Underrated Games: Clock Tower ~The First Fear~

There really is a lot to like about Clock Tower - or Clock Tower ~The First Fear~, as it was renamed two years later, when it was ported to the PlayStation - it has to be said. Whether it is the at-your-own-pace-point-and-click style of the game, the scares, or the open-ended possibilities of the unfolding of the plot, there is too much that seemed (and still is) fresh about this game, back when it was released. Not often mentioned – probably because it was only released on the Super Famicom in Japan, in 1995 – in Western media, it has recently become more and more well-known as a bit of a cult classic. This is probably due to some very nice English-speakers who have translated the original and uploaded it to the internet. Being a point-and-click game, plot, dialogue and descriptions of items used and picked up, are important and valuable, in order to enjoy and progress through the game, so someone who can’t speak or read Japanese would have great difficulty experiencing the original game at all.

Playing Jennifer, one of four orphans, taken in by Mary Barrows, the wealthy owner of a country manor, you have to find out the root of the rather disturbing occurrences happening the second you get there, discovering why the events might be occurring, and why you are there. A strange cult, demons, a family member, and some disturbing, tragic deaths are all in store. It’s difficult to think that something like this could be experienced through the point-and-click medium, despite it’s rather blatant ‘survival horror’-esque plot.

Pointing and clicking might seem rather basic stuff, but it is present throughout the whole of the game, and it is quite effective. This system is used to move around, which, admittedly is a pain to get used to, (especially when a certain person wielding a massive pair of scissors is after you) as mistakes can easily be made. It’s a ‘side-scroller’, where you can only really move left and right, directing Jennifer into various rooms, where picking up items, and finding a way to utilise them is key... while also trying to avoid Bobby, a scissor-wielding demon, who you later find out, is Mary’s son.

The realism and the real ‘survival’ element, comes in when Jennifer is being chased, as she trips up occasionally, and also gradually loses health, until a suitable hiding place is found. Whether one sees this as frustrating, it’s a decent mechanic in the game, that heightens the tension, and really immerses the player, into the helpless situation our main character finds herself in, as things can become quite intense when Bobby is on the loose. I have to say, the sheer relief of finding a hiding place is unimaginable. The dark, fast-paced music stops, Bobby is no longer wanting to cut more than just your hair off, and an eerie silence returns. However, if you find yourself running into him, you’ll become part of a brief struggle, where a sort of ‘panic mode’ ensues, in which your icon flashes, urging you to press a button very fast, in order to knock him out. Personally, I just felt like mashing the whole controller and throwing it on the floor out of fright after running into him... It doesn’t stop him though, as he soon gets up and keeps on chasing you, where only a decent hiding place can save you.

One gripe I do have is that sometimes, it feels as if the game is a bit slow in terms of how it develops. For example, apart from Bobby, there are no real other enemies within the game, and so walking about in silence until you can figure out where you are and what item or key needs to be used where, does spoil the experience a bit, making it feel very linear, despite it’s various endings. More spontaneous moments would be ideal, where you end up bumping into Bobby in the hallways, having to escape from him. Not too often, until the point where it becomes annoying, but fairly infrequently would be effective, because of the unexpectedness.

At first there doesn’t really appear to be an ‘aim’ to this game, as you’re thrown in at the deep end, without much being explained, so you really do feel rather on your own and helpless… your first plan might be to escape or find out what’s happened to your friends. Looking around, examining, finding and utilising items to affect your surroundings is the main idea though. Some items can be interacted with, which, don’t really have an effect on the outcome of the game, but are nice details, that really show-off the hard work put in. As you interact with your surroundings, the plot develops, but your game might end sooner than you think, leaving you to unlock the rest of the endings. Depending upon your movements and actions, and how far you are able to delve into the plot, you will end up with one of eight endings, ranked from S to H, with ‘S’ being considered the best and ‘H’ the worst. The open-endedness of the game is a great touch, and something that doesn’t seem to feature in games often very more, which is a real shame… for it to be here though, is fantastic. The fact that the plot itself is quite deep really does do this system justice.

Clock Tower seems to be very stuck in an odd position, as one could identify it as a hybrid, where different qualities of different genres are intermixed, where the game can’t be pinned to one genre… At the time, the ‘survival horror’ genre (a term only really used from the late nineties and onwards) was not well-known and not many developers went for a ‘let’s scare the shit out of the player’ approach.

Two games which are often brought up, and referred to as being influential to the survival horror genre, are Alone in the Dark (1992) and Resident Evil (1996). 1996 onwards is seen as the real ‘golden-age’ of this genre, as the quality of the production processes concerning the designing of sound and graphics improved in consoles. This is where the ‘survival-horror’ genre began to become a genre that really held it’s own, separating itself off. It could be argued, that basic qualities that define what we know as ‘horror’ (ancient or gothic buildings or surroundings, darkness, bad weather, the unknown, the supernatural etc.) featured within games that tried to scare the player, weren’t prevalent enough, for the games to hold their own as being fully identified as a being a part of the ‘survival-horror’ genre. The technology wasn’t quite there for a player to become fully immersed and therefore scared. The technology limitations didn’t stop Human Entertainment though, as Clock Tower really is quite a scary game.

Concerning Clock Tower, it’s obvious the point-and-click and survival horror genres are present, but it is safe to say the combination works really well in providing many jumps, a deep plot, where the environment is vast and the location and usage of items are imaginative. It’s a fantastic game, which I would highly recommend.

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