Thanks to ININ GAMES for the review code
Title: Clockwork Aquario
System: Nintendo Switch (eShop)
Release Date: 12/14/2021
In this co-op platformer, you take control of a group of three heroes, out to stop an evil criminal in the underground land of Aquario! This game’s backstory is far more in-depth than what you see in the game, for Aquario was actually unfinished… For thirty years.
Originally existing as just a single internet screenshot, then a music album, and then concept art, the full Arcade experience has been polished up, fixed, and finished to finally see the light of day! ININ and Ratalaika have both worked together with Westone to restore this Arcade gem, leading to a fascinating experience.
This is yet another Ratalaika port job, and thus, the UI and menu is very similar to what was seen in that title. Yes, even including the excellent CRT filter. Now you too, can reproduce your own blurry screenshots!
Being that the game was originally cancelled back in 1994, it should come as no surprise that this retro-looking game is indeed, very faithful to the era… It still runs on Sega System 18 hardware, after all! Powering other games like Shadow Dancer, this board was known for fancy visual effects, and here in Aquario, it pumps them all up to the max, providing a super vibrant style that feels like an evolved version of Monster Lair, with quirky animations, expressive characters, and a distinctive, familiar look that screams Westone. There’s even a concept art gallery included, which shows a lot of the assets that were outright busted when restoration had started, which is pretty neat! As a result, some of the sprites and assets in the game were recreated to blend in with the pre-existing ones, and I couldn’t really notice anything that seemed to clash or feel out of place in the slightest. A lot of care was definitely put into this regard.
The audio quality, I’m happy to say, is rather stunning as well. This was a bit easier to restore, since all of the game’s sound effects and music tracks were thrown onto a 2006 OST release, and they absolutely fit the nature of WBIII and other similar Westone Arcade gems. From a super catchy boss theme, to a weird post-final boss song with vocal samples, to a cheery stage 2 song, this OST has plenty of great tunes that finally get to be experienced as intended, and you can even hear these tracks in a sound test, along with some excellent remixes! Unfortunately, the remixes cannot be enabled during gameplay, which is a pretty big shame due to how solid they are.
The usual slate of features for Ratalaika ports… are missing, at least when it comes to gameplay improvements. It’s a bit of a weird one, since for starters, you have no save state support in the slightest. It’s not even an unlockable feature! You also cannot remap the buttons, which causes a big annoyance regarding a specific mode.
Instead, you just get a list of different preset modes to start the game in, with an unlockable Arcade mode available to edit DIP switch settings upon clearing one of the preset modes. These preset modes really just impact the amount of continues available to the player, with a “Training” preset even allowing for infinite continues, but with the game rebooting after Stage 2. They’re pretty basic, and the actual in-game difficulty doesn’t seem to change based on these presets, with that only being available for tweaking in the Arcade mode.
Whichever mode you choose, the core game is a pretty typical co-op platformer, reminding me a little bit of Top Hunter from the NeoGeo due to the main method of attacking, which tasks you with picking up and throwing enemies and objects to defeat bigger foes. You only have a two button control scheme, mapped reasonably to Y for attack and B for jump, so Aquario is incredibly simple to pick up and adapt, and you’ll be getting used to the throwing mechanics in no time flat.
In all honesty, these mechanics are so simple, that the easiest setting of limited continues shouldn’t be too hard to clear for even someone rocky with platformers, due to the fast pace of each stage and the benefits to memorization of bosses, enemies, and obstacles. Outside of portions where the screen stops to make you fight a miniboss, or a scrolling stage midway through the game, you can play these levels at your own pace and carefully avoid enemies, so in no time at all I managed to beat the game with the 9 continue limit. As a matter of fact, “no time at all” is a very apt description, since I was able to eventually clear the entire game in around 15 minutes once I knew what I was doing, and then the adventure was over just like that. It’s made even easier by the presence of powerup stars, which can be collected for your character to shoot out waves of stars that absolutely murder any opponent in the entire game, even the bosses, so this game is rather easy.
Luckily, the game does have a little bit of depth with the scoring: you can chain points from popping balloons that float up around the levels, and waves of enemies can be quickly taken out to do the same, so if you’re going for your own personal scorechasing endeavors, the game becomes a ton of fun to try and challenge yourself with, leading to this being a game I’ll definitely pull out now and then like I do with Monster Lair. Sadly, this game can also be broken for score too, since certain bosses spawn enemies infinitely, and the generous time limit leads to easy grinds of points due to said chain system, so you’ll have to show some self restraint.
Also a bummer, there are no online leaderboards in the slightest, which isn’t unexpected due to no prior history from the porting team, but for an arcade game with such a fun scoring mechanic, it would have been a pretty rad bonus, especially when Arcade Archives games offer that feature for much less. There’s also a gripe I have with the unlockable Arcade mode, which allows for customized settings and infinite continues. In this mode, you bring up the Service menu with the L button, and can then go on your merry way with your customized game… Except the L button can bring up the menu again at any time, and thus, reset your game.
Due to the inability to remap and unmap buttons, it becomes so stupidly easy to bump the L button and reset the entire game, that it honestly makes me baffled as to why you can’t remap controls like in other Ratalaika ports to avoid this. Luckily, any settings you change in this mode will impact the other presets, meaning the amount of lives and general game difficulty will impact the other modes, without the need to worry about your game being accidentally reset. Your high-scores even save across modes, which is a huge relief for me due to the lack of save states, but the whole package still feels as if it’s barely missing the polish we’ve come to know and expect from other Ratalaika ports, which leads to a very inconsistent experience.
In conclusion, Clockwork Aquario is an incredibly colorful, fun arcade gem restored and finally released after so many years, leading to a great platformer that feels like the perfect sister game to Monster Lair. This port job is pretty decent, though the lack of some expected features from other Ratalaika Games releases is rather disappointing, especially considering the completely asinine lack of button remapping.
There’s also the matter of how short the core game is, and while the scoring is fun enough to give me some replay value, (along with the desire to 1CC the game, and also eventually play in local co-op, where you can throw the other player and play a versus minigames for more scoring potential) it can feel like an incredibly shallow package for the $20 asking price, especially with no online leaderboards. Still, with the amount of restoration work that went into this title, and the huge amount of charm on offer, I still do recommend fans of Westone or arcade platformers give this game a spin, at least for 1CC attempts.
That being said, with what’s on offer, maybe it’d be a better value to get this physically rather than go with a pricey download: I feel if the DL version was just $5 less, at around $15, it would be a perfectly fine value with the amount of content on offer, especially due to the fact that well, this game was literally a phantom for 25+ years. That being said, with how the Strictly Limited Collector Editions are delayed yet again until Q1 2022, who knows if those will even show up in a timely manner. (at least standard editions exist and are shipping, as are JP versions, so those are available if you just want a simple copy)
If this game can come back, then hopefully, similar miracles will bring mythical phantoms like Dystopia and Sun Shine back to life! But for those hoping for a replayable platformer that you’ll be spending tons of hours replaying for years to come, you may want to hold off for now.
I give Clockwork Aquario a 7 out of 10.