We take a big pair of terrifying scissors and cut open the overlooked, yet groundbreaking survival horror series, ‘Clock Tower’
“Can you really deny that you are involved in this case because you wanted to be involved? Maybe you, too, are attracted by the vast darkness.”
It’s been 21 years since not only the groundbreaking Super Famicom survivor horror title, Clock Tower: The First Fear was released, but also since the devastating murders of Scissorman himself took place. When groups inevitably have the conversation of What’s your favorite survival horror video game franchise? People in turn flock to series like Resident Evil, Silent Hill, or the occasional Fatal Frame and Dead Space. But a series that deserves recognition for the many innovative things it does to the genre, but also for being one of the first titles in the genre to begin with (can you imagine if Resident Evil or Dead Space began on the Super Nintendo?), is Clock Tower. With the quirky franchise celebrating its birthday today, it seems only fitting to re-visit these titles and look at what they did right, wrong, and the legacy that they’ve left behind.
September 14, 1995 saw the release of Hifumi Kono’s Clock Tower (later re-titled Clock Tower: The First Fear upon the release of the PlayStation sequel of the same name). Kono didn’t always come from horror sensibilities, originally cutting his teeth on the F1 Pole Position titles interestingly enough, but perhaps that’s exactly why his debut title in the genre is such a standout. Kono’s influences on the SNES title were pulled heavily from Dario Argento’s film, Phenomena, even going as far as modeling Clock Tower’s protagonist, Jennifer Simpson, after the film’s star, Jennifer Conelly. Scissorman himself is even inspired by the demon, Cropsy, from the horror film, The Burning, right down to the signature weapon that he wields. It’s also hard to ignore the very Halloween-esque score that the game utilizes, a touch that I’m more than okay with. All of this points to Hifumi Kono having a lot of respect for the horror genre and being very concerned with nailing down the frightening aesthetics properly.
While Clock Tower: The First Fear does indulge in the typical horror trappings of being set in a foreboding mansion-type setting where a large cast of friends slowly begin to meet their doom, it still succeeds in flipping the script by keeping you unarmed throughout your experience. You’re given no weapons at all here, with the mere options of hiding or running away acting as your only salvation. This sort of defenseless, minimalist approach to survival horror surprisingly wouldn’t really be completely embraced again in gaming until Alien: Isolation nearly twenty years later. It’s an approach that makes so much sense though.
First Fear would continue to play with its genre in creative ways like the intentionally buggy interface system. A point-and-click approach is used to move around within a huge mansion as you investigate your surroundings, all while you’re being chased. It’s a system that’s meant to jam you up and make the puzzle solving more hectic and difficult. You can’t properly troubleshoot and explore all of your options when your experimenting is cut short due to the stalker on your tail. It’s an ingenious idea and a great way of adding difficulty to average puzzles.
Another clever device present in Clock Tower reveals itself if Scissorman ever outright traps you and you’re forced to confront him. In this situation Jennifer will go into “Panic Mode” where you become forced to mash the panic button until Jennifer is able to defend herself against Scissorman and escape. If you can’t de-panic yourself quickly enough, Scissorman will overtake you resulting in your death. This concept plays with the idea of fear in a way that Capcom has been toying with introducing to Resident Evil through the years, but has never officially made the jump. It’s again another innovative way of incorporating senses and other factors into a survival horror experience—factors that make sense given the hectic backdrop. Even Jennifer’s health in the game comes in the form of her “fear” with her various conditions reflecting “calm,” “startled,” “alarmed,” and “panic,” which is when the prompt will go off. You’re even more susceptible to things like tripping over and falling when your fear level is hitting the red, with the game internalizing your mental state in a rather creative way. Due to the lack of weapons and other extraneous factors, this game becomes all about your fear in the end.
First Fear also operates off of a firm system in place that conjures up Scissorman when you investigate certain objects, but the system is smart enough that he’ll also just randomly appear on you if too much time has passed between visits. There’s no real script to his appearances, making the villain even more frightening and this experience all the more “genuine.” This right here is a good example of how fear is built in this game by removing music and amping up sound effects like door creaks or foot steps in order to turn up the tension. The parrot stuff is a great example of incorporating jump scares in a game as a means of misdirection. The way the game toys with you and gets your heart racing before the Scissorman encounter is brilliant. That mirror moment still genuinely shocks me when I go through the game.
