Clock Tower for the Super Famicom is probably one of the best known games never released outside of Japan. Over the years, it’s been covered by a variety of YouTubers, so its notoriety is well known. Created by Human Entertainment, unlike many retro games with horror themes that went on to influence some of the top horror series of today, Clock Tower stands on its own in the horror gaming catalog.
The game focuses on Jennifer Simpson, one of a group of 4 orphaned girls who are brought to the mansion of the mysterious Mr. Barrows. Shortly after arriving, the rest of the girls have disappeared and Jennifer is left alone in the mansion to contend with the psychotic maniac known as “Scissor Man.”
Even though it was released on the Super Famicom, the game follows a point-and-click style of gameplay. The opening of the game is quite slow and takes a bit of getting used to if you’ve never played this kind of game before. Not having direct control over your character can be a bit jarring at first.
The visuals have a gloomy and at times, hand-painted quality, especially during cutscenes. Character portraits (especially Jennifer’s) during dialogue scenes are also quite expressive and do a lot to heighten the fear and overall mood.
One thing that Clock Tower does superbly is build a sense of suspense and dread. It is dripping with an oppressive atmosphere. At first, the game is just creepy as you navigate Jennifer around the rooms of the mansion, avoiding random traps and strange gimmicks, such as an attack parrot that repeats “I’ll kill you” and hands that reach out of a mirror to try to strangle her.
As soon as Scissor Man appears on the scene, the tension and dread is heightened exponentially. While multiple playthroughs can help you to figure out some of the trigger points for where and when Scissor Man might show up, his appearances are random. This means that you’re always on edge while exploring the mansion.
Jennifer walks incredibly slowly when you point her in a particular direction, luckily by double tapping the confirm button, she can run. This tires her out however, and when she’s being pursued or is frightened by something she has seen in the mansion, she has a tendency to trip and fall. Far from being annoying, this just makes it that much more tense when trying to flee a dangerous situation.
There are no weapons to speak of to fight off Scissor Man. Jennifer can use environmental traps in some rooms, but her best defense is to run away and hide. After hiding for a certain period of time, the music denoting Scissor Man’s presence will fade and you’ll be able to begin timidly exploring again.
The music also helps to heighten the mood. It definitely takes its cues from classic slasher films, particularly Halloween, with its suspenseful main theme. While Jennifer is being chased by Scissor Man, this music is constantly playing, and it never stops being stressful.
The game also features fantastic sound design for a Super Famicom game. Echoing footsteps, ticking clocks, rattling windows, and rustling curtains all provide cause for alarm and unnerve. It’s a great game to play with headphones.
One thing that dulls that feeling of stress, however, is the continue system in the game. Basically, whether you end up dying because of some environmental hazard or at the pointed ends of Scissor Man’s scissors, you’ll reach what the game calls a “Dead End.”
However, upon continuing your game from the main menu, you will start from the room that you left off in and have another chance to try to avoid whatever caused your death or move on to something else with your newfound knowledge. It sounds forgiving, but really it just sucks the tension out of the situations. If something bad happens or Scissor Man shows up to put a damper on your party, you can just start again.
For me, this was the single biggest issue with being able to enjoy the game and really get into it. If there was some kind of save system that was a bit less forgiving, I think the game could have maintained its tension much better. As it is now, this continue-right-from-where-you-left-off system takes a lot of the edge out of the game.
There are 9 endings to find, so the game definitely offers some replay value. There are also many room and events throughout the mansion that don’t pertain to the main story, but provide some disturbing scenery or jump scares. Unless you’re super thorough (which can be difficult when you’re being chased by a mad man, frantically trying to find a hiding space), you probably won’t find all of them in one playthrough.
As for obscurity, whether boxed or unboxed, original cartridges for the Super Famicom version are going to cost you a pretty penny. Loose cartridges hover around the $70 to $80 USD range. While boxed copies can get upwards of $200 USD, depending on condition.
There is a fan-translation available and a PSP remake, subtitled The First Fear. But fan translations and emulations are the most practical way to play this horror classic.
Despite some disappointing design choices, the story and atmosphere of Clock Tower is something that can’t be beat. Curl up with your SNES controller, turn off the lights and put on those headphones, Clock Tower will be sure to leave you shivering.