Clock Tower (Super Famicom)

The morning sun has vanquished the horrible night.

Three Japan-exclusive horror games in a row? Why not? ‘Tis the season, after all!

This is 1995’s Clock Tower from Human Entertainment, also known as Clock Tower: The First Fear when it was later re-released as an enhanced port for PlayStation, PC, and the Bandai WonderSwan of all things. Like many of Human’s other non-sports titles (Monster Party, Kabuki Quantum Fighter), Clock Tower is an odd duck. To my knowledge, it’s the only point-and-click adventure game developed for the Super Famicom. These sorts of games were typically confined to home computers with native mouse support and while you would occasionally see one ported over to a game console, most famously the NES version of Manic Mansion, creating one from scratch for a Nintendo system must have been a hard sell indeed. Weirdest of all in my book: This isn’t one of the several dozen games that support the Super Famicom mouse accessory that came out in 1992. Huh.

While this original Clock Tower title has never been officially released outside Japan in any of its various incarnations, all of its sequels have. Clock Tower 2 for the PlayStation was rather confusingly retitled simply Clock Tower outside of Japan, but make no mistake: These are two distinct games. Thankfully, I’m able to enjoy the Super Famicom original thanks to a fan translated reproduction cartridge.

In Clock Tower, you play as Jennifer Simpson, a young girl who has just been adopted from a Norwegian orphanage by wealthy recluse Simon Barrows, along with three of her fellow orphans, Anne, Laura, and Lotte. Soon after arriving at the Barrows mansion, Mary, the woman escorting them, leaves to go fetch the master of the house. Noticing that Mary is taking an unusually long time to return, Jennifer volunteers to go find her. Before she can travel far, however, Jennifer hears screams from behind her and rushes back to the foyer only to find it dark and empty, her three friends having seemingly vanished into thin air. Jennifer is now left all alone in the cavernous old house, mystified as to who or what is stalking her and her companions.

The first thing you’ll notice once you take control of Jennifer is that this is a true point-and-click game. You have no direct control over Jennifer’s movements with the directional pad and are limited to using an on-screen cursor to direct her what to walk or run toward and what objects to interact with. You can also press the X button to cancel your last issued command and bring her to a standstill if you change your mind once she’s underway. You’ll have plenty of time to think it over while en route, too, because the second thing you’ll notice is how absurdly slow Jennifer moves. Despite being under mortal threat at all times, she shuffles down long hallways like she’s leisurely perusing the exhibits at an art gallery. If you need to take a quick bathroom break while playing, just have her climb a flight of stairs, which takes the better part of a full minute on its own. You can double tap the button to make her run, but this will rather perversely deplete her color-coded stress meter, basically this game’s version of health, even if she’s not running away from any specific danger.

You’ll want to keep her stress level at a minimum because it directly affects her ability to survive attacks by the mansion’s hostile residents. If Jennifer is under assault, her portrait in the lower left corner of the screen will flash, indicating “panic mode.” When this happens, mashing the action button as fast as possible can save her, provided her stress is not already in the red. Once the immediate threat has passed, you can lower the stress level by resting, which is triggered by standing still in a safe area for a period of time. Make sure to do this as needed, as there are no weapons or attacks available in Clock Tower. Other than panic mode, Jennifer’s only other form of defense is hiding from a pursuer. There are several hiding spots scattered throughout the mansion, but they’re not always guaranteed to work. If you successfully hide, your attacker will wander off and Jennifer will be free to do more exploring. If it doesn’t, it’s game over. Rather generously, though, there are unlimited continues in Clock Tower and they automatically put you back in the room where you died, so progress is never lost. I suppose this is one less thing to worry about, although it can bleed away a little of the game’s all-important tension if you stop to think about it too much.