Clock Tower: The First Fear also gained a lot of praise for its inclusion of multiple endings, some of which even allowed you to just run away and abandon your friends as a more “realistic” alternative. The game even taps into some rather bleak places here, like the ending where all of your friends die. Just this amount of variety and replayable content proved to be fairly deep for an average SNES title and it became a feature that would continue throughout the series. Silent Hill always gets so much acclaim for what they did with multiple endings, but Clock Tower was messing around with the idea much earlier. Future entries in the series would update things for the times accordingly but would still keep things remarkably simple, continuing to make you virtually defenseless while focusing on the disturbing serial killer Scissorman. Elements like this and tone take precedent rather than stressing over what’s worthy of filling up your inventory or if you’re blazing through ammo too quickly.
With the impression that Hifumi Kono made with First Fear, it’s not exactly surprising that a sequel was announced shortly after, with Kono back in the director’s chair for Clock Tower on the PlayStation. At its time of release, ASCII Entertainment marketed Clock Tower as the first “true” horror game on the PlayStation console and that it contained the most terrifying story to ever be put in a video game, effectively stoking the flames of the hype train. That being said, this wasn’t just all talk, with the game being sufficiently disturbing and truly innovative for its time (and even now, to some degree). Clock Tower is closely linked to its predecessor, with its survivor Jennifer Simpson going through post-traumatic therapy and being plagued by nightmares over her dead friends as she tries to get her life back together. The other Clock Tower installments play around with mythology but this is a true sequel that benefits from the vested interest in previously established characters. Deeper digging into all of this craziness is allowed as a result.
Clock Tower happened to be one of Human Entertainment’s first titles to utilize a 3D engine, which meant considering a lot of things like camera angles and sound effects that they hadn’t thought of before. These elements were now a priority, whereas Kono and company were more interested in focusing on the game’s “material” than its “design.” This divide was seen in the game’s reviews, too, with the atmosphere and story receiving praise but the other mechanics falling under scrutiny. For instance, Clock Tower operates much slower than other PlayStation fare, which critics held against it, yet this slow, foreboding environment can be ideal for survival horror! Those that did love the release though were quick to say that it was one of the first video games to actually effectively recreate the feeling of a horror movie. It seemed that the title was still skewing towards more point-and-click adventure fans (the oft-used PlayStation mouse is even supported!!) rather than the still-developing survival horror genre. Now, an experiment like this would be a dream come true, taking a step back from the action heavy approach the genre has slowly seen invading its voice.
In spite of graphics not being Kono’s priority, Resident Evil was simultaneously being developed at Capcom during this time, and the great graphical work over there had led to Clock Tower’s bosses wanting them to up their game, even though it wasn’t their forte. In spite of this, the team still used 3D graphics and animation to portray murders as realistically as possible in both surreal videogame-esque contexts as well as eerily authentic ones. The game’s soundtrack took a similar approach that focused on the uncomfortable. The soundtrack uses a technique called “noise and silence” as its basis, which highlights noises at random moments and inserts silence at points where you wouldn’t expect there to be any. Such an approach is incredible for building a great horror environment. This following scene for example gives you a good impression of how all of this operates and simply how relentless Scissorman is in this game.
First Fear’s fear gauge is replaced here with the similar “Strength Meter” this time around, which shifts from white, flashing yellow, and red, when your character is especially stressed out from Scissorman. Once more a blinking red is used for when your character dips into “Panic Mode,” which hinders your available actions and forces you to escape from your predator. This sequel also features a calming “Intermission Mode” that occurs between scenarios and allows you to talk to characters, gain information, and explore your surroundings without the constant threat of being murdered by Scissorman hanging over you.
The game splits itself up into a prologue and four ensuing scenarios, with the decisions made in the prologue determining whether you’ll be controlling Jennifer Simpson or Helen Maxwell. Once more your choices ultimately affect the scenarios that you’re given, with this concept again culminating in five different possible endings based on your progress and choices throughout the title. The idea of scenarios and multiple characters being “earned” this time also adds even more welcome replayability and mystery to the game’s disturbing plot.
For many gamers Clock Tower II: The Struggle Within is a big step down for the series, but the new direction present is also the exact reason why some people adore this unusual game (Halloween III, anyone?). Clock Tower II attempts to up the stakes from the previous Clock Tower titles. The story here departs from the previous games (in Japan this game was billed as a spin-off and goes by Clock Tower: Ghost Head rather than boldly slapping a “2” onto the title), yet still retaining the fundamentals of Scissorman’s lore. Here there’s a fairly complicated plot dealing with multiple personalities and switching between a young girl’s normal and altered states as a means of figuring out her family’s secret. The idea of switching between personalities within a tortured character, rather than operating as two separate people is actually kind of inspired and shows more innovation from this dark series. Unfortunately, The Struggle Within never completely nails the concept and it ends up becoming more frustrating than exciting for the gameplay. Generational family secrets are again a big part of the game’s story, with this title looking at the “Cursed Twins” of the family tree. Honestly though, this ends up feeling more like an idea from out of the Fatal Frame series than a repositioning of Clock Tower’s narrative.
