I write a lot about game preservation when reviewing re-releases, remasters, and the like. I’d say that’s arguably more important than the nostalgia or simple entertainment value—in an industry that’s so bad at preserving its own history, these kinds of releases are one of the better options we have for keeping the history available and accessible. Clockwork Aquario might just be the zenith of that philosophy: a game that, for various commercial reasons, had the plug pulled just before it crossed the finish line finally gets to make its debut, 30 years later. Keeping old games readily available is always a worthy endeavour; restoring a near-complete but unreleased game that’s been wasting away in an archive for decades is the preservationists’ dream.
There are a few reasons Clockwork Aquario never hit arcades back in ‘93 like it was meant to, but ultimately, it came down to money. Despite Westone’s popularity with things like Wonder Boy and Monster World, and the goal of Clockwork Aquario pushing the Sega System 18 hardware to its limits, the response to location tests with a near-final build of the game was lukewarm. The success of Street Fighter II meant arcades were turning more attention towards fighting games, and 3D games were taking hold as a unique experience that couldn’t (yet) be replicated by home consoles. So, even though it was so close to completion, Aquario’s prospects looked dire, and it was shelved.
That’s a shame, because Clockwork Aquario is a whole lot of fun. It’s a simple, no-nonsense action platformer, not exactly innovative even for its time, but an absolute blast to play. Throwing stunned enemies at other enemies as the main form of attack is a neat gimmick, both exceptionally silly—in keeping with the game’s tone—and, with a bit of planning and practice, a nice way to rack up the points with a well-placed strike. There’s a light puzzle touch, but it’s mostly just a game about beating up ridiculous, oddball enemies, throwing said enemies at even more eccentric bosses, and trying to pop as many balloons as possible along the way to rack up those points.
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A big part of the game’s draw is its presentation. To call Clockwork Aquario “colourful” doesn’t do it justice; it’s a game that simply overflows with vibrancy and playful energy, the aesthetic of Westone’s earlier games pushed to its absolute extreme. The enemies are bizarre and imaginative, and the trio of main characters—a goggle-wearing treasure hunter, a magical girl, and a robot—drip with personality. The action is plentiful and plenty exciting, but even more than that, this is a game about letting the bright colours, flashing lights, and energetic music, and absolutely charming character designs wash over you.
I can see why Sega was hesitant about releasing it—Clockwork Aquario is far from the sort of cutting-edge, boundary-pushing game that people were going to arcades for in the early ‘90s. In some ways, it almost seems like this path it’s landed on is exactly what it needed: instead of coming out at a time when people were moving away from what Westone did best, it’s come out at a time when nostalgia and the popularity of retro aesthetics are at a peak.
It’s clear that restoring it was both a labour of love and a monumental task, too. A gallery within the game includes a variety of pieces of promotional and concept art, as you’d expect, but also things like glitch-riddled screenshots resulting from damaged files, and some notes from Steve Snake, who lead the restoration effort, talking about what went into it. Here’s a snippet, just to give you an idea: “What followed was a long, laborious task of hand decyphering binary files produced by many different long lost applications, writing many new tools to deal with them, and piecing back together what still remained of the game.”
That restoration went as far as keeping the arcade service menu intact, letting players play around with dipswitch settings and run various system tests—this will be a novelty mostly for the most diehard arcade nerds, but it’s a welcome inclusion all the same. Different difficulties take the form of the exact same game, but with different numbers of continues available: 9, 5, and 3, respectively, for Easy, Normal, and Hard. There’s also an arcade mode where you coin-feed to your heart’s content, though you have to unlock it by beating the game “properly” on one of the other modes (though clearing the two-stage, unlimited-continues Training Mode seems to count, oddly enough). And finally, there’s a standalone version of a two-player mini-game that shows up partway through the arcade mode when playing co-op, though it’s still two-player only—no solo, vs-CPU option.
Unfortunately, Clockwork Aquario lacks a lot of the other standard arcade port features: there’s no save state function, no rewinds, no online leaderboards, and no wallpapers to dress up the unused sides of the screen. Most of these absences have a minor impact at best, but the more glaring omission is the lack of any sort of button remapping. While that won’t be an issue for most—it’s a simple, two-button game, after all—it’s a potential accessibility issue, and also just a nuisance for people who’d prefer, say, to swap jump and attack around or use triggers instead of face buttons.
After decades collecting dust in Sega’s archives, Clockwork Aquario is finally out in the world, and what a joy it is to play! A conceptually simple action platformer done well can be a delight, and with its playful energy and comic charm, delight is exactly what you’ll find here. But as much fun as Clockwork Aquario is, the more important part is what an achievement this is as far as game preservation goes: a long-lost game, developed almost to completion but never released, finally gets to shine.
Developer: Westone Bit Entertainment
Publisher: ININ Games
Genre: Platformer, action
Platforms: Nintendo Switch (reviewed), PlayStation 4
Release date: 30 November 2021 (EU/AU/NZ), 14 December 2021 (NA)
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.