Clockwork Aquario Review

Clockwork Aquario is something of a unearthed treasure in the video game world. Originally created in 1992 as an arcade title by the now-defunct Westone (creators of the Wonder Boy series) and to be published by Sega, Clockwork Aquario ultimately went unreleased. In 2017, Strictly Limited Games acquired the rights to the game from Sega. But some of the game’s code had been lost over time, so Strictly Limited Games teamed up with ININ Games to help fill in the gaps. After a few more delays, Clockwork Aquario FINALLY saw release on Nintendo Switch and Playstation 4 at the tail end of 2021, nearly thirty years after the game was originally created (claiming the record for longest development time in video game history in the process).

On the plus side, it’s nice to know that such a game has actually been released after seemingly being lost to time. On the down side, the story behind Clockwork Aquario is more interesting than the game itself. Clockwork Aquario provides some fun, arcade-style platforming, but it’s short lived and lacks substance. It’s an entertaining novelty, if maybe not the arcade classic you may have hoped for, given its unique development history.

Clockwork Aquario is an action-platformer in which players can choose from three different playable characters: a boy named Huck Rondo, a girl named Elle Moon, and a robot named Gush. While all three characters have their own animations and sound bites, they all play identically. The goal of the game is simply to make it to the end of each level, defeat the boss, and ultimately defeat the evil Dr. Hangyo (an anthropomorphic fish, of all things) from taking over the world.

“Clockwork Aquario follows the Secret of Mana rule of a boy character, a girl character, and a non-human character.”

The stages are short and straightforward. There’s a time limit on each stage, but I’ve not had it run out on me yet. Each character can either jump on an enemy or slap them, with one hit stunning the enemy, and the second hit defeating them. What’s fun and different about Clockwork Aquario is that once an enemy is stunned, you can lift them up over your head and throw them at other enemies. It’s reminiscent of Super Mario Bros. 2 or Treasure titles like Mischief Makers or Dynamite Headdy in that respect. Also similar to Treasure titles are the big, ridiculous boss fights, all of which involve Dr. Hangyo piloting a crazy, animal-shaped robot.

Although the core gameplay is fun, there are some annoying aspects to it. Namely, there are numerous segments where enemies pop out of nowhere as soon as you’re on top of them, to the extent that it feels like you have to take a hit to move on. That would be an issue even if you had a health bar, but it’s all the worse since your character can only take two hits before you lose a life. Another issue is that it takes way too long to gain a single extra life. By defeating enemies and getting points, as well as picking up gems the enemies occasionally drop, you slowly build up a meter towards collecting a 1-up. But you’ll often lose all your lives and an extra continue before you fill the bar up, so it feels like the reward isn’t worth it. It’s also annoying that you can’t pause the game once you start. I get that this was originally made as an arcade title, but come on. It ended up released on home consoles. Surely they could have added the ability to pause.

You’ll also find that the game is incredibly short, even by arcade standards. Clockwork Aquario contains only five levels, each of which can be breezed through long before the clock runs out. The game features different difficulty settings, but the only real difference is that the harder difficulties give you less continues (seeing as this is an arcade game released on home consoles, you can’t keep giving the game quarters for more chances). There’s also a ‘training mode’ but that’s little more than playing the first two levels with unlimited tries (which is really weird now that I type it out). You’ll also probably feel that, unless you have a second player with you, there’s not a whole lot of replay value here.

If there are two areas where Clockwork Aquario shines, it’s in the visuals and music. The graphics, character animations and backgrounds have a fun, retro anime vibe. It all looks so smooth and colorful! Clockwork Aquario looks like a suped-up Sega Genesis title. The music is similarly enjoyable. So much so that the game even includes its soundtrack in the main menu (both as the tracks appear in game as well as remixes). Clockwork Aquario is very fun to look at and listen to. Unfortunately these aesthetic pleasures don’t translate to the menus, which are pretty basic and mostly just text.

Clockwork Aquario is decently fun while it lasts, but I do think you need two players to get the best out of it (there’s even an extra mini-game in between the third and fourth stages only when playing with two people). Given the game’s unique history, you do kind of wish there were more to it. But it’s still a fun, novel experience. And worth checking out as an odd little piece of gaming history.

