Running with scissors

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Bandai’s WonderSwan family of handhelds played host to a diverse range of software over their Japan-only lifespan: From a million (quantity slightly inflated) Gundam games and other popular but often surprisingly good licensed fodder to Squaresoft’s various middle fingers aimed Nintendo’s way, Guilty Gear, elaborate add-ons capable of holding their weirdy own against even the infamous Game Boy Pocket Sonar, and the little spark that would eventually lead to the Project X Zone games. In 1999 it also received the very last port of Human Entertainment‘s Clock Tower, based on the slightly expanded “The First Fear” version released in 1997 on both PC and PlayStation.

You may think a handheld version that’s not even in colour is no way to send off such an incredible and important horror game, but the instant Clock Tower’s iconic title screen appears before giving way to the full selection of the same familiar options found in the Super Famicom original it’s clear this WonderSwan port has been lavished with nothing but love and care. The main graphics window fills the portable’s display from corner to corner with the WonderSwan’s oft-forgotten LCD side bar dots serving as an adequate replacement for Jennifer’s stamina gauge – yes it is a shame to lose her expressive portrait from the bottom of the screen but it’s a practical substitute that keeps all the information you really need accessible at a glance without it taking up any valuable screen space.

Even with all of this visual elbow room if you compare any two screenshots of the same area the WonderSwan version will always be the one that looks the worst, with areas not only drained of colour (not necessarily a problem in a game that thrives on suspenseful horror in any case) but clearly simplified when put next to the others. There are fewer paintings hanging on the walls and other incidental details will be omitted entirely or sneakily repeated: if you look at the trophy room in the image set above you’ll see two different mounted animal heads on the wall flipped horizontally to make a full set of four – in every other release these are four truly individual “trophies”. The incredible thing is you’d honestly struggle to notice any of this graphical trimming was going on unless you were actively looking for it because it’s all been done so well: Every single room’s most defining details remain exactly where you remember them – the table and chairs the girls sit around in the opening, the suit of armour, the piano, and the ominous pentagram dominating the floor of the locked ceremony room are all present and correct – the only things that have gone are the minor embellishments that, as mood-enhancing as they might be, are ultimately easily forgotten when they’re not right in front of you. Speaking of things right in front of you: Jennifer herself is as fluidly animated as she’s always been, possessing the same range of near/mid/far graphics and almost bewildering assortment of bespoke visual reactions to one-off events she always has, including the new (or perhaps more accurately, restored) elements from the later PlayStation/Windows releases.

There are inevitably some issues caused by this move to monochrome: The cutscene art appears to have been machine-converted rather than redrawn, leaving the images looking muddy and in a few cases virtually indecipherable unless you’re already familiar with Clock Tower’s grisly highlights. We can however choose to look at that complaint from another angle: A monochrome WonderSwan title not only contains all the cutscenes from the graphically-rich Super Famicom original but the extra items and puzzles found in the later releases as well – in fact this handheld port is so close to the real thing you can follow a PlayStation guide from beginning to end without any tweaking and also use this incredible Super Famicom map to find your way around the Barrows mansion – that’s an extraordinary achievement for such a tiny cart running on a highly battery-conscious format. The same can be said for the sound effects and those stomach-churning pieces of music that play whenever Bobby’s on Jennifer’s trail – they may not be the same as their home-powered counterparts, but the tunes still successfully capture the essence of the originals and the sampled effects – footsteps on floorboards, wooden doors slowly creaking open, human screams loud enough to wake the cat (she really was not impressed with me), and the unmistakable shiiing sound of those damned scissors as they get closer… and closer… and closer… – all do a fabulous job of ratcheting up the tension even when heard through the WonderSwan’s stock mono speaker (the game’s also compatible with the handheld’s special stereo headphone attachment, although they sadly tend to be prohibitively expensive to import these days).

All of this luxurious completeness does however come at one overall cost: Speed. There’s no way of getting around it, WonderSwan Clock Tower really does play a fair bit slower than any other version of the game to the point where if you started them all up at the same time and played through the same mansion layout (more on that in a bit) using the exact same inputs this handheld port would come last every single time. In an action game a slight speed drop like this (it may be slower, but it’s not slow) would be a death sentence, but as Clock Tower has always been a more ponderous and thoughtful sort of game anyway the change doesn’t have quite the disastrous impact you’d imagine it would have. It certainly helps that this is one point-n-click game that was always designed with a d-pad rather than a good old mouse in mind, and because of this – coupled with the fact that everything is slower, including Jennifer’s scissor-snapping tormentor Bobby – there’s never a moment where you feel you’re asked to do something that requires a level of control or reaction time the WonderSwan’s cross-shaped buttons can’t accommodate.