A lot of these incongruences surely had to do with the fact that Hifumi Kono was no longer working on the series, with Yutaka Hirata stepping in for the directing duties. Hirata’s work began on Wonder Boy in Monster World, but he was also a game designer for Dark Half, which is kind of a perfect warm-up for Clock Tower II. Hirata would end up being a big voice in the latest F-Zero entries, which is pretty cool, not to mention also a little frustrating that Scissorman has never been an unlockable racer by now.
By 1999 (’98 in Japan) the series’ now-trademark point-and-click interface was seen to be especially dated (a complaint that was already brought up for its predecessor from 1996) and Human Entertainment’s struggle to capture compelling 3D graphics was still apparent. Navigating through the schizophrenic Alyssa Hale also led for some disjointed gameplay in a lot of people’s opinions, making the game’s puzzles more tedious than they needed to be. Once again the title is compatible with the PlayStation mouse in some twisted joke that surely had someone laughing. It’s almost as if the inclusion of this peripheral that no one’s going to use is an excuse for the clunky controls. Additionally, jarring and jerky characters animations make the precise point-and-click gameplay problematic. Furthermore, puzzles took a step back and adopted more of a trial and error approach. Many of them even become “solved” simply after going into an unrelated room and then returning. Resident Evil would use this mechanic at times, but for scares, not puzzle solving. It’s this exhausting sort of gameplay that makes something like the games thirteen possible endings seem daunting rather than exciting.
Clock Tower II is far from all bad though and the split personality aspect is done in a way that I still think is pretty brilliant, even if its execution is flawed. Alyssa’s alter ego, Mr. Bates, is contained within an amulet that she wears. By taking it off and storing it somewhere, without her safety net Alyssa reverts to her more intimidating alter ego. Turning back is as simple as retrieving the magical item. How often do you see something like that going on in a game for a character swap concept? Some of the most bonkers moments in the series come from mining this fractured Alyssa/Bates dynamic, and it’s just as fascinating as it is flawed. There is also a lot to get scared over in this game, even if the controls can be a bit of a nightmare in and of themselves. George Maxwell with his Oni mask and hatchet is a suitably horrifying enemy that will keep you up at night. However, the zombie threat that happens midway through the game feels a tad reductive and beneath them. Focusing more on the twisted familial dynamic of the Maxwells would have been the better direction to go down. Then again, everyone was losing their minds over zombies during the late ‘90s…
Once more, “Panic Mode” sees incorporation in the title with your stamina level determining this. You still must mash a button repeatedly once Alyssa is panicking with your options becoming appropriately limited, too. What’s new here is that if you’re playing as Mr. Bates while in Panic Mode you’ll get the ability to wield weapons, acting as an interesting spin on things.
Funnily enough, one of the game’s most impressive ideas appears in Panic Mode in the form of how it incorporates the Dual Shock controller’s rumble feature. Innovation is again being injected into the genre in an otherwise unseen way. Clock Tower II would incorporate the PlayStation’s rumble mechanic in Panic Mode by having it resemble a trembling heartbeat. Something like this is so inspired, it’s a little frustrating that we don’t see it going on in more current survival horror titles. Moments where you’re hiding in a closet, defenseless, with certain murder waiting for you on the other side are made even more terrifying by the rumble feature echoing your heartbeat through it all. At the end of the day though, you don’t want the rumble feature to be the biggest takeaway from your survival horror experience…
Clock Tower 3 didn’t necessarily learn its lessons from The Struggle Within, but it tried its best to get its name back on people’s radars. After a four-year hiatus between titles, Clock Tower 3 would mark the franchise’s swan song and final attempt at relevancy. Capcom would absorb the Clock Tower franchise after Human Entertainment dissolved, and would team up with Sunsoft on the title. You would think that this would be the right move for the series and be healthy for them, but Sunsoft obviously failed to understand what was so charming about the original titles. Additionally, with Sunsoft officially owning the intellectual property now, Hifumi Kono technically no longer owned the title or had any right to make a new sequel, even if he had had serious thoughts about doing such a thing.
Capcom tried to make a good first impression with their Clock Tower entry by putting Kinji Fukasaku and Tomoshi Sadamoto in the directors’ chairs. This is notably the only video game that Fukasaku would direct, but the guy directed the Battle Royale films, which is pretty much all the credits that you need. Sadamoto on the other hand came from producing a number of the Street Fighter III releases, but would also go on to direct Resident Evil Gun Survivor 2 – Code: Veronica, so he at least stays within the survival horror family.
