Tuesday, 11 April 2017

James Pond 3: Operation Starfish (SNES)

James Pond 3 Operation Starfish title screen snes
Developer:Vectordean & Millennium Interactive|Release Date:1993|Systems:Mega Drive, SNES, Amiga, CD32, Game Gear

Today's the 25th anniversary of the Super Nintendo Entertainment System! Except it isn't, because the Super Nintendo came out in North America on August 23rd 1991 and the Super Famicom was released in Japan a year earlier on November 21st 1990. But in the UK we got the system in April 1992, so I'm playing a SNES game to celebrate.

This week on Super Adventures I'm taking a quick look at James Pond³: Operation Starfish! Because what better game is there to celebrate the Super Nintendo than a port of a Mega Drive game that's a sequel to a series strongly associated with the Amiga? There is sense behind my selection though: it's one of the few PAL exclusive titles for the SNES.

James Pond 3 is the third of the James Pond games, obviously. Except it isn't, because The Aquatic Games came out before it, which had the aquatic agent competing in various sports. It is the third game developed by creator Chris Sorrell though, and the last, as crappy iPhone game James Pond in the Deathly Shallows was allegedly crafted by a finite number of evil monkeys.

Alright I'm going to play it for a few hours without reading the manual, quit when it gets difficult, and then write a review at the end like my brief experience with the game makes me an expert. Same deal as usual.


Oh damn, James Pond's mutated again. He's always had hands at the end of his muscular fins but now he's grown an extra fish finger on each. Plus his face is creeping me out, but that's always been like that.

The first game was about underwater espionage, the second game was RoboCop at Santa's Workshop, but here they're so out of ideas that they're desperate enough to finally spoof Moonraker. Actually they're apparently going for more of a Flash Gordon thing (the working title was Splash Gordon), though that doesn't explain why he's wearing a Ms. Marvel t-shirt.

I left the game running without hitting a button and got these illustrated slides picking up the plot where RoboCod left off. Seems that Dr. Maybe's actually more of a Blofeld than a Dr. No as he's gone straight into another sinister scheme for James Pond to foil.

This time his evil plan involves pulling a Wallace and Gromit and going to the moon to take advantage of its vast untapped cheese resources. But mining the high-grade (and apparently radioactive) moon cheese is only part one of his malevolent machinations, as next he plans to... sell it.

The story's continued in a Star Wars scroll. Seems that they're spinning this unrest in the cheese trade as being a threat to the freedom of the entire galaxy to justify sending an agent in to shut him down. I played Spy Fox in "Dry Cereal" a couple of months back so this plot is all weirdly familiar to me, with another Bond villain trying to corner the dairy market. Sorry, I mean Pond villain.

Before I start the game I just have to point out that that's the weirdest looking chrome text I've ever seen. It's like someone's carved out the bottom of each letter; there's a definite shadow there. Okay level one, let's go.

Oh man, dancing flowers, that's not what you want to see growing on your cheese. Though at least I'm not in a forest level.

Hang on, how can James Pond breathe on the moon without air? Dr. Maybe and his hired rats all had spacesuits on in the intro so they're not playing by cartoon rules here. Actually I've got a better question, how can he breathe without water? Seeing as he's a fish. Or is he still a cyborg?

In the first game, James Pond: Underwater Agent, our hero was a straight up James Bond as a fish, swimming around in a green tux and posing with mermaids. But by James Pond II: RoboCod he'd gone through a RoboCop reconstruction that gave him the ability to leave the water and to extend his torso to latch onto ceilings. It also gave him shiny metal armour which he's not wearing in his new Flash Gordon incarnation, so now I don't even know what's going on with him.

Though one thing I do know is that he hasn't got legs; he's just found a pair of moon boots that fit his fins.

Hey I've come across four random items lying in a row! I remember in RoboCod that if you collect the cake, hammer, Earth, apple and tap at the start in the right order you activate the cheat mode, so now I'm wondering what I can spell with dynamite, cup, bomb and cheese.

Hmm... oh right, I won't be spelling anything out as there's no vowels. I'll just grab them all and get the points then.

Whoa, I didn't expect to get a screen full of text out of nowhere. I've received a message from a crazy man who thinks he's a pirate telling me to keep hold of the cup. Uh... sure, okay then!

I just realised that the font is wedge shaped, as the letters are deeper at the top than they are at the bottom. It's very unusual, I'm not sure I've seen a game do that before.

Alright let's see what he says when I pick up the dynamite.

Well I've learned an important lesson today. Turns out these aren't just random items to grab for points this time, they're objects that I can pick up and throw. I think I'll leave the rest alone though, as running around with a lit fuse is almost as daft as running around with a block of cheese.

