The Pillars of Horror: Clock Tower: The First Fear (Famicom Version)
September 17, 2012
The Pillars of Horror is a look at the games, past and present, that have shaped the genre, showcasing the various mistakes and triumphs that have come out over the years. They may not all be gems, but they’ve all contributed something to scaring the controllers out of people’s hands.
Clock Tower is one of a very select handful of games where you can actually say that it isn’t the same twice. Through a series of neat tricks, the game just rolls with whatever you happen to want to do; building the plot based on how you explore the mansion you’ve been trapped inside. Depending on what you look at and what rooms you explore, you can end up with an entirely new set of scares, plot points, friendly characters, and endings. I played the short game through enough times to see each ending, and yet there are still scares in the game that I’ve never witnessed. Clock Tower is one of the few games that will find a new way to get you every single time you play it.
Even though it came out back on the Super Famicom, Clock Tower can still scare me quite a bit. It does this by randomizing where the main enemy will appear; basing it on variables I haven’t figured out. I don’t know if a certain amount of time needs to pass, what I have to interact with, or whether I just have to enter certain rooms in order to get the Scissorman to appear. There are times when I’ve had him appear out of a box or doorway and chase me halfway across the house; but if I were to reset my save to just prior to opening the door, he might not appear in that spot. I remember one play-though where I carefully set my character up, getting ready to run to safety, and he didn’t even appear. Despite having popped out of a spot and killed me in the last run, he never appeared again despite me doing almost the exact same thing.
This has the delightful effect of never allowing me to trust my surroundings. Every single search for items means I’m putting myself at risk, because I don’t have any clue when or where Scissorman will appear. Sure I know there are a few high-risk places, but even in them his appearance isn’t certain. It’s the sort of thing that always keeps me on edge, and makes for some great freak outs when the guy finally does appear.
I’ve tried planning my route around some of the scares I’ve been caught by before as well, but all that happened was a whole new set of attacks. If I avoided the first floor bathroom because of something that happens there, I might have to go through another area and witness another horrific act and still end up getting chased around. Given that I’m in a different part of the house, I might not know of any good hiding places to get away from Scissorman as well, making for a different harried chase in a game I’ve played a few dozen times.
You also can’t avoid some rooms, because the game shuffles some of them all over the house. Not even the rooms themselves are static in the game, so if you’re trying to stay out of one particular place or find it, you’ll be out of luck. The game forces you to explore and make bad decisions on where you run to, making any previous knowledge from other play-throughs useless. It effectively makes the game different in subtle ways every time you play it, so you can never gain that confidence and foreknowledge that makes replaying a horror game so lame.
It doesn’t hurt that Scissorman’s appearances are genuinely frightening. During my first scare, the scene was horrifying, but still quiet. I thought it was just a buildup to show me the kind of cruel thing I was going to be fighting. The game maintained its focus on a dead body for just long enough that I didn’t think anything was going to happen, and then Scissorman came surging out at me; his blades snapping in the air in front of my character’s face. It was terrifying; made even more so by the fact that I hadn’t left the door open on the way in, so I was pretty much trapped. I died with my heart pounding and a smile on my face.
Scissorman himself doesn’t look all that bad, given the game’s age. The SNES isn’t exactly the first place I’d go to look for good horror, but Lone Survivor and Clock Tower have shown me the error of my ways. There’s a weird kind of revulsion you feel when you look at Scissorman’s face. It’s too long, and the mouth is too wide. He has black, sunken eyes and gray pall to his skin. He’s unsettling to look at, and at the same time is carrying a weapon big enough for a Square-Enix hero. Those giant shears snapping at your tail, even with those primitive graphics, are enough to scare you into a terrified flight.
Those shears wouldn’t be anywhere near as scary as they are without the excellent sound design. That snap when he’s coming after you is really nice, and is always the first sound to indicate he’s in the area. I’m not completely satisfied with that sound, as it sounds a little bit too much like plastic, but it’s tied together so well with Scissorman’s approach that it just works.
The music that plays when you reveal him will stop your heart, too. It’s a really discordant track, filled with strange noises and a pulsing beat. It really makes the chases shine, starting on a high note to get you moving and turning into something well-suited to sustained terror. The music bleeds discomfort through your speakers, and you will feel genuine relief when the song ends and you can finally go back to exploring the house.
Exploring that you will do at a snail’s pace, that is.
If there’s one problem this game has, it’s that it moves far too slow. Despite probably watching most of her friends die, the main character moves around like an old lady trying to walk across a skating rink. The character just moves so slowly that it gets really aggravating trying to play the game during its exploring stages. It takes forever to get to each room, leaving you with these long stretches of just listening to your character’s pokey footsteps.
You can run to move things along, something I did with glee as soon as I figured out how. You can only do it for so long before you run out of stamina, which is a much bigger problem than I thought it would be. If you get caught by one of the game’s dangers, be it Scissorman or something else, you’ll have to mash buttons in order to get free. How hard these sequences are is dictated by your stamina, so if you do too much running around to speed up the game, you’re probably going to find yourself getting killed a few minutes later and have to do everything all over again.
Since you’re moving so slowly, it also spreads the scares out pretty thin. There were some really long periods in this game where there just wasn’t anything happening because it took forever to get anything accomplished. The moving rooms might also make the game scary, but when you’re looking for a specific one that could be anywhere in the house, it slows the game down to a crawl. This game is good when things start to come together, but there will be a few points where you’ll be teetering on the edge of boredom.
Even if you are getting bored, you can occupy your mind by wondering what sort of ending you’re going to get based on what you’ve done. There is a very specific way to get each ending in the game, but it all plays out very organically. It’s all dictated by what happens to you. So if you see one character die during a certain part or in a specific way, that will change the way the game plays out a bit. If you pick up a certain item, something else will change on the course to your ending. If you just tackle the game in certain ways, new endings will appear. You can even say screw it, run to the garage, hop in the car, and take off, if you like. The game just constructs an ending based on what you’ve done, so it’s hard not to stay invested in the game, even when it’s moving slow. After all, that one thing you did differently could give you something completely different once the game ends.
The game’s creepy vibe and unsettling story keep bringing me back for more. With new things popping up every time I play it, and seven endings to earn based on the slightest changed in how you play it, Clock Tower easily overcomes its flawed speed. The game is meant to be enjoyed at a slower pace, savored each time you try it. If you’re not in the mood for atmospheric horror, it’s going to annoy you. If you really feel like soaking in a creepy atmosphere where you’re in constant danger, go find a copy and give it a try. After all, there is a pretty good English patch for the game floating around out there.
PS – Don’t watch the video if you don’t want Scissorman’s most likely first appearance spoiled for you.
images courtesy of lamemoiredupad.net, clocktower.wikia.com, vimeo.com, gametypething.wordpress.com, kyodemon.tonsite.biz