Horror is one of the most unique genres in gaming. It can take the form of an action game or something slower-paced like an adventure title. The early years of horror-themed gaming were all over the place. In the West, horror had manifested with games like Dark Seed, Doom, and Alone in the Dark. Japan had its own take on the occult, focusing on console gaming. Titles like Castlevania and Sweet Home laid a lot of the ground work for Resident Evil and Silent Hill. Clock Tower, released in 1995, is also one of these early establishing titles. Despite never leaving Japan, the game has a sizable cult following overseas.
In Clock Tower you play as Jennifer Simpson, an orphaned girl that’s adopted by an eccentric named Simon Barrows. Mary, Simon’s wife, escorts Jennifer, and few other adopted girls, to Barrows Mansion. Upon arrival, Mary leaves the girls in the foyer to go find her husband. Time passes and the girls begin to get concerned. Jennifer volunteers to go look for Mary. She hears a scream from the foyer not long after leaving, and returns to find the lights out and all her friends missing. Jennifer will have to uncover the secrets of the mansion and find her friends if she wishes to escape Barrows Mansion.
Clock Tower plays like any other point and click adventure at first glance. You walk around Barrows Mansion collecting items and using them to solve various puzzles. You have an action/walk button, a stop button, and a menu button; standard fair for a game like this. The shoulder buttons can make Jennifer run to the left or right indefinitely and speed things up. The cursor even changes when you hover over an intractable object, and helps solve the adventure game problem of “click everywhere and everything till something happens.”
Clock Tower has one other key feature that sets it apart from your typical adventure fair, and that is its panic system. You’ll find that Barrows Mansion is a pretty strange place after you start exploring it. Poltergeist possessed objects, murderous animals, and other occult happenings all have it out for our heroine. Jennifer’s portrait starts flashing when she encounters any of these things, and that’s your queue to start mashing the panic button. Each panic instance will build a bit of Jennifer’s fear, represented by the color behind her portrait. You can think of fear like a life meter, even though everything can kill Jennifer in 1 hit. The more panicked Jennifer becomes, the more you have to mash the panic button. Most fear-inducing situations are one-off things and scripted events, so you can try to plan around them or avoid them completely if you know their triggers. Clock Tower does have one random element, though; and his name is Scissorman.
Jennifer will repeatedly bump into Scissorman while exploring the mansion. This pint-sized serial killer first shows up when Jennifer discovers the corpse of one of her friends, and he chases her till you find a hiding place and wait him out. Scissorman encounters are rather intense despite his ridiculous appearance. Scissorman encounters are where the fear status can get Jennifer killed. There’s a chance she’ll trip if she’s panicked while running, giving him time to catch up. There’s also a chance for Scissorman to instantly kill Jennifer while she’s panicked if he catches her, rather than giving her an opportunity to fight back. It sounds pretty stupid, but Clock Tower gives you the option to pick your game back up from right before any encounter that kills you. Hiding places are rare, so you really have to get creative and think on your feet. There are certain areas where Scissorman will spawn, but there’s also plenty of encounters that happen at random. The mansion is small, and these chase sequences add an interesting element of longevity to the game.
Clock Tower seems lackluster when only looking at it’s adventure elements. There’s only a few puzzles in the game, and you’re lucky if you encounter more than 3 in a single play through. The game has 9 different endings, but the events that divide them up are rather small. This game isn’t a cult hit for adventure game enthusiasts, though; but rather for horror game fans. Things like Scissorman and the games detailed still images evolved into horror game staples such as bosses that seem unbeatable and grotesque, graphic imagery. There are a few more subtle things to Clock Tower’s horror-themed design, though.
The main thing Clock Tower does is mess with player when giving them feedback. The game’s intention is to make sure you get lost, and it uses several techniques to do so. The Clock Tower soundtrack is rather small. When exploring Barrows Mansion, the only thing you can hear clearly is Jennifer’s footsteps. The near constant “white noise” makes it difficult to tell what kind of situation you’re in. The game conditions you to jump at the slightest disturbance, be it in or outside of the game. There’s a specific track that plays for when Scissorman jumps you, but it too can be a false positive in certain situations. This disorientation breaks over into the visuals as well. The hallways in the mansion look similar to one another, and if you’re not paying attention to what is where it’s easy to get lost. There’s no map screen in this game, and rooms in the mansion get jumbled around every time you start a new game. It keeps things disorienting, even for someone that’s cleared the game before. It also keeps the game somewhat fresh and engaging when trying to unlock multiple endings.
Clock Tower is an interesting and weird game, but it’s worth playing for any psychological or survival horror fan. The game lacks an official release outside of Japan, but there are a couple of fan-translations floating around online. Simple, quirky, and all kinds of creepy, Clock Tower is a hidden gem in the SNES import library.