Franchise Festival #73: Clock Tower

Welcome back to Franchise Festival, where we explore and discuss noteworthy video game series from the last four decades. Older entries can be found here.

This week we’ll be ticking and tocking amidst the history of Clock Tower. Cover art, unless otherwise noted, is from MobyGames. Please consider supporting that website, as its volunteers tirelessly catalog key information and art assets for an often ephemeral medium.

Though I will be citing my research throughout the article, I’d like to draw particular attention to a few major sources:

As a quick note about names and dates, I’ve used the Japanese name for each game for reasons which will become apparent shortly. Where both the Japanese and North American names are provided, separated by a “/”, the Japanese name will appear first. Similarly, release year is Japanese by default and, where two dates are provided, the first is Japanese and the second is North American unless otherwise noted.

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This graphic cleanly matches up the Japanese Clock Tower releases with their North American and European versions. Note that only Japan received the entire series. Source: Insert Disk

Background

Japanese video games studio Sonata was founded in 1987 as the result of a merger between TRY Co., Ltd. and Communicate, Inc. It produced sports titles and licensed Gundam tie-ins for other publishers prior to being rebranded as Human Entertainment in 1989. The studio became famous in Japan for its Fire Pro Wrestling series (1989-2017), which served as a stepping stone for the career of noted auteur Goichi Suda with his directorial role on Super Fire Pro Wrestling 3, but few of its titles were exported for North American audiences. This emphasis on the Japanese market would not change with the first entry in its flagship horror series, and would set the stage for a tangled web of localizations as the series became more popular in the late 1990s.

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Clock Tower (1995)

Hifumi Kono was tapped to design and direct Clock Tower, a survival horror game which bears little resemblance to contemporary titles being released on its native Super Famicom in 1995. Kono instead primarily drew the game’s visual language from the giallo films of Dario Argento. Producers expressed skepticism about his idiosyncratic vision for a cinematic horror game, but allowed him to move forward with the project anyway.

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Clock Tower wears its Suspiria (1977) and Phenomena (1985) references on its sleeve. Source: Insert Disk

In Clock Tower, players take on the role of teenage heroine Jennifer Simpson as she and three friends are adopted from an orphanage by a proxy for the wealthy Simon Barrows and housed in his sprawling Norwegian mansion. Upon their arrival, Jennifer is separated from the others and is stalked by a terrifying boy with an oversized pair of scissors. The player’s objective is to keep Jennifer safe from harm and, if possible, save her friends from violent deaths at the hands of the so-called Scissorman. Multiple endings hinge on how well the player has performed and how many characters were saved during the story.

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Hiding is not the only way to reliably save oneself from Scissorman. The player must also sometimes have Jennifer take up a nearby object to fight off her pursuer. Source: Insert Disk

Gameplay takes its cues from point-and-click adventure games of the 1980s, as the player navigates Jennifer around the mansion in side-scrolling 2D and interacts with objects through an on-screen cursor. The game is incompatible with the Super Famicom’s mouse peripheral, due to a relatively trim budget and the mouse’s notoriously low ownership rate, so the cursor must be clumsily manipulated using a controller’s directional pad. Tense sequences in which Jennifer is ambushed by Scissorman also see the player tapping a button to execute the ‘Panic’ command in an effort to evade the diminutive murderer, though using the ‘Panic’ command when Jennifer has low mental health will likely result in a Game Over.

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Mash that ‘Panic’ button! Source: Insert Disk

This unnerving and omnipresent villain is the game’s most memorable contribution to the survival horror video game palette. He can appear in any number of surprising places, emerging at predetermined moments when Jennifer enters an area or opens seemingly innocuous doors. Other appearances are more bombastic, offering startling jumpscares as Scissorman slays non-player characters (NPCs) or makes otherwise dramatic entrances to menace the heroine. Jennifer can take very little damage from Scissorman before she dies, and an on-screen portrait depicts her current state of mind using color-coding. The degradation of her mental state through attacks or repeated run-ins with Scissorman make the antagonist more likely to appear and reduce her ability to survive later encounters; this condition can only be reversed by resting.

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Jennifer amasses an extensive inventory used to open doors and solve rudimentary puzzles. Source: Insert Disk

The visual and audio design of the game are noteworthy for their lifelike qualities and oppressive atmosphere. Akiyoshi Iijima modeled the protagonist on Jennifer Connolly’s appearance in Dario Argento’s Phenomena (1985), while Clock Tower‘s heavy articulation of character sprites was facilitated by computer-generated (CG) motion capture of a woman in Human Entertainment’s planning division. The minimalist soundscape is tightly connected to the events on-screen, offering atmospheric mood pieces by Kōji Niikura whenever Scissorman appears but otherwise remaining silent.

