Remembering… Clock Tower
The most powerful and effective horror titles are driven by a pervasive feeling of dread. That sickening feeling in the pit of your stomach that shortens your breath as you hide under the bed, hoping the deformed killer doesn’t find you as he stalks the room. He’s found you, and with no remorse or hesitation comes toward you with his pair of sharp, giant scissors. Helpless and with nowhere to run, you try to hold off the blades as best you can. It isn’t the cutting of the scissors into soft, warm flesh that’s terrifying, but the moments leading up to it.
Clock Tower has always enjoyed a cult classic status among gamers, but the history of its exposure to Western audiences is rather convoluted. Originally developed for the Super Nintendo in 1995, it was later ported to the WonderSwan and to PC, but only for Japan. Later on it was re-released for the PlayStation and titled Clock Tower: The First Fear. Despite all of its sequels being released overseas, the original SNES Clock Tower has never officially been released outside of Japan. It wasn’t until fans translated the ROM of Clock Tower into English did it get some much needed exposure.
Whereas Resident Evil based itself off gory B-movies and Silent Hill on dark psychological horror, Clock Tower took its themes and overtones from the works of legendary director Dario Argento. The game mimics the horror subgenre of Italian ‘giallo’ movies, films characterized by fantastic elements and highly-stylized, prolonged death sequences. The three biggest influences in the game are Arengto’s own Deep Red, Phenomena, and Suspiria films and it’s easy to spot the references from children in mortal danger to the protagonist being the spitting image of a young Jennifer Connelly.
The story begins with Jennifer Simpson, a young orphan, and her friends being taken to an ominous, gothic mansion to be adopted by its wealthy and reclusive owner Mr. Barrows. While waiting, she hears a scream and investigates the main foyer. In an iconic moment lifted right out of Suspiria, the infamous Scissorman (or rather Scissorboy) makes his appearance. He crashes through the glass ceiling overhead, his victim speared on a pair of shears. Scissorman wastes no time chasing Jennifer through the mansion. From the opening moments, Clock Tower never gives the player a chance to catch their breath: it’s time to find a place to hide or at least elude Scissorman for the time being.
His telltale snipping sounds are never too far away, though. He even manages to get the drop on Jennifer once again. This time in the shower, as another one of her friends falls victim to the Scissorman and he lunges at Jennifer from the watery tub. Not that there aren’t other ways to die as well, from an otherworldly arm grabbing hold of Jennifer from a mirror or being attacked by a possessed doll, death is only one wrong move away.
Clock Tower at its heart is a mixture of survival-horror with the mechanics of a point-and-click adventure game in the vein of The 7th Guest. Strangely, the mouse accessory for the Super Nintendo isn’t compatible with the game. The standard controller works fine, but it’s clear Clock Tower would’ve greatly benefited from the mouse. Clicking will either result in Jennifer interacting, investigating, or taking something depending on the situation. A portrait displays her current condition. If it’s blue, that means everything’s fine for the time being. Her status will change based on any scares or attacks she suffers.
Too many shocks turns Jennifer’s status red, meaning she’s in full panic mode. She stands a much greater chance of not having the energy to deal with the situation and will often trip. Clock Tower is a game where the protagonist is all but helpless—there are no weapons to collect and no way to stop the Scissorman. He can only be stopped temporarily by hiding or otherwise delaying him. Even so, he’ll pop out just about anywhere for a nasty surprise. While his omnipresence is terrifying in his own right, it’s the childlike glee he seems to take in hunting his victims that makes Scissorman so memorable.
Much like a ‘choose your own adventure’ book, there are plenty of endings to choose from. Most of them involve Jennifer meeting a nasty end (trying to drive off ends with a surprise from an unwanted passenger), but players that persevere to the end will see Jennifer uncover the mystery of the Barrows family, stop the Scissorman, and escape alive. It can be a frustrating process of trial and error like most adventure titles, it’s rarely foreshadowed what’s a fatal mistake and what isn’t, but if anything it makes the game even more tense than it already is.
For as tired as gamers are of the Resident Evil and Silent Hill franchises, and how fans of survival-horror lament its current state, it’s surprising that a Clock Tower game hasn’t been seen in a decade. Despite never officially being released outside of Japan, Clock Tower still has resonance as a strong, atmospheric horror title even if it never reached the heights of popularity as other big names in the survival-horror genre. Any gamer complaining there’s far too much action and not enough scares in horror-themed games anymore owes it to themselves to take a trip to the Barrows estate. Scissorman and the other terrors within are looking forward to it.