Clockwork Aquario Review: Better Late Than Never
Clockwork Aquario is a game with a unique history, to say the least. Developed by Westone, the studio behind the Wonder Boy series, this side-scrolling platformer was supposed to find its way to arcades in 1992. However, despite being essentially complete, changing market conditions such as the popularity of the competitive fighting games and the industry’s shift to polygon-pushing hardware resulted in its quiet cancelation.
Thankfully, that wasn’t the end of the road for Clockwork Aquario. Nearly 30 years after being confined to the dustbin of gaming history, publishers Strictly Limited Games, SEGA, and ININ Games joined forces to bring this long-lost 16-bit adventure to the masses. But was this a rollicking retro romp worth the wait, or is Clockwork Aquario better left in the annals of gaming history? Read on and find out!
A Vibrant Voyage To A Bygone Era Of Gaming
The first thing you’ll probably notice when firing up Clockwork Aquario is the game’s remarkably vibrant visual style. It’s very reminiscent of Red Company and Hudson Soft’s classic Turbografx-16 shooter Air Zonk, with its explosive use of color, beefy sprites, and charming hand-drawn art style. Sure, Sega’s System 18 arcade hardware (which powered such arcade hits as Shadow Dancer, Alien Storm, and Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker) may have been on its way out in 1992, but Westone managed to squeeze every bit of power they could get out of the aging platform. As a result, it truly is a sight to behold, and any retro-minded gamer should appreciate the stellar sprite work and lushly detailed backdrops on display here.
As with most arcade games of its time, the story’s essentially nonexistent. Players choose from 3 characters, Londo, Elle Moon, or the robot Gush, then hop and bop their way across five aquatic-themed stages as they battle the forces of the devious Dr. Hangyo. Along the way, you’ll encounter perilous pitfalls, legions of fish-like baddies, and other hazards as you work your way to the villain’s lab.
The moment-to-moment gameplay is straightforward enough. You can punch your enemies to stun them. Then, once stunned, you can pick them up and lob them across the screen like sentient torpedoes that destroy anything in their path. Additionally, you can hop on the heads of your fishy foes in typical platformer fashion. As you make your way through the stages, you’ll find balloons you can pop to earn jewels that can net you extra lives or potions that you can use to recover some health. Additionally, stars allow the player to fire off a devastating spread shot of twinkling projectiles that destroy anything in their way and can even decimate bosses in seconds.
Speaking of bosses, Clockwork Aquario‘s five stages feature an assortment of sub-bosses (usually just super-sized takes on existing enemies), along with a colorful cast of mechanized sea creatures piloted by Dr. Hangyo. These boss encounters can be pretty exciting and provide some of the game’s most memorable moments. But again, the thrill of the fight is squandered if you manage to randomly pick up a power-up that decimates them just moments after the battle begins.
Don’t Let Dr. Hangyo Clean Your Clock!
Without a doubt, Clockwork Aquario features a mostly sturdy foundation that players who’ve got their hearts firmly planted in the early 90s should appreciate. However, I can’t say I’m exactly crazy about all of Westone’s design choices with this title. For starters, Both Londo and Elle have minimal reach, and their stumpy appendages make it quite challenging to avoid taking damage when attacking your enemies. Because of this, I found myself choosing the long-limbed robot Gush, whose attacks reach just a bit further. However, this comes with a tradeoff, as he’s also a much larger target with a giant hitbox. Honestly, I could work with this. The problem is that Clockwork Aquario is very much a coin-op experience through and through. And as such, the game is designed to gobble quarters from players and seems to revel in doling out cheap deaths with seemingly unavoidable waves of baddies.
While the sometimes uneven challenge can be frustrating, Clockwork Aquario does feature three different difficulties. So even if you’re not a platforming pro, you should be able to power through the game on the easiest difficulty, thanks to the generous nine credits it allows you. And with a bit of practice and perseverance, you should be able to handle the game’s less chaotic moments well enough that you’ll have enough lives to overcome the cheap deaths you’ll assuredly encounter towards the end of your adventure in the land of Aquario.
What makes Clockwork Aquario a bit tougher to recommend is just how lean it is. This was originally designed for the arcades, after all. As such, you can run through the entire game in just fifteen minutes or so and see everything it has to offer. And again, considering the only thing that makes the various difficulty modes differ from each other is the number of credits you’re given, there’s little incentive to come back for more after the credits roll.
Clockwork Aquario isn’t without its shortcomings, such as its occasionally uneven challenge to its blink-and-you’ll-miss-it runtime. However, it’s hard not to appreciate finally being able to experience this long-lost piece of gaming history three decades later. With its distinctive presentation and solid platforming action, the game’s a delightful throwback to a simpler time, when the arcades represented the pinnacle of what video games could be and rainbow-haired heroes and heroines dominated the landscape. If you’re looking to take a trip back to those glory days of gaming and don’t mind the issues I mentioned above, Clockwork Aquario is time well spent.
Final Verdict: 3.5/5
Available on: PS4 (reviewed), Switch; Publisher: ININ Games; Developer: Westone; Players: 1-2; Released: December 14, 2021; MSRP: $19.99
Full disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of Clockwork Aquario.