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The Super Famicom, PlayStation, and WonderSwan versions side-by-side. The layout of the house and gameplay are the same in all. Source: Insert Disk

An enhanced port was produced for the PlayStation and Windows PC under the name Clock Tower: First Fear in 1996. This includes a handful of audio/visual and mechanical embellishments, but is otherwise identical to the Super Famicom game. A version produced for the handheld WonderSwan in 1999 reduces the color palette to monochromatic shades but is surprisingly effective at translating the game to a small screen. No versions have been officially released outside of Japan, though an English translation is available to fans willing to emulate the game through unofficial means.

Note: Cover art sourced from Wikipedia.

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Clock Tower 2 / Clock Tower (1996/1997)

Lead designer Hifumi Kono was not interested in developing a sequel to Clock Tower until he saw the polygonal capabilities of 32-bit hardware. A preview article on Resident Evil (1996) further inspired him and his team. Initial discussions centered on which of the three available next-generation home consoles would be the best fit for Clock Tower 2 – SEGA Saturn, Nintendo 64, or PlayStation – but Kono eventually settled on the PlayStation largely by chance. This decision proved fortuitous, as the SEGA Saturn would be a commercial flop and the Nintendo 64’s limited memory capacity could not produce the cutscenes which would become inextricably linked with the cinematic survival horror genre over the next few years.

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The kind of exhilarating cutscene that only the PlayStation’s CD-ROM technology could provide. Source: Insert Disk

Clock Tower 2 is strikingly similar to its predecessor in presentation. Moving through hallways is played from a 2.5D side-view angle, though characters and environments being rendered in real-time as textured polygons allows the player’s perspective to shift to more dramatic angles in other rooms or narrative-oriented sections. Such story sequences are referred to as intermissions, and sometimes include dialogue choices.

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Evading Scissorman in hallways is more or less the same as in Clock Tower, though he can pop out of anywhere this time. Source: Insert Disk

Players alternate control of two characters throughout the narrative. Jennifer Simpson returns from Clock Tower while Helen Maxwell makes her debut as a research assistant and Jennifer’s boss. Both are part of a research project and police investigation into the events of the preceding game, now known as the Scissorman Murders; the oversized shears-wielding maniac himself eventually makes a bloody reappearance, of course. Scissorman is now joined in his murderous rampage by cosmetically-identical copycats, though these can be distinguished from the true article by being their susceptibility to damage from player weapons.

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Intermissions force you to answer the tough questions. Source: Insert Disk

Gameplay is similar to Clock Tower outside of intermission sequences. Jennifer or Helen must explore environments, discover keys, and evade enemies. The portrait health system has been replaced by a color-coded cursor, and the player must again use a ‘Panic’ button to escape ambushes. Support for the PlayStation’s mouse peripheral makes cursor movement more user-friendly than it had previously been. Enemies can now appear at random, ratcheting up the tension on repeat playthroughs. Multiple attempts at the game are likely, too, as there are ten unique endings determined by the player characters’ actions during the relatively brief story.

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Detective Gotts shoots Scissorman but barely slows him down. Must be the real deal. Source: Insert Disk

Clock Tower 2 was localized in North America by ASCII as Clock Tower, forever muddling the series’ naming convention outside of Japan. It was well-received overall, though criticism was directed towards its already-outdated graphics and poor voice acting. The publication of Resident Evil and its detailed pre-rendered backgrounds on the PlayStation shortly before Clock Tower 2‘s release likely undermined some of the game’s impact. It would still perform well commercially, offering the opportunity for Human Entertainment to create the franchise’s first spinoff (see below). Sadly, this commercial success would not be enough to secure a re-release on any other platform or digital distribution service; players must still seek out an original PlayStation copy or engage in unofficial emulation if they would like to experience this long out-of-print survival horror cult classic.

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Clock Tower 3 (2002/2003)

Human Entertainment declared bankruptcy in November 1999 and its disbanded staff went on to form Grasshopper Manufacture (Goichi Suda), Nude Maker (Hifume Kono), and others. The Clock Tower intellectual property was divided evenly into the hands of Capcom and Sunsoft, which had built a reputation on original titles like Blaster Master (1988) and Flashback (1993) as well as numerous licensed games before encountering serious financial turmoil in the mid-1990s. Unlike Human Entertainment, Sunsoft narrowly avoided bankruptcy through re-structuring and selling off many of its licenses.

