For video game fans who have been playing in arcades and at home for several decades now, the topic of preservation has become a pressing one in recent years. As ageing technology inevitably fails and we sadly begin losing the creators who were there at the dawn of digital interactive entertainment, important works can all-too-easily be lost forever. Source code goes unarchived, assets disappear on degrading storage mediums, and pieces of our cultural heritage — once assumed to be safe forever because digital doesn't degrade, right? — become not only unplayable, but unrecoverable.
As preservationists work to save video game history before it's too late, one such piece of software has fortunately escaped oblivion thanks to the combined efforts of passionate developers and publishers, and former Westone staff who worked on the original game. The ill-fated Clockwork Aquario, an arcade platforming gem from the early '90s — a time when fighting games had taken over the world's game centres — was developed for Sega System 18 and tested in arcade locations before getting cancelled in 1994.
Designed by Wonder Boy creator Ryuichi Nishizawa, the source code to this 'lost' game was partially recovered and a team of collaborators has painstakingly recovered, reconstructed and resurrected the game in as close to its original form as possible. The result was announced for Switch and PS4 last year, and it shouldn't be long before you can play it for yourself in the comfort of your home.
We were lucky enough to speak with original creator Ryuichi Nishizawa, original programmer Takanori Kurihara, and Dennis Mendel and Benedict Braitsch of Strictly Limited Games to find out more about this extraordinary story of digital archaeology and preservation, and exactly how they've brought this forgotten arcade gem back from the brink.
Interviewees: Ryuichi Nishizawa (Game Creator & Founder of Wonder Boy IP); Takanori Kurihara (Representative Director of Rucsis Entertainment Inc.); Dennis Mendel (Co-Founder Strictly Limited Games); Benedict Braitsch (Co-Founder Strictly Limited Games).
Nintendo Life: We understand that the original files of the game were uncovered several years ago and originally passed onto Naoki Horii at M2. Can you tell us about the journey those files have been on since then and who has been involved in the recovery of Clockwork Aquario?
Dennis Mendel: This started roughly three years ago and I think I've talked to every party who was or had been involved in anything related to Aquario up to that date. With Ultracore we had our first "proof of concept" so we asked the former Westone team if we could take a look at the source code in order to evaluate whether we could take care of the development ourselves or not. Thankfully they entrusted us with the code, and as our dev team members are huge Wonder Boy fans, they were highly motivated to dig through all this "ancient" machine code.
So a few weeks later, we suddenly had that demo screen of the game running and it looked gorgeous. When we presented this to Kurihara-san during our meeting at Tokyo Game Show 2019 it was wonderful to see how happy he was to finally see the game running again after so many years.
This moment marked the start of a wonderful partnership which goes far beyond simply working together on a project: You can really feel that this is something special for everyone involved and basically the whole Westone team (Nihizawa-san, Kurihara-san, Ōzora-san and Sakamoto-san) is helping us in so many ways to make sure that Aquario will be as faithfully recreated as it can be.
We’ve read that the game was going to be similar to Wonder Boy III: Monster Lair. Thinking back to the original development in the early ‘90s, what were you and the team hoping to achieve with the arcade game?
Ryuichi Nishizawa, Game Creator: The achievement goal of arcade games is, of course, income. It is important to know how many coins are thrown in by the customers who visit the arcade. It's no exaggeration to say that all the elements in the game exist for this purpose. Game center owners are looking for games with high income. Arcade game developers are tasked with meeting that need.
However, in reality, we do not plan games with the goal of high income, but rather we plan and develop games that people will find interesting. We think that if we can achieve that level of fun, the income will follow.
Clockwork Aquario was reportedly tested in a couple of locations back in 1993. Why do you think it didn’t test well at the time? How did the team react to its eventual cancellation?
Ryuichi Nishizawa: We were really shocked when we found out that the results of the location tests were bad and I think the development staff was very disappointed since we had spent over two years developing the game. At the time, the arcade game industry was in the boom of fighting games and the fighting game machines were taking up most of the store space. Even so, we thought that there would be gaming fans visiting a game arcade who want to play games other than fighting games, so we tried to make the comical action game genre which is our forte to compete with the fighting game.
