1995 is often singled out as the year that Sega, at that point one of the de facto ‘Big 2’ of the gaming world, ‘jumped the shark’ and made a series of misguided and foolhardy decisions that ultimately led to them dropping out of the console race just a few short years later. The discussion of Sega’s downfall is a conversation for another time, but one of those somewhat bewildering decisions leads us nicely into this review….
I am of course referring to the fact that Sonic The Hedgehog, Sega’s mascot and Mario’s only serious rival never got his own platform game on the Sega Saturn. Instead of Sonic leading the charge on the 32-bit machine, Sega took the brave/ridiculous (delete as applicable) decision to try and come up with some new platforming IP’s instead. This is where Pepperouchau, the Clockwork Knight himself comes in.
Released in late 1994 in Japan, and mid 1995 everywhere else, Clockwork Knight is a platform game that tells the story of Sir Tongara de Pepperouchau III (or Pepper for short!!!) as he goes on a mission to rescue his beloved Clockwork Princess Chelsea from the mysterious evil forces that have kidnapped her and turned many of his fellow toys into evil minions.
The game begins with a long but very nicely animated cut scene, complete with very jolly, very Japanese theme song. So far, so Toy Story. Speaking of which, Clockwork Knight was released the very same year as the Pixar blockbuster, which makes you wonder: if Sega hadn’t messed up the Saturn’s U.S. launch so badly, could this game have ridden the coat tails of the ‘toys come to life’ phenomenon and been a huge success? I guess we’ll never know.
Following the intro, it’s down to business. Pepper, armed with his key (he’s a clockwork knight remember) must progress through several rooms of the house in order to rescue Princess Chelsea. You can hit enemies with the key by tapping the B button, although this will only stun some enemies and you’ll need to keep hitting B to make Pepper ‘rotate’ his key in order to deal more damage. Pepper himself has a life bar made up of three cogs, which can be replenished by collecting keys throughout the game. There are also the usual extra life icons and invincibility power ups (the effect of which looks suspiciously like the invincibility power up used by a certain blue hedgehog….) You can also collect bottle tops which will allow you to play a bonus game in-between levels which basically requires you to memorise the location of the power up you want before its hidden in a box and said boxes are rotated.
Aside from that, you’ll need to navigate the usual jumps, spikes, etc that you’d expect from this type of platformer. There are some interesting touches, such as needing to push batteries into certain toys (such as cranes and trains) to get them to operate, otherwise you won’t be able to progress through the level. There are also multiple routes through levels, and no checkpoints, so keep an eye on those cogs as its back to the start of the level if you die.
Pepper and all the in-game characters bar the bosses are pre-rendered digitised sprites, in the vein of Donkey Kong Country. The characters are colourful and well animated, with plenty of personality. However what really sets the look of the game apart from it’s 1995 contemporaries (and its 16 bit predecessors) is the combination of graphics. The sprites are 2D, but a lot of the background assets are 3D polygons. There’s lots of incredibly smooth parallax scrolling, and some seriously impressive background effects with things moving in and out of the distance. The real showpieces are the boss battles which feature fully 3D bosses and some nice use of zooming effects.
The boss battles themselves are probably the highlights of the game. They go from the bizarre (a strange doll that looks like a baby but is wearing a monocle and a top hat) to the downright awesome (the transformer-esque robot that transforms into a jet).
The in-game music is suitably jolly, and the sound effects do the job. Enemies make quite a satisfying popping sound when Pepper dispatches them with his key, and the game has a generally happy, upbeat feel.
This all sounds positive so far doesn’t it? It’s a fantastic looking platformer with some fun touches and a nice kid-friendly aesthetic. Unfortunately, this is where the problem lies. The gameplay is as basic as you can get, and with only 4 levels (made up of 2 stages and a boss battle each), its far, far too short. It’s also not a difficult game either, and my 6-year-old was able to progress pretty far on only his first go. In creating a Toy Story inspired game, Sega may have gone a little too far in aiming it solely at younger gamers.
Despite that though, it’s hard for me to be too critical of Clockwork Knight. It’s a game my family owned (we purchased our Saturn in 1995), and one I have fond memories of. When it was released, it was stunning to look at, and I think it’s still a graphically impressive game today, with that great combination of 2D and 3D effects.
Would I recommend it to a retro gamer in 2017 though? In short, yes. It’s not an expensive game, and an import copy can be had for as little as £5. I say it’s worth every penny of that for the graphics alone. Sure, you might only get an hour of gameplay out of it, but I guarantee your kids will love it, and it’s also an interesting example of where platform games were at in that period between the end of the 16-bit era and the game changing arrival of Mario 64 just a year later.
So although Sonic didn’t get a platform outing on the Saturn, Pepperouchau did, and although he lacked depth and suffered at the hands of Sega’s horrendous decision making, he rescued the Princess and looked damn good whilst doing so. Which is what we all want to do really, isn’t it?