While many are familiar with the Clock Tower series from the PSOne-era survival-horror games, the original point-‘n’-click adventure game Clock Tower, released in 1995 for the Super Famicom, has rarely gotten its due. This is probably a result of the game having never been officially released outside of Japan.
As part of our ongoing podcast series, The Eerie Arcade, my wife and I played through a fan translation of this foundational game in the horror genre. While aspects of it certainly show their age, there are quite a few things to admire about Clock Tower’s take on translating the look and feel of horror cinema to gaming.
Specifically, Clock Tower cribs the aesthetics of Italian horror film Phenomena. This is most evident in its depiction of the main character, Jennifer, who is essentially a 1:1 recreation of a young Jennifer Connelly’s starring role in the film. It’s funny to see such a blatant unauthorized use of a celebrity’s likeness make it into a game and it makes me wonder just how common this practice was in games of this time.
However, the aesthetic choices go beyond just the primary character, with the game’s static backgrounds being framed like scenes in a horror film and quick zoom shots of gore or scares punctuating the action. The sprite work is also excellent, even for a period in gaming where sprite-based graphics arguably reached their peak, with smooth and expressive animations that add to the cinematic feel.
In terms of gameplay, Clock Tower is largely a standard adventure game. You must explore the titular Clock Tower mansion, collect items, and solve puzzles to progress. While the mansion is definitely an intriguing, and scary, location to explore, this gameplay also suffers from the same frustrating design choices that plagued other adventure games from the same era. Namely, easy to miss items and occasionally obtuse puzzle solving. Having no idea how to progress and resorting to just revisiting every room and clicking on every possible thing has never been fun, but it’s really difficult to tolerate by modern gaming standards. The exploration is also very slow, as you are forced to sit through long drawn out animations for every action. I don’t mind watching Jennifer slowly climb the stairs once, but I’d prefer to skip the fifteen seconds long animation the next seven times it happens.
In addition to the traditional adventure gameplay, the game also sometimes enters into Panic Mode. This mostly occurs when the game’s main antagonist, Scissorman, shows up and tries to kill Jennifer. In Panic Mode, the player must think and act quickly in order to evade and fend off attacks or else get a game over. These segments are a stark contrast to the rest of the game and you never know when to expect them since each new playthrough randomizes Scissorman’s appearances. We found this part of the game to be genuinely scary and the way that the randomness keeps you on edge during exploration is a great design choice. On the other hand, this part of the game feels distinctly separate from the rest of it and breaks up the flow of exploration, occasionally leading to some frustrating backtracking.
The horror in Clock Tower’s narrative seems to largely center on parentage. Both a fear of unknown adoptive parents and of raising monstrous offspring are major themes that cut across the story. While there is clear potential for a narrative focused on these anxieties to get into problematic territory, we found that the game’s story was fairly effective in its depiction of the horrors endured by helpless adoptees. Rather than stigmatizing the orphans, as horror unfortunately often does, Clock Tower instead focuses on the evil of abusive parents and the monsters that they can twist their children into. It’s an deeply unnerving story and you can’t help but feel for these young girls put into such a terrifying situation.
The darkness of this tale is probably also the reason that we never saw Clock Tower here in the west. While Nintendo might have been fine with Clock Tower haunting their system in Japan, they knew full well how the American media and lawmakers would have reacted to a game featuring satanism, child endangerment, and murder in 1995.
Overall, we found Clock Tower to be an effectively frightening horror game with a great story and aesthetic. While not every aspect of the game has aged gracefully, the game as a whole is still well worth experiencing for horror fans. If you want to hear more of our thoughts on the game, you can listen to the episode below or subscribe to the podcast on Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever else you like to listen.
Join us next time to talk about the 1998 PC title Sanitarium!