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Sonic the Fighters Review

*Review based on Sonic the Fighters’ release as part of Sonic Gems Collection for the Nintendo GameCube*

Because of the wild popularity of the series in its early years, Sonic the Hedgehog still gets frequent comparisons to Super Mario. But it’s an unfair comparison, really. While Mario has had an unrivaled longevity, still releasing “best games ever” thirty years on, Sonic went the path of The Simpsons. That is to say, it sticks around because of its early quality and appeal, but it’s overstayed its welcome, and has been bad far longer than it was ever good.

But Sonic’s issues didn’t happen all at once, and even in the franchise’s heyday in the 90s, the series made some notable missteps. Among the biggest of these missteps was Sonic the Fighters, which was not only the first Sonic fighting game, but also the first 3D title starring the blue hedgehog.

Released in arcades in 1996, the concept of Sonic the Fighters wasn’t doomed from the start. The series has plenty of colorful, distinct characters that could be translated into the fighter genre. But Sonic the Fighters fails the concept at every turn. Elsewhere, Mario spent his ’96 revolutionizing 3D gaming with Super Mario 64 and starring in one of the best Role-Playing games of all time in Super Mario RPG. Suffice to say, even back then, it was easy to see where the war between Mario and Sonic was going.

The biggest issue with Sonic the Fighters is how insanely rudimentary it is. This is as bare bones as a 3D fighting game gets. Moves consist of basic punches and kicks, which can be combined with directional inputs and pressed repeatedly for simplistic combos. But these aren’t the refined combos of Street Fighter, not even close. There is no depth to the combat of Sonic the Fighters, and the game ends up feeling like little more than chaotic button-mashing. There is no thinking to the gameplay whatsoever.

The one novelty the game tries to bring to the genre is that, in place of standard blocking, characters have barriers. Barriers can’t withstand too many hits, and if all of your barriers break, you are defenseless, and need to get a few hits on your opponent in order to build your barriers back up. It’s a decent idea in theory, but because the execution of the game is so utterly mindless, you can basically just mash the punching button ad nauseam to wear out your opponent’s barriers and continue doing the same until you get a knockout. This is a fighter as thoughtless as it is basic.

“You might know everything I’m going to do, but that’s not going to help you, since I know everything you’re going to do! Strange, isn’t it?!”

Sonic the Fighters even lacks depth in its gameplay modes, with only the standard single player arcade mode and two-player versus being available. The arcade mode sees players go through the eight characters on the playable roster, before facing off against Metal Sonic and Dr. Eggman (the former being ridiculously cheap and can take you out in three hits, while the latter is hilariously easy). Aside from the unfair Metal Sonic, the enemy AI is as mindless as the game itself. And you should really only subject a friend to the two-player versus mode if you both have a great sense of humor about these things.

The character selection includes the obvious choices of Sonic, Tails, Knuckles and Amy, but also throws in more obscure Sonic characters in Espio the Chameleon from Knuckles Chaotix, and Knack the Weasel (here called ‘Fang the Sniper’) from Sonic Triple Trouble. Meanwhile, two new characters were introduced in Bark the Polar Bear and Bean the Dynamite (who is in fact a bird. No, I don’t understand the name, either). Humorously, the two characters introduced here who were never seen again feel more in line with the look and feel of the Sonic franchise than the countless goofy animals who were introduced to the series later on and stuck around to this day.

“I have to applaud the fun animations. But not much else.”

If there’s any plus side to Sonic the Fighters, it’s in the visuals. Obviously, the game isn’t pretty by today’s standards, but the ‘early 3D fighter’ look here is complimented by the cartoony characters of the Sonic universe, giving Sonic the Fighters a visual charm that similar 3D fighters of the time like Virtual Fighter simply don’t have. This is hit home by the fun visual gags of characters getting squished and stretched like Looney Tunes characters when struck.

That’s about all the positives I can give Sonic the Fighters though. The game itself is just too thoughtless in both the bare minimum nature of its ideas, and their sloppy and chaotic execution. I wish I were exaggerating when I say Sonic the Fighters is so bad, it makes Street Fighter the Movie (the Game) look like Super Smash Bros. Ultimate by comparison.