Okay maybe I'll just bring the cheese.

I accidentally threw my cheese away! I'm thinking I'll maybe restart and change the controls so they're more like Mario to increase my chances of pressing the right buttons.

Speaking of Mario, I'm repeatedly headbutting blocks here to empty them of treasure and get some crescent moons in the bank. The second block was actually invisible until I realigned it with our visible spectrum by giving it a solid thump with my head, which has got me thinking.

First I was thinking that Pond should try punching blocks when he jumps, like Mario does, before he gives himself a concussion. But then it also occurred to me that if I jump up onto the secret invisible treasure block I might find even better secret treasure hidden above!

Though getting up onto the block will be tricky as they're relatively tiny and he keeps overshooting them. Plus I think he must be a bit rusty at platforming as he makes a loud squeak with every jump. The guy needs to get his moon boots oiled.

There you go, lots of crescent moons up in the sky! What they do though, I have no idea. Maybe I can spend them, maybe they're like Sonic's rings, maybe collecting 100 gets me an extra life, I really don't know. But I'm grabbing them all anyway.

I also found a micro-map-making unit that plugs into my rockets navi-system to open up new routes! Or at least that's what the message box said when I walked into it.

So the crescent moons aren't like Sonic's rings then. I've also learned that my health is measured in fish, I've discovered that spike pits aren't an instant kill, and I've solved the mystery of where my cheese ended up.

I hate it when games let you build speed like this and then immediately punish you for it. I want to cut loose when I'm on a hill, not continually fight momentum so I can proceed cautiously.

I've finally found my first enemy, right next to the stage exit. So I used my licence to kill and ended him with a single punch. He's a cheeseminer flooding the market with cheap products, I had to use my maximum lethal response.

The combat's a bit strange in this as I hold down the attack button to get into a combat stance first, then tap left or right to throw a punch in that direction. The game's encouraging me to stand in a rat's patrol route and wait for him to walk into my fist.

Wait, this badge doesn't say "licence to kill", it says "licensed to gill"! That's weird, why would I need a licence for that? Wow, now I feel a bit concerned about all that killing I've been doing. Oh whatever, we're on the moon, who cares?

I took this from the Amiga CD32 port's animated intro, then cleaned it up a bit to make it slightly legible. Weirdly the promo animation on the CD32's version of RoboCod does a much better job of setting up the plot, as it's a prequel with Pond doing recon on Dr. Maybe's moon base while still in his RoboCop armour. This on the other hand just shows him posing and dodging enemies.

By the way, James Pond works for the secret organisation F.I.5.H which is why the game's sometimes called 'Operation Starfi5h' with a 5 instead of an S. In game it's always 'Starfish', but the box art says 'Starfi5h'.
This communication beacon exit at the end looks really familiar, though the exit poles in RoboCod were penguin-activated, while this needs me to put my fist through it before I can leave the stage.

I'm actually starting to miss RoboCod's overt product placement a little now, it was just so gleefully shameless. They could've at least had me going around collecting Typhoo Tea cups or something.

Speaking of cups, I walked up to give the pole a smack and noticed the fourth and final teacup sitting nearby. Collecting it completely filled up the cup icon up on my HUD, giving me... nothing as I far as I can tell.

Oh there you go, four teacups got me a massive 20,000 points! So it seems safe to ignore them from now on then. I was promised plain sailing!

At least the micro-map-making unit paid off, opening up a second path on the world map. Another clue that this is a post-Super Mario World James Pond game.

So now I can either go north to Camembert Camonbert Canyon, or east to East of Edam. I'm assuming that the obvious path is also the easiest, but I'm curious so I'm going to check out the secret level instead.


SECRET LEVEL 1: CAMONBERT CANYON.


They put an exploding chick right at the start of the level for me to stumble into!

He looked harmless, so I thought I could lift him up and I dunno, throw him at someone maybe. But nope, he was a proximity bomb and now he's a pair of smoking boots. Such a tragic senseless waste... he could've at least taken out a few of those creepy flowers!

Well that's cool, turns out the rats have got themselves a tank which fires off egg shells and can't be jumped on. Also the eggs hatch to reveal exploding chicks, so that's a short sad life-cycle these things have. Maybe every 1 in 1000 hatches into another tank, I dunno.

RoboCod gave James Pond cars and planes of his own to ride around in, but here he's on his own it seems, so I decided to leap over the tank and make a run for it. I eventually found a way up onto the cheese platforms in the background and then doubled back the way I came to find more platforms above them.

I didn't find a checkpoint though, so when I got Pond killed trying to fist-fight an armoured rat I found myself right back at the start again.

