Clock Tower is The Best Survival Horror Series You’ve Never Played

This game has everything: scissors, clocks, Jennifer Connelly

While survival horror can always be counted on to endure, the way the player goes about surviving has changed a lot over the years.  One of the biggest questions a developer has to ask themselves is “how much can the protagonist fight back?” Often the answer is “not at all,” with many modern developers drawing from the chilling effectiveness of Outlast and Amnesia: The Dark Descent to create a sense of helpless terror. But one of the most formative game series in the “helpless protagonist” subgenre often goes uncredited. The Clock Tower franchise began in 1995 on the SNES, and while it peaked early on in terms of graceful design and visuals, its later installments have their own memorable charm in their unique ability to capture the utter ridiculousness that endears many horror fans to long-running slashers.

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Pixel Horror

Two of the most formative early survival horror classics are 1989’s Sweet Home, published by Capcom, and 1992’s Alone in the Dark — the latter of which Clock Tower director Hifumi Kono specifically namedrops as an inspiration. Like Clock Tower, they’re both nonlinear games about exploring big scary mansions as protagonists who aren’t terribly equipped to battle the supernatural. But while combat is daunting and likely to be quickly fatal, both games do feature at least a rudimentary combat system which the player can use to defend themselves.

Clock Tower throws even that out the window. Players take on the role of Jennifer, a young orphan who’s been adopted along with her three friends and taken to the mysterious Barrows mansion. The girls become separated upon arriving, and it quickly becomes clear that they were brought there for sinister purposes. Jennifer’s goal is to find her friends and get out of the house without falling victim to the nightmarish and implacable Scissorman.

The gameplay uses a point-and-click system, with players searching the house for items in order to solve puzzles. Item locations are randomized and not everything will appear in every playthrough, adding to the sense of replayability but also meaning that players can quickly get in over their head. Did you get caught and thrown in the shed without getting the meat from the kitchen? Bad news for you, friend, it’s time to load a quicksave. Fortunately, the game’s short length — about two hours for an experienced player — lessens the sting of having to start over.

While clicking around rooms for items, players can trigger the (also randomized) appearance of Scissorman. When he shows up, the only solution is to run away and find a hiding place. To ratchet up the tension, reusing the same place too many times or being seen while hiding might result in being caught, and Jennifer can only dodge a fatal blow using “panic mode” a handful of times. It creates a risk/reward tension to exploring the gorgeous gloominess of the mansion, and there are panic-depleting dangers around the mansion to further keep players on their toes.

Cinematic Influences

This unique system comes from the game’s other major source of inspiration: the slasher films of Dario Argento, who is so closely tied to the franchise that Google misattributes him as its director. Specifically, actual director Kono namedrops Phenomena, a film that includes both a teenager who can talk to insects and a chimp wielding a straight razor and which still manages to be soul-crushingly dull. It starred a young Jennifer Connelly, looking so much like the Jennifer of the game that one is left wondering if the reason the game was never localized was only due to it being made so late in the SNES’s life-cycle, or if there were a few likeness rights being ducked.

Joking aside, this is definitely a case of a game drawing from cinematic influences to great effect without losing what’s unique about an interactive medium, and a small but passionate fanbase responded. The game even sold well enough to warrant a direct sequel. This was known as Clock Tower II in Japan and plain old Clock Tower in the United States, as it was the first game of the series to be officially translated. Just to muddy the waters further, the later spinoff game Clock Tower: Ghosthead would come to the US as Clock Tower II: The Struggle Within, at which point most American gamers started throwing up their hands and referring to the SNES game as Clock Tower: The First Fear to avoid a constant game of “no, not that one.”  

The slasher influence on the series would continue, albeit in a less purposeful and more bizarrely meta sort of way. There is a comfortable rhythm to a slasher franchise: a successful stand-alone film is followed by a sequel usually rushed out in a much more constricted timeline to capitalize on the first film’s success, with each subsequent release simultaneously sinking into a restrictive formula while also losing touch with what made the original work, until it finally either ascends into space or flowers into the beautiful camp disaster it was always meant to be. Then, years and years later, someone digs up the corpse and does a reboot.

Polygonal Growing Pains

According to Kono, the PS1 Clock Tower had a problem right off the bat: the jump in consoles would mean changing visual styles drastically, and the Clock Tower crew would be the first team at Human Entertainment to work with a 3D engine. To put it kindly, their lack of experience shows, and it didn’t help that the team was restricted by a comparatively small budget. The end results involve empty-looking settings that couldn’t optimize the mood lighting depicted in the concept art, narrative threads that feel half-finished, and a total loss of the controlled and eerily beautiful aesthetic of the SNES game.

