25/02/2016

JAMES POND: UNDERWATER AGENT (MEGADRIVE)

Okay, let's get this out of the way. His name's Pond, James Pond. Bubble-oh-seven, sea-cret agent, license to gill. Consider that your inoculation against the ceaseless barrage of aquatic Bond puns that make up today's game: the 1991 Megadrive version of Vectordean's soggy-wordplay-em-up James Pond: Underwater Agent!


Why am I playing the Megadrive version rather than the hit Amiga original? No major reason. The controls feel a bit smoother to me, but the real bonus of the Megadrive port is that the status bar is a sensible shade of orange rather than the punishing rainbow colours of the Amiga version.
Anyway, here's James Pond: spy, lover, fish. He likes his martinis shaken, not stirred and presumably not with dry vermouth, and he's surrounded by what to a humanoid fish must be attractive female humanoid fish. There's also whatever the hell that thing in the bottom-left of this little group photo is supposed to be. Two olives floating in a hospital bedpan, maybe. Of course, James Pond is such a rugged yet debonair haddock of mystery that one title screen alone is not enough to contain him.


This rendition of James Pond is... not so heroic. I wouldn't trust him to boil an egg, never mind save the world from a mad scientist, not when he's got the same facial expression as I do when I'm choosing what cake I want from a bakery window. At least my youth spent reading the kinds of authors who think Latin jokes are funny has paid off, because I can tell you that the Latin motto on Pond's fake MGM logo translates to "It's a Dog's Life." Bet you didn't think you'd be getting a Latin lesson when you opened this article, huh? Well, I'm terribly sorry and it won't happen again.


License to bubble? Really? My "license to gill" pun was much better. I would have also accepted "license to krill."


Here we are at the start of James Pond, then, and the titular fishy agent is on a mission to rescue lobsters. To accomplish this, Pond has the ability to freely swim through the water in eight directions, as well as being able to blow bubbles that trap the roving enemies. Once an enemy is encased in a bubble, swim into it to burst it and eliminate your foe. James Pond definitely has a platformer feel to it, but aside from a few areas where you have to flop around awkwardly on dry land there's not much platform-hopping going on so I don't know what genre I'd class this one as. Courier-em-up, possibly: every mission revolves around picking up an item and carrying it to a different place.


In this first mission, that means dragging keys through the briny deep so that you can unlock the lobster cages and set their crustacean occupants free, but do it quickly before they're hauled to the surface by the prowling fishermen who are, let's face it, just trying to make a living. The sea is a cruel mistress, especially when she's working with a halibut who thinks he's Sean Connery.


Once you've rescued enough lobsters, the exit pipe will open and Pond can move on. However, you don't have to rescue all the lobsters before reaching your quota, so it's up to you whether you save the rest (which nets you a points bonus) or just head to the next mission, leaving the remaining lobsters to the mercy of the fishermen and a future involving butter sauce and people wearing bibs. I suggest leaving them behind, because James Pond only give the player limited lives and continues and there's no way to save your game, so conversing your health is a must.


"From Three Mile Island With Love" is of course a reference to Bond movie From Russia With Love as well as the nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, which famously had what experts call a "nuclear boo-boo" in 1979. Fun fact, in the Amiga version this stage is called "From Sellafield With Love," Sellafield being a British nuclear plant with a less-than-stellar reputation. I'm not sure I need to rush about saving these fish from mutation. I mean, James Pond is a mutant and he seems to be doing all right for himself. He is a mutant, right? He understands human speech and he's wearing a tuxedo, I don't think he's just a regular fish.


Another clue that Pond might be mutant is that he's not very good at swimming. You know, for a fish. That's not a convincing swimming motion, is it? He looks like he's perpetually thrusting, not slicing through the waters like a master of the aquatic realm.


As well as mission where you need to transport items, there are some missions where you need to drag creatures from one place to another. Before you start wailing and gnashing your teeth at the prospect of that perennial videogame "favourite" the escort mission, please be aware that your charges cannot be killed and will even follow James through solid rock if they're obstructed by the maze-like layout of the undersea stages, making James Pond a strong contender for the title of "Best Videogame Escort Mission." However, it will not win the title, as it will be beaten by every videogame that doesn't include an escort mission.