Earlier I explained how the graphical detail in this port had been pruned back until only what was absolutely essential remained, but what I didn’t mention at the time was that the team’s idea of “absolutely essential” quite rightly included carefully preserving every single minor random event and eerie pair of eyes staring through a pitch-black window in the entire game – it’s those little things that help make every single run through Clock Tower so nerve-wracking and unpredictable. So even here sometimes a TV will inexplicably burst into life and display noisy static… and on others it’ll remain silent while a painting in the same room cries blood. Sometimes impossible hands will reach through a mirror and strangle Jennifer if she gets too close… but not always. Curtains may (or may not) billow in an unexpected gust of wind, or a chandelier will fall from the ceiling and narrowly miss crushing Jennifer as she dashes underneath – you’ve got no way of knowing what will happen until it’s already happening.

This is also true of the Barrows mansion layout as well: At the beginning of every run the location of a few rooms is decided at random (from a predetermined pool) while the majority remain in fixed positions, making every panic-filled escape from the terrible shing of those scissors as desperate and uncertain as the very first. The key thing is these alterations are always variable enough to remove the confidence that comes from well-practised prior knowledge (and plain old FAQs) but never so random the mansion feels like a meaningless jumble of doors and corridors or that there is no benefit in you paying attention or learning where anything is. You’re never quite as in control as you want to be – maybe a box you remember containing a key on your last run is now empty and unimportant, or the ceremony room requires a different special item this time. You hope that crate rattling away in the corner is doing so because there’s nothing more than a harmless cat hiding inside it like before and it’s not…

Oh no.

 

Much like Umbrella’s Nemesis the threat of Bobby appearing and the actual number of times he leaps out at Jennifer are further apart than your heart rate would have you believe they are; what makes him feel so aggressive is Clock Tower’s conscious shift into “chase mode” whenever he’s around – when that music starts up and all other puzzling is put on hold until (or if) you’ve found a suitable hiding place for Jennifer that makes him lose interest… for the time being. He’s not the smartest or the swiftest foe in the genre but he is utterly relentless while he’s on the hunt, plunging those giant blades through mattresses and closed doors with an unnatural degree of strength and dancing with joy before delivering the final fatal blow. It could be argued that all this does is artificially lengthen the game as whenever Jennifer’s being chased you’re prevented from quickly snatching up key objects even if Bobby’s not currently on screen, but I’d say it forces you to acknowledge him as the most dangerous being in the mansion – it forces you to play the part of someone running for their life. Clock Tower doesn’t care what you were doing, what you wanted to do, or how easily you know you could do it if only it allowed you get on with reaching the ending – in this moment Jennifer’s options are hide or die.

Is this the best way to play the game? No. It wasn’t even the best way to play the game when it came out, never mind all these decades later. Like countless other console-to-handheld ports if you can play Clock Tower on some sort of console or computer (Super Famicom’s probably the most straightforward for most people due to the fan translation, but the PlayStation/PC extras are worth experiencing for yourself if you’re able to play them) then absolutely go for those first because this version’s major USP – portability – stopped being relevant the day you could emulate any of the others on a battery-powered device, and we passed that point so long ago I can remember playing SNES games on my PDA during lunch breaks. But not being the best way and not being a good way are two different things and for all the slight adjustments this WonderSwan port is still an astonishingly faithful and perfectly playable release – it’s more than an interesting relic of a make-do age, it’s an incredible technical achievement crafted with care and effort that offers an authentic experience whether you’re an old fan or a complete newcomer – just don’t let Bobby catch you…

3 thoughts on “Running with scissors

  1. Little added detail: The SNES version isn’t the only fan translated one anymore. Both PC and PS1 are too, making the later probably the easiest to emulate English language available version with the First Fear aditions.

    You know, a couple years ago, during a Halloween Weekend, I played a lot of Clock Tower. That being the SNES, PS1 and WSC versions back to back and all endings in each one (tbf as a veteran who knows what to do, even 8 endings combined don’t take more than like 2 hours or so). And despite playing them so close together I did not even notice the WSC one being slower or that there are less details in it (outside the CGs and some lost shadow depth of course).

    One thing I really wished the First Fears version added tho is: Random Scissor Man. Like in the sequels where the stalkers don’t just chase you if you run into certain triggers, but also if too much time went on. There’s only like 2 or 3 triggers you run into once you know what to do in the first Clock Tower (and with its added randomness factor he doesn’t even trigger eacht time). Really takes the edge off on re-runs sadly, and I wished they indluced that at least on the more powerful hardware

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  2. It’s like so many Game Boy games that make you think: “How did they manage to get this full-colour arcade/console game running on this four shades of something, barely better than a calculator device? And why does it work so well?”.
    I think I’ve mentioned in some other comment, I never played the original Clock Tower. I’ve played a bit of Clock Tower 3, which I didn’t like very much (much like Haunting Ground, sorry) and a little bit of whatever was that English release on PSX. Maybe I’ll pick up the SFC version someday, I’ve seen so much praise for it.

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