The Clock Tower series was created by Human Entertainment, a company that released games for various systems from 1983 until 1999. Clock Tower is one of their most memorable franchises, which takes a drastically different approach than the majority of horror games that came shortly after it.
This is part one of the Clock Tower retrospective, for the second part click here.
Clock Tower puts you in the shoes of a scared girl whose only means of survival is running away and hiding from the assailant. These kinds of elements were rare for horror games back then and even now there are only a handful horror games that focus on running instead of gunning your opponent down.
Most of the games play out like a point-and-click, forcing you to interact with your surroundings and solve puzzles with the items previously collected. All the while you must run or hide from the killer that is constantly stalking you. These sections were done well for the most part giving off a constant air of tensions, when the killer is searching for the place you are hiding in.
Because it wouldn’t be enjoyable if the stalker instant killed you all the games have a panic/stress meter of sorts. In the first three titles when the killer grabs you, you have a couple of seconds where you must mash the panic button in order to repel his attack. While saving your life this depletes your stamina meter. Have no stamina when he attacks and you have no chance to get away.
While the premise is quite intelligent and was done superbly in the original 1995 title, the quality of the series quickly dropped as time passed, with each successive game having less and less polish.
Clock Tower (1995)
The original Clock Tower is a Japanese exclusive SNES game. The game has a very simple premise that is executed flawlessly. You play as Jennifer, who along with three other girls is adopted by a foster family. After you arrive at the mansion you hear a scream and quickly discover the corpse of one of your friends. You then have to save as many of your friends while trying to find a way out of this hellish mansion. At the same time you are being chased by a maniacal midget with a huge pair of scissors, called Bobby.
This wouldn’t be so scary if not for the fact that you are a young defenseless girl, only capable of running and hiding. You do get to defend yourself by mashing a button but this drains your stamina, visible in the portrait in the lower left corner. Being in the red means that the next hit cannot be blocked resulting in an immediate game over.
Running might sound like a good option but Bobby isn’t a slouch. While he does walk slowly you can never quite get away from him, which makes every chase scene extremely tense. Making things worse is your stamina level. If you are too exhausted Jennifer will stumble around like the victims of every good horror movie, allowing scissorman to close up during those few precious seconds.
Hiding is your best bet and the mansion is littered with hiding spots. Still, Bobby won’t always fall for it, instead jumping out when you least expect it. Hiding scenes are especially tense. Bobby usually checks most of the places in the room and just when he is about to leave, he turns around just for a moment, as if he is acknowledging that you are still there.
The mansion is made superbly. It has every room you have come to expect, including bathrooms bedrooms, a kitchen and a garage. There are also some more unique rooms which bring out the creepy atmosphere of this mansion. What makes this game particularly enjoyable is the fact that even though the perspective is 2D the whole mansion is laid out in 3D, allowing you to enter rooms and explore different wings of the mansion.
You control Jennifer via the cursor, telling her where to go and what to interact with, making this game play like a point-and-click. And just like every good point-and-click, you can pick up objects which you will need to complete specific puzzles or open locked doors. The puzzles are pretty well designed, meaning you will never get stuck.
While every other company was pushing early 3D titles on the PlayStation, Human Entertainment focused on polishing their title to the maximum. The graphics are absolutely stunning, a masterpiece for that era especially considering it’s on the SNES. Jennifer’s running seems realistic and the scenes where she defends herself are equally as impressive.
The game isn’t any less impressive in the the sound department either. For the most part there are no sounds, besides Jennifer’s loud footsteps, but when the music starts, you know that Bobby is right on your heels. The chase scene music is especially memorable, similar to the Halloween theme.
The original Clock Tower is heavily ¬¬inspired by Dario Argento’s film, “Phenomena”, meaning you are in for some extremely bizarre scares. For example you hear a phone whose line was cut ringing and if you answer there is no one there. Another example of this is if you look too many times in the mirror it becomes so jealous that it tries to strangle you.
The game is very short, clocking in at around 2 hours. But it has a high dose of replay value. Things are random, room and item locations may vary from playthrough to playthrough. Bobby might jump out from specific areas. But on other occasions it may just be a black cat. Even other characters and some events may or may not happen. It is rare for survival horror games to be this enjoyable and unpredictable in additional playthroughs. Another reason you might want to play multiple times is because there is a large number of varied endings, one of which you can even accomplish after 5 minutes into the game, by immediately trying to escape alone.
Despite its apparent quality the game was never officially released outside of Japan. This is a real shame considering that this is one of the most polished horror games out there with a ton of replay value and a good number of scares. To this day Clock Tower remains an innovative and extremely enjoyable game that hasn’t aged one bit, making it a timeless classic.
Clock Tower (1996)
Clock Tower 2 (Japan)
Unfortunately after the first Clock Tower the series began to spiral down in quality which is common with many horror movie franchises. Released immediately the next year for the game hopped onto the PlayStation platform and 3D bandwagon.
This game can be summarized simply by saying “it tries too much and does very little of anything”. The first half hour of the game just has you running around the office, speaking to the same people over and over. Since the game takes only 2-3 hours to complete, this effectively means that you spend the first quarter of the game not solving any puzzles or being chased. This wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for the fact that you play as a character who is only available in this initial portion. Aside from a very long drawn out tutorial this section serves as a way for you to pick which character you will be playing as. Additionally it is there to allow you to decide as to which area you will see during one of the three chapters in the game. This is all decided by the number of times you talk to a random character who is not even important to the plot.