Most of your play time is spent exploring the various rooms of the Barrows estate, collecting inventory items, and using them to solve puzzles that will allow you to progress to new areas and advance the story. Actually, calling them “puzzles” might be a bit of a stretch in most cases. I know this is a difficult balance to strike for any game like this. Too much abstruseness and you end up with the sort of “moon logic” scenarios that many adventure gamers utterly despise. Giving a granola bar to a rat to get a wallet, that sort of stuff. I get that. I would argue that Clock Tower swings the pendulum a bit too much in the opposite direction, though. Does a gap in the floor with a wooden plank standing right up against the wall alongside it really constitute a puzzle? Unfortunately, it’s par for the course here. There’s nothing in the way of thought demanded. If a door is locked, just keep looking around until you find the key in a box or sitting on a desk or what have you. Pesky insects in your way? Keep checking rooms until you happen on some bug spray. This is probably Clock Tower’s biggest missed opportunity for me. It has enough well-executed horror (pun very much intended) to still be worth your time, but some properly satisfying brainteasers would have made it much more of a total package as far as games in this genre go. Perhaps the designers were afraid of alienating a console audience that may not have had much exposure to similar titles?

Between the complaints about the gratuitously slow movement and shallow puzzles, it’s sounding like I’m a bit down on Clock Tower as a whole. Let’s correct for that a bit, because it really gets a lot of other things very right.

First and foremost, the sheer sense of atmosphere is practically unmatched on the system. It’s right up there with Super Metroid in its ability to pull you into its world with a one-two punch of sumptuous locations and brilliant sound design. Every room of the mansion is packed with eerie detail and has its own unique identity. Furthermore, all that detail is never allowed to get in the way of the gameplay due to the smart decision to have the cursor change shape from an arrow to a box whenever it passes over an object that you can interact with. Important scenes and objects are also illustrated with close-up shots so intricately rendered that they almost look like digitized photographs. Music is saved only for important locations and circumstances. Most of the time you’ll all alone with the sounds of creaking doors, distant screams, and Jennifer’s footsteps, which is great way to emphasize that looming threats can strike from anywhere at any time and to lend them even more impact when they finally do.

Then there’s your nemesis, the infamous “scissorman.” This deformed maniac has the uncanny ability to appear when and where you least expect him, eager to put an agonizing end to Jennifer’s exploration of the mansion courtesy of his giant pair of shears. He isn’t the only fiend you’re up against, but he’s easily the most persistent and memorable of them all. Evading this pint-sized unstoppable freak is half the fun of Clock Tower. Most of the remaining half is trying, usually in vain, to anticipate his next appearance. It really does feel like an interactive slasher movie.

Clock Tower also has a decent amount of replayability. This is welcome indeed, as it’s a very short experience. The first trip through will likely take you an hour or two, but once you know how the game is structured, you can get that down to a half hour easily on subsequent sessions. The game employs a few tricks to keep these replays interesting. Key items and even some rooms within the mansion will switch places randomly, the exact item you need to locate in order to open the way to the final part of the mansion can vary, and even some plot elements and story scenes might only appear on some playthroughs. There are also nine different endings to discover and the game will keep track of which ones you’ve already seen. It won’t tell you exactly which actions you’ll need to take and which events you’ll need to witness in order to achieve each ending, however, so experimentation is encouraged. These endings are short but fairly varied. Depending on what actions you take, Jennifer could meet an untimely end, wind up a sole survivor, or successfully save some of her friends.

Viewed strictly as a game, Clock Tower is extremely limited. As an interactive horror experience, it’s not to be missed. The game’s director, Hifume Kono, makes no secret of the fact that his goal was to make a game based on his favorite scary movies, particularly those of Italian auteur Dario Argento. The plot and characters of Clock Tower borrow extensively from Argento’s 1985 film Phenomena, right down to the name and look of the lead character Jennifer. Even the music in Clock Tower seems to have been inspired by the scores that the prog rock band Goblin contributed to several Argento films. Kono has also stated that the scissorman was inspired by the famous hedge clipper massacre scene in the 1981 slasher flick The Burning. That makes two references to The Burning in two consecutive game reviews for me. How weird is that?

If you have any love for slasher movies, adventure games, or gorgeous 16-bit pixel art, you need to make time for Clock Tower.

