Friday, 24 August 2012

James Pond: Underwater Agent (Amiga)

Because you requested it, today I'm taking a look at the first of the James Pond games.

You know, for a one joke character (he's the fish version of James Bond!), the F.I.5.H. agent didn't actually do so badly for himself. Most of the 90s platformer creatures faded away before they even got a sequel, but this guy managed to make it all the way up to the sports game spin-off part of the vg mascot lifecycle before disappearing without a trace.

Though I did hear rumours that he resurfaced in a rubbish iPhone game a year or so ago, this time with a Harry Potter pun in the title (Deathly Shallows). He isn't a wizard in it though, so they kinda missed the point there.

The developers apparently got into a little bit of trouble for spoofing the MGM logo here, though it looks pretty harmless to me. I mean you're obviously not going to confuse a cartoon fish with a lion are you? Also the motto's entirely different!

'Vita Canis Est'... Dog is life? I never learned Latin, but even I know what canis and vita mean. Oh, it probably says 'it's a dog's life'. Even when you're a fish.

James Pond Underwater Agent title screen Amiga
Look at Pond's face, he does not want to be there and I don't blame him. Those mutant Pond girls are so weird they make him look halfway normal by comparison, and he's a fish with hands wearing a waistcoat. In fact now that I think about it, he looks more like a snooker player than a spy.

I have to admit, this theme is actually really catchy. It's by vg music legend Richard Joseph though so I don't feel so bad about humming it.


MISSION 1 - LICENCE TO BUBBLE!


Okay, my first mission (according to the scrolling text) to is save lobsters from evil lobster catchers. I guess we're working up to the proper spy missions.

After jumping out of a pipe, Mario style, I started working on freeing all the lobsters with the keys conveniently scattered around the seabed. I often find underwater levels in games to be awkward and slow, but Pond actually floats around pretty fast, and the biggest struggle I've had so far is figuring out how to pick up keys (down+fire button it turns out).

Damn, look a the size of those evil lobster catchers with the boat compared to Pond. They're not small because they're in the background, James Pond really is 6 foot tall.

Also, he can kill things by trapping them in bubbles, then popping them to collect the bonus prize hidden inside, Bubble Bobble style. He doesn't use a bubble gun like on the title screen though, no he just breathes on them and they die.

James Pond is a scary fish man.

That's interesting, saving enough lobsters opened up two exit pipes for me (Mario style... again). Though I might as well finish saving the lobsters now I've only got one key left to find.

Oh right, there it is up on the right, next to the bottle of Jack Daniels.

Genesis/Mega Drive
You don't often see a bottle of whiskey in a kids game as a pick-up, and in the Sega version you won't see it, because they replaced it with 'oil'. Same effect though, James starts swaying for a bit.


MISSION 2 - FROM SELLAFIELD WITH LOVE!


I went with the first pipe in the end, and now I've got to guide these helpless fishy inhabitants one by one to 'safety'. Though the briefing didn't actually go as far as saying what 'safety' actually was, or even hinting at what I should be looking for, so I'm just swimming around in circles here.

At least all these radioactive canisters around help explain the mutant Pond girls on the title screen.

Okay what the fuck, why did Pond just explode? Also why is the sea floor covered in teddy bears, but answer the other question first.

I think that yellow thing on the right of the sea shells must be a mine, and I must have just brushed against another one of them. I have to wonder Pond even has life bar if it drains in a single collision like this.

 Alright, what got me this time? I'm sure it wasn't the little fish, they look like enemies but they're entirely harmless (though a bit annoying).

Oh right, I've figured it out. I know who the perpetrator is.

It was the evil flower! Look, it's even got fangs! That's a dead giveaway that merely brushing against it is a death sentence.

Not like these happy flowers. These are not only harmless, but actually give you points!

Or these flowers, which actually are just part of the background.

I'm sure this'll get a lot less annoying once I've learned what does and doesn't kill me in this game. But right now I'm a little frustrated that I keep getting one-shotted by stuff I thought was scenery. At least I figured out where to take the fish. I had to lead them one at a time... to Pond's entrance pipe. 

Scattered all over the levels are cave entrances leading to rooms like this, full of items. Points get me extra lives, so I need as many as I can get, though I've got to be fast as his health bar continually ticks down in here (though I do get the life back if I leave in time, the game's not that cruel).  

This cave is the treasure chest room, where I can hang around (as long as I dare) to collect the valuables as they spill out of a large chest. There's a catch though, as sometimes it throws out less fun pick-ups like 'glue' and 'bomb'. One makes you stick to the spot, the other drops explosions behind you as go... unless you're stuck to the spot, in which case you explode and lose.

And that's how I lost the game. There were no continues.


MISSION 3 - VIEW TO A SPILL!


I'm not giving up yet though. Level one had two pipes leading out of it, so I started a new game and headed down pipe #2 this time. Well pipe #3 to be accurate, but you know what I mean.

I was staying clear of these human enemies at first because I assumed they'd be invulnerable. I didn't think the developers would go as a far as making their fishy cartoon spy a murderer. But nope, Pond can kill a human in a single bubble, then collect their soul... in the form of a prize!

James Pond is On Deadly Ground
Oh right, I didn't explain why I was carrying dynamite. Well, on this level there's a large oil platform that has a bit of a leak. The company doesn't want to fix it, so the only sensible thing to do is to pack explosives around the support pillars and blow the whole thing up. Oh and kill anyone who tries to stop me of course.

I dunno, seems a bit... drastic to me. Also boring. It takes a lot of this stuff to blow the supports, and I have to swim around and find it all first, then carry it back. One bit at a time.