But unfortunately, we were wrong. Game arcades became more and more like a "fighting game arcade" and we entered an era where fighting games were the strongest genre.
While much of the source code was recovered, some elements weren’t present. How much of the original game would you estimate is present in the new version, and what elements did the team have to recreate?
Benedict Braitsch: The gameplay and general level design were already present. Which is important, as we don't want to change the core game or the original idea and concept.
What wasn't present were some of the graphics and the soundtrack. Several sprites and backgrounds could not be recovered, so we had to re-create them. The re-creation was mostly done by the same Westone members who were working on the original game back in the day. This means the new graphics are as close to the original game as they can be. The team couldn't have done a better job and unless we publish a list with the graphics that have been re-made, I doubt anyone can spot a difference between the original and the new graphics.
As a special bonus for the fans, we asked Sakamoto-san to create a remix of his original sound so there's not only the great original arcade sound, but also a new take on these tracks.
Can you talk a little about what it is like returning to work you did nearly three decades ago? The methods of making video games have changed an awful lot in that time!
Ryuichi Nishizawa: If you were to ask me what has changed the most in game development over the past 30 years compared to now, I would have to say the price per bit. This may not be a very interesting answer, but I think that the most important thing for developers back then compared to now was to cut down using memory space. In those days, arcade games were operated by storing data such as graphics, sounds and programs into a semiconductor memory called ROM. The price of this ROM was high, so the unit price per bit was high. Unnecessary data would naturally be deleted and large amounts of data would be compressed and stored as much as possible.
developers at that time had a habit of storing only the really necessary data and never consuming memory unnecessarily. Nowadays, the price per bit has become incredibly low
In this way, developers at that time had a habit of storing only the really necessary data and never consuming memory unnecessarily. Nowadays, the price per bit has become incredibly low and the contents of about 15 ROMs on the board of Aquario can all be stored on a single memory card that is no bigger than the tip of a finger. This time, during the developing process, I had many opportunities to check past data and every time I felt, "How can something that took so much time to create feel so small?". I was stunned by the fact that a huge chunk of data, which I thought was huge back then, could be copied onto a PC in an instant. I think it is a strong difference.
In other words, the developer's soul in each bit of data stored in the ROM was more "dense" than it is today, and I think this means that there is no waste of data in the ROM and only the data that has been recreated and refined over and over again is there. It's like magic to think that the vivid images on the game screen were created from that tiny little data. I think time has given us an opportunity to pay respect to our past work. The density of developer spirit per bit is probably one of the highest in Westone's work.
Bearing in mind that time gap and everything you’ve learned since then, were you tempted to tweak any elements of the original game’s design in this new release (for example, implement something you weren’t able to originally, or alter how a particular mechanic works)?
Takanori Kurihara: Thinking back to those days, when we started development, the project was for a completely different game. The title of the game was "Ghost Hunter"! As you can imagine from the name, it is a game about exterminating ghosts. The plan was to create a game that was fun to look at, with unique characters and rich animation.
However, the game that was completed up to the halfway point lacked the game's surname and could not pass Westone's internal quality assessment. So, in order to improve the game, we asked Mr. Nishizawa to join us as a planner. We made many improvements to make the game more interesting and this is how Aquario was created.
If you ask me "Is there anything you want to change now?", I'm not sure. If I would make a remake, I'm sure there are many things I'd like to improve. However, this game is originally an arcade game, so in terms of enjoying the arcade games of the time, I don't think there's anything I'd like to change, because the game makes full use of the hardware specs and faithfully reproduces them to the extent that it's hard to believe that the game was created on the old hardware of that time. I don't think there is anything to improve.
From a game preservation perspective, it’s incredible to see a game like Clockwork Aquario ‘saved’ in this way. Was there ever an idea to update it more thoroughly with HD art, etc, or was the idea always to preserve the original game ‘as it was’?
Dennis Mendel: Maybe 15 years ago or so, before the rise of indie games and the resurgence of retro games, this would have been a much more difficult decision. Developing and publishing games needs to be economically feasible, so with next generation 3D graphics and HD resolution, the art of drawing pixel art fell a bit behind, or so it seemed. Fortunately things changed and now all these different art styles peacefully coexist, so pixel art is being equally accepted by gamers like 3D or 2D HD graphics.