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Kabuki Quantum Fighter (NES)

I’ll do whatever you say, man. Just quit looking at me like that.

This little oddity is 1990’s Kabuki Quantum Fighter. If you’re looking for a game that combines gameplay and visual elements from a good half-dozen of the greatest NES action-platformers with one of the most forehead-slappingly stupid plots ever conceived, then you’ve come to the right place, my friend. Welcome.

The year is 2056 and some unknown party has inserted a super advanced virus into the world’s computer network. All conventional efforts to halt its spread have failed and it’s only a matter of time before the unknown invader gains control of the systems controlling all of earth’s nuclear weapons, dooming everyone. The last hope of humanity is 25 year-old badass soldier/computer expert Colonel Scott O’Connor. A colonel at 25? What is this, the Civil War?

Anyway, Scott volunteers to be hooked into an untested machine that will translate his mind into binary machine code so that he can battle the virus on its own turf. Nobody is sure whether the device will work or what form Scott might take in the computer world.

So far, you’re probably thinking that this just sounds like normal science fiction stuff. Sort of a cross between Tron and The Terminator. Well, as it turns out, our all-American soldier boy Scott’s disembodied mind coalesces into the virtual form of…a superhero kabuki dancer. That whips enemies to death with his waist-length crimson hair and tosses computer chips like throwing stars. Supposedly, this is because his great grandfather was the famous kabuki Danjuro (O’Connor?) and the computer somehow keyed in on this.

It’s just so beautiful. Words can’t express how much I love this game’s mad storyline. The fact that it’s all played totally straight with support characters glaring intently at computer monitors while the threat of imminent nuclear armageddon looms overhead just renders it even funnier somehow. I’m not sure how much of this (if any) was intentional, but this is a game from Human Entertainment, makers of Monster Party and the Clock Tower series, so who the hell knows.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering if the story makes more sense in the original Japanese, the answer is “not particularly.” The game was originally called Jigoku Gokuraku Maru and was a very loose tie-in to the 1990 samurai fantasy adventure film Zipang. Instead of Scott O’Connor, the protagonist is a teenager named Bobby Yano and he takes on super kabuki form due to being a distant descendant of Jigoku, the hero of the film. Other than that, it’s just about equally crazy.

Once you start the game proper, Batman will probably be the first thing that comes to mind. The color palette and the designs and proportions of the character sprites are very similar to Sunsoft’s take on the Caped Crusader. Beyond the visuals, Kabuki Quantum Fighter’s sub-weapon system also mirrors Batman’s. Scott has a selection of projectile weapons that he can utilize in addition to his primary hair whip attack. You cycle between these using the select button and they all consume varying amounts of ammunition (“chips”) from a shared pool. One last similarity is in the nature of the platforming itself. Most of the challenge involves grabbing onto the underside of ledges and platforms scattered throughout each level and then deftly vaulting off of them to progress, similar to how Batman’s platforming was built around wall jumping.

Next, you’ll likely notice the Ninja Gaiden and Contra elements. Stage backgrounds feature giant beating hearts, pulsating lengths of intestinal tract, deformed faces, alien fetuses, the whole H. R. Giger back catalog. Enemies are no picnic, either. You have detached heads shooting fire from their exposed brains, weird dog-frog hybrid critters, and more. While representing the computer virus you’re fighting with this kind of gruesome techno-horror imagery is rather cool, it’s also quite derivative of Capcom and Tecmo’s work.

Each boss you defeat earns you a new weapon to use? Mega Man. The whip-like reach and windup delay on your main attack? Castlevania. Notice enough of these similarities and you might start to think that Kabuki Quantum Fighter doesn’t bring anything new at all to the mix. In fact, there’s a couple little twists to the formula that I really like. For starters, your health and ammunition aren’t automatically refilled completely between levels. You do get some back, but if you just barely defeated the boss of the last stage with a tiny sliver of health left you can look forward to starting the next one with 50% health at most. This means that precision really matters. The fewer mistakes you make in a given stage, the more you’ll be able to make in the subsequent, more challenging one. It’s a great way to reward mastery.

