Clockwork Aquario, eh? Never thought I'd see the day... First, thanks to my writer's brother who played a session of this in co-op, we would've done it with an internet friend but Share Play does not work in this game, which is an absolute crime. Ahem. This review is based on the Playstation 4 version although I imagine there's no real differences with the Switch version beyond portability. As for our screenshots, tempting as it was to put them in the CRT shader and pretend they were magazine screenshots from back in the day, instead we took them in the Pixel Perfect scaling option with no filters or shaders or anything, chopped off the borders then scrunched them down to something much closer to the internal resolution of the Sega System 18 hardware which this game would've been released on, 320 x 235. but you can click to make them bigger. However, because my writer is an idiot, a complete buffoon, they forgot to set the game to Pixel Perfect when recording the one credit clear, so it's the still-correct-aspect-ratio-but-bigger display option. This is Psycho Dream all over again, bloody hellfire.
Time to cover a genuine award-winning game on this site!
Specifically the current holder of the Guiness World Record for longest time between a videogame project start and final release of 28 years and 81 days.
Yep, there it is. Let's tell Clockwork Aquario's story to the best of Gaming Hell's ability.
If you've heard of Clockwork Aquario at all- be it by this name, the Japanese title Tokeijikake no Aquario or Aquario of the Clockwork as it was often translated as in the past- then either you are a retro gamer of the untamed fields who scoured the 'net for unreleased and weird games back in the day or you've heard a lot of talk about this revived arcade game getting rereleased on modern consoles without many of the details being clear. Or maybe you're some some sort of amalgam in the middle, sorry about that. Fortunately, there's plenty of information about this both before and after the 2021 resurrection was announced (with much of the 'before' stuff you see below chronicled by the Lost-Levels forum thread on the game, so thanks for that) so while we have a lot to comb through, I think it's worth doing so to get the full picture on what happened with this game or at least what we can ascertain based on the evidence presented to us. For a strange release like this, exhumed from the arcade crypt after several decades, providing as clear a context as possible is pretty vital!
Our story begins in the 1990s, specifically in 1991 when Westone, the company best known for developing the Wonder Boy series for Sega as well as other projects like Aurail, Riot City and Jaws on the NES (no, really), began development on what would ultimately be their final arcade game, Clockwork Aquario. In an interview regarding the soundtrack release translated by Johnny Undaunted on the Lost Levels forums, composer Shinichi Sakamoto said that "When I was working on Aquario, I always felt it was going to be our final arcade game" but that wasn't always the plan, as in this interview Ryuichi Nishizawa elaborated that after the cancellation, "We spent several months considering our plans, but the arcade game market at that time was split between fighting games and casual games such as puzzles and mahjong, neither of which were games we wanted to make". Utilising the Sega System 18 board, they went all-in on the presentation with a colourful, vibrant art style not too dissimilar to their last Wonder Boy game in the arcades, Wonder Boy III: Monster Lair, but with better hardware running the show, and with a focus on co-op (initially planning on three-player support, later paring it down to two). After two years of development, the game was given multiple location tests in late 1993 to gauge arcade patron reaction and it was, sadly, not good. This leads us to the internet's first real introduction to the game (beyond art of Elle-Moon by character designer Mina Morioka in 1999) in the form of a a Japanese blog post from 2006 with a single off-screen image of the game in action seen below and a breakdown of the game's three location tests conducted in Shinjuku on June 14th 1993, August 15th 1993 and August 29th 1993. I feel this is a crucial part of the story that's easy to overlook- the game wasn't just a one-and-done loketest, there were multiple tries to get this game out and make it work in the arcade market. Probably because of that two-year development time sunk into it, at a guess. This blogpost itself is also an important part of the story- this TouchArcade interview has Nishizawa go over the basic timeline of the Clockwork Aquario restoration, and this blogpost is specifically mentioned as one of the steps!
Anyway, looking at the blogpost itself (also translated by Johnny Undaunted), it explains that there were two major revisions of the game. The first mostly sounds similar to the final product where you stun enemies to grab and throw them but used a three-button setup with jump, attack and an intriguing-sounding 'invincibility' button that, as the name suggests, would make your character impervious to damage but drain a meter that had to be refilled by collecting items. This version, according to the blogpost, was pretty difficult especially for novice players as grabbing and throwing was your only recourse against enemies, and this is probably what lead to a bad reception. The second revision dropped the third button and its associated mechanics and introduced a few other changes, most notably that enemies could now be hopped on to be defeated as well as thrown. This made things easier and it seems this version was also used for the third and final test, but when the reports came back to Westone it was not painting a rosy picture for the game's chances- it wasn't making enough money. Specifically, this VGChartz interview explains Westone's business situation after those low location test results- Sega wouldn't buy the sales rights if the projected earnings were too low, and so the painful decision was made to scrap the game as a return on the time and money invested probably wasn't forthcoming. Looking back, in most interviews Ryuichi Nishizawa points to the fighting game boom of the early '90s as being a major factor in the game's failure, and I imagine the slow march of progress in 3D graphics in arcade games wouldn't have helped either, but whatever the case Aquario was cancelled in 1994. After realising their future was not in the game centres, Westone never stepped foot in the arcades again, choosing to go with home game development as you can see on their GDRI rap sheet until their eventual bankruptcy in 2014.
