It’s remarkable that we’re playing Clockwork Aquario at all. Originally developed by Westone Bit Entertainment, the Japanese coin-op specialists who gave us the Wonder Boy and Monster World series, it was abandoned as the arcade market fell apart. After two years of desperately trying to make the game work. Westone gave up on it after poor initial previews. The ROM was left partial and dormant for 28 years and 81 days. A Guinness World Record, as it happens.
We’re playing it now, in part because of a partnership between ININ Games (shoot ’em up specialists and game preservation fanatics) and Strictly Limited Games (a producer of limited runs of physical media). They’ve worked to plug the gaps in the code and bring this curio back to life. We’re glad they did, if only because there’s very little out there that plays or feels like Clockwork Aquario.
Superficially, Clockwork Aquario has the huge, chunky sprites and colourful world of Guardian Heroes. It leans on a throwing mechanic that pitches it closer to Dynamite Headdy or Decap Attack. And the health system is reminiscent of Ghouls ’n Ghosts, as one hit knocks you into your pants, and another sends you to your doom. But we’re cribbing references from several games when Clockwork Aquarion never entirely feels like any of them.
In essence, this is a chunky 2D platformer, as you pick from three different characters – Huck Rondo, Elle Moon or the robot Gush – and immediately start moving left to right. The focus is on combat, as enemies rush at you. They can be punched if your timing is right, or jumped on if your timing is better. Neither are entirely satisfying: the punch is short and lame, meaning you have to time it to perfection, while the jump has similar problems. It’s a very low arc, which means you can often accidentally stumble into an enemy rather than hit it.
The enemies don’t die when they’re hit, which is Clockwork Aquario’s secret sauce. They turn into a blue stunned variant, and you can now pick them up and chuck them at your opponents. The pick-up is automatic at least, so you can chain through the sequence of events pretty quickly. A thrown enemy can hit several beasties at once, making them perfect for ratcheting combos. And you can throw them upwards as well as sideways (or jump-throw, of course), making them versatile.
To a point, anyway. ‘Up’ and ‘sideways’ isn’t as wide-ranging as you might hope, and – whilst you’re holding a creature – you can’t punch, and your jump is minimized. What this means is that every attack, every approach in Clockwork Aquario, has a double-edge or compromise. We never felt like a steampunk colossus. We always felt on the clumsy side.
You get the sense that Westone were working on improving this. On occasion, you can find power-ups that turn you into a golden god. Suddenly you’re spaffing stars everywhere, and nothing can touch you. It’s a hint of what Clockwork Aquario could have been, if the characters had a bit more oomph to them. What’s left after the power-up is unwieldy, a little bit like walking around in a giant cardboard cosplay.
The enemy and level design didn’t get the memo, unfortunately, and often act like they’re in a game where you have far more maneuverability: a Shinobi or Strider perhaps. Clockwork Aquario has a habit of introducing enemies from the sides of the screen without warning, meaning that you get automatically hit without much opportunity to reply. Being so sodding huge, your character can be hit by the merest pixel brushing past them. It’s very hard to get out of the way in Clockwork Aquario.
But roll with it and there’s still fun to be had. As you might expect from a Westone game, the characters are a fine mix of cute and malevolent. Boff them on the head, and you almost feel bad for tossing them at their friends. In terms of the levels, so much love and detail has gone into the backdrops that it verges on being overly busy. You can imagine Clockwork Aquario attracting a lot of players to its arcade cabinet through the visuals alone. It’s a shame that it’s taken nearly thirty years for everyone to see it.
The game is absolutely laden with minibosses that hide keys to stop you progressing, and bosses that deny you access to the next level. They’re all uniformly great, filling up what remains of the screen, and requiring you to make use of the enemies that they toss at you. There’s a steampunk-cum-nautical feel to Clockwork Aquario (seapunk?), which somehow makes complete sense throughout.
Plus, the levels barely sit still. While there may not be many of them – Clockwork Aquario won’t take you more than a couple of hours to complete – they like to mix things up, as you travel on top of a submarine, ride up ferris wheels and more. You could never accuse it of being unimaginative.
But you can accuse it of being unwieldy, and we suspect that was the final nail in its coffin when it came to getting launched. It has an idea – what if thrown enemies were your main enemy? – but it can’t find a way to make that smooth, fast and accurate. Playing Clockwork Aquario can be as dynamic as getting up after a Christmas dinner.
On the flip-side, we feel lucky and privileged to be playing Clockwork Aquario. It’s taken a huge amount of salvaging to finally make it playable. And what’s here is absolutely made for the arcades: the art is overblown, the audio is bombastic, and everything just feels big. We can imagine pumping 10ps into it.
Whether one outweighs the other is up to you. Take part in the nostalgia and unearth a forgotten treasure; but have no illusions – there is a slow, cumbersome reason why Clockwork Aquario never made it into our arcades.