MISSION 4 - THE FISH WITH THE GOLDEN BAR.


Finally, I'm on to mission 4! Which is actually level 3 for me because I'm playing them out of order. This time I have to take objects from one place, and bring them to another place. Again.

Actually fuck it, I'm going back down my pipe.

James Pond's underwater house Titanic
Whoa, that actually worked! I can hang around in Pond's house to recover my health, but the mission clock's still ticking, so I can't wait for long. Also I can bring out dynamite, for some reason. Not sure how it helps me, but there's probably a point to it.

Okay fine, I'll go back out and take the gold bars to the boat.


BUT THEN.


Uh, what just killed him this time? It wasn't the jellyfish, he floated down afterwards. I'm honestly totally clueless this time, and I can't go back up there to check because I've been game over'd again.

A bit of internet research soon revealed the shocking truth. It was the jellyfish that killed him. But it was invisible at the time. There's an enemy in this game that can kill you in a single touch, and is impossible to see. Now that ranks pretty damn highly on the shitty game design-o-meter. What the hell were they thinking?


MEANWHILE, ON THE ATARI ST.


Atari ST
The Atari ST port of the game is very similar as far as I can tell, with all the frustrations present and accounted for, and some dodgy scrolling as a bonus.

Look at this crap, I'm trapped in here with next to zero health as an invulnerable ghost closes in, and I can't escape as there's an evil plant in my way.

Atari ST
Okay it turns out I was whining about nothing, as the ghost just floated on by and I was able to make a run for the boat to dump the gold. There was only one flaw in my scheme...

In the sequel, RoboCod, Pond was mechanically augmented to be able to survive outside of water, but this is back in his pre-cyborg days when he was just a regular underwater fish of mystery. The health bar drains down when you're in air, like it does in the caves, but I only had a fraction of health left at this point, so he suffocated half a second after I jumped out of the water.

I don't get why the oxygen and health bars are even linked like this. I think it'd work better if he had hit points and a separate oxygen bar.

I gave it one last try on the Amiga version, but I got lost in maze of shipwrecks and teleporter mushrooms and couldn't get enough gold to the boat. And you know, I don't really feel like playing all those other levels again to get back here anymore. I've seen enough of the game to satisfy my curiosity, so I'm turning it off.

Mega Drive/Genesis
Oh right, I should probably mention that the game was ported to the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive as well. First Mega Drive game to be developed in Britain apparently, according to the internet. Weirdly this is probably the ugliest version of the game, though at least it scrolls smoothly.

Also, I've noticed they've made a couple of weird changes to the gameplay. Now picking up any item gives me back a small amount of health, items dropped from enemies fall instead of floating so they're easier to catch, and the evil flowers are totally harmless now. The invisible enemies are still in but hey, nothing's perfect.

James Pond licence has been revoked!
Mega Drive/Genesis
After finally finishing mission 4, the game sent me onto mission 3. So I guess the pipes just determine the order I play through levels, and I can't actually skip anything.

I decided while I was here to go into the treasure room and get some nice high scoring items. Though what I actually got was glued in place and blown up. Again. But then something amazing happened; the game offered me a chance to continue on the same level!

Mega Drive/Genesis
I think I took a wrong turn, this is mission 4 again, with the shipwreck and the gold bars. Only this time the clock's on zero and there's a fish in a trench coat hanging around my pipe. Oh fuck, I think this guy's an invulnerable rival spy out to kill me, swim for it Pond!


MISSION 5 - FOR YOUR FINS ONLY!




James Pond lager louts
Mega Drive/Genesis
On this mission I have to take toxic waste canisters and bring them to the beach bums (lager louts in the Amiga version), so they can drink them and die. Seriously, that is what HQ ordered me to do.

It'd be easier if the level didn't have a cameo appearance by video game superstar 'That Damn Bird That Picks You Up.' Old school platformer fans probably know the guy from a thousand other games. He's the one that flies down, grabs onto you, then carries you off to the other side of the level. And when he's got you, there's not a damn thing you can do about it.


MISSION 7 - THEY ONLY LIVE ONCE!


Mega Drive/Genesis
Awesome it's another 'escort the creatures to safety' level. You know how I mentioned earlier that James Pond is a fish and can't survive out of water for long?  Well that gets a little bit more awkward when I have to wait for these moving walls to get out of my way.

Mega Drive/Genesis
I wonder why that seal over on the right next to the toilet roll is looking so guilty. Uh I mean, OH NO A POLAR BEAR WHATEVER SHALL I DO? Stand back a bit lil' seal guy, while I bubble this thing to death in a single shot.

Oh right, I'm out of the water, nothing to blow a bubble in... damn. Well at least I still have a split second of invulnerability thanks to this fairy, oh wait that's just worn off as well. Right, new plan, we run as fast as my little fins can go and hope there's some water on the other side.

Mega Drive/Genesis
C'mon now game, you're just being ridiculous. James Pond is a fish, he isn't so great at the platforming. He tends to bounce around on the spot a bit, then asphyxiate.

Which is more or less exactly how I lost.


In conclusion: James Pond: Underwater Agent is a game where you swim around taking things from one place and bringing them to another place, until you run out of levels. But is it any good? Well... it's alright actually, pretty likeable despite the flaws. I think it was actually growing on me, though I'm not experiencing any strong desire to ever play it again.

The Sega version is probably the one to go for this time though. It doesn't look the best, and it definitely doesn't sound the best, but a few gameplay tweaks and couple of continues make it more bearable to play.

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