Clockwork Aquario holds the record for having the longest time in development. But rather than being in development hell, developer Westone canceled it in 1994 due to the market shifting its focus to the fighting genre and the rise of 3D games. All these years later, this long-lost arcade artifact is finally playable. Even if it is a product of its time, this restoration turns out to be a solidly fun action platformer with some gorgeous sprite art.
Getting Into Gear
When you start the game, you’ll be booted up to a menu reminiscent of those older Sega Mega Drive collection games but with less polish. As it goes, you play as one of the three heroes — Gush, Huck Rondo, or Elle Moon, as you try to stop Dr. Hangyo. Hangyo is an evil scientist and a fish, and it just so happens that Huck Rondo crash-landed into the villain’s clockwork city. You’ll have to get through his mechanical minions if you are to reach and stop him from taking over the world. There isn’t any dialogue or anything to flesh out the characters or world, so all you’ve got is a quick introductory and ending cutscene.
As expected from an arcade title, the plotline is basic but draws you in with the world. The underwater city of Aquario is an imaginative setting, so you’ll run across some impressive-looking stages. I wish I weren’t discussing the complementary elements over the story, as there could have been more to admire here, given the invitingly simple premise.
A Blast To The Past
Clockwork Aquario is an action platformer, meaning you’ll be jumping and bouncing as well as hitting & throwing stuff. You have the familiar formula of stomping (or headbutting from below) an enemy and then picking them up to throw them at other enemies. If you line your shot correctly, you can defeat multiple enemies with one lob. Moreover, the square button also unleashes a quick slap move that works the same for all three characters. You’ll have to adapt to the different types of foes, too. Airborne enemies maneuverer up and down across the often vertically-designed stages, while a ground-based enemy will be fixed in one place and shoot projectiles in intervals. The game can get challenging, but it seems fair compared to other arcade titles of this era, with unusually forgiving platforming.
You get points for defeating enemies, as well as picking up jewels, the latter of which can also lead to a “one up” (the old-school term for an extra life.) Jumping on the passive balloon creatures is an excellent way to find jewels, increase your high score, and get an extra jumping boost if you hold the X button down. Another thing that can drop is a power-up: a star that grants you brief invincibility, and your attack transforms into a powerful move that unleashes three stars and kills with one hit. Combining kills will create a combo that increases every point gain by 100. Overall, it’s pure arcade fun where earning points feels rewarding and addicting.
Putting the ‘Action’ in Action Platforming
There are five stages, and as previously stated, they have a vertical edge to them. You’ll be going up and down slopes at many parts of them. It always feels like you are walking on elevated or submerged platforms, which works for the settings, including an airborne level and the underwater interiors. At the end of each round, you’ll fight a boss. These guys have straightforward patterns that you’ll quickly get through if you have the patience. However, what worked for me was slapping them to death. It was the quickest way to end a battle, and I didn’t feel like taking my time because these bosses weren’t that engaging. They all have the same theme music and are simplistic, giant robots controlled by Dr. Hangyo. Overall, the stages are a blast, but these lackluster boss battles are a letdown.
What can also be underwhelming is the action itself. The starring trio has unique abilities and skillsets — Huck is a gunslinger, Gush is a giant robot, and Elle is a magician. How come each of these characters have a generic slapping attack, let alone the silliness that comes with human beings carrying around objects twice their size? Maybe Gush could have had the ability to hold heavier things and would punch his enemies. At the same time, Elle could zap enemies with spells from afar while being generally faster in movement. I know it’s asking a lot from an arcade game, but this seems like an oversight. It’s still fun, but the singular slapping move can get old when there is less emphasis on platforming. At least there’s drop-in co-op, which mixes things up like being able to pick up your partner and throwing them at your opponents.
They Don’t Make ’em Like They Used to
The best aspect of Clockwork Aquario is the art design. It has top-tier retro graphics, and you can tell it tested the Sega System 18’s limits by having lots of animation going on simultaneously — the System 18 could handle up t0 128 sprites on-screen, which was a lot at the time. The sprites are superb, with lots of fine details and — above all — charm. The color scheme is striking, and the character designs are appealing in their retro anime aesthetic. This level of lovingly crafted visuals is hard to find — it’s not the finest-looking game per se, but the game looks unlike anything else because of its time. The little details prioritize characters over precision, filling in the blanks of what you want from a game with stylized graphics.
The last thing left to touch on is the sound design and extras. The soundtrack by Shinichi Sakamoto is a wonderfully bopping blend of house beats and acid jazz. It gives the game a sense of energy, unlike the sounds your character makes each time you jump, attack, duck, and pick up. As such, the in-game SFX don’t engage you and ends up sounding annoying. You can listen to the soundtrack in the menu alongside a remixed version. More extras include an arcade mode where you can tinker with genuine arcade cabinet settings, display modes like a CRT filter, and a gallery of fascinating concept art. You can also play this bonus stage mini-game at any time, which requires two players. Overall, not a lot of content, and you’ll finish everything in a short time.
Clockwork Aquario is a fascinating piece of arcade history and an enjoyable action platformer. While it may be extremely light on content for today’s standards, this title offers gameplay that takes you back to the 90s in the ways you expect. And, for that reason, it should satisfy your enthusiasm for retro gaming.
You can buy Clockwork Aquario on PSN here.