For us, to keep the original style intact has always been our top priority and we think the game looks beautiful as it is, so we are confident that the graphics of Clockwork Aquario will please not only the hardcore retro game fans, but all fans of colorful arcade-style games.
But sure, if people like the game as much as we do and there is demand for it, I am confident that there will be an option to create a new interpretation or even a sequel of the game together with the Westone team with modern hardware in mind.
The success of the excellent Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap and Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom has led to the upcoming revival of 1994’s Wonder Boy – Asha in Monster World, too. How does it feel to see renewed interest and love for games you were first involved with so long ago?
Ryuichi Nishizawa: I am so happy, and I feel very honored. As a game creator, I couldn't be happier that people want to play the games they played as a child again as an adult. I don't think anyone ever imagined that games from the past would come back into the limelight and as someone who has been involved in game development since the 8-bit arcade era, this is truly amazing to me. I had always thought that games were just consumables. The basic life cycle of an arcade game is that the completed game runs for a few weeks in the arcade and when the customers get tired of it, it is replaced by the next game. The life cycle of most arcade games is short, because new games are released one after another. Also, games that were released in the past were never re-released. There was a strong impression that games were short-lived, like blooming and then quickly fading away.
In addition, games have always progressed along with technology, so the stereotype that future games are always better than the past may have something to do with it. It was kind of hard to imagine that an old game would stay in people's memories and that it would come back into the spotlight. And thanks to the evolving technology, past works can now run on the latest gaming platforms. I'm really happy that games, which I used to think of as consumable items, can now be enjoyed by all generations, just like books, music and movies.
The game was originally scheduled for a 2020 release and was delayed until 2021. We’re sure a small delay won’t bother fans after waiting this long for Clockwork Aquario, but can you tell us about the delay and when you’re now hoping to launch?
Dennis Mendel: Clockwork Aquario is a very important title. It is not only a beautiful looking arcade game, it is also part of the Japanese video game history which cannot be stressed enough, given the popularity of the Wonder Boy series in the West.
We really can't wait to finally officially release this game that nearly was lost forever, but what we want to avoid at all cost is to rush the game out — to be honest with you, when we started with the re-creation process, we did not expect to find that many missing graphics. We already had gained some experience with Ultracore and some other projects we were or still are working on, so we were somewhat used to missing data... but Clockwork Aquario is much more complex than anything we worked on before and we had to painstakingly analyze the rules of creating graphics and animations on arcade hardware at that time (i.e. Sega System 18).
We are very happy that the Westone team is so supportive and helps us a lot with the re-creation of the missing graphics. Still, everything needs to be properly implemented into the game code to make sure that the game looks and feels exactly as the Westone team had it in mind when creating this game back in the 1990s. This process takes a lot of time, but we think it is worth all these efforts.
Of course we will also be using this additional time to not only complete the graphics, but we will also add a remixed soundtrack by Sakamoto-san himself and implement a few special gimmicks.
Finally, is there anything you’d like to touch upon that we haven’t in the questions above?
Ryuichi Nishizawa: What I felt when I looked at the screen of Aquario for the first time after many years was that the character design of the enemies was excellent. The pixel art may look rough, because they are displaying the images as they were back then, but the design of characters themselves is very lovely, colorful and fun. When we were developing the game, we had these character designs improved and redrawn many times and I think the results of that may be showing. I feel that the designs are still good enough to be used today. I have had a feeling that I want to model these enemy characters in 3D and display a lot of them on the screen! The boss characters in particular have unique movements and I'd like to see them move around freely in a large place. They're so cute and round, they could even be made into stuffed toys.
As I continue to expand my imagination in this way, I feel that something new could be created using the world view and character design of Aquario. It would be fun if it leads to something interesting, not just for a game.
Many thanks to Nishizawa-san, Kurihara-san, Mr Mendel, Mr Braitsch, and everyone involved in making this interview possible.
Clockwork Aquario is planned for general release on Switch eShop this year — Strictly Limited's website states that they "expect the game to ship in May/June", although we'll let you know the moment a launch date is locked in.