[‘A Game Collector’s Melancholy’ is a bi-weekly column by Jeffrey Fleming that follows the subtle pleasures and gnawing anxieties of video game collecting. This week we take a look at the Clock Tower series. Games loved by some, hated by a few, and ignored by most.]

I’ve always had special fondness for horror themed video games. Perhaps because horror game designers show a greater cultural awareness and are more willing to incorporate influences from other media into their work. Most video games seem to be influenced by other video games but horror is a genre with a distinct literary and cinematic heritage that is quite separate from the world of Mario.

The First Fear

clocktower0.jpgMost people know of the Clock Tower games on the PlayStation, but the series actually began on the Super Famicom. Created in 1995 by Human Entertainment, Clock Tower told the story of a teenage girl named Jennifer who was orphaned under mysterious circumstances. She and her friends from the orphanage are sent to live with a wealthy family whose gothic mansion lies isolated in the mountains of Norway. Upon arriving at the mansion things quickly turn sinister and Jennifer’s friends are murdered one by one in a variety of cruel ways.

Clock Tower resembled a point and click adventure but undermined the measured puzzle solving with a wicked twist. Periodically, a maniacal killer called the Scissorman burst into the scene and began chasing Jennifer. With no means of fighting back, she could only flee from Scissorman and hopefully find a safe place to conceal herself until the pursuer moved on. It was a unique style of play that called to mind frantic games of hide and seek or the desperate flights of nightmare.

Visually, the designers of Clock Tower had a particular love for the films of Dario Argento with Suspiria and Phenomena being major points of reference. One of the first murder scenes that Jennifer witnesses is a recreation of the brutal first ten minutes of Suspiria, including an earnest attempt at imitating Goblin’s crazed soundtrack on the Famicom’s sound chip. The game also gave a nod to William Peter Blatty’s Legion (filmed as Exorcist III) as Scissorman wielded an enormous pair of autopsy shears.

Clock Tower was later ported to the PlayStation under the title Clock Tower ~The First Fear~ and versions were also made for Windows 95, and the Wonderswan. However, none of these made it the United States.

Clock Tower and Clock Tower II

clocktower1.jpgHuman returned to Clock Tower in 1997, this time producing a sequel for the PlayStation. After defeating the Scissorman, Jennifer is sent to a mental hospital to recover from the trauma. Predictably, it is not long before dead bodies begin to show up and the Scissorman is on the loose again. Showing the influence of Koji Suzuki’s 1991 novel Ringu, Clock Tower hints at dark rumors and morbid urban myths.

clocktower2.jpgHuman quickly followed up with Clock Tower Ghost Head, which came to America in 1999 under the title Clock Tower II: The Struggle Within. This time the events of the game take place in Osaka (changed to California in the U.S. version) and follow a new girl named Alyssa. Like Jennifer in the previous games, Alyssa is an orphan whose heritage is a mystery. However, she suffers from a split personality disorder and harbors a murderous male alter ego. Many of the puzzles in Clock Tower II revolve around manifesting one personality or the other to progress through the game.

Although Clock Tower and Clock Tower II sported rudimentary polygon graphics, they retained the point and click mechanics of the first Famicom game. This resulted in a slow, lethargic pace that was perhaps more frustrating than frightening. But they were distinctive and there was nothing else quite like them on the market.

The first Clock Tower game was published for America in 1997 by ASCII Entertainment, which later became Agetec. Somewhat rare, Clock Tower sells for around $25. According to Agetec’s web site, copies of Clock Tower II are still available new for $29.99.

Clock Tower 3

clocktower3.jpgDespite the modest success of the Clock Tower games and other well-regarded titles like Fire Pro Wrestling, Remote Control Dandy, and Vanguard Bandits, Human Entertainment hit hard times and closed shop in 1999. The Clock Tower series lay dormant for a number of years until Sunsoft picked it up in 2003.

In Clock Tower 3 Alyssa is a teenager whose mother is kidnapped by an evil figure called the Dark Gentleman. In searching for her missing parent, Alyssa discovers that she can psychically project herself into the past where she must defeat a series of twisted serial killers before confronting the Dark Gentleman’s corrupt plan. Along the way, Alyssa can help put the tormented spirits of murder victims to rest by uncovering the circumstances of their deaths.

Given a much needed visual overhaul for the PlayStation 2, Clock Tower 3 moved at a faster pace than the earlier games, dispensing with the point and click interface and giving the player direct control over Alyssa. The series’ focus on hiding from danger remained, although it sometimes seemed aggravatingly impossible to give pursuers the slip.

Something that went largely unnoticed was Clock Tower 3’s lengthy cut-scenes that were directed by Kinji Fukasaku, one of Japan’s great (and sadly, late) subversive film directors. Fukasaku had a long history in the motion picture industry, having directed the epic Yakuza series Battles Without Honor or Humanity and the delirious Green Slime. He was the co-director of Tora! Tora! Tora! and worked with Yukio Mishima on Black Lizard. Fukasaku’s confrontational spirit was undiminished by age and his last film was the anarchic Battle Royal, released in 2000.

It seemed to me that Clock Tower 3 could have been a very appealing game for teenage girls. It had all the elements of a Richard Peck novel. A plucky female protagonist with mysterious psychic powers and a gothic romance setting that was spooky but not really all that scary. Also, the idea of helping ghosts find their peace was actually kind of sweet. If only the game wasn’t so malicious and violent, a virtual charnel house of vigorous, gory mayhem. But I suppose that was to be expected with Fukasaku’s involvement. After all, his hard, unsentimental style paved the way for bloody knuckled hipster/critical darlings like Takeshi Kitano and Takashi Miike.

Published in America by Capcom, Clock Tower 3 is still available new from GameQuestDirect for $14.99.

Haunting Ground

haunting_ground.jpgIn 2005, Capcom developed and published Haunting Ground for the PlayStation 2. Although technically not a Clock Tower game, Haunting Ground was obviously intended as a new entry in the series. The basic Clock Tower elements are all present. An orphaned young woman is trapped in a madman’s castle and stalked by crazed pursuers. She has no real defenses and finding clever hiding spots is the only way to shake her tormentors off her trail. New this time is a White Shepard that accompanies her nightmare journey. The dog is a loyal companion that can help uncover clues, warn of danger, and fight off attackers with his vicious bite.

Haunting Ground is unusual from other games in that it is absolutely saturated with alchemical imagery. Every element of the game carries a trace of the opus circulatorium, both subtle and obvious. Game designers have often sprinkled bits of esoterica into their works to add some exotic flavor, like naming a character Sephiroth, or scanning in some Robert Fludd drawings for background art. But Haunting Ground’s entire vocabulary is a study in alchemy. To give you an example, one tricky puzzle had me stumped until I found the solution, not in a FAQ or a strategy guide, but between the pages of Paracelsus: Selected Writings. Haunting Ground makes a serious commitment to its aesthetics that is exceptional.

Out of print, Haunting Ground can be found online for around $20.

[Jeffrey Fleming is an East Bay writer. To read more, please visit Tales of the Future.]