Clockwork Aquario Interview: Ryuichi Nishizawa & Strictly Limited Games Discuss the Reborn Arcade Game - ArticleEvan Norris , posted on 13 March 2021 / 3,349 Views
After being lost to time for more than 27 years, the Westone arcade title Clockwork Aquario will see an official release for the first time in 2021. Brought back to life by Strictly Limited Games (SLG) and supported by original Westone developers, including co-founder Ryuichi Nishizawa, the game will land on Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 4 later this year.
Development of the original game started in 1992 with Nishizawa as the lead designer, but stalled after some unsuccessful location tests. The game was then put on ice for over two decades, before SLG revived it.
A bit about the title: Clockwork Aquario is a side-scrolling action game that can be played solo or with a friend in co-op. Players choose from three different characters, each of them with a unique moveset: Huck Londo, the daring ghost hunter; Elle Moon, the brave adventuress; and Gush, the warm-hearted giant robot.
Several people involved in the resurrection of Clockwork Aquario on modern consoles were gracious enough to share their thoughts on the game ahead of its upcoming launch. They are:
- Ryuichi Nishizawa: Game Designer, Co-Founder of Westone, and creator of the Wonder Boy IP
- Benedict Braitsch: Co-Founder, Strictly Limited Games
- Dennis Mendel: Co-Founder, Strictly Limited Games
- Tanja Meier: Product Manager, United Games Entertainment
Q: Clockwork Aquario will finally see the light of day 27 years after it was created. What does this mean to you as the game nears release?
Ryuichi Nishizawa (RN): It's like a dream that Aquario will be released. It's almost a miracle and unbelievable. I'm still a little skeptical about whether it's true or not. I think it could be said that it was actually a joke. Is it really possible to believe that the source code written in 68000 assembler more than 27 years ago and the binary data of graphics stored in a special format will be restored and run on the latest gaming platforms? Can you believe it? Restoring a 27 year old game, is this really possible? I'm really looking forward to the release of this game.
To be honest, I'm really happy, how could I not be? I can't believe that a title that I gave up on releasing and put in storage is now being released after 27 years! I don't think such a wonderful occurrence happens very often. I'd like to thank all the people who helped make this product a reality!
Q: What led to the cancellation of the game in the early 90s? And did you try to convince the publisher at the time to complete the title?
RN: The only reason we didn't sell it was because of the poor income [cabinet arcade revenue] of the location test. I think we did three location tests over a period of about six months. In other words, we repeated the process twice, first to improve the game content and then to conduct another location test, because of the poor income of the first location test. I was quite upset, because this was the first time I had ever experienced a low rating in a location test.
At that time, Westone was developing arcade games not as a commissioned project, but as an in-house business that we paid for ourselves. The business model was to develop arcade games by borrowing arcade boards from Sega and then sell the sales rights to Sega's sales department when completed. The decision as to whether Sega would purchase the sales rights or not was based on the results of the location tests. In other words, the results of the location tests will determine whether Sega will purchase the sales rights or not. In case the results of the location test are not good, they will not buy the game. Well, that's pretty obvious, isn't it? We made some alterations to increase the income of Aquario and tried the location test again, but the income did not increase as much as we had anticipated. I decided that even if I continued to make improvements, the income would not change dramatically, and I had to give up on continuing development.
At the time, I felt pretty devastated, because I had spent more than two years on the project and had to put it in storage. After that, Westone withdrew from the arcade game development business to focus on console game development. This was a major turning point for the company.
Q: What changed between the first build of the game and the 2021 release?
Benedict Braitsch (BB): It was and still is very important to us, not to change the "heart" of the game. Even though no one might ever notice changes, since only a handful of people have ever played the original game, we highly value and appreciate the work of the original development team. The soundtrack has been remixed so the fans can choose between the original one and the new sound created by [Shinichi] Sakamoto-san.
Also, the original game only had one game mode and there was no option to set the difficulty so we are working on adding another game mode to make sure that experienced players and gamers new to this kind of arcade game will be able to enjoy the game.
Besides that, we've implemented various optional quality of life features. Button mapping, CRT shader, and some other settings to toy around with. All of these are wrapped in a new user interface — otherwise it would've been hardly possible implementing them in the original GUI.
Q: How does co-op work in Clockwork Aquario?
Tanja Meier: You can play the game with a friend or solo. Playing in co-op mode is more difficult and easier at the same time. While you have a handy partner to help with difficult parts of the level, you also have to discuss with your second player which tactic is the best to beat the level, while grabbing and throwing them on purpose, or without intent — the fights can get really heated and I’m not only talking about the enemy fights! After each level there is a mini-game, which can be used to fully go into versus mode and to increase your high score. It’s just so much fun to have the possibility to share the gaming experience with a friend on the couch!
Q: It sounds like some elements of the game — some music files and graphics — were not recoverable from the source code. How did you address these gaps and how seamless has it been to put it onto Switch/PS4?
