Most survival horror games give you weapons to improve your chances for survival. In the original Clock Tower on the SNES, all you can do is run, and even that’s limited by your stress gauge.
Released in 1995 by Human Entertainment in Japan and inspired by an Italian horror film, Phenomena (Creepers in the U.S.), it begins with four orphans, including protagonist, Jennifer Simpson, being taken to the Barrows mansion to start their new life. Circumstances take a horrifying turn when one of them gets brutally murdered and the other two go missing.
The game is terrifying, not just because of the creepy atmosphere and the convoluted mansion that has you feeling lost, but because Clock Tower is the penultimate experience in vulnerability and weakness. The point-and-click adventure game-like controls don’t help, especially with the cursor that makes everything more difficult to navigate. This is by design as Clock Tower was developed for the SNES, not a port from a PC game. Movement is slow, and it’s a massive mansion that’s easy to get lost in.
All of this wouldn’t be so bad if not for the main villain, the “Scissorman,” who can seemingly show up anywhere at any time. Unfortunately, you can’t simply exit the door and hope he’ll disappear a la the enemies of Resident Evil or Silent Hill. Scissorman will relentlessly chase you across the mansion. Imagine if the Pyramid Heads in Silent Hill 2 pursued you through Brookhaven Hospital or the Apartment, and you’ll get an idea.
You can elude Scissorman through a number of hiding spots and traps (behind a cabinet or under a bed as long as the parrot isn’t there), but that just means he’ll come back later. You never know when or what action of yours will trigger his appearance. It could be playing the piano, or just walking across a specific area. The uncertainty trains you, as a player, to basically be afraid of everything.
The tension drips with every click. There’s no right way to play the game and the randomised maps make every replay a new experience. Jennifer’s picture in the lower left corner changes depending on her mood and health, giving vulnerability a human face.
The Gothic aesthetic is gorgeously macabre. Despite being from the 16-bit era, the rooms ooze terror. Killer cockroaches infest the meat locker, columns surround creepy mannequins, and a taxidermy room is filled with the heads of dead animals. I am in awe at the artistry, even though every instinct in me wants to burn the place down. Do all these horror games share the same mannequin supplier and taxidermist?
The music is noticeable for its absence as most of the game has you searching the mansion in silence, one that is shockingly shattered by the pulsing appearance of the Scissorman. There’s also a phone that keeps on ringing. When you eventually find the source, you realise, in shock, that the phone line has been cut (a horror gimmick Silent Hill 4 would also use).
The story unfolds in layers, punctuated by a horrifying reunion with your father’s corpse. His dying note reveals the disturbing history behind the Barows. The last section of Clock Tower places you in an underground catacomb where you come face to face with the horrors behind the Barrows family. The game’s multiple endings and relative short length encourage playthroughs. But that “shortness” feels awful long when you’re being hunted down at every corner. This is hands down the scariest game from the 16-bit era.
Resident Evil gives you limited ammo. Silent Hill gives you steel pipes and a radio. Clock Tower gives you a pair of legs, and if you run too long, you’ll die from stress. Time for a new clock.