I’m really not much into the shocking type of horror – with jump scares like Five Nights at Freddy’s. But I do like spooky games like Clock Tower. I think the reason might be that it’s less vulgar in how it goes about scaring the audience (it wines and dines us first). Our emotions are being built up with atmospheric music, Gothic scenery, and story-line – similar to Resident Evil.
(Scene from Resident Evil – in 1996)
And like most in this genre, Clock Tower is a haunted house game at heart (similar to Phantasmagoria, Silent Hill, the PT demo, etc). Clock Tower was first created by Human in 1995 (an interesting game developer in their own right) and the franchise was later bought by Capcom (which makes sense given they owned the very-similar Resident Evil).
Instead of letting you attack monsters (like nearly every video game does), Clock Tower is a survival game that has you run and hide. You win by solving the puzzle, surviving, and resolving the story-line set out before you. And in this day and age, I find the return to the roots of horror it represents refreshing. I’ll explain why in a bit.
The Clock Tower game is supposedly inspired by the horror movie: Creepers (aka Phenomena). The main character (Jennifer Simpson) always reminded me of Jennifer Connelly (of Labyrinth fame and also in Creepers), so I do agree that it’s more than a passing resemblance to that movie.
So back to this game being refreshing out of an over-populated horror game genre: It’s kind of like watching the first Halloween movie (where the young, naive Jamie Lee Curtis character runs from the slow Michael Myers) versus watching Resident Evil: Apocalypse (where a confused Milla Jovovich single-handedly beats the huge lumbering Nemesis to within an inch of his after-life by pummeling him with her fists and kicks). Of course Jamie Lee gets to kick ass eventually in Halloween movies, but by having her stay helpless in the first film with us (the audience) empathizing with her, the story resonates with a sense of foreboding.
With the Resident Evil movies (like with many horror games today), there’s a lot of jump scares, but we don’t really feel that Milla is in danger. That’s sort of true with games like Five Nights – even the PT demo to some extent. Clock Tower (the first game at least), on the other hand, leaves me emotionally unsettled while playing it. For a 16-bit game that’s pretty remarkable.
There’s also comparisons like Predator/Predator 2 (where the monster defeats nearly all in its path) versus the later Alien vs Predator and Predators – where the humans can hold their own in a fight. Here, in the first movie we have Arnold’s character (who proved to be the the best out of a group of bad-asses), having a really hard time taking on the Predator. Most of the lead-up to the movie ending is in showing us how good Arnold is but how poorly-equipped he is to take on this monster. What does he do? He runs and hides (eventually painting himself with mud to escape the Predator’s infrared vision).
Playing Clock Tower these days is a case of what’s old being new again. We, the audience, is placed in the role of a mostly-helpless young girl running from spooks and monsters while trying to gather clues and escape a haunted mansion. If that sounds like fun, you’re in for a treat.
Let’s go over a few of the Clock Tower games and where they fit compared to the original.
Clock Tower – Super Famicom
First up there’s Clock Tower (aka Clock Tower: The First Fear) on the Super Famicom (a Japanese exclusive).
It looks great and has a really great atmosphere for a 16-bit horror game. It sort of reminded me of Sweet Home in the story aspect, but not really in the survival aspect – this game is clearly more point-and-click adventure and puzzle-based than it is survival-based (where you would be managing resources far more). That’s sort of the hallmark of this series.
In Clock Tower there’s the main villain Scissorman – a rather small man (or boy) who kills with a giant pair of scissors (yeah it’s silly but also awesome). The protagonist (Jennifer Simpson) must explore a mansion – trying to piece together what’s happening) all the while avoiding Scissorman. If you encounter him, Jennifer can run away and hide from him or attack him back (but only if she can remain calm enough and you the player can press the panic button fast enough).
Some of the false clues in the story will cause Jennifer to become more frightened and more prone to death by Scissorman encounters. Based on the clues uncovered, the game will assign you an ending with a finish to the story (there are eight endings given and two more through glitches).
Clock Tower: The First Fear / Clock Tower II – PlayStation
Following the Super Famicom game there was Clock Tower: The First Fear on the PlayStation. This was a Japanese exclusive and basically a port of the SFC original. This was followed by Clock Tower II – which we received in the west as Clock Tower (similar to Final Fantasy VI (JP) / Final Fantasy III (US)).