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Though some cutscenes are intensely campy or silly, perhaps due to Kinji Fukasaku’s over-the-top sensibilities, others are downright spooky. Source: Insert Disk

The first indication that Capcom would be boosting the franchise’s production values was an announcement that Japanese New Wave filmmaker Kinji Fukasaku, a long-time artist who was re-popularized by his 2000 cinematic adaptation of Koushun Takami’s novel Battle Royale (1999), had been hired as Clock Tower 3‘s director. Capcom’s legendary developer Shinji Mikami (of Resident Evil fame) had initially invited Hifumi Kono to help direct the game, but was graciously turned down. Improvements to the graphics and interface would further reinforce the sense that Capcom and Sunsoft were seeking to rehabilitate the aging series on a new generation of hardware.

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Perspectives, like this one from above as Alyssa walks through the rafters of a theater, are consistently neat. Source: Insert Disk

The PlayStation 2’s Clock Tower 3 stands out as a startling break with its predecessors. Clock Tower 2 had been entirely polygonal, but advances between the PlayStation and PlayStation 2 make the character models of Clock Tower 3 far more expressive. 2.5D transition areas have been omitted entirely. Instead, players control the protagonist primarily from a cinematic third-person perspective that moves around rooms in a manner reminiscent of Resident Evil: Code Veronica (2000). These forced angles were sparingly used in Clock Tower 2, but are more heavily emphasized and elegantly handled here.

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There are several new boss enemies, but none have the presence of Scissorman. Source: Insert Disk

The plot has virtually nothing connecting it to earlier series entries. Rather than continuing the stories of Jennifer Simpson, Helen Maxwell, or Scissorman and the Barrow family, Clock Tower 3 introduces a new player character named Alyssa Hamilton. 14-year-old student Alyssa travels through time between the London of 2003, the 1940s, and 1960s while battling a succession of monstrous foes called Subordinates. Alyssa discovers her role as the descendant of an ancient bloodline known as the Rooders and confronts Lord Burroughs, a man who is attempting to manipulate her and the Subordinates in a bid for extraordinary supernatural power.

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It’s Magical Girl Alyssa! Source: Insert Disk

In addition to its narrative break from Clock Tower 2, Clock Tower 3‘s structure, interface, and even basic gameplay all contrast heavily with earlier series titles. The story is divided into chapters, each of which features a new area and Subordinate for Alyssa to defeat. Clock Tower 3 discards the point-and-click interface of Clock Tower and Clock Tower 2 in favor of the controlling the player character’s movement directly via a joystick. Finally, while Alyssa can hide from Subordinates stalking her through each chapter, she is encouraged to slow them down through the use of weapons like holy water. The end of each chapter features a boss fight in which Alyssa transforms – via the incongruous style of the anime format’s magical girl archetype – and slays her pursuer with a spiritually-infused bow; the bow is aimed and fired from an over-the-shoulder perspective rather than the comparatively distant cinematic camera view present in the rest of the game.

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It’s startling to see an over-the-shoulder shooter mechanic in a Clock Tower game. Source: Insert Disk

Clock Tower 3 was poorly received by critics, though its visual presentation was considered a major improvement on the series’ PlayStation entries. The tone and gameplay were highly inconsistent, losing much of what fans had come to expect from the relatively low-key survival horror series. With the exception of several spiritual successors over the coming decade and a half, this project was the unfortunate end of Hifume Kono’s once-beloved cult classic.

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Spinoffs and Spiritual Successors

Due to the series’ peculiar naming convention and inconsistent localization, Clock Tower‘s first spinoff was known as a core series entry to fans in North America. Japan’s Clock Tower: Ghost Head was renamed Clock Tower II: The Struggle Within when published in North America on the PlayStation a year after its initial 1998 release. Even so, unique aspects of its gameplay and narrative clearly delineate it as a spinoff outside the established conventions of its parent series.

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The game has its flaws, but Alyssa’s murderous cousin succeeds at being intensely creepy. Source: Insert Disk

Players take on the role of Alyssa – no relation to the protagonist of Clock Tower 3 – as she explores a series of environments and avoids or confronts one of several antagonists. The first such area is Alyssa’s aunt and uncle’s house, where Alyssa’s young cousin has engaged in a series of filicidal slayings while possessed. The player character has an amulet that, if dropped, allows her to transform into Mr. Bates, an aggressive personality with heightened stamina and weaponry. Switching carefully between her normal form and Mr. Bates is critical for survival and achieving each of the game’s thirteen endings.

