Review: “Clockwork Aquario” (PlayStation 4)

Guess which video game now holds the Guinness Book of World Records title of “longest time between a video game project start and final release?”

Okay, that’s an easy one since we’re reviewing the game, but yes, it’s Westone Bit’s Clockwork Aquario, which began development in 1991 as an arcade game, and is now finally being released for the Nintendo Switch, Xbox and PlayStation platforms.* That’s thirty years for the “mathematically challenged” out there.

The evil Dr. Hangyo and his clockwork minions have emerged from their undersea stronghold of Aquario to conquer the world. Now, you must venture deep under water to take the fight to him, saving the world in the process.

Elle grabbing some serious air

One or two players can take their pick of three characters, each with their own gameplay style. Huck Londo is the balanced default, Elle Moon is a bit slower but jumps higher, and Gush the robot has the longest reach with his attack, and his jump has a slight forward inertia. I personally recommend playing as Gush, especially for first-timers, as his longer-range attack is much easier to work with than Huck and Elle’s “slaps” which have almost no range. 

Whether you slap, punch, jump on, or head butt the enemies, you then get a chance to grab and throw them in multiple directions. This grab and throw attack is the primary mechanic of Clockwork Aquario, and sets it apart from most other platformers. It’s also the key to gaining power-ups, which are sometimes dropped after you defeat multiple enemies with a single throw. You could snag a red potion that restores one of your two hits, or a gold star that not only makes you temporarily invincible, but give you the power to throw a spread pattern of stars across the screen.

Star-powered Gush lays down the golden law!

Almost all of the enemies are some kind of robotic water creature: fish, octopus, clams, that sort of thing. Despite them all being aquatic, I felt like the enemies were varied enough that I didn’t find them to be too repetitive. There are mini-boss and stage boss fights, too, the latter of which always involves the villainous Dr. Hangyo himself. The Doc looks a bit like Wart from Super Mario Bros. 2 but behaves more like Dr. Robotnik from Sonic the Hedgehog, not just because he’s created an army of robots to conquer the world, but because he will narrowly escape from you after every stage, only to return with a new boss design in the next stage. Hangyo’s robotic forms are pretty varied, including a teddy bear tank, a giant spiked crab, eel, penguin, etc., and most of them require a combination of your skills to defeat (with at least one exception that can be easily overcome from a safe spot on the screen).

Is it wrong to spoil the final boss of a game that was supposed to release three decades ago? Well, I just did.

Everything about Clockwork Aquario – the stages, the heroes, and the enemies – is vibrant and colorful, and features lots of large sprites. Huck, Elle and Gush are illustrated in trademark Westone fashion, and are also fairly large for a platformer, which has both its benefits and its drawbacks. Sure, it’s impressive to have larger, more detailed heroes, but this predictably leaves you with less room to maneuver around the screen, which can cause frustrations from time to time. If nothing else, this gave Westone a chance to try to something interesting with your life meter, as your character takes battle damage when hit. The soundtrack is fittingly light and upbeat, and matches the onscreen action very well.

The gameplay takes a few tries to get used to, particularly when you’re playing with a character with shorter reach (Huck and Elle). As a result, I don’t think Clockwork Aquario would have done well as an arcade game. It may be a blessing in disguise that everyone’s first hands-on experience with it is at home, because now we all have the chance to experiment and get the hang of things (and start by playing as Gush) without dropping a pocketful of quarters. And at the end of the day (erm, decades), Clockwork Aquario is an enjoyable game with relatively well-balanced difficulty given its 90s arcade roots. Knocking out enemies from across the screen and wailing on bosses with a gold power up star is indeed a fun time.

These are some serious Keith Courage vibes here

Unfortunately, it’s all over pretty quickly. Clockwork Aquario was originally designed as an arcade game, after all, so it’s predictably short at only five stages long. Once you complete the game, you can unlock “arcade mode” where you can manipulate the game’s options via DIP switches. Other than that, there’s not tons of replay value here other than playing with new characters, or taking on the tougher difficulty levels. As far as other bonuses go, there is a sound test, art gallery (which is pretty cool), and a chance to play the two-player bonus game straight from the title screen.

So, do I recommend Clockwork Aquario? If you enjoy retro platformers and replaying them in their entirety to set better scores, challenge tougher difficulty levels, or play alongside a friend, then yes, absolutely. It’s fun, vibrant, and unique, and we’re fortunate that it finally saw the light of day in finished form. However, if you don’t have the patience to learn the mechanics or you prefer your games with a more meat on their bones, Clockwork Aquario is pretty lean. In any case, whether you pick it up yourself or get a chance to play it as a 2P with a friend, you should insist that your first playthrough be as Gush (Yes – I’m really that serious about this).

Clockwork Aquario is available now for Nintendo Switch, Xbox and PlayStation platforms.

At least we finally got a chance to meet these characters!

*Disclosure: A copy of Clockwork Aquario was provided to The Splintering for the purpose of this review.

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