With that blogpost and other little things like the game being listed on Westone's web site and, amazingly, a soundtrack release for the game on Project EGG (while the year of release is given as 2006, the available materials only go as far back as 2007 and an interview we'll see in a second refers to the soundtrack release being 'last year' in 2012 so that one's a mystery), Clockwork Aquario certainly caught the attention of a few arcade rats and video game historians out there, hence the Lost Levels thread, but there was more to come, including hope for the game itself. In 2012, Ryuichi Nishizawa managed to find the source code of the project in the Westone archives, and began posting what else he could find, including sprite sheets and a formal introduction to the game's three characters- Huck-Londo, Elle-Moon and Gash (later Gush probably because, if you're a British person reading this, you're currently giggling). Eventually the source code was passed on to emulation wizards M2 and at that point the only thing thought to be missing was the sound data (which in the final release was restored thanks to that soundtrack release, with Sakomoto providing some remixes too) and in this interview from 2012 he even teased at the end, "If Aquario of the Clockwork were released as part of the Sega Vintage Collection, would people be interested in buying it?" as a Monster World collection had been released around that time. Then it all went a bit quiet, especially with Westone's bankruptcy.
At some point, the co-founder of Strictly Limited Games, Dennis Mendel, heard about the Clockwork Aquario source code being found and wanted to pursue it further- his company had experience in this field after been involved in restoring Digital Illusions' lost Mega Drive game Ultracore, so as he explains here he asked Westone if his team could take a look. After finding out there was a lot more missing data than anticipated, ex-Westone members Mina Morioka, Takanori Kurihara and Shinichi Sakamoto were brought in to help recreate what was missing and expert Sega emulator creator Steve Snake was asked to help bring the game back to life from the decades-old sources available (some of the game's data was stored on MO discs!). So, work began behind the scenes (there's a reference to a meeting at Tokyo Game Show 2019 showing the first few levels in the Dennis Mendel interview) and the rerelease was announced to the world in 2020, eventually releasing in late 2021 for the PS4 and Switch (with an Xbox and Steam release later in 2022). Quite the journey for a little arcade game, huh?
What's the game itself like, then? I suppose we'd better get started on that.
Various mysterious incidents are happening around the globe involving mechanical clockwork-powered fish. Who can be behind it? The nefarious Dr. Hangyo, of course, and his empire of robo-minions pouring out from their deep-sea base, Aquario itself. Fortunately, there's three brave heroes out there- adventurer-type Huck-Londo, slightly-magical-girl / obvious Gaming Hell choice Elle-Moon and robo-friend Gush- who know what Dr. Hangyo's up to and aren't having any of it, so they head off to find his base and nip this whole thing in the bud. Five rounds filled to the gills with aquatic automatons, each ending with a scuffle against a giant boss robot piloted by Hangyo himself, stand between the trio and victory... Can they save the world from this mecha-marine menace, or are the kippers gonna have us for tea instead? [No more fish puns, please. - Ed]
Clockwork Aquario is an action platformer with elements one could argue hew closer to single-screen platformers like Snow Bros. or Tumble Pop, creating something a little different from what you'd expect. Beyond a temporary power-up the three playable characters have no projectile or ranged weapons in the traditional sense, instead you've got a short-range slap and can also bop on enemies either from above or below that stuns them the first time and destroys them the second time (funnily enough, the same applies to you- take one hit and your character appears injured, take another and you're dead). With an enemy stunned you can grab them and throw them in the four cardinal directions to either destroy or stun other enemies or smash point balloons that litter each stage. These balloons play into the scoring system which we'll discuss a little later but for now the focus is on the mechanics, and honestly, Clockwork Aquario surprisingly does a lot with a little. It may be fairly simple but it's easy to pick up and different from the pack, plus there's a feeling of chaotic bounciness in throwing enemies about (helped by the sound effects) and bouncing on point balloons which makes it feel pretty satisfying, and being able to jump on enemies from a few angles lets you take a couple of different approaches for dealing with them. It's also quickly-paced with not much downtime- even the autoscrolling round has a few different enemy formations to make it more interesting- and while the level layouts are perhaps a little simple, they have just enough obstacles and elements in them to keep it engaging (especially the point balloons as you need to a bit of thinking to reach some of them), although the size of the sprites means they can feel a little cramped at times.