So goes the flow of James Pond: Underwater Agent. Grab the required items, cursing the lack of opposable thumbs on your slimy flippers, and take the items where they need to go. In this case, James is "liberating" some gold bars from a shipwreck. Where do they need to go? James Pond's Swiss bank account, I shouldn't wonder. The ghost of Captain Bluebeard wants his gold back, however. You can see him in the screenshot above, and he'll do anything to reclaim his treasure so long as it doesn't involve more than floating ineffectually through the water. This kind of lackadaisical approach to piracy is probably what got you killed in the first place, Bluebeard.


Unusually for a game of the time, James Pond doesn't just have discrete stages, and while I wouldn't go so far as to call it an open world game there is a bit of exploration that can be done. Most commonly, this will result in James floundering into a secret room. The secret rooms contain two things: items and death. Just being in a secret room will drain your health, but there are items to be collected for points and therefore (eventually) extra lives, items like headphones and, erm, bog roll. Judging by how shiny it is and its complete resistance to water, I'm going to guess that the horrible, cheap, plasticky toilet paper that you used to find in places where the user's comfort was not important, like schools.
Collecting items is a big part of James Pond. I don't mean power-ups (although there are a few) but points items, which are absolutely everywhere in this game, littering every crack and crevice of the ocean floor and appearing each time you pop a bubble-encased bad guy. What's impressive is that there are so many different types of item to collect, and the overall impression is that the game's artist looked around their bedroom and made a tiny sprite for every single thing they could see. Packs of gum, Rubik's Cubes, cups, teapots, cassette tapes, lamps, tennis balls, wind-up chattering teeth - there are dozens of different tiny trinkets for James to collect, and while I appreciate the effort it does seem like a bit of a waste when ninety percent of them just give you points.


The actual power-ups range from common things like health and time refills to rarer items like the fairy that flies around James and makes him invincible for a while using her faerie magicks, and even a few pick-ups that are more like equippable pieces of gear - there's a top hat that reduces the amount of damage you take, a fish bowl that lets you survive longer out of the water and, as seen here, a gun. Obviously James can't blow bubbles when he's not underwater, so he needs something to murder the surface-dwellers with. It's okay, he's doing it to save some adorable seal cubs. Unfortunately a lot of these seal cubs are lounging around on land, so James has to haul himself out of the water and get them. This is where the game's platforming sections lie, and if you're wondering whether they're any good I would remind you that "a fish out of water" is a common description of someone awkward and unsuited to their role. James bounces around constantly while he's on land, making jumps difficult to time, and the preponderance of invisible blocks waiting for you to smash your scaly head into when jumping may constitute the very opposite of the concept of fun. Oh, and your health constantly drains while you're out of the water, although it is replenished when you get back in the drink. Way to not evolve lungs, James.


These mission briefings are staring to get weird. You've got a gun, James. Why not just shoot the construction workers? This plan with the orchids seems unnecessarily complicated. It also forces you to yet again leave the sea, making a mockery of the title "Underwater Agent." Maybe leave this one to Captain Planet, huh?


Whether or not you enjoy James Pond will depend in large part on how you feel about mazes. None of the stages are vast labyrinths, exactly, but there's often a lot of backtracking because James can only carry one object at a time and it can get a little - okay, a lot - tedious. Something that might help you are mushrooms, just like half the people I went to university with used to tell me. These magic mushrooms - the small browny-red ones you can see on the right there - are actually magic, and touching them will teleport James to a different location in the stage, often a chamber that is otherwise inaccessible. It took me a while to figure this out, and I spent much of the first couple of stages confused as to why I was suddenly in a different room. Eventually I realised that it was the mushrooms' doing, and after that the first order of business in each stage is investigating each mushroom to see which ones work as helpful shortcuts back to the item drop-off point.