Clock Tower II: The Struggle Within – PlayStation
Then there was Clock Tower: The First Fear on the PlayStation – also a Japanese exclusive – that was a port of the SFC original.
This was followed by Clock Tower II – which we received in the west as Clock Tower (similar to Final Fantasy VI (JP) / Final Fantasy III (US)).
But in the west, we got the next (or really the first) installment as Clock Tower II: The Struggle Within.
This game is pretty neat overall but gets some criticism for being based in Japan this time (so it’s not really a sequel). I think that’s actually a good thing and the game definitely has it’s own charm. It’s definitely very quirky – from “yellow liquid”, toilet monsters, haunted samurai armor, and creepy dolls and children.
(Clock Tower Ghost Head is the Japanese title for the game. The game has many Japanese influences.)
Of course the story-line in this installment is very cheesy (to some this is really to the detriment of the game), but I don’t think realism is necessarily desired here. Plus I really like the mechanic where the female character can be possessed by a vengeful spirit (via an amulet) and actually fight back. I also think it’s really novel how you have to be careful not to use this unless warranted or else lose the game.
I know I mentioned the helplessness being refreshing in these games, but in this case it’s a Jekyll/Hyde sort of relationship (where you’re not always in control as the spirit) – so you really get the best of both at the same time.
Clock Tower 3 – PlayStation 3
Next up was Clock Tower 3 on the PlayStation 2.
My first complaint about this game is that it drops the point-and-click nature of the series and goes with more of a Resident Evil style game (tank controls and all). I think this game does return to form though by way of how you defeat the monsters and spirits. As far as defeating spirits (those slain by the monsters), you must find an item that’s sentimental to them and return it to their body – all the while avoiding them by hiding and staying calm.
You can stun the monsters (subordinates) with the holy water you’re given. You defeat these monsters later on – when your holy water turns into a bow.
So the game sort of remains true to its roots while offering more modern-style gameplay. I don’t really have a problem with this and I think the game is pretty fun overall.
Haunting Ground – PlayStation 2
Haunting Ground (Demento in Japan) was the fourth installment (this time on Playstation 2) and the opening reminds me of Silent Hill – where the protagonist wakes up in a castle dungeon after a car wreck (see familiar?).
Why the different name? It might be that Clock Tower 3 was considered a flop by management and a new title thereby created.
The game follows the same basic style as the others – hiding and evading monsters while gathering clues. In the first game you could push Scissorman over and run away; in the second you could don an amulet and turn into a vengeful spirit; in the third you could attack with a bow.
So this one? You get an friendly dog (which you can give orders with the controller) that can attack monsters. But you must keep the dog happy (and on hard mode keep him alive as well). There are weapons you can use in this game as well (following Clock Tower 3), but it’s really all about the evasion and discovery.
Illbleed – Dreamcast
Now I realize this isn’t a Clock Tower game and has nothing to do with it really development-wise, but there’s also Illbleed on the Dreamcast.
I can’t help but think of this game when talking about Clock Tower. To me this is sort of a campy version of Clock Tower with B-movie-inspired mini-story-lines.
The story is that some rich guy is offering 100 million dollars (yeah the ridiculousness starts immediately) to anyone who can make it out of a horror-theme-park/haunted-house. As you wander the house you can use gauges to detect traps (or events that would kill you).
You can even find the horror monitor (a pair of goggles) that will let you mark the traps (turn them off), costing you adrenaline. Like Clock Tower, you have to keep watching your heart rate (and also health/bleeding).
I hope you see why the Clock Tower has the fan-base it does and will give it a chance. Unless you speak Japanese, you’ll need to apply a patch to the first game on Super Famicom. You can play it via emulator with a rom, the Retron 5 with the Japanese cartridge and the IPS patch file, buying a reproduction cartridge, or having someone swap the rom on the Super Famicom cart for you.
Clock Tower II: The Struggle Within on PlayStation (second in the series) is pretty expensive now unfortunately, but you can actually find Clock Tower 3 fairly affordably (around $20). The fourth, Haunting Ground, is also expensive to own physically, but a digital copy was released on PS3. Illbleed has its own cult following and can be a tad pricey (around $100). I recommend trying out the original game first because it’s true to the formula of the series and is actually quite good. If you try the games out for the first time, drop me a comment and let me know what you think.