The Return of Clockwork Aquario

When it came to unreleased video games, Clockwork Aquario was a relentless, blatant, and downright sadistic tease. It went through arcade location tests back in 1993, but developer Westone deemed it unsuitable for the market. So it drifted into the same ether that absorbs most canceled games.

Yet Clockwork Aquario survived. Composer Shinichi Sakamoto and EGG released the soundtrack in 2006, and stories from those who played the game tantalized like UFO sightings. Then company co-founder Ryuichi Nishizawa uncovered the source code, sprites, and design documents, hinting that it might well be possible to restore the entire thing. Clockwork Aquario seemed just on the edge of coming back to life.  

That’s exactly what happened, according to Strictly Limited Games. After a year or two of hints, the German publisher announced Switch and PlayStation 4 releases of a fully restored Clockwork Aquario. It’s due out  next year, and they have screenshots, a website, and some gameplay footage to prove it. I usually don’t embed videos that aren’t mine, but I’m breaking that rule for Clockwork Aquario.  



What’s that? It’s just twenty seconds of standard side-scroller gameplay? Yes, it is. But there’s more to the game than that. And there’s more to its appeal than a long shadow of makeshift nostalgia.  


Clockwork Aquario is the last arcade project from Westone, creators of the immensely charming Wonder Boy and Monster series (which I refuse to even attempt to explain here). Aquario theoretically found the company at its height, landing in between the excellent Wonder Boy in Monster World and Westone’s crowning achievement, Monster World IV.  


Even our limited peek at Clockwork Aquario reveals many familiar hooks. It offers three adventurers: Huck Londo, Elle Moon, and a rotund robot named Gush. Their standard hop-and-hit attacks are enhanced when they throw around stunned enemies—and even each other in the two-player mode. It wasn’t the first game to try out such a concept even in 1993, but it opens up all sorts of techniques. And it possibly led to the pet-tossing play mechanics of Monster World IV.  

The little details have already won me over. I like the way the characters take damage by subtly changing appearance (as Elle does in the video) and the way they turn into strangely calm angels upon defeat. I even like the little character portraits in the background of the player-select screen. Just look at them.

Clockwork Aquario also represents a long-lost ideal: the arcade action-platformer. The genre always soared highest on home consoles, but anyone who sunk time into Strider or Ghosts ‘N Goblins (or Wonder Boy, for that matter) knows the appeal of a good side-scroller built for a powerful arcade system. Clockwork Aquario was running on Sega’s System 18 at its technical limits, so it all looks sharper and busier than any Super NES or Genesis relative.  

The realist in me must point out that Clockwork Aquario may well be an arcade game in the less flattering sense. It’s likely short, straightforward, and not terribly rich in replay value apart from picking different characters or chasing a high score. It’s also worth relaying that Nishizawa and the genius retro-smiths at M2 aren’t directly involved in the game's rebirth; Nishizawa was consulted, but the restoration is the work of Strictly Limited and ININ games.  


There’s also the cold truth that Clockwork Aquario failed its location tests. It wasn’t canceled because of budgets or bankruptcies or other forces that commonly doom unreleased games through no fault of their own. Clockwork Aquario went through several showings and gameplay revisions, but it just didn't take.  

Yet that leads to an even colder truth: by 1993, a side-scrolling action game had no place in arcades. Fighting games, driving games, and light-gun games had thoroughly usurped them. Tales of Clockwork Aquario’s development suggest that Westone struggled to cram unique ideas into a quick-fix arcade mindset, almost as if it was a complex game wedged into a world that couldn’t appreciate it.  


Besides, it’s Westone—or Westone Bit Entertainment, as they rebranded themselves. It’s hard to find a truly terrible game among their creations; even Jaws for the NES has a strange allure. And Clockwork Aquario wasn’t a potboiler licensed project, either. It’s exactly the sort of game Westone enjoyed making and made so very well.  

I also think that the mere sight of Clockwork Aquario restored, running, and widely available is a good thing. So many games are lost to time, abandoned mid-development or even canceled when nearly finished. And that’s to say nothing of books, film, and older strains of media. I’d even say that every remotely creative endeavor, no matter how troubled or disposable, deserves its day in public.  

Strictly Limited Games pushed Clockwork Aquario back to 2021, and they’ve yet to announce just how the game’s physical release will fare. Even at this vague point, I like everything I’ve seen about it, and I’ll be there the moment it arrives.  

I do note, however, that the character names differ slightly from the ones in Nishizawa’s initial attempts at recovering the game. 

I can understand why they shied away from naming the robot Gash, though I don’t know if Gush is a great improvement. And, minor as it may be, I prefer Hack Londo to Huck Londo. 

One more complaint: all of the screens we have so far show just Huck and Elle. At the risk of sounding unintentionally crude, let's see some Gush in action.

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