That said, the finished game still brims with inventive ideas on a structural level. The story breaks along multiple paths with different protagonists and locations depending on decisions made in dialogue; the set event randomization of the original game, which had to be specifically triggered and could eventually be avoided almost altogether, evolved by adding a timer-based system to the random chase events. There’s also a plethora of endings and weird deaths, though the conditions for getting them are sometimes irritatingly fussy.

While it might not necessarily be scary (although to be fair, I sure thought it was as a high schooler), the transition to 3D brought along with it a magnificent bouquet of accidental hilarity. Was the inside of a fish tank really the most cunning place you could wait for the player to walk into the room, Scissorman? Why can you be thwarted by a blanket even though an entire clip of bullets does nothing? WHY ARE YOU SITTING IN THAT ROOM WATCHING CARTOONS? The stilted 90s voice acting is honestly the cherry on top of an endearingly ambitious mess. It had a somewhat limited run in the United States, making it yet another lost horror gem.

The spinoff game Struggle Within/Ghosthead, meanwhile, had all of the flaws of the previous game and none of its charms. Rather than drawing on spooky European mansions, Struggle Within is set in Japan (which is as thinly papered over in the localization as Brock’s “donuts” in Pokémon) and painfully confused about the kind of story it wants to be. Is it about its teenaged heroine Alyssa’s struggle with a “dark personality,” which may or may not be her dead twin possessing her? Is it about a family curse? Is it about a brain-eating bacterium? Why are there zombies? If Alyssa’s relationship with her father is a crux of the story, why isn’t he mentioned until the last act?

A narrative shambles isn’t the worst thing a horror game can be, but Struggle Within also has bland, grey level design and vanishingly few places to evade pursuers, turning tense encounters into tedious backtracking sessions. The multiple endings also often boil down to making a yes or no dialogue choice or a minor decision in the game’s first scenario that, for no apparent reason, results in a bad ending later. It is the Jason Takes Manhattan of video games, and woe betide any poor soul paying its currently $300 asking price on eBay.

Dead and Risen (…and Dead Again)

And then…there was Clock Tower 3. Developed by Capcom rather than Human, it feels more like the lesser counterpart to Haunting Ground than the preceding games. Easily the most widely distributed in the series, it drew controversy over an early cutscene that involved the bludgeoning of a young girl, which was amplified by the game’s then-impressive visuals. Mostly, the game’s review scores were middling-to-positive, and the fact that it allegedly (like Haunting Ground) drew elements from unused ideas for Resident Evil 4.  

But time has not been kind to Clock Tower 3, whose gameplay concessions left it without the memorable style of the first two games and whose plot was connected by the most tenuous of threads. The base gameplay still involved hiding from stalkers, who were now extremely persistent and also prone to making quips, but it discarded point-and-click for an action setup, and the end of a given level would suddenly throw the player into a magical girl boss battle with dubious archery mechanics. Its final boss is also legendarily difficult, with a one-hit kill move and a lengthy unskippable pre-boss cutscene just as an extra middle finger. To its credit, the FMV cutscenes still look quite lovely in places, and its stunningly over-acted motion capture gives it some charm, but it’s not enough to overcome its annoyances.

The game fell far short of Capcom’s projected sales figures (roughly 122,000 all-time sales out of a projected 450,000), which effectively put the franchise on ice until Hifumi Kono launched a Kickstarter for “Project Scissors” in January 2015. The eventual final product was Nightcry, a very special trainwreck that’s a whole other story. Like many Kickstarter games headed by directors of cult hits, it wound up with more funding than it had planned on and not enough time to execute its vision. The PC launch of the game was riddled with bugs, some of them game-breaking, and the fact that the game was original developed for handhelds is clear in its visuals.

But what it lacks in competency, it makes up for in camp — all of the baffling non-logic found in the PS1 Clock Tower and more. The rushed story isn’t particularly satisfying, but the over-the-top deaths, character actions that bear no resemblance to actual human behavior, and baffling narrative curveballs are all the ingredients needed to nail so-bad-it’s-good. Still, as charming as it is in its own way, the deservedly critical reception once more torpedoed the franchise’s potential despite the indie market being primed at the time for conceptually unique horror, and it seems unlikely that it will get another chance. None of the older games were officially preserved in digital formats, either, making this yet another story about games of notable importance to the medium as an art form deemed unworthy of preservation because of their inability to make money.

A hearty thanks to Genghis Kait and Shawnigan Handshake, whose full-franchise Let’s Play is a lovingly rendered archival of the series and its history and well worth any curious reader’s time.