Clock Tower 3 has very little to do with the previous titles in the series and even has a new British slant infused to it all. Scissorman is still there, but the rest is a departure, not just in terms of story, but also gameplay. On the PlayStation 2 obviously point-and-click gameplay would be inexcusable but there are still ways to convey more methodical, tense gameplay without completely going in the Resident Evil direction. Some of the series’ core charm is still present though, like in the inclusion of Panic Mode and the gameplay still mostly avoiding combat.
The story follows Alyssa Hamilton, a girl whose grandfather has gone missing and her mother sends her a letter that tells her to go into hiding until after her 15th birthday. Alyssa ignores this in lieu of answers, but when she returns to her boarding school it’s completely empty save “The Dark Gentleman” that roams the halls. Then, before you know it, the game whisks Alyssa away to World War II as you try to connect the dots and stay alive in the bygone era. This broader, more sprawling storyline posits that Alyssa is a part of a lineage of female warriors, all of which travel through time to destroy evil spirits. Alyssa ricochets from 2003 London to the 1940s and ’60s in order to cleanse the times of their evil “entities.” This is all a wildly different premise and execution for this title that seems like it’s biting off more than it can chew, not that repositioning things is always a bad idea. This just feels off the mark though.
Finally the point-and-click aesthetic of the Clock Tower series was ditched in favor of giving you full control over Alyssa. You’re still mostly defenseless and without a weapon through the bulk of the game, however each area has a boss-like “subordinate” that requires you to combat and take down with weapons like a longbow. Innocent souls who have been killed by subordinates also restlessly roam the game, requiring you to approach them with sentimental items to end their curse. The game also plays rather short, too, another deterrent that was held against the struggling title. Panic Mode is of course still present, and when you go into it this time the screen flashes and Alyssa becomes much more difficult to control, slowing down and falling over, which is a novel idea. Like usual her faculties are also reduced. In spite of all of the changes in this title, it’s nice to see that this core feature of the games still remained.
While the previous Clock Tower titles struggled to connect with audiences, Clock Tower 3 amounted to be a huge misfire. Projected sales for the title predicted numbers around 450,000 copies moving, but in reality not even 80,000 were sold by 2002! By the end of the following year a mass total of just over 122,000 copies of the game sold, but that was it. The failure that the title saw is surely the reason why the franchise died off after that point and Capcom never did anything else with the property.
It’s a real shame this flopped so hard because a number of elements present here still shine, such as the game’s script or its grimy horror atmosphere that feels like it’s ripped from straight out of a Mary Shelley novel or Penny Dreadful episode. Fukasaku’s direction and work in the game’s cutscenes are the true gems of the title. Over 200 actresses auditioned for the mo-cap role of Alyssa, which shows how seriously this production was being taken. Both of these scenes highlight the brutal tone and subject matter of the third game, particularly in Fukasaku’s cutscenes. These aren’t just sadistic killers; they are scenes of pristine families being happy together before tortured by sadistic killers. It’s a lot. Add to that the threat of not just Scissorman, but a whole array of Tyrant-esque subordinates that must be avoided and taken down. Enemies like Sledgehammer, Chopper, Corroder, and even a Scissorwoman, all of which share a similarly gruesome theme. Pairing Fukasaku’s visuals with Kono’s story and gameplay ideas could have resulted in a formidable Clock Tower product that ended the series on the right note. Instead these flawed flashes of brilliance must be navigated instead.
In spite of the tumultuous ride that the Clock Tower has seen, the style of the games has still managed to leave a bit of an imprint on the survival horror gaming scene. A spiritual successor to the series was seen in the form of Capcom’s Haunting Ground from 2004. The survival horror game sees a girl waking up from a car accident, now locked in a castle, and needing to resort to hiding and evading from her captors in order to escape. Many of Clock Tower’s gameplay staples, atmospheric touches, and avoidance on combat are present here, even if the title doesn’t directly take place in the Clock Tower universe. It’s at least more evidence of how survival horror fare like this can work and should be attempted more often, whether under the Clock Tower umbrella or otherwise
Kono’s more recent NightCry is also worth highlighting, which in many ways is another spiritual successor to his previous series. The survival horror entry is set on a cruise ship and its villain is also called the Scissorwalker for God sakes! The release date was even set to coincide with the 20th anniversary of Clock Tower: The First Fear. The title, while far from perfect, still shows that Kono has this sort of game in him, and it even impressively has the involvement of Masahiro Ito from Silent Hill, and Ju-on director, Takashi Shimizu, lending even more credibility to the game’s horror chops.
It’s probably unlikely that the mysterious new direction of Resident Evil 7 will end up being one that’s inspired by Clock Tower, but it wouldn’t be the worst idea. As long as some people are still making horror games like this, Kono’s dream can still stay alive and our dreams can be full of gruesome, disturbing images.
Don’t we deserve that?