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Mr. Bates does not actually look any different from Alyssa’s normal form, aside from a haze around her character model. Source: NintendoComplete

Gameplay also offer a handful of similarities to Clock Tower‘s core series entries. Alyssa collects items which populate an inventory and are used to complete rudimentary puzzles, while movement is handled using a cursor in the manner of Clock Tower and Clock Tower 2. A ‘Panic’ button still allows Alyssa to escape danger when ambushed, though her ability to effectively escape deteriorates with repeated use. Unlike Clock Tower, in which the protagonist needed to rest to slowly recover stamina, Alyssa’s health can be rapidly recovered by using first aid kits discovered throughout the environment.

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The rough character models and environments of Clock Tower: Ghost Head / The Struggle Within had fallen behind the content being produced for the PlayStation by the end of the 1990s. Source: Insert Disk

Clock Tower: Ghost Head / The Struggle Within was critically panned upon its release in North America. Particular attention was directed toward its graphics, which had not substantially improved from those of Clock Tower 2 two years earlier, along with its frustrating structure. Though areas remain ostensibly open, players are arbitrarily required to complete unclear objectives before advancing forward; Alyssa may need to enter one door before another, for example, despite neither being locked. Poor reception to this spinoff seems to have been the final nail in Human Entertainment’s coffin, as the studio folded shortly after the game’s release.

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Demento / Haunting Ground‘s Fiona was the planned protagonist from early in development, but her canine companion Hewie was added later on. Source: Clock Tower Wiki

The franchise’s next quasi-entry is a spiritual successor with a genuinely mysterious development history. It has been alleged that Demento / Haunting Ground (2005/2006) evolved from Resident Evil 4‘s so-called Hookman Version prototype, though I can find no official confirmation of this. The two games were certainly in development by Capcom simultaneously, and there are apparent similarities in the assets used by both. Resident Evil 2‘s writer, Noboru Sugimura, was likewise involved in the development of both games; he had written a script for one of Resident Evil 4‘s discarded builds and moved on to Demento / Haunting Ground once Shinji Mikami was brought in to dramatically reconfigure the former game.

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As had been the case in earlier Clock Tower games, the characters in Demento / Haunting Ground are based on motion capture performances. Even Hewie! Source: Clock Tower Wiki

Whatever the truth of its obscure origins, the PlayStation 2’s Demento / Haunting Ground is plainly a Clock Tower entry in all but name. Its gameplay has much in common with Clock Tower 3, as the player takes on the role of a largely defenseless character as she avoids or disrupts dangerous pursuers in an isolated setting. Cinematic fixed camera angles which move around fully polygonal environments echo the last title in the Clock Tower franchise. Each enemy is eventually put down for good in a boss encounter where the player must solve a puzzle or otherwise outwit the antagonist within a closed arena. An unseen ‘Panic’ gauge builds up from encounters with pursuers or minor enemies scattered throughout the environment, making the player character more likely to enter a semi-uncontrollable panicked state.

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Environments are among the most atmospheric on the PlayStation 2. Source: The Sphere Hunter

Still, a handful of changes render it a marked improvement over Clock Tower 3. The aforementioned boss encounters are won through the completion of a puzzle rather than clumsy bow combat. The absence of discrete chapters and – in an impressive feat of technical wizardry – unnoticeable load times between rooms makes Demento / Haunting Ground‘s castle, mansion, grounds, and subterranean foundation an apparently seamless horror setting. Though largely unable to directly fight back against her attackers, the protagonist also has access to a beloved canine sidekick who alters the series’ traditional dynamic in meaningful ways.

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Hewie high-fives Fiona in a bathroom that looks rather like the one from Clock Tower. Source: The Sphere Hunter

The plot concerns Fiona Belli, a young woman who is wounded in a car accident and subsequently awakens in a castle dungeon. Though assured that she is the castle’s heir, Fiona is subject to attack by several persistent enemies over the course of her attempts to escape. Her only ally is Hewie, a dog who can be commanded to follow, stay, or attack enemies through the use of the controller’s right joystick. Handling Hewie is key to progression through the game, as well as which of the it’s four endings the player receives, as Fiona must gain his trust during the game’s early hours and avoid putting him in unreasonable danger during encounters with pursuers. Failing to do so results in Hewie growing increasingly wary of Fiona and becoming less likely to aid her (and, indeed, more likely to attack her) in the future.