You also have the interesting ability to exchange health for ammunition (and vice-versa) when the game is paused. This only works during boss battles, but it can be a true lifesaver if you happen to find yourself sitting on a big stockpile of chips but down to your last bit of health. If there’s another action game that uses a similar mechanic, I’m not aware of it.

Despite this, though, Kabuki Quantum Fighter just isn’t a very original game. I am 100% okay with that, because when it’s running on all cylinders it provides some of the best pure platforming moments on the system. There may be only five levels here, but each one is a gem. What this game really amounts to is a series of intricate obstacle courses where you’re vaulting from outcropping to outcropping through a gauntlet of hazards, including enemies, spikes, slippery ice, rushing water, treadmills, and a strict time limit. The controls are so precise and the flow of the game so smooth that you just naturally fall into a Zen-like groove as you get a feel for each level. Even when you have plenty of time, it still feels so good to keep up that forward momentum as you flip and climb all over the scenery on your way to the next boss. It’s all about that flow.

The bosses themselves are another highlight. They’re all completely distinct from one another and very exciting to fight, with relatively complex attack patterns for a game of this type and vintage. The plant monster from level three and the spider robot from level four are definitely highlights. Beating these guys, especially without using your special weapons, is extremely satisfying.

The graphics and animation are excellent overall. I already praised the bio-mechanical horror art style and humanoid characters like Scott himself and several of the bosses animate beautifully for an NES game. The music is interesting, although it might be more interesting than memorable in the end. It’s very experimental, with sharp, mechanical percussion over oddly-arranged blips and beeps. It’s suitably up-tempo for the action on screen and fits with the whole computer horror theme of the game, but you probably won’t still be humming it after you switch the console off.

If I have any complaints about Kabuki Quantum Fighter, they mainly come down to the length of the game. Five levels, even if they are five of the best, can’t help but leave me wanting more. The combination of poor sales on release and Human Entertainment’s eventual bankruptcy in 2000 pretty much guarantee that our favorite Irish-American cyberkabuki won’t be making his promised comeback. Kabuki Quantum Fighter may be doomed to permanent obscurity, but it’s still one hell of a sweet, trippy ride for the lucky few who find their way to it.

With October almost upon us, I somehow don’t think we’ve heard the last from the ghost of weird old Human Entertainment. Stay tuned to find out exactly why you never run with scissors….

Monster Party (NES)

Nothing weird going on here. Nope.

That’s right, it’s Monster Party! If there’s one game for the NES that’s remembered today not for its gameplay, story, audiovisual excellence, or sequels (there were none), but purely for its almost overwhelming eccentricity, it’s this 1989 offering from publisher Bandai. I just wish it was as well-designed as it is insane.

Monster Party’s opening cut scene introduces us to Mark, a seemingly normal kid walking home after dark from a baseball game with his trusty bat in tow. Yes, kids really used to do stuff like this without anyone calling the authorities. It was grand. Anyway, Mark stops to admire the beauty of a shooting star in the night sky, only to be shocked when the “star” lands right in front of him and reveals itself to be a bird man from another planet. Named Bert. Of course, Mark is completely unfazed by all this and asks “What’s up?” Yeah. Bert explains that his planet has been overrun by evil monsters and a little kid with a baseball bat is exactly the sort of mighty warrior he needs at his side to retake it. Before Mark can get a word about this in edgewise, Bert grabs him and they merge together into one being (!?) before flying off to Bert’s home world.

So, uh, yeah. There’s your story.

Once the game proper begins, you’ll find that Monster Party is a side-scrolling action-platformer, which was sort of the default genre for games at the time. You start out controlling Mark, who can run, jump, crouch, and swing his bat. It’s a pretty typical moveset, but there is one nice touch: With the proper timing, the bat can be use to deflect enemy projectiles, which serves the dual purpose of defending Mark and dealing heavy damage to the enemy.