If you need a break from the action, you can visit James' home, complete with well-kept underwater lawn. Judging by the wreck of the Titanic lurking ominously in the background, James lives in the far north of the Atlantic Ocean and he has ready access to a large supply of human bones. You know, just in case he needed human bones for something.


A couple of times between stages I was chased relentlessly by this mysterious figure in a yellow trenchcoat, prompting me to spend an embarrassing amount of time scrabbling around for a fish-related Dick Tracy pun. The best I could come up with was Dick T-ray-cy. Like a stingray, you see. Come on, give me a break, after playing James Pond for so long my pun matrix is in dire need of recalibration.


Here's a mission where James needs to get rid of some toxic waste. His solution: drag it onto the beach, where it will become the problem of the Land-Folk. The barrels are actually smashed up by these people that are described in-game as "beach bums" but are clearly English tourists, which was a nice bit of local flavour. Still, it's not a great depiction of English holidaymakers on a sunny foreign beach, because they're not bald, overweight, sunburnt and shouting at waiters very slowly in English with "O"s added to the end of random words.


As is to be expected from a game that started life on the Amiga, James Pond starts getting very difficult towards the end. Time limits become tighter, enemy numbers are greatly increased,and the enemies themselves are more challenging. For example, there are enemies that are completely invisible unless you happen to be wearing a special pair of sunglasses which, I will be honest, I did not manage to find while I was playing the game. They might be invincible, but at least I can see these sharks. I'm glad I can, too, because they're rather sweet and possibly the least menacing sharks I've ever seen in a videogame. Given James Pond's maniacal zeal for fish-based James Bond gags, it's amazing that there is no reference to Jaws in the game. It's good to know the creators were willing to draw a line in the sand somewhere, I guess.


It didn't stop them going with the classic "dogfish" joke, though. No catfish, surprisingly.


"Remember, Agent Pond: don't waste time thinking about getting laid, these mermaids are way out of your league." Ouch, man, that is rough. I'm sure there's something these mermaids might see in James Pond, the suave secret agent and defender of the ocean. High levels of healthy Omega-3, for starters.


Look, the mermaids live in the sunless depths of the ocean with no company apart from flowers and scientists with heads so bulbous they look like they've had a basketball rammed up each nostril, I think they would probably be quite happy to see James Pond, even if it only leads to friendship. However, the mermaids will not even acknowledge James unless he brings them a comb. A comb each, and there are nine mermaids. Could you not just share the comb? It would make my life a lot easier.


Once I reached the last few missions, I started using cheats. The above screenshot may given you an idea why I started using cheats, and James' expression mirrored my own before I gave myself infinite lives and time. In fact, I would recommend giving yourself infinite time from the start if you plan on playing James Pond. It's hard enough without a time limit, especially because your limited supply of lives and continues means that a slow, patient approach is almost mandatory if you want to get past the first few stages. The time limit adds absolutely nothing to the game, so I definitely didn't feel guilty about getting rid of it.


For the final mission, the villains have caught up with James Pond, and he must gather a supply of food before the evil Dr. Maybe - yes, like Dr. No but less decisive - captures James and batters him. Presumably that's meant as another pun, but I'm going to pretend that Dr. Maybe intends to give James Pond a thorough kicking for messing up his plans. But what food will James collect? Fish food? Insect larvae? Plankton?


Nope, he needs pears. Pears, the superfood of the fish kingdom. Is this a thing? Do fish prefer to eat pears? I wouldn't know, the only goldfish I've ever had was fed on fish flakes, and he seemed pretty happy with it. We called him Adolf, because he had a small black patch just above his mouth and not because he kept trying to annexe the hamster cage.


I've just realised what these floating, swollen-headed scientists remind me of: it's an army of Loyd Grossmans! Fetch me a shoe-cake, pronto!
If you have the skill and patience to bubble your way through the army of scientists and killer clams, enough pears can be gathered to provide a long and prosperous future for James Pond, although Dr. Maybe escapes and will return again - James Pond was a hit, so naturally it spawned (oh god these fish pun will not stop) several sequels. Did they keep up the same level of highbrow humour? Well, the second game sees James wearing cybernetic armour. It's called RoboCod. That's a game for another time, though. For now, let's sit back and enjoy the sumptuous ending sequence.


