Skull & Bones, Cyberpunk… There are games that spend a hell of a lot of time in development. But not everyone you can think of comes close to this game originally planned for the SEGA arcade machine and finally released on Nintendo Switch, PS4, Xbox One and PC almost 30 years later. A look back at the history of this video game that should never have seen the light of day.
- A spiritual brother for Wonder Boy
- An unexpected retro resurrection
- A release almost 30 years later
A spiritual brother for Wonder Boy
Here we are at the beginning of the 90s. Arcade terminals, despite a slight decline, continue to make the heyday of young players and have allowed them to discover titles that have become legendary. This is particularly the case with Wonder Boy, a license from Westone. In 1992, the Japanese firm embarked on a similar project: a colorful 2D platformer by the sweet name of Clockwork Aquario.
This new license is still supposed to stand out from the behemoth of Westone, both in terms of gameplay and the universe, as well as technical capabilities. In this regard, Clockwork Aquario is particularly ambitious. The developers want to push the limits of the Sega System 18. In addition to that, we find in the team of the big names who worked on the famous license Wonder Boy, like Ryuichi Nishizawa (father of the franchise) and Takanori Kurihara.
In short, Westone wants to hit hard for this new license. But unfortunately, things don’t go as planned… From 1993, the tide began to turn on the side of the video game industry. 2D platformers are no longer popular, it’s now the era of 3D games and versus fighting. Thus, a title like Clockwork Aquario no longer really has its place. The first test sessions in local arcades are inconclusive. Few players are interested in it, preferring to start short games on the games of the moment than spending long minutes in front of the SEGA and Westone terminal. Suffice to say that by leaving Clockwork Aquario, the two take the risk of making an oven and that is unthinkable. In 1994, Clockwork Aquario was definitively cancelled.
Despite these changes in the industry, we have remained true to the platformer genre, our area of expertise. We thought the trend of fighting games would fade, but it never ended and they even got more and more popular.
For Westone, the cancellation of Clockwork Aquario marks the abandonment of arcades. Faced with a market that no longer corresponds to it, the firm decides to turn to console games. A lackluster transition that does not allow Westone to establish itself as a player of choice in the industry. After years of survival, the ax fell in 2014: Westone went bankrupt. But while the studio is well and truly dead and buried, Clockwork Aquario is rising from its ashes. And it was on social networks that it began the most unexpected comeback in video game history.
An unexpected retro resurrection
It all starts with a simple photo. A Japanese blogger shares with his readers a photo of an old game that he had been able to test during a localized test session in the arcade room downstairs from his house. This simple capture intrigues, makes people talk and turns on all social networks. The general public has just discovered Clockwork Aquario, 12 years after its cancellation. But nothing happens.
It wasn’t until Monster World Collection was released in 2012 that Ryuichi Nishizawa realized the surprising interest Clockwork Aquario was generating. Rediscovering the wonderful world of Wonder Boy and Monster World has made players want to finally discover the mysterious one of Clockwork Aquario. In addition to the attraction for the retro side, the idea of getting your hands on a long-lost game that only a handful of players have been able to test is enough to make curious young and old dream. And it shows on social media.
Faced with this enthusiasm, Ryuichi Nishizawa decides to bring his stillborn baby to life. He sifts through the files on his old PC and eventually finds the Clockwork Aquario source code. Just to take the temperature, he tweets the news:
It’s not a buzz with a double Z, but the announcement still takes a certain community of players. Ryuichi Nishizawa believes in it and therefore goes to see the M2 studio, which has justly distinguished itself on Monster World Collection and the SEGA 3D Classics. But unfortunately, nothing happens… nothing until 2018. That year, a key player entered this story: Dennis Mendel and his studio, Strictly Limited Games.
Hard at work to sign the return of another game canceled in 1994, Ultracore, the team is very interested in this source code story for Clockwork Aquario. It must be said that a large part of the developers are die-hard Wonder Boy fans. Bringing his spiritual successor back to life is therefore a kind of dream for them. Building on their previous work, they had no trouble getting their hands on the game’s code, so they set to work providing a demo of the game to show to its creator at Tokyo Game Show 2019. Ryuichi Nishizawa is conquered and this moment marks the beginning of a great collaboration aimed at bringing this game with a tragic fate back to life, while signing one of the most unexpected records in the world of video games.
The Limited Edition of Clockwork Aquario (Nintendo Switch) and the art card are sold out! 💥 We are very happy that so many people are excited about the game. ❤️
Don’t miss your chance to get one of the other limited editions for Nintendo Switch & PS4! 👾https://t.co/JzBy78yWBg pic.twitter.com/WM065PX8CE
— Strictly Limited Games (@RealStrictlyLTD) February 26, 2021
A release almost 30 years later
After a very long break, the development of Clockwork Aquario therefore resumes in 2019, with members of the original team. The programmer Takanori Kurihara takes the lead of the project which is not limited to a simple remaster / port. A real restoration work is indeed launched to sublimate the base while filling in the sections that have disappeared over time.
When we started working on the game, we thought we had all the programs and data needed to do it. But as the development progressed, we discovered that they were missing some data. … It was very difficult to make the additions coincide with the pixels of the time. It was comparable to the work of a craftsman restoring a work of art.
Ryuichi Nishizawa for Gematsu
The development of Clockwork Aquario is one of those rare and timeless moments in the gaming world. In almost 30 years, the video game industry has changed a lot and the way of doing it too. With Clockwork Aquario, two diametrically opposed eras met, two ways of working, two visions, two fields of possibilities… And it’s no surprise that this moment will forever remain in the heads of the developers.
Almost 30 years after its genesis, Clockwork Aquario finally sees the light of day on November 30, 2021. From a critical point of view, the game is neither a failure nor a hit. If the mechanics haven’t really aged well, the nostalgia effect and the ingenuity of the title allow it to obtain a more than correct score of 69/70 on Metacritic. As for sales, we don’t have precise figures. But if the release of the title was an event for a good number of insiders, it failed to become a mainstream success. Some will be tempted to say that this whole story was not worth the candle. What’s the point of reviving such a game and deploying an entire team for such a small niche? Well the answer is simple: for the passion and pleasure of finally bringing to life a fallen game that would otherwise have sunk forever into oblivion.
This game is visionary. It’s almost a miracle that a game that was canceled is now on sale after 27 years.
Ryuichi Nishizawa for Gematsu
Clockwork Aquario is neither a remake nor a port, but a game that started in 1992 before experiencing a long break and finally releasing in 2021. Admittedly, it did not take 29 years to be developed, but it is still the title recording the longest time between the beginning of its creation and its release. As such, he is registered with the Guinness Book of Recordsin which is celebrated this surprising lapse of time officially amounting to 28 years and 81 days.
Thanks to Strictly Limited Games and ININ Games, Ryuichi Nishizawa was able to live a real dream: to bring her baby back to life, but also to the whole universe of the late Westone. In parallel, Monster World/Wonder Boy had the right to many remakes, more or less well received but never hated. Ryuichi Nishizawa even indulged in some crazy thoughts, like a remake of the Aurail shoot’em up or even a return of Milano no Arbeit Collection, a pixel art marvel never released outside of Japan. Simple dreams or ongoing projects? The future will tell us, but what is certain is that retro games always have good times ahead of them.
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