As for the plot, while it tries to be a bit grander than the simple one seen in the original game, but it just manages to fall flat on its face. You play as either Jennifer, the only survivor of the previous Clock Tower incident, or Helen an assistant at a university who adopted Jennifer. Soon there are reports of scissorman throughout the city and the news and police are all over it. After being attacked by scissorman you then have to escape and solve the mystery as to who the person behind the mask really is. Between levels you are forced through tedious sections where you select a location in the city and watch a two minute conversation with a character you don’t even remember and then select another location. Once you see them all you may proceed. This all seems tacked on and happens for only three times in the whole game, serving no purpose only to give you a bad ending in one single scene. The final of these sections is just a set up for another 8 people to travel to England and get killed just for the sake of being murdered. Fortunately this part features the famous Barrows Castle and aside a few cryptic puzzles it is the best part of the game.
The game plays just like the original Clock Tower. You move a cursor and point at the object you want your character to interact with. These kind of controls definitely start to show the wear and tear, especially once the game is now 3D, but the puzzles are still enjoyable since the chases are slow enough so the controls never get in your way.
Aside from regular hiding you now have the ability to use items in rooms to knock scissorman out for some time. Though some of these scenes can be a bit hilarious, since for example you can get rid of scissorman by throwing a blanket on his head.
Considering that this was 1996 don’t expect any miracles. The game looked uninspired then and it looks uninspired now. Character models look hideous and the backgrounds look even flatter than they did in the original SNES game. The animations also took a nose dive as characters walk in place after running before they come to a full stop. This all proves the point that sometimes it’s just better to wait before moving onto a new system and technology.
Still considering that the original title never made it outside of Japan this game isn’t so bad. It’s nowhere the masterpiece of the original, taking a step back in almost every aspect, but it’s still better than some of the later games. Even though it hasn’t aged as gracefully as its predecessor, it is still an innovative title forcing you to hide instead of fight your opponent, deserving of a playing through if nothing but for that.
Clock Tower II: The Struggle Within (1998)
Clock Tower: Ghost Head (Japan)
Clock Tower II is the third game in the series and more of a spin-off than a continuation of the storyline. This time the game is set in Japan, meaning you can expect that the focus is more on curses and Japanese mythology. You play as Alyssa, a high school girl who is haunted by a dark alter-ego called Bates. The only way for her to inhibit this personality is to wear an amulet. When she visits her relatives she enters upon a gruesome murder scene with the killer still at large. Is this all a delusion and is Alyssa the real killer? Unfortunately it’s less exciting than that, since the game had a great set up but never realizes its true potential.
You have the ability to swap between Alyssa and Bates. By placing the amulet in specific locations on the map (for example in a vase) Alyssa turns into Bates, but if she picks it up she turns back. This allows you to talk differently with characters and solve puzzles that otherwise Alyssa couldn’t have been able to. Both these concepts sound awesome on paper, but again they have been implemented poorly. Why can Bates look at some random object and Alyssa can’t is really baffling.
Better graphics, an innovative premise, a more interesting plot, longer gameplay and the removal of pointless scenes would seem like they make a great game, but everything else that was fine before is broken in this instalment.
The game is littered with illogical puzzles, things that give you a negative ending four hours later and sprinkled with game-breaking design. Gone are the puzzles that force you to find a key or item and use it. Now you just have to go from room to room expecting a NPC to be there and progress the story. What makes everything worse is that sometimes you won’t be able to interact with things or people correctly because you have the wrong character.
Locales are dull, and range from a Hospital to Laboratory. What’s worse is the fact that you are no longer a helpless girl but instead you can defend yourself with an assortment of weapons. While it may not be your typical Resident Evil or Silent Hill title it definitely isn’t a Clock Tower game. Hiding is even discouraged, since there is such a lack of hiding spots it’s much easier to blast zombie brains with a shotgun (or at least a fire hydrant). And yes I said zombies. Since the developers gave up on the concept of one person chasing you, you are now followed by both zombies and killers. This game really wanted to reproduce the popularity of the Resident Evil franchise. It has zombies, viruses and guns, but all of them done a lot poorer than in the aforementioned title.
The panic meter is now the HP meter, which doesn’t heal automatically. Meaning if something jumps out and scares Alyssa you lose a portion of your life, forcing you to pick up a healing item. Making things worse is the fact that the game forces you to lose a life because that’s the only way you can become Bates (removing the amulet only allows you to change to him after you get hit).
The game still plays like a point-and-click, but never was it as unintuitive as here. While the camera made the previous Clock Tower a bit flat, this time the camera pans around. This may seem like an improvement, but now it just makes some items unclickable because they are obstructed by the view.
Clock Tower II is like a miniature model set without the instructions. It looks great on the box with a nice feature list, but once you start putting it together everything just keeps falling apart. No matter how hard you try you can never get it to look just like on the box. Things you stuck together hours ago incorrectly end up forcing you to start over, but you had no clue how to stick them together. It’s a shame that a game with so many interesting concepts ended up like this. All the improvements it brought since the previous title are easily overshadowed by the issues it has.
In 1999 Human entertainment folded and Capcom bought the series, releasing two more titles. This brought radical changes in design and gameplay, as well as a lot of improvements. Next time we will take a look at these final two games in the Clock Tower franchise: Clock Tower 3 and Haunting Ground.