That's it. That's all you get. The chilling message that his life of intrigue and danger will never be peacefully resolved and that same incredibly gormless image of our hero, the one where he somehow looking even more dense than an actual goldfish.


Yes, James, I know you do.
I'd find it difficult to recommend that you rush out and play James Pond: Underwater Agent. It's not that it's a terrible experience, but I'm left with lingering questions about why I bothered with it. The gameplay is fine, if a little too reliant on difficulty, but it never really catches the imagination and bobbing around the sea collecting things quickly becomes monotonous and you start to wonder when the game is going to start for real. Of course, it never does. The most interesting thing about the game for me is how it stands as my mental ideal for what a "European" videogame looks like. One look at the graphics immediately tells you that this is not a Japanese game, although I lack the critical art skills to tell you why that is. It's a combination of rounded shading and a complete lack of an anime influence, I suspect.


I know James Pond has lots of fans, and I appreciate the effort that went into making it, but sadly James Pond just isn't for me. I will, however, give it top marks for its unrelenting dedication to terrible puns. In this respect, James Pond and I are brothers of the sole. Soul. Please send help, I can't stop.

8 comments:

  1. Wasn't the third game a platformer in the style of Sonic the Hedgehog? You could run really fast, despite the fact that Pond was, ahem, a fish. I'm sure they had an explanation for that. I'm just as sure it was a pretty dumb one.

    I have a love, er, tolerate/hate relationship with this series. Bright colors are always welcome on the Sega Genesis, and the huge amount of items and bubble blowing suggested ties to the Bubble Bobble series, but in the end, the punishing difficulty was a tremendous turn-off. The third game was probably the most playable, but then there's Aquatic Games, a Track 'n Field-style series of events that had no business existing.

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    1. The third game was definitely more of a straight-up platformer, yeah. I vaguely recall there being some kind of gravity mechanic, like you could walk on ceilings or something? I don;t remember it's been a long time since I've played it. I do remember the Aquatic Games, though!

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    2. I believe there was also an Ios game released a few years ago and a Kickstarter that tried to raise money for another that, for some strange reason, failed.

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    3. James Pond 3 was Operation Starfish, where Dr Maybe tries to mine the cheese in the moon. It's a more standard platformer, and Pond could run & jump just like any other. But don't forget James Pond was also in The Aquatic Games, because nothing says franchise like an odd sports game with licenced characters shoehorned in...

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  2. Vote James Pond for Super Smash Bros 5

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  3. Firstly for some reason the titles screen's fish cleavage disturbed me more than usual, and these days I get easily weirded out by non-mammalian mammaries.
    Also non I have the image of you(best I can picture you from so far given info) awkwardly gawking at cakes. Thanks.
    Its also disconcerting how the first level fishermen look just like our protagonist except with a cap. Not to mention that he's rescuing crabs, which was not his mission. He's merely harassing innocent crabbers trying to make a living. I also question an agent who wears a green clown suit in place of a tux.
    And yes he clearly is a mutant. Just look at his freakish muto-hands in the right corner of the HUB. I think mission two is Pond's attempt at saving others from the same fate as his.
    One thing about the collectibles, perhaps they stand for all the plastic junk that ends up in the ocean, hence the large variety.
    THe Dick Tracy puns do seem a little hard, I can only come up with Dart Tracy, like a dartfish.

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  5. I think there is a lot of potential for this franchise. TBH, when I played it at the tender age of 8, I found the game somewhat scary and foreboding. I do wonder how a series like James Pond would do with a dark theme to it. Like, remember how Earthworm Jim's first game was adventurous but had a dark and gross theme to it?
    Sigh
    Shame the kickstarter did not work out but I do blame the creators for not being entirely committed to it.

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