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Fiona’s highly detailed animations make her trials all the more harrowing. Source: The Sphere Hunter

Demento / Haunting Ground received mixed reviews upon its 2005 release for good reason: it had the misfortune to be published in the same year as Capcom’s genre-defining Resident Evil 4. It also features genuinely challenging themes, including one of the medium’s most intensely sexualized protagonists, and comparatively antiquated gameplay; the tank controls of Resident Evil and Silent Hill are absent here, but the player character’s defenselessness in the face of seemingly unstoppable foes is more of a piece with late 1990s and early 2000s horror games than what had become the norm by 2005. Time has been kind to Haunting Ground, however, as its lush visual design and inventive dog gameplay are now regarded as quite forward-looking and established a strong cult following in the decade since its release in spite of intense scarcity.

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A baffling alchemy-based crafting mechanic is included in Demento / Haunting Ground, though engagement with it is happily not necessary at the standard level of difficulty. Source: The Sphere Hunter

The commercial under-performance of Haunting Ground ensured that Capcom would eschew even tangentially-related Clock Tower successors as it entered the era of action-horror following Resident Evil 4. Fans would wait eleven years for the next spiritual successor to Clock Tower. This time, at least, the resulting project was led by original series creator Hifumi Kono. Kono had been developing mobile games at Nude Maker for much of the prior decade, and was anxious to return to a larger-budget survival horror experience. A crowd-sourcing campaign through Kickstarter filled in the funding gaps, as survival horror had been a more or less dead genre since the rise of HD home consoles and mobile devices.

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The scissors are back in NightCry. Source: Pikasprey Blue

Kono explored alternative methods of input, though he eventually settled on the point-and-click interface of Clock Tower and Clock Tower 2 at the suggestion of longtime friend Shinji Mikami. Takashi Shimizu, director of famous Japanese horror series Ju-On / The Grudge (2000-2006), was brought on to offer designs and produce a promotional video. Early previews suggested a return to the mechanics which had defined the series’ 1990s entries with impressive graphics only possible on modern hardware.

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In an inventive twist, NightCry‘s player characters can communicate with others through text messaging apps and social media on their smartphones. Source: Pikasprey Blue

Sadly, NightCry was a critical disappointment upon its release on Windows PC in 2016. Its fundamentals are strong, as the player takes on the role of three characters solving puzzles and evading a Scissorman stand-in on-board a spooky cruise ship, but it is beset by numerous technical issues. Fixed cinematic camera angles in the style of Clock Tower 2 alternate with a dynamic chase perspective when the player character is pursued by Scissorman, though both offer unique hurdles to interacting accurately with the player characters’ environments. The unreliability of the cursor input mechanism likewise makes solving puzzles or using inventory items unnecessarily challenging. A PlayStation Vita version was published to similarly poor reviews in 2019 and planned releases for Android and iOS mobile devices were canceled.

Conclusion

Human Entertainment’s Hifume Kono punched above the low-budget studio’s weight with the Super Famicom’s highly atmospheric Clock Tower, pioneering the survival horror genre a year before Resident Evil popularized it, but subsequent series entries were unable to recapture the first game’s lightning in a bottle. Relatively strong commercial performance by the series’ second title – and its belated localization outside of Japan – failed to prevent Human Entertainment’s 1999 bankruptcy. Neither a handful of attempts at a revival throughout the 2000s by Sunsoft and Capcom, including the cult classic Demento / Haunting Ground, nor Hifume Kono’s crowd-funded 2016 spiritual successor could revive the series. It seems that Clock Tower‘s time in the spotlight has fully come and gone.


What do you think about Clock Tower? Which is your favorite or least favorite entry? How do you think the series could be adapted to modern sensibilities? Shouldn’t the main antagonist of the first two games be called “Scissorsman”? Let’s discuss below.

Next week we’ll be covering Uncharted. Please join us at 9:00 AM EST on November 1 to be a part of the discussion. Here is a tentative list of other upcoming articles:

  • #74: Uncharted – November 1
  • #75: Grand Theft Auto – November 8
  • #76: Parasite Eve – November 15
  • #77: Might and Magic – November 22
  • #78: Echo the Dolphin – November 29

Note: Header image sourced from USGamer