BB: One of our biggest initial concerns was the risk of re-creating the missing graphics, but not fitting the original style of the game. There are so many different types of pixel art and every artist has different handwriting. Luckily, however, [Takanori] Kurihara-san, [Maki] Ōzora-san and Nishizawa-san, who all worked on the original game back then, re-created all missing graphics either based on how they were intended to look, or how they would best fit the style of the game. The soundtrack was remixed by one of the original composers, Sakamoto-san, who gave the OST a new and fresh tune, so fans can look forward to two soundtracks they can choose from.
The implementation of both the graphics and the soundtrack was done in the original source. Implementing the soundtrack was rather simple, but a few tricks and tweaks were required for the graphics, as some of the re-made ones use more animation and graphic banks than the original graphics. Once that was done, the implementation for Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 4 was rather straightforward.
Q: Many parties collaborated to make this game a reality, including Ryuichi Nishizawa, Takanori Kurihara, Shinichi Sakamoto, Strictly Limited Games, and ININ Games. Tell me more about this partnership.
Dennis Mendel (DM): Before we started with this project, we never had the chance to meet Nishizawa-san, Sakamoto-san, Kurihara-san, or any other former members of Westone, in person. I grew up with their games, but I never had a face attached to the names until Tokyo Game Show 2019 where we proudly presented a video of the first stage of Aquario to them (before that we virtually met in a few Skype calls). It was a great moment to present the video to them after so many years and it just felt wonderful. From that moment on it was clear that this is not just about doing business with a Japanese partner; it is something much more emotional, about a group of like-minded people with different backgrounds, but who equally do love games and who are excited about the fact that this title will finally see the light of day.
So while our dev team is working with the game code and the implementation of the various technical requirements specified by the platform holders, the Westone members are helping us to faithfully recreate/finish the missing or incomplete graphics and to make sure that everything will look exactly as it was intended back then. Without their passion, we could never accomplish this mission without cutbacks, so we are incredibly grateful for their support.
Then we have Strictly Limited Games and ININ, two publishing labels with a different focus. Strictly Limited Games wants to make a difference by resurrecting these lost treasures and so it is taking care of the development besides making these titles available to gamers worldwide in the form of limited physical editions. But SLG is not handling "unlimited" digital publishing, so that's where the sister company ININ Games comes into play and helps with marketing and selling the games digitally.
Q: How do you hope players will receive Clockwork Aquario, 27 years later, and what do you see as its unique/outstanding or cool features?
RN: I have no idea what kind of response I'll get from people who play it. After all, it's a game that was created 27 years ago and it's designed for arcades with a focus on two-player simultaneous play. I'm a bit worried that the game might feel unfamiliar for console gamers. Anyway, if you like pixel art, this game has a lot to offer and I hope you enjoy the lovely designs and animations of the enemy characters that appear one after another. The second player can also join in during the game, so please give it a try.
Q: Shifting away from Clockwork Aquario, what are your thoughts on the recent resurgence of Wonder Boy/Monster Boy?
RN: I think it's great that games from the past have been ported or remade and can be played again on modern gaming platforms. This is amazing to me, as I thought that games were always evolving with technology and that older games were fading away. It's great to see that young people born in the 21st century, where 3D images are commonplace, can play games from the 20th century that were still in their infancy. Not only the Wonder Boy series, but there are many other excellent games in the past and I hope that we get to see more remakes appear, because if the gameplay is kept the same and just made easier to play on modern platforms, a wider audience will want to experience the games that were hailed as masterpieces in the past.
Q: Would you like to see any other Westone games remade and what are your thoughts on the resurgence of retro games?
DM: As mentioned before, I grew up with the games by Westone, from Aoi Blink and Crest of Wolf on PC Engine to Milano Arubaito Collection on PlayStation and, of course, the Wonder Boy titles. I fondly remember each one of those games and the feeling I had back then when playing them for the first time.
But one does not need rose-colored retro-game glasses to find pleasure in playing these games — retro games help us to understand the core mechanics of video games much better. They teach us what good gameplay really means. So I think it is safe to say that retro games influenced pretty much everybody working in this industry and it is great to see people enjoying them even so many years after their initial release. It is like with music, writing or literature — you need literacy (here game literacy) to excel in these arts and if you do not know anything about their "grandfathers", you will have a hard time understanding what video games really are.
Q: What was your favorite game of 2020?
RN: I've been developing Asha in Monster World since June 2019 until just recently, so I've hardly played any games in 2020. I try not to play other games during development, as it may affect me in some way. I held back from playing The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening as well. However, I always keep my antenna up, so if there is a game I am interested in, I will check it out by watching the Promotion Video. Recently, Party Animals has been on my mind a lot. It's so cute with its squishy movements. I'm hoping they'll release the character merchandise for the game (laughs).
I'd like to thank Ryuichi Nishizawa, Benedict Braitsch, Dennis Mendel, and Tanja Meier for their thoughtful answers, and PR Hound for arranging the interview. You can pre-order Clockwork Aquario now from the Strictly Limited Games store.