Back in the early '90s Westone, best known as the creators of the Wonder Boy / Monster World series, were supposed to release a cute and colourful arcade game — Clockwork Aquario. Unfortunately for them the cutting edge polygonal thrills of Virtua Racing were busy setting the arcade world alight at the time, making their cheerful 2D platformer look a lot like a relic from a bygone era. As a result of this and other struggles the project was quietly mothballed before release and the idea abandoned — until now.
It’s this long journey to completion that makes Clockwork Aquario stand out from all the other retro and retro-inspired releases on the Switch. It’s not another dusted-off classic you’ve already played before or something made to resemble the style of 1993’s best and brightest but a true brand new-old release, and as such it crackles with a special sort of energy normally only found in games made a long, long, time ago, usually found sat in the corner of arcades far, far, away.
The pixel art in particular is nothing short of stunning, whether judged by yesterday’s standards or against modern competitors, with every last little detail — from the spinning clockwork key on the back of a metal octopus to the satisfying visual pop of a shiny fish head balloon — showcasing an extraordinary amount of skill and craftsmanship. For maximum authenticity this art — and it is art — can be further enhanced with the same great CRT shaders found in other '90s-born ports bearing Ratalaika Games' logo, once again giving you fine control over everything from screen curvature to shadow mask types, all of them looking as good on a huge TV as they do on the Switch’s screen, and all of them going above and beyond any other commercial effort we’ve seen so far.
Considering the game’s arcade origins, it’s a little surprising to see arcade mode locked away at the beginning, players instead made to choose between a short two-stage training session or Easy, Normal, and Hard difficulties that lock the number of continues available to you to nine, five, and three respectively. There’s a simple reason for this: as with many other arcade re-releases in their ‘Press a button to add a credit’ form, Clockwork Aquario takes roughly 20 minutes to clear — and that’s including watching the ending in full. By holding that back until the game has been cleared ‘properly’ at least once (any difficulty counts, and it’s extremely doable on easy), Clockwork Aquario encourages players to actively engage with its joyously bouncy gameplay in a way closer to the intended original experience, instead of leaping Lemming-like onto spikes or thoughtlessly flailing away at a boss because it doesn’t really matter if you live or die.
Aside from the expected unlimited supply of continues, Clockwork Aquario’s arcade mode also grants access to the service menu behind the game, including ultimately useless but heart-warmingly authentic ROM/RAM, CRT, and input tests as well as DIP switch access, giving players control over standard arcade settings such as whether the attract sequence is silent and the number of credits needed to start a game. The only features missing are save states and a rewind function, although as the game’s so short and using a continue drops you back in exactly where you died, their absence doesn’t make any real difference to your chances of making your way through to the end.
However you’ve chosen to play Clockwork Aquario, the gameplay always revolves around the same easy to grasp moveset. Each of the three playable characters can jump on top of enemies Mario-style, bash them from underneath, or simply bop them with a press of a button — the first hit stuns them, a second makes them pop. Stunned enemies of any size can be lifted overhead and then hurled horizontally or vertically at anything standing in the way, instantly popping them both, with stages designed around the simple pleasures of neatly hopping across a line of balloons or tossing a mecha-starfish at something on the opposite side of the screen.
Bringing along a friend only adds to the fun. Either one of you can use the other as a convenient platform or even pick them up and then throw them around like a weapon (there’s a short period of invincibility for the 'throwee' so if they land somewhere dangerous they aren’t immediately injured), and there’s even a fun little competitive minigame (also available to play separately) a few rounds in that solo players won’t get to see. It’s an enjoyable embellishment to the standard game, a slightly anarchic take on cooperation that offers something new without leaving single players feeling like they’re stuck playing a shadow of the real game.
Outside of the main event there’s an art gallery offering promotional artwork, a heartfelt thank-you letter from the staff, and even several pieces of behind the scenes concept art and screenshots of the game in an unfinished state. The captions accompanying these images are enough to give them context and make clear just how much work went into this revival without distracting from the images. There’s also a fully featured sound test, too, for those who find themselves enjoying the game’s original and remixed tunes (and don’t fancy spending extra on the physical collector’s edition and its CD soundtracks). It’s not an essential feature by any means but a nice bonus, done well.
Clockwork Aquario has been a long time coming, but it was definitely worth the wait. An obvious labour of love, this ill-fated arcade gem has been improbably recovered, restored, and reassembled, and it never feels like anything less than a carefully unearthed treasure that’s been polished until it shines. It won’t take long to beat — and it shouldn’t, because a good 30-year-old arcade platformer is supposed to be short and sweet — but what the game lacks in length it more than makes up for in entertainment and raw creativity, with stages pitting you against everything from mechanical flying fish to a gigantic egg-dropping robo-penguin. It’s the sort of game you come back to again and again because you want to rather than have to, and we feel lucky to have it.