Sonic the Fighters was an early example of Sonic lacking in the adaptability and timeless appeal of Mario. But there is a silver lining in this dark cloud. Sonic would eventually find himself in a stellar fighting game… once he joined Mario and company in the Super Smash Bros. series.

 

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Battletoads Arcade Review

*Review based on Battletoads Arcade’s release as part of Rare Replay*

Battletoads had all the makings of a solid franchise. From its distinct characters and attitude to its notable gameplay and difficulty, Battletoads should have went further than it did. Though the disgustingly-named toads Rash, Pimple and Zits have started popping up in games like Shovel Knight and the 2013 Killer Instinct reboot as of late, the Battletoads only had five total games, all of which were released in the first half of the 1990s.

The 1991 NES original is the most famous entry in the franchise, notorious for its excruciating difficulty. A watered-down Gameboy port soon followed. And in 1993 the Battletoads starred in two more games; Battletoads in Battlemaniacs, and the unique crossover title Battletoads & Double Dragon, both of which were on 16-bit platforms. Then in 1994, the currently-final entry in the series, the aptly-named Battletoads Arcade, made its way to arcades… and it bombed.

Yes, despite the popularity of the franchise, the Battletoads’ debut in arcade cabinets was a financial failure for Rare. So much so, that the game’s planned home console ports were cancelled. Battletoads Arcade’s disappointing sales may have even been the reason for Rare putting the franchise on the back-burner, where it still remains to this day.

That’s a damn shame, because Battletoads Arcade is a whole lot of fun, which more and more people have realized after the game made its quite-delayed home console debut as part of Rare Replay.

Battletoads Arcade, much like other entries in the series, is a beat-em-up. Even more so than the NES original, Battletoads Arcade is all about laying the smacketh down on hordes of enemies. You just go from one end of a stage to the other, pummeling any and all foes who stand in your way. It’s pure, unadulterated beat-em-up. It’s simple stuff, but very fun.

This arcade original is also notable for being one of the few games where players can actually play as all three toads (the other being the Double Dragon crossover). What’s even better is that the game supports three players, so all three toads can partake in the mayhem at the same time. All three toads play identically, through they each have their own animations for their attacks.

“Yes, the toads use these giant rats’ cojones as punching bags…”

Another aspect that sets Battletoads Arcade apart from its predecessors is that, being self-published by Rare onto arcade cabinets as opposed to another company’s home consoles, the game gets away with a lot more violence and gross-out humor. Blood now flies out of enemy rats as the toads punch them around and stomp them into oblivion, and Pimple has an attack in which he crushes a downed opponent’s head when his foot transforms into an anvil. There are also enemy rats that puke after getting punched in the gut, and in one stage, you can even find some rats using the toilet in the background (complete with sound effects). This is certainly the crudest and most violent Battletoads game, and may even feel like something of a precursor to Conker’s Bad Fur Day in terms of tone.

The gameplay is a whole lot of fun, and unlike the original Battletoads, very much welcomes additional players, with some of the stages feeling tailor-made with two and three players in mind. The graphics and animations are another highlight, with the Battletoads’ signature cartoonish transformations looking better than ever. And once again, the series is livened up with a killer score by David Wise.

There is, however, a bit of a drawback in that the game is only six stages long (that’s half as many as the NES original). Now, you expect an arcade beat-em-up to be on the short side, but Battletoads Arcade ends all too abruptly. After a comically lengthy boss fight against Robo Manus, one of the Dark Queen’s henchmen, the game ends. You don’t even get to fight the Dark Queen herself. I’m guessing the short length is due to the game’s difficulty, which in an arcade cabinet would surely gorge on coins or tokens. But the sudden end does kind of seem disappointing, and perhaps two or three additional levels could have added some extra heft and variety, with only the existing fourth and sixth stages changing up the gameplay styles as it is (the fourth level seeing the toads descending down a cavern via jetpacks, and the sixth stage having the toads taking part in a shoot-em-up with machine guns).

I mentioned that the game is difficult, and though I stand by that due to the epic boss fights, waves of enemies, and health-depleting mid-bosses. But, due to the game’s transition to a console, it’s also – strange as this may sound – kind of easy.

