James Pond 2: Robocod
There has been a long tradition of game heroes drawn from the animal kingdom over the years. Crash is a Bandicoot, Sonic is a Hedgehog, Gex is a Gecko and Jim is an Earthworm [a pedant writes: technically an earthworm is not an animal it’s an Annelid]. Anyway, one of videogaming great ”lost” animal heroes is James Pond the super spy fish. This small orange cod starred in a well received if rather uninspired platform game; James Pond at the end of the 1980’s [another pedant writes: fish aren’t animals either and cod are about six foot long and white, not small and orange]. However the sequel James Pond 2: Robocod which debuted on the Commodore Amiga in 1990 and subsequently on the Sega Master System and Megadrive, proved that the concept of a running, jumping fish was one that had legs and its always been a big surprise to me that the game and character has faded into obscurity [a pedant writes again: fish don’t actually have legs, they have fins and…SNIIIIP!!!!!].
The story of the game is quite simple. After his exploits in James Pond 1 where he saved the world from the sinister Dr. Maybe, our James has been provided with a robotic suit (by scientist ”Phil”) which lets him survive out of water and stretch to enormous lengths. He is chilling out with his penguin friends up in the Antarctic, skating, fishing, what have you when disaster strikes. The evil Dr. Maybe turns them all into chocolate biscuits!!! Which isn’t quite as odd as it sounds; a chocolate biscuit manufacturer who makes a brand of biscuits called ”Penguin” sponsored the game. The game features Penguin biscuits throughout.
Anyway, after losing his penguin friends in this heinous manner, James is informed that Dr. Maybe has infiltrated all of Santa’s toy factories and has planted penguin bombs. James must get into the factories and defuse the bombs before they explode and ruin everyone’s Christmas.
James is also informed that the wings and armour that was supposed to be added to his Robo-suit has been stolen by Dr. Maybe and so he must hunt down these extras to help him in his mission as well as finding the penguin bombs. He then goes to Dr. Maybe’s castle which functions as a central level hub, here he can warp to all the factories, tackling them in any order he pleases.
So one of the more ludicrous plots in videogame history then. But one which perfectly introduces you to the bizarre and psychedelic world of James Pond, the worlds first robotically enhanced super-fish. The game plays out in a more straightforward manner. Each level is made up of platforms, pits and obstructions to be negotiated by jumping, bouncing, stretching and flying (with the requisite bonus item). Enemies are killed by being bounced on, secrets are found by smashing blocks. Various powerups are scattered around the levels, including invincibility, little wings to fly with, extra lives, energy powerups and even a flying bathtub to cruise around in at one point!
You must search each level for all the penguin bombs; once they are discovered you can leave the level via the flashing barbers pole exits. Occasionally these will lead to secret levels and bonus games. All levels can be revisited once completed meaning you can stock up with lives on earlier levels if the later ones are proving to difficult. At the end of each set of themed levels you face a Boss monster which must be defeated by studying its attack patterns and striking at the moment of weakness. There are nine ”missions” or sets of levels in all, plus the final showdown with Dr. Maybe at the end.
From the description above the game sounds like little more than a Mario rip-off. It’s true it does have all the hallmarks of a stereotypical Mario clone. Yet its rises above this simply by the sheer silliness of the in game experience. The graphics are amazing. The sheer colours and vibrancy of the design really blew me away at the time, and even revisiting it ten or so years later I am very impressed with how well the cartoon designs have aged. The designers really went to town exploiting every inch of the Megadrive’s graphical processing power. The result is every level is a riot of bright oranges, reds, pinks and purples. Every platform, every brick is beautifully shaded.
Enemies are chunky and humorous looking. As the theme is Christmas, all the enemies are psychotic children’s toys come to life and out to kill you. So on one level you have to avoid birds made out of pencils with playing cards from wings, on another toy cars whose bumpers split into huge toothy mouths try to bite you and run you over. The first boss showdown sees you attempting to bounce on the head of a huge cuddly teddy bear that is intent on squishing you into whitebait. Further levels see you assaulted by ping-pong bats, mutant caterpillars, flowers, chess pieces and cherry pies (!)
With plenty of secrets tucked away on each of the enormous levels, there’s much fun to be had exploring every inch of the game, especially when you never know what kind of ridiculous enemy might come at you next. The central hub level also has nooks and crannies that can be searched around as you unlock access to later levels and allows you to experiment with your Robo suit and practice your moves without danger of death. The controls and collision detection are excellent and the fact that James can be hit quite a few times before losing a life takes the edge of what can be quite a tricky game in places.
Overall, James Pond 2 is a riot to play. The gameplay maybe unoriginal but the inspired surrealness of the concept and design makes it a deeply enjoyable experience. Towards the end like many 2D platform games it can get very demanding on your reactions and memory and cheap deaths can be unavoidable. But the sheer charm of James himself, grooving backwards and forwards constantly in his stylish, stretchy suit always brings you back for more. Well thank you for herring me out about this great game, hope I didn’t give you a haddock going on about it. Now if you’ll excuse me I have no fish to keep you any longer, I’ll see myself trout.