecting a game to have features that were never intended, it would have been nice to at least have some structure in the main menu which lists all the features like an open directory without any rhyme or reason.
This gaming miracle is more than just a historical footnote to marvel at from afar with a neat combo system and gorgeous 2D aesthetic that makes it a must-play for platforming enthusiasts. There are also some nice touches such as a remixed soundtrack and some notes from the developer which are all gravy and should most definitely garner the publisher some well deserved praise, but even so, it’s still a shame more effort wasn’t made to add more playable content, even if a lower price point attempts to soften the blow.