Picking up a pill icon dropped by defeated enemies will transform Mark into Bert for a limited time. Bert can fly and has a ranged laser attack, but he seems to be a little slower than Mark and he can’t deflect enemy shots like Mark can with his bat. This makes some enemies easier or tougher to defeat based on what form you’re currently using. It should be noted in Bert’s favor, though, that his ability to fly can completely trivialize some levels of the game, as in the case of the seventh stage, which is the only one laid-out vertically.

One of the first things you’ll notice playing through Monster Party is that the levels and enemies really aren’t that complex or challenging. Layouts are straightforward, enemies follow very basic fixed patterns and aren’t really programmed to take your movements into account, and your health bar is absolutely massive, spanning the entire screen horizontally and potentially allowing you to survive dozens of hits when full. It all seems very easy. That’s because this game is really all about the bosses. Every level has doors scattered about that lead either to pointless empty rooms that just waste your time or to a boss fight. The average level has three bosses that must be defeated in order to acquire the key that opens the door to the next level.

Unfortunately, most of the bosses fit into two categories: Stationary ones that shoot at you and mobile ones that shoot at you while moving back and forth across the screen horizontally. Sure, they all look different, but once you’ve beaten one, you’ve kind of beaten them all.

The game also doesn’t seem to have been tested very thoroughly. There’s an annoying glitch in level seven that prevents you from completing it if you defeat all three of the bosses, which you’ll recall is the goal of each level! Instead, you’ll need to either leave one boss room of your choice unentered or die and restart the level. This is such an obvious error that even minimal playtesting should have quickly picked up on it.

Graphics and sound are all over the map. Sprites for Mark, Bert, and most standard enemies are average, while the more detailed boss sprites tend to look quite good. Some stage backgrounds look great (I especially like the pulsating purple lighting in the cavern stage), but the majority are on the generic and forgettable side, like the forest and sewer. A couple of the musical tracks stand out as very eerie and memorable, though the score as a whole didn’t stick in my mind. Do yourself a favor and dial the volume down during the sixth level, though. Instead of music, you get an attempt at an ambient howling wind effect playing in the background of this stage and it’ll kind of make you want to claw your own eardrums out.

On the whole, it sounds like a rather flat and uninspired game without a lot to recommend it over the system’s many superior platformers. Honestly, if I’m being objective, this a completely fair and accurate assessment. Monster Party is a wholly mediocre game.

But it’s just so freakin’ weird, you guys! Like Super Back to the Future Part II, another average-at-best platformer I played recently, Monster Party is still worth your time just to get a look at the next crazy thing it has in store for you. Dogs with human heads, walking pairs of pants (maybe they’re supposed to be invisible men, but I like my take better), a killer kitten, a severed Egyptian pharaoh head with blood gushing from its neck stump, and so much more. The enemies in Monster Party are unlike those in any other NES game and have to be seen to be believed. Thankfully, the designers did a great job making it likely that you’ll be able to see them all in a reasonable amount of time, since this is a fairly quick and easy game to complete. The eight stages are short, continues are unlimited, and health is abundant. This makes Monster Party more of a light romp than a protracted struggle, which is great because the novelty and humor never gets a chance to grow stale and the player doesn’t have to invest hours mastering game mechanics and stages that really aren’t that great in the first place. With all this in mind, I recommend everyone play through this one at least once just to soak in the pure WTF-ness of it all.

One last thing I should mention involves Monster Party’s history. This is a rare example of a game that was made in Japan, but never released there. A prototype for an unreleased Japanese version exists and studying it reveals that the game was originally intended to contain many more parody elements than it ultimately did, with bosses based on famous monsters from films such as Gremlins, Alien, Little Shop of Horrors, Planet of the Apes, and many more. In the end, these were all changed to original creations, probably due to fear of potential legal troubles. Personally, I’m glad it worked out this way. Although recognizable movie references would have been amusing in their own right, they probably wouldn’t have left as strong an impression on players as the completely random and inexplicable crop of bosses that we actually got. It’s a rare case of last minute changes made under duress actually working out for the better.

So give Monster Party a shot sometime soon. You have nothing to lose but your sanity. Batter up!