Overview – developed by Westone and Ratalaika Games with publishing handled by ININ Games/Strictly Limited Games, Clockwork Aquario is a once lost arcade game that has been released after almost 30 years. Take control of one of three heroes that are on a quest to stop the evil DR. Hangyo, who is hiding in the underwater city of Aquario. This title is available for Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 4, with a physical release available from Strictly Limited Games (stock is limited), links to all versions of the game will be at the bottom of this review.
Disclaimer: before I get into the review, I would like to thank PR Hound for providing the copy of Clockwork Aquario that was used for this piece. The provision of this software has not influenced the contents of this review, all thoughts and opinions contained within are my own.
Now with the introductions out of the way, let’s get into the review. I will be skipping the story segment and going straight into discussing the gameplay.
Gameplay – Clockwork Aquario is a side-scrolling action platformer, where the objective of each of the five rounds is to get to the end and defeat the Boss of that stage. At the start of the game, the player can choose one of three characters, with a co-op feature for those who want to play through the game with a friend. Each character has their own strengths and weaknesses, so experimentation to find the best fit is important.
The heroes that can be selected are Huck Londo, the ghost hunter, Elle Moon, the adventurer and Gush, the giant robot. When the player has selected their character, the game begins and an intro cutscene plays out giving the simplest visual explanation of the games mechanics. The player can slap enemies to stun/defeat them, pick up stunned enemies and throw them as weapons, making them explode after being thrown in any direction.
The player can also jump on enemies and even use their head to attack, giving a lot of flexibility to the gameplay and making battling enemies very satisfying. As well as the enemies that appear in the stages, balloons will be scattered throughout, giving players bonus points for throwing enemies at them and bouncing off of them. As this is a side-scrolling platformer, there are also hazards aside from the enemies that can hurt the player, including spikes and pitfalls.
The player can take up to two hits before losing a life, the first hit makes the players appearance chance with comedic effect and the second ends that life. When the player respawns, they can hover in the air as an angel and position themselves with temporary invincibility to get to a safe point. If all lives have been depleted, the player will have to use a credit to continue, with limited credits in most of the game modes that can be accessed.
There are a couple of ways to offset the need to use continues and keep yourself going on few credits, as the risk of game overs when learning to play is quite high. First to discuss are the health-ups that can be dropped from balloons and enemies, which will restore the player to full power. The second is the generous bonus lives that the game throws at the player, with a ONE UP meter that is filled by collecting character specific gems to grant bonuses.
The bonuses for lives and health-ups can be very important, as the boss battles for this game can be tough. At specific points during the stage and at the end, the player will have to fight boss enemies to progress. The mid boss battles are pretty simple, with themed enemies that can be defeated by throwing enemies at them or by jumping. The end of stage bosses are much tougher, with large bosses that each have their own unique gimmick, with the boss health shown on screen.
Clockwork Aquario is a challenging title with many hazards and pitfalls that can make it difficult for new players. However, there is a selection of difficulty options for players to learn the ropes and improve their skills. Here is a simple list of the difficulty options and game modes available to the player;
- Training Mode – play through the first 2 stages to get used to the game mechanics, credits are unlimited, but the game ends after beating the second boss.
- Easy Mode – play through the game with 9 credits.
- Normal Mode – play through the game with 5 credits.
- Hard Mode – play through the game with only 3 credits to beat it all.
- Bonus Stage – a mini game that unlocks after stage 3 has been cleared. Play the bonus round mini-game that usually appears between stage 3 and 4 of the standard game. This can only be played two-player.
- Arcade Mode – unlocked when beating the game once on any of the other modes. This feature allows players to access the service menu, change dip settings and look at the different parts of the Arcade Board. Use the shoulder buttons to add credits and enter service mode.
This title is very refined with a lot of precision movement required, which does unfortunately lead to one minor issue. The precision required to hit some enemies can lead to taking damage when getting too close to enemies, this isn’t a major issue but can be frustrating and lead to unnecessary deaths. Aside from this small flaw, the overall quality of the game and playability of the release is fantastic, with the minor issues being avoidable with multiple runs of the game.
The biggest incentive to play the game is to set high scores, with the high score for the player being remembered and added to the in-game leaderboard. Being an arcade game, the main objective aside from beating the game is to set the best score possible in few credits. There is a satisfaction to seeing a new high score, but unfortunately the only way to share your scores is to screenshot them, as there is no online leaderboard right now.
Now with the gameplay covered, I will be moving onto the other aspects of the game, starting with the controls.
Controls – the control system for Clockwork Aquario is very simple and works fantastically, with only movement, a jump and slap button needed to take into account. There are no issues with input lag, with smooth precise inputs that work well with all control options, including the pro controller and Joy-Cons. However, the best way to play this title is with an arcade stick, giving that true arcade feeling that is perfect for this release.
Difficulty – as mentioned in the gameplay segment, this title is tough with a lot of hazards and dangerous pitfalls that can kill the player with ease. The boss battles can be very difficult and when learning the patterns can drain continues quickly. However, with time and practice, the challenge is beatable with the potential for a single credit clear. The difficulty can feel frustrating at times, but doesn’t punish the player too much with unfair deaths.
Presentation – this title was originally designed for the Sega System 18 arcade hardware, with graphical work that would have pushed the system to its limits. The visuals are beautiful, with fantastic sprite work and backgrounds that just pop with color. The animations and background details throughout the experience are smooth, with fluid movements that make this one of the best looking arcade titles to be seen in recent years. The game is perfect for play on the big or small screen too.
The soundtrack is a real treat to listen to with music from Shinichi Sakamoto, the legendary composer of the Wonder Boy franchise that gives this title its distinct Westone identity. The stage themes and boss music set the tone for the each challenge, with ominous but upbeat music for the battles against DR. Hangyo, contrasting with the exciting compositions for the stages. The only negative about the sound is that sound effects and voice samples can be a little muted, but that isn’t a deal breaker.
Final Thoughts – when I first heard about the revival of Clockwork Aquario a couple of years ago I was very excited, this was because the chance to play a lost game from decades before is rare. I was certainly not disappointed when I got my hands on this title. The action is precise and the general experience is very smooth, with fluid animation and reactive controls that work fantastically. It did take more than a few attempts to beat it, but I didn’t feel like it was a chore.
There is plenty of content on offer with the potential for a healthy fan community to grow, as there is a low barrier of entry to enjoy the title, but an unfortunate lack of online leaderboards. The fantastic soundtrack by Shinichi Sakamoto is available to listen to as a bonus feature, alongside a rearranged OST and gallery for fans to enjoy. I cannot recommend this game enough, it may have a couple of very minor flaws, but is one of the best arcade offerings in recent years and more than worth a play.
In the end, I give Clockwork Aquario a final score of 4.5/5. This long awaited arcade revival is a fantastic release, which embodies the heart and soul of the titles that came before it from Westone in the 80’s and 90’s. A wonderful side-scrolling platformer that was once planned as the arcade swansong for Westone, but is now more appropriately a celebration of their legacy.
If you want to check this title out for yourself, links to the digital release will be below as well as a link to the Strictly Limited Games store, but be aware that stock is very limited.
Link to Nintendo Switch version (HERE)
Link to PlayStation 4 version (HERE)
Link to Strictly Limited Store (HERE)