Clockwork Aquario review: Westone’s cancelled 1990s arcade game finally gets a chance to shine

I first discovered the magic of the developer Westone while on a fishing trip in Saskatchewan. I’m not sure why there was a Wonder Boy in Monster Land cabinet in an unassuming Canadian lodge; regardless, I had the opportunity to play this weird amalgam of a game, which lured me in with an adventurous tone that didn’t quite jive with its arcade sensibilities. It reminded me of Zelda II in the way that it had you gathering coins and entering houses on a 2D plane, yet it had a unique charm that was all its own. I don’t think I made it particularly far on the couple of coins I had, but the mark it left on me was indelible. In the thirty-odd years since then I’ve keenly played through many other games in the convoluted Wonder/Monster Boy series – but I’m also interested in anything that Westone has had a hand in more broadly. There’s just a certain charm and whimsy to their house art style that I find irresistible.

Although I hadn’t been keenly aware of Clockwork Aquario until now, its release is something to celebrate if you’re a Westone fan. It’s a bit of a lost gem, an arcade game that for one reason or another (there’s too much conjecture surrounding it to be definitive) didn’t make it out into the wild back in the day – but now it’s been lovingly restored by the former developers and new rights holders. It feels like a product of its time in both good and obviously dated ways, and it definitely deserves to be released and enjoyed.

After a straightforward snippet of a tutorial, the game bounces through five colorful and vibrant stages of unadulterated mayhem. Clockwork Aquario is a simple platformer whose gimmick involves picking up enemies and using them as projectiles. When you first approach a foe, you can either attack them directly or jump on them, which causes them to be stunned. Then, by simply walking into them, you can them grab them and give ‘em a toss! Clockwork Aquario is basically a score attack game, so setting up combos ends up being the core mechanic. You can wipe out lines of enemies, as well as balloons that give you power-ups and points, which remains a satisfying tactic throughout. Boss battles are hinged on you nabbing minions and throwing them because that tends to be easier than trying to slap or bounce on them.

It’s a brisk experience, which is to be expected since it was developed for arcades, but the longevity resides in mastery. The game has varying difficulties that dictate how many credits you have to beat it, so finding the perfect route and run is intrinsic to the experience. At first I was kind of miffed at the concept, because a lot of other arcade ports of late just let you pump virtual coins into the game. But having to go back to the start multiple times (it took me a few tries to get to the end) helped me to not only understand but also appreciate the systems and find the joy in challenging myself to get as far as I could under those limits. Which, really, is the basis for any arcade game: your mom and dad didn’t give you limitless credits, so why should the game? The really nice bow on top of the package is that Clockwork Aquario is a completely fair experience, and doesn’t paywall you with dirty tactics like a lot of arcade games do.

Beyond the game itself, the package surrounding Clockwork Aquario is serviceable, but nothing to write home about. The adjustable difficulty levels are nice, and there’s a lovely gallery to get into, but otherwise the game sits on its own without a lot of bonuses, bells and whistles. Which, in all honesty, kind of fits with Westone’s M.O. anyway – unassuming but lovely all the same.

As long as you know what you’re getting into, Clockwork Aquario delivers on its promise of being an ageless arcade game that still looks great, plays smoothly and offers an even challenge throughout. I wouldn’t say it’s the type of game to introduce yourself to Westone with, but it’s an amazing curio that I’m so happy was given the chance it deserves.

Clockwork Aquario was developed by Westone and ININ Games, and it’s available on PS4 and Switch. We played the Switch version.

Disclosure statement: review code for Clockwork Aquario was provided by PR Hound. A Most Agreeable Pastime operates as an independent site, and all opinions expressed are those of the author.

Follow A Most Agreeable Pastime on Twitter and Facebook, if you like.