By that I mean that, although the game itself is quite challenging, you have infinite continues, and come back to life exactly where you died. Thankfully, you don’t have to fork over hard-earned cash to continue playing like you would in an arcade, but there really is no real penalty for dying. You’ll still die a lot, to be sure. But when enemies get the jump on you, you’re basically just slightly slowed down, without ever suffering a real defeat. But I suppose I’ll take that over the needlessly punishing quality of the original Battletoads any day.

Battletoads Arcade is an excellent beat-em-up. Though it’s all too short and all too easy to beat (despite its moment-to-moment challenge), it provides a great deal of fun, and manages to squeeze a decent amount of variety in the few stages it has. Top it of with crazy animations, a great soundtrack, and Battletoads co-op that’s actually enjoyable, you have a great, pick up and play experience on your hands.

The facts that it tanked in arcades and is still the last Battletoads game may be a bit disheartening, but its inclusion as part of Rare Replay has now brought the game to a wider audience, and its inclusion is one of the best pieces of the Rare Replay lineup.

Between you and me, I like it better than Turtles in Time.

 

6

Luigi’s Mansion Arcade Review

Luigi's Mansion Arcade

In 2015, Nintendo released an arcade iteration of their Luigi’s Mansion franchise to arcades in Japan, courtesy of developer Capcom. The game has since made its way to select arcades stateside, as something of a test run to see how well it fares outside of its native Japan. Hopefully this test run turns into something more, as Luigi’s Mansion Arcade is the best of the recent arcade transitions of Nintendo franchises.

The first highlight of Luigi’s Mansion Arcade is the setup itself. The game is featured in an enclosed cabinet, giving it a darker, more isolated feeling that fits the game’s haunted house theme. The cabinet features a seat for two players, each of which use a controller modeled after Luigi’s Poltergust 5000 vacuum.

Unlike the GameCube original or the 3DS sequel, Luigi’s Mansion Arcade is presented in a first-person view, meaning that players see everything from Luigi’s viewpoint. The players can select from a small set of mansions, each of which are played in a linear, on-rails style, with players progressing to the next room of every mansion once they clear out every ghost in a given chamber.

The game utilizes motion-controls, with players aiming their vacuum controllers at the ghosts, holding and releasing a button at its top to shine a flash at the ghosts to stun them, and then pulling a trigger on the controller to begin vacuuming the ghosts up. It actually controls pretty well, and it may leave you wondering why Nintendo didn’t make a game like this on the Wii.

Admittedly, one awkward piece of controls is present in the form of the Flash Bomb, a limited ability that more easily stuns every ghost on-screen. The Flash Bomb is used by pressing a button in the middle of the cabinet itself, as opposed to being featured on the gun. This can become a bit cumbersome in some of the more hectic sections, and can kind of break the flow of the game’s control scheme.

Additional fun is added to the game by the way the levels feature branching paths. Although the levels are played in fixed paths, certain rooms can lead to alternate paths (either by finding a hidden item or shining your light to reveal a secret pathway). This adds a little more variety to the experience, and also gives players the chance to earn extra coins, which means a higher score after the mansion is complete.

Luigi’s Mansion Arcade adopts the visual style (and even the mansions) from the 3DS game. This means that the game has a nice, cartoony look to it that’s visually appealing, but also means that it lacks the gloomy atmosphere of the GameCube original.

Although Luigi’s Mansion Arcade simplifies the series’ formula to fit the “quick fun” nature of arcades, it makes for a worthy place to spend your arcade points. Luigi’s Mansion Arcade is simple but addictive fun that provides a good deal of enjoyment for two players.

 

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Mario & Sonic at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games Arcade Edition Review

M&SATR2K16OGAE

The Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games series has been around for a good while now, and its newest edition – which sees characters from the Mario and Sonic universes take part in the Rio Olympics from this past Summer – now brings the series to arcades. The Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games series isn’t exactly the biggest critical darling of either franchise (to put it lightly), so how well does it transition to arcades?

Mario and Sonic at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games Arcade Edition follows the same basic formula of its predecessors: Players pick one of several Mario or Sonic characters, and partake in mini-games themed after Olympic sports. The difference here is that the arcade cabinets provide some unique control schemes.

Two large joysticks are placed in front of the player, while they simultaneously stand on a footpad similar to those found in Dance Dance Revolution games. So a 100m Dash will see players start the game holding the joysticks in a way that mimics the starting positions of Olympic racers, before running in place on the footpad to simulate the actual racing portion, to name one example.

