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Game Review

by Todd Ciolek,

Clockwork Aquario

Nintendo Switch

Clockwork Aquario
When the villainous Dr. Hangyo marshals a mechanical army from the depths of the sea, adventurers Huck Londo, Elle Moon, and Gush hop into a submarine and infiltrate the doctor's underwater headquarters. They'll face fierce windup foes and giant robotic animals in this side-scrolling action game, released almost thirty years after its original arcade debut was canceled.

Some games are delayed. Others are canceled. And then there's the unique and bizarre journey of Clockwork Aquario. Westone, creators of the Wonder Boy and Monster World games, tested this colorful side-scroller in arcades several times back in 1993, but the game never saw an official release. For decades there was little proof it had ever existed beyond a few screenshots, stories from a few fortunate players, and a formal release of Shinichi Sakamoto's soundtrack.

In 2012, however, Westone co-founder Ryuichi Nishizawa discovered the source code, and all of a sudden Clockwork Aquario wasn't just another game that got away from the world. After an ambitious restoration project by Strictly Limited Games, ININ, programmer Steve Snake, and much of the game's original staff, Clockwork Aquario is finally out for all to experience on the PlayStation 4, Switch, and Steam. It even set a record for the longest delay for any video game, eclipsing even Duke Nukem Forever and the entire Working Designs catalog.

Clockwork Aquario marks itself as a big, bright, and appealing cartoon of a game from the very start, wherein the villainous fish-man scientist Dr. Hangyo attacks civilization with an army of mechanical sea life...and kicks over a small child's sand castle. Three heroes rise to the challenge: goggle-sporting, spiky-haired Huck Londo, pink-tressed sorceress Elle Moon, and the chubby, stovepipe-armed robot Gush. The trio dashes through Dr. Hangyo's seafloor headquarters, facing everything from innocuous fish-faced balloons to the doctor's immense robotic otters, squids, and other marine monsters.

The briefest of demonstrations tells us everything about the game's workings: Huck, Elle, and Gush can jump, and they can smack enemies. One smack renders a foe blue and stunned, letting the player pick up and toss it, not unlike the throwable creatures of Super Mario Bros. 2 or Blue's Journey. Characters can take only two hits, though a potion restores their health, gems grant eventual extra lives, and a star power-up turns our heroes momentarily invincible. Stars tend to do that in this sort of game.

Westone took on just about every genre during their career, but their specialty lay in side-scrolling action games with charming, detailed hand-drawn animation. Clockwork Aquario pushes their talents to the limits thanks to the arcade hardware. Character and enemy sprites are all much larger and the colors far more vibrant than home systems of the early 1990s could manage. Backgrounds are gorgeous in their hues, from churning massed of gears to the glowing recesses of an undersea cavern. Creatures fill the screen, floating and bouncing and blinking to the catchy beats of Sakamoto's music. It lends the game a grand and cheerful atmosphere beyond most side-scrollers of its day—or the modern era, for that matter.

Clockwork Aquario also never misses a chance to cram in cute details. Once damaged, Huck hobbles with his leg in a cast, Elle skips along singed and shoeless, and Gush loses his head and a chunk of his lower body. One particularly cute detail comes when the characters die: they'll drop off the screen and float back up in angel robes and halos (with Gush, who apparently has a soul, wearing his celestial garb like a bath towel) until the player positions them. Then they'll toss off their heavenly regalia and leap back into the action—and if you're continuing in full, your chosen character scoots onto the screen via jetpack. Most platformers of the 1990s (and today) just blink their heroes back into place or drop them from above, but not Clockwork Aquario. It captures just how well Westone knew their craft—and how fascinating traditional hand-drawn art could be in a video game.

Beneath that beautiful style, however, Clockwork Aquario is a simple game. It's great fun to bounce off enemies, grabbing and throwing them with reckless glee, yet the levels are all straightforward runs. There are no puzzles, no alternate routes, and no variable endings. With only five stages, Clockwork Aquario is short even for an arcade game, and while ININ wisely limits continues to a maximum of nine at first, the experience won't challenge players for all that long.

Perhaps that's why it never caught on in arcades. Westone went through several revisions of Clockwork Aquario, adding and taking away invincibility meters and other ideas with each attempt, but it couldn't find an audience. Arcade games earn their keep by killing players as often as possible, but Clockwork Aquario takes it surprisingly easy. The regular levels are bouncy, leisurely fare with only occasionally aggressive enemies. The bosses are tougher, partly because they crowd the screen so much, but their attack patterns aren't hard to dodge, and only the final one presents any satisfyingly mean tricks. Clockwork Aquario seems caught between two worlds: it's not challenging like a proper arcade game, but it's not lengthy or layered enough to really feel like a console game.

Yet Clockwork Aquario has the best of both worlds. There are few games even today that boast this combination of large, vibrant characters and winning atmosphere. And unlike a lot of boldly detailed arcade games, Clockwork Aquario isn't out to bump you off first and foremost. It wants you to enjoy the stages, to leap across frog-faced balloons, slap-grab a windup sea urchin, and toss it for a combo hit all without worrying too much. It's a charmer both in looks and gameplay, with an arcade creature's visual impact and immediate appeal linked to console game's measured enjoyment.

Aquario also thrives in its two-player mode. Characters can grab and toss each other, adding a chaotic but important (and downright adorable) element to attacking bosses, racking up points, and grabbing gems color-coded to different characters. The two-player mode also brings up a cute minigame, where Huck, Elle, and Gush compete to break balloons and toss sport balls all around. Too bad it's only seen once during the game.

Between the laid-back appeal and the multiplayer angle, Clockwork Aquario clearly didn't go missing because it deserved that. By 1993, the side-scroller was all but extinct in arcades, where Street Fighter II had kicked off a fighting-game craze that showed no signs of cooling down. Westone took a risk crafting Clockwork Aquario, perhaps just because they wanted to make a 2-D game as pretty as possible, and they cast their pearls before…well, not swine, but a game-playing public who wanted Samurai Shodown and Virtua Fighter more than anything resembling Wonder Boy or Super Mario Bros.

ININ's presentation of Clockwork Aquario has robust display options, and the Arcade Mode, unlocked after finishing the game once, has even more switches and settings. Some of the extras present missed opportunities, though. Sakamoto's marvelous arranged version of the soundtrack is here, but you can't play it during the actual game. And while the two-player ball-tossing battle is available from the main menu once unlocked, you can't play against the computer. Then there's the biggest letdown: the lack of online multiplayer. Clockwork Aquario gains a lot with two players on board, so it's a shame the experience can be had only in local play.

Clockwork Aquario may be short, but there's no denying there's something special about it. Westone (aka Westone Bit Entertainment) wanted a brief, purely joyful action game, and Aquario succeeded fully at that. It's a game to revisit over and over, for the same reasons you might fire up your favorite Mario or Sonic title no matter how many times you've been through the whole thing. What better replay value is there?

It's easy to lionize Clockwork Aquario as an undiscovered marvel, and it's almost as easy to be disappointed at its relative simplicity. Yet few creations really match Aquario's gorgeous colorful graphics and gentle style. It was in the wrong place at the wrong time decades ago, but for anyone who appreciates the art of hand-drawn graphics and the value of a charming platformer, Clockwork Aquario will always be the right game.

Overall : A-
Graphics : A
Sound/Music : A-
Gameplay : B
Presentation : A-

+ Marvelous visual style, enjoyable and lighthearted gameplay
Short and fairly simple, no online multiplayer.

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