Moving on, there's a few items to grab to help you out too. Enemies can drop one of three different bonuses including a life-up potion (get back your one hit-point or use as a throwing weapon if you're OK) and a star bubble (become invincible and fire projectiles for a short time) but the key one here is the gem which adds to your One-Up meter at the top of the screen- grab 10 and you get an extra life. This is extraordinarily generous for an arcade game and ensures that even a novice player will earn an extra life pretty easily, letting them play a little longer. It's also very helpful and encouraging for one-credit play, making it still require skill but also giving you a little bit of a safety net, meaning even a bungler like me can pull it off. Having the life-up potion as a throwable item when you're healthy is a nice touch too as it's a small bonus for avoiding hits for longer, an extra weapon to fling around. The star bubble item is strangely implemented though as it seems to appear at random and basically turns you into an unstoppable force of destruction, able to completely tear through rounds with no trouble at all. I imagine it's recycled from the original invincibility meter mechanic but it doesn't seem like a great fit and is extremely overpowered, but maybe that's just part of the chaos that is this game and you just gotta embrace it. One final point on the basic mechanics is the differences between the three characters- Huck-Londo is the fastest of the trio with a normal jump; Elle-Moon is slower with a floatier jump; and Gush is the wildcard with a large hitbox and he shifts left or right when he jumps but his slap reaches some high-up enemies the others can't, cutting some mandatory fights short. The differences are somewhat subtle except for Gush but you'll definitely pick out a favourite with enough playtime, and it's an extra little wrinkle in the game's favour.
Many of these mechanics really shine for co-op play though, which adds in a few more to turn the whole thing into a counter-operative side-scroller, that is to say a co-op game where you can completely screw over the other player with impunity. This is a subgenre I absolutely love because there's nothing as enjoyable as testing the limits of the bond you have with a fellow human by letting that competitive streak out when you're meant to be working together. In a nice way, I mean. The base mechanics mean you're just pinballing around all over the place in general, but with a partner you can also grab them to use them as a projectile (the player who's grabbed can mash out if they're quick) which sounds sorta-helpful as they don't get hurt, you can also grab gems of their colour (Huck has green, Elle has purple, Gush has orange) to throw at them to boost their One-Up meter, and can even throw potions at them if they need a boost... But you can also bop their head to make them cough up a gem and throw it away or cut their jump short, grab and throw them away from items and even get rid of potions if you want to be cruel. Mean? Sure, absolutely, but just perfect for this kind of game. The addition of extra point balloons in co-op further adds to the bedlam, plus there's a versus game between rounds where you have to pop each other's balloons before time runs out which is a lot of fun! Playing with a friend makes the game feel a bit like a platform-centric version of Sega's classic Quartet, a very favourable comparison in my book, and if you ever get the chance to play with a competitive friend I strongly urge you to do so, it's a blast for casual play. I imagine the three-player mode originally proposed for the game may have been cut because it was a little too over-the-top with three players bouncing around all over the place, as it's bonkers enough with just two. Even so, it would've been neat to see it in action!
There's definitely some parts that don't feel refined or as well thought-out as they could be though, almost certainly due to the game's cancellation. The scoring system is actually pretty interesting but there's issues that seemingly didn't get addressed in time. Doing actions in quick succession- bopping enemies, throwing enemies and popping balloons- increases the points you get for doing them by 100 up to a max of 1000 which can make a difference with your score, but this is all applied inconsistently. Some of the enemies on Round 4, for instance, always give 100 points regardless of how quickly you defeat them, and it's unclear how short the timing window is at points. It's a shame because when it's working it's actually pretty satisfying- you start to figure out the most efficient way to throw enemies to get points quickly, and it is useful to learn this as you get extra lives from points at least early in the game. Sadly, even if these oversights were dealt with, there are parts where you can milk / grind for points- some sections will spawn enemies forever if you don't defeat the one enemy you need to remove a blockade- which means for a score-attack game, it doesn't really appeal to me. Survival, that's where it's at, just like Metal Slug! Probably the most obvious element done in by its development cycle is the boss fights- I get the feeling they were made with the original location test version in mind where you couldn't hurt enemies by jumping on them and weren't rebalanced afterwards as many of them are completely trivial. You can either hop on them until they're dead (mash the Attack button to speed up the process) or mash Attack in just the right spot to have the fights over in seconds, although Round 3's boss is harder to do this on. The main exception is the final boss which is a little difficult to figure out at first but offers a decent challenge once you realise what you need to do, so it's a shame the other bosses don't follow suit.