Admittedly, most of the mini-games are kind of fun (my favorite being archery, which uses the left joystick to aim, and the right joystick to pull the bow and release the arrow), but there is one huge problem… they are all way too short.

Granted, the sports featured are mini-games, but even with that moniker, they end incredibly briefly. I’m not even exaggerating when I say that watching the tutorials for some of the games is actually longer than the games themselves (archery is an exception, which may explain why I enjoyed it more than the others). The worst part is every time you put credits into the arcade cabinet, all you get is one game. So you’re more or less putting tokens in the machine for lengthy tutorials and only a brief snippet of gameplay. At least in Mario Kart Arcade GP you get a full race every time you play.

What makes things all the worse is that the games are chosen at random. So not only are the games short, but you don’t even have control over which ones you play. If you’re going solo, it would be nice to just pick one of the games, and would it be too much to ask for both players to vote for a game and then have one of said games selected when playing multiplayer?

Really, there’s not much else to the game. The arcade setup and physicality that comes with make for a few minutes of fun. But the utter brevity of the games, combined with their random selections, don’t give the game a whole lot of value. Play a round or two with a friend, but don’t be surprised if your tokens quickly go elsewhere.

 

3

Mario Kart Arcade GP DX Review

MKAGPDX

Mario Kart as been one of Nintendo’s most successful and beloved franchises. Every major platform since the SNES has seen the release of a new Mario Kart title, and in more recent years, Nintendo has teamed with Namco Bandai Games to produce a series of Mario Kart titles for arcades. The third and most recent of which, Super Mario Arcade GP DX, can be played in many arcades in Japan and in the west. But just how well does this arcade installment stack up against the traditional entries on Nintendo’s platforms?

In many ways, Mario Kart Arcade GP DX is a pretty interesting game. Not only does it bring Mario Kart to arcades, but in many instances you are able to save data so that you keep unlocked features with future visits (though not every arcade provides the means to save progress, and simply have many of the game’s aspects unlocked from the get-go). Then there are silly little details that could only work in arcades, like taking a photo of yourself with a pirate hat or Rosalina’s hair to be displayed over your character for other players to see.

Gameplay-wise, Mario Kart Arcade GP DX is a pretty faithful transition for the franchise to arcade cabinets. The game is controlled via arcade wheel, with an acceleration and brake pedal being included to better mimic real-life driving. It definitely feels appropriate for an arcade version, though admittedly the wheel’s controls can feel a tad oversensitive.

Naturally, like any Mario Kart, the game is at its best when played with others. Most arcades that feature the game have multiple cabinets. Players can not only race against each other, but can even team up against computers, or have two-on-two races between players. Some of these modes even include special items that see players’ vehicles join together, with one player temporarily becoming the driver, and the other firing a barrage of weapons, Double Dash style.

On the downside of things, some of the classic Mario Kart aspects – namely the items and tracks – have been watered down. While it’s understandable for certain features to be simplified in the arcades, I can’t help but feel that the game went about the simplification in the wrong way.

Items are now placed into three categories: items that are launched in front of you, items that are dropped behind you, and special items. This not only takes out the variety in the Mario Kart weaponry, but in each race you’re only able to get a single item in each category, which – like your Kart – are determined via roulette wheel. So not only do you not have most of the classic Mario Kart items at your disposal (all but the Koopa Shells are replaced with more generic items like road signs),  but you don’t even have control as to which items you get, or what kart you drive.

The tracks themselves also have a strong lack in variety. Although there are still a few different cups to choose from (each containing four tracks), each track within a cup has a striking similarity to each other in both layout and themes (every track in Mario Cup resembles a beach, for example, while Bowser Jr. Cup is all about airships).

Mario Kart Arcade GP DX is definitely a fun time at the arcade, especially if you happen to get three other players to join in. Unfortunately, its feeling of being simplified for the arcades is a bit too prominent, which removes a good deal of variety and depth from the formula. It’s definitely worth a few tokens if you have some friends or other arcade patrons playing with or against you. Just don’t expect to spend a whole lot of time on it, even if you have the tokens to do so.

 

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