Arcades in the early ’90s, at least where I lived here in the United States, went all-in on the newfound popularity of fighting games. Mortal Kombat was taking arcades by storm, Virtua Fighter was on the horizon, and Street Fighter II had already been available for a whole year before Clockwork Aquario began development at Westone in 1992.
Westone was a legendary development studio in their native Japan, though most likely known in fellow English-speaking regions for their work on the Wonder Boy/Monster World series. Or, if you grew up on the NES like me, maybe you’re familiar with their criminally underrated adaptation of Jaws? Outside of that one, my only other experience with a Westone game growing up was Mega Bomberman for the Sega Genesis, which was released in 1995.
Around this time shoot-em-ups and games like Bionic Commando and WWF WrestleFest were quickly removed to make room for a 2nd or 3rd Mortal Kombat cabinet or a multi-game NEOGEO display with even more fighters like World Heroes, Fatal Fury, and Samurai Shodown. Look, I was one of the kids at the arcade every weekend and used every quarter I had on fighting games. I get it, but it’s such a shame in retrospect. Clockwork Aquario is just one canceled title… imagine how many more we lost.
I didn’t come to play and appreciate the Wonder Boy and Monster World stuff until later in life when emulation became a thing. If you have a nostalgia boner for that stuff then this should interest you quite a bit!
Clockwork Aquario actually finished its two-year development cycle before being canceled, which makes the entire situation even more depressing. It’s a beautiful 2D platformer for one or two players, featuring Westone’s trademark chunky pixels and imaginative world and monster designs.
With it being an arcade game, it’s incredibly short (which may be a turn-off for some of you) and kind of basic in its execution, but man, this is such a rad piece of gaming history and I grinned from ear to ear the entire time.
On the gameplay front, you can play as one of three characters (a boy, a girl, and a robot) that are all mechanically the same. The two-button control scheme allows you to punch and jump, with the former being used to stun monsters that can then be picked up and thrown by walking into them. Aside from a power-up that temporarily transforms your punch into a ranged projectile, that’s basically it.
I didn’t experience any gradual increase in difficulty within any of its levels throughout the game’s brief run-time, but the same can’t be said about Clockwork Aquario’s wonderful boss battles. Each is more challenging than the last, making good use of the game’s limited moveset, and they just look fantastic.
I can’t stress how gorgeous Clockwork Aquario looks after nearly 30 years, which speaks to how timeless pixel art can be. Looking at the arcade and home console scenes between 1992-94, I’m sure we can all agree that these types of 2D pixel adventure games have aged pretty gracefully and it’s a shame that publishers pushed them aside in favor of technological trends like digitized graphics.
Musically, Clockwork Aquario was composed by Shinichi Sakamoto, known for his work on Wonder Boy in Monster Land, Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap, and Wonder Boy in Monster World III (and the aforementioned NES release of Jaws!). The soundtrack is expectedly solid and fitting to the adventure.
I played Clockwork Aquario on my PS5 through PS4 backward compatibility and it ran just fine. I couldn’t test the two-player co-op mode since I only own one PS5 controller, but (for what it’s worth) I watched some other folks streaming and reviewing it and it doesn’t seem to suffer from any sort of slowdown. Co-op, for those interested, is limited to the local couch variety.
There are multiple difficulty modes that only seemed to limit the number of continues available, but there’s also a practice mode with infinite continues that forbids you from progressing beyond stage 2. Being an arcade game from the ’90s whose primary goal was to eat your quarters, don’t expect to stroll through Clockwork Aquario on your first shot, at least not on the normal or harder difficulty settings. Anyone familiar with 2D platformers will likely clear it on easy, though.
Being a modern version of an older game, similar to the recent Ratalaika published titles like Gynoug and Gleylancer, there are various display modes and shaders to choose from. You can sharpen or soften pixel presentation, play in a 1:1 representation aspect ratio, and mimic CRT scanlines if you wish.
Overall, I was thrilled to experience this slice of forgotten gaming history in 2021. It’s colorful, beautifully crafted, wonderfully composed, and just fun to play through. Sure, it’s missing modern features and expanded gameplay mechanics because it wasn’t designed with home consoles in mind, but I had a fun time running through it nonetheless.
Will I play it again? Maybe down the line, but probably not unless I grab another PS5 controller so I can check out co-op. I’m definitely glad I had the chance to check it out, though.
A digital PS4 code was provided for the purpose of this review. It was played entirely on my PS5. The game is available now in the EU on PS4 and Switch and will release in NA on December 14th.