One other issue- although not really one to me- is that, Living up to its 'doing a lot with a little' vibe, much like Charlie Ninja Clockwork Aquario is only five rounds long with a full run lasting between 15-20 minutes. While this is probably more a bone of contention nowadays, I imagine it may have been seen as an issue even back when it was planned to be released, as that is rather short for the standards of the time. That said, I am definitely OK with action games that keep things brief (this is a belief that's grown a lot stronger since I tackled Charlie Ninja, funnily enough). An extra round would've perhaps been good for more avenues to explore the mechanics, but this absolutely isn't a dealbreaker. If anything, it's a plus point as it makes it fun to replay multiple times to get better at the game and improve your play. A little behind-the-scenes story speaks volumes here- a technical issue when making this review meant all the screenshots I'd taken up to that point were unusable (turns out you can't take shots from recorded footage on PS4 without it looking like butt, oopsies). However, when I realised I just figured, 'OK, I can just play through the game five more times to get this sorted" and it wasn't a problem at all. A nightmare scenario with other games but no issue here. This is an arcade game after all, so you're expected to play it a lot to improve your skills, and so a short runtime is entirely appropriate. Aside from that, there's also some miscellaneous quirks that are probably the result of development being stopped- in co-op there are a few situations where the second player can be trapped off-screen vertically (a few areas in Round 2 and Round 5 if you're well ahead of the rising water) and the lives counter seems to mess up sometimes- but those are at least minor. As a whole, I got quite into Clockwork Aquario when I started going for the one-credit run, and when played in co-op it's a heck of a lot of fun casually, and while it keeps things simple and I understand those who may have wanted more, it was satisfying enough for me to conquer and keep going back to.
I wonder, though, if it would've fared better financially back then if it was adjusted for the changing arcade market or released on home consoles instead. If you really wanted to chase the arcade trends of the time, Westone could've capitalised on the competitive nature of the game and expanded the versus mode to be the whole game, taking the Windjammers approach of being competitive but not necessarily a one-on-one fighting game. Then again, it's not like platformers weren't being made in arcades at that time- Top Hunter and the aforementioned Charlie Ninja came out after Clockwork's cancellation, but I suspect SNK and Mitchell were perhaps in a better position to release games against the current trends as one-offs, whereas Westone's reliance on Sega as an arcade publisher partner prevented them from taking such a risk. Otherwise, bringing it to home consoles would free the design from constraints like being on a time limit or having to adhere to a rigid round structure. A few extra levels, perhaps a more open arena-esque take on the versus mode could've been some meaningful additions to make it more profitable in a different market, one more open to non-fighting games at the time... But this is just idle speculation on my part, of course, and we'll never really know. While they didn't repurpose it for the home market, at a stretch you could draw a throughline between this game and Westone's last original Mega Drive work (let's not count their Hudson work in Mega Bomberman and Dungeon Explorer for the Mega-CD) Monster World IV, as Pepelogoo kinda-sorta-maybe acts like a stunned enemy in this game, seeing as you can throw it and hold onto it from below, as limited a connection as that is, so that's something.
Well, had the game come home, one thing that would've been compromised is the presentation which I've simply got to gush about for a minute because everyone involved absolutely knocked it out of the park (even if it's not entirely clear how many of the graphical assets were remade from scratch and how many are the originals- only shots of the corrupted versus game are shown in the in-game gallery). This one's got it all- super-detailed and vibrant backgrounds, adorable and charming player characters with cute and expressive designs, giant enemy sprites with completely wild marine-clockwork fusion designs and an absolutely stomping soundtrack influenced by house music of the time period that wouldn't be out of place in a particularly nerdy club. Even now, it looks excellent, the ideal of over-the-top '90s arcade presentation with no grit, no realism, just fun and cute design work. The Sega System 18 hardware gets pushed to its limits here, and it's probably the best looking game the hardware could've ever had, but I think above all else, it's not anything technically amazing that the game does, it's just the wonderfully cartoony and colourful design that shows even if tech advances, a solid artstyle executed well is eternal. As I mentioned, the presentation can be a slight problem in some areas- the sprites are so big that now and then things can feel cramped, especially with vertical scrolling involved (the rainbow hill you have to climb near the end of Round 2 is a particular example)- but you get used to it over time and at least it's not as scrunched as, say, a Game Boy game with unscaled NES sprites. Hopefully the screenshots plastered all over this page demonstrate that, presentation-wise, this is a real winner.
As for this modern release- with Ratalaika Games on coding duties alongside Steve Snake- while there's obviously no way to compare it to original hardware I can at least talk about its setup, available options and the extras. To start, the game offers a few different 'difficulty' options that boil down to altering the number of credits you have available plus a 'training mode' that offers unlimited credits but ends after Round 2. Beating any of these unlocks an arcade mode that starts you in Test Mode and lets you fiddle with settings to your heart's content (something I definitely appreciate) as well as a button to insert as many credits as you want. I kinda like this setup as it encourages you to actually learn how to play the game, and play well, to challenge yourself to beat it with fewer credits, and the training mode gives you the opportunity to familiarise yourself with how things work. Moving on to other features, display options are standard from Ratalaika Games rereleases but they get the job done including pixel-perfect and stretch-to-fit, a CRT filter if you want some curvature and a few soft / sharp filters if you're into that. As for extras, there's a soundtrack player that includes both the 2006 soundtrack release and the new remix album made for this game, the option to play the two-player versus game at any time (unlock it by beating any round in co-op) and an art gallery with things like production artwork from 1991, an example of one of the parts of the game that had to be heavily redrawn from scratch due to lost data and a lovely letter to the player from Steve Snake about his part in the project.
Not to sound ungrateful but there's definitely a few things missing from the package that would've made it even better. For a start, there's no button-remapping which normally isn't a problem (the game's default controls fit nicely on an arcade stick) but in the arcade mode it is very easy to accidentally hit the test switch and lose all your progress, so being able to remap that would've been nice. Something missing that I think would've really helped is a rough retelling of the game's development history, as the game's existence can be confusing without knowing the context behind this release. Admittedly, if you're interested in this game enough to buy it you're probably at least a little aware of it but I had to piece the story together from disparate resources and while I'm happy to do that because I'm an arcade sicko, I know not everyone wants to do that. Finally, the way the game changes so dramatically in co-op makes it a huge shame there is no online multiplayer. You can't even kludge it with Playstation 4 Share Play as it just disconnects Share Play if you try and boot the game up with it active. There's still hope for the upcoming Steam release, and I completely understand online multiplayer isn't just a switch you can flick on or off and may not have been considered worth the effort for a release like this, but it's still something important to note.
In the end, as many have already said, Clockwork Aquario was almost certainly in the wrong place at the wrong time back in the '90s. The arcade market had changed considerably, and such a game wasn't going to be as much of a hit for Westone as something like Wonder Boy was back upon its release. Had it actually been released, I have no doubt it would've become a hidden gem [Are we even allowed to say that without getting sued? - Ed] in the years that followed, something ignored upon release and seen as a failure by the company but desperately sought-after many years later and ending up on a ton of essential arcade-exclusive listicles. Like I said, I wanted to provide as full a history as possible for this game to highlight a few points- it had been in development for several years, had multiple revisions and location tests and I think it's fair to say the internet and what scraps were available helped pique interest in the long-lost game- and so I hope this helps you, the reader, understand the game a bit better too. I must admit, when I first played it, I was a tiny bit down on it- I was fearing the mechanics were perhaps too simple, indicative of its troubled development, and even now I maintain a few quibbles with some bits that feel undercooked- but once I started gunning for a one-credit clear, it struck me how much fun it is to run through. Not the way everyone plays, but that's what gave me the most enjoyment! It's just about as long as it needs to be, with mechanics that can be plenty engaging whether you play alone or with a pal as well as visuals that draw you in, and while it's easy to wonder about what could have been and what other changes could've been made to salvage the game back in 1993... Ultimately, we have as close to what was location tested back then as possible, and I'm glad it's been preserved in an accessible form. Any fans of arcade action games definitely need to give this one a try, especially if you've got a pal to join you. Sometimes video game history does have a happy ending, ain't that nice?
For making it past the finish line almost three decades later, Clockwork Aquario is awarded...
In a sentence, Clockwork Aquario is...
A lost game that was well-worth unearthing.
And now, it's that time, folks!
To cap things off, please enjoy my 1CC of the game, obviously done with Elle-Moon.
If you thought I'd play as anyone else for this, you are mistaken. Very, very mistaken.
And as a little extra, if you want another look at the game, Ultra Powerful Pal of Gaming Hell Kimimi has you covered over on Nintendo Life.
... I must admit, didn't get the ultra-mega-hyper special edition of this game so we won't be taking a look at any of the guff that comes for it.
Probably for the best. I imagine I'd still be waiting for it to arrive.
I like Elle-Moon, but not enough to pay through the nose for a figure. That's Lilith territory.