Whoa, what the hell was that thing? They nailed me with an ambush!

Well at least now that I've lost all my lives they'll probably let me out of the level to try the other path instead. They can't be cruel enough to force me to continue on the same stage forever.

Wait, there's no continues at all? I get a few lives and that's it? I severely underestimated their cruelty.

On the bright side, I'm free to try the bottom route instead. Just as soon as I've completed level one again.


LEVEL 2: EAST OF EDAM.


Oh damn, that’s an interesting trick; seems Pond does have a gimmick in this after all. I wonder what happens when I jump when I’m upside down though. Oh, he just falls off. Well that makes sense.

Hey I just realised that it's playing music from the original James Pond game right now! That's an authentic tune by VG music legend Richard Joseph... just like every other track in this game. I have to say that I'm a little disappointed by it though. They've made a Flash Gordon spoof but this soundtrack sounds nothing like Queen.


MEANWHILE, ON THE AMIGA...


Amiga CD32
What the shit...

I came across a mysterious portal, jumped in and it took me to a hidden product placement zone! Oh Penguin Bars, I missed you. Plus this place is loaded with hit point fish and extra life hearts, it's awesome. Shame I can't find it on the other consoles.

The game skipped the ageing Amiga 500, but Amiga gamers did get AGA and CD32 ports and they're virtually identical to each other, with superior music compared to the Mega Drive original, but inferior backgrounds. Though if you're playing on a computer with a one button joystick you're stuck using 'up' to jump and the space bar to toggle run. Combine that with lightning fast Sonic level design and you've got a recipe for absolute despair.


LEVEL 3: PARMESAN PLAINS.


I've temporarily upgraded my moon boots with springs to enhance my jump to the point where I'm hitting my head on the invisible ceiling of the level, which is cool. Plus I've found a restart pole, so the game actually does have checkpoints!

Trouble is that the checkpoint exploded a few seconds after I crossed, taking my springs out in the blast. To be fair a message box came up saying "move back, she's gonna blow," but I didn't think it was actually going to hurt me, because... why would it?

The level's a little different on the CD32 version, as when I took to the skies again I ended up falling into a surprise instant-death bottomless pit, which definitely/probably wasn't there in the SNES game. It kind of explains the checkpoint though. Turns out that I have to use the spring boots to jump over, but to make it all the way across I have to be bouncing too high to see the gap that I'm jumping across, or to even tell how far I've jumped. And there's a second bottomless pit after it to catch me out if I overshoot.


MEANWHILE, ON THE SEGA MEGA DRIVE...


Sega Mega Drive
Hang on, is this another different level layout? I don't remember ever falling into a pit and getting run over by a car on the Amigas or in the SNES version. I guess I'm supposed to use the dynamite to blow him up (seeing as I can't make it up the walls without a clear run up) but that's tricky with his momentum. Plus the Mega Drive version flies like a rocket, it's really bloody fast (relatively speaking), so it's hard to make precise moves.

So it seems like the Amiga levels are a lot like the original Mega Drive levels, but not quite the same. And the SNES gets the gist of them right but likes to do its own thing.


LEVEL 4: GRATER GRUYERE.



I found myself a fruit gun! Apples are healthier than fists so I have to shoot even the wimpiest of rodents a couple of times, but they're infinite and they get the job done in the end. It's better than trying to land my boots on the tiny rat bastards.

Though I'll have to figure out how to drop the thing before I can wreck the exit pole, as apples just don't cut it. Usually I'll just throw an item away but the throw button's been turned into the shoot button. I'll work it out.


MEANWHILE, ON THE GAME GEAR...


Sega Game Gear
I was expecting this Game Gear version to basically be its own thing that mimics the console game but is dramatically worse in every department. And yep, that's what it is. They did quite well with the visuals, but it didn't take me long to discover that this plays like ass.

Though it does have one saving grace. When I collected a 1-up, the screen when black and a message appeared saying:
"It's a life Jim, but not as we know it..."

LEVEL 5: GOUDA GULLY.


C'mon you lousy box, break open already.

It's no good, I'm going to need something explosive to get this crate open. Like a stick of TNT maybe. I'll just have to leave it for now and see what else is going on. Levels are rarely straight forward in this so I bet there's something I'm missing.

There you go, there's islands in the sky with switches controlling the inner walls. Shame I headbutted the wrong switch first and opened up the floor instead, so no teacups for me.

Though there is another way up, demonstrated here by Amiga James Pond.

See, someone left a perfectly good working TV here. Sure it turns the world grey when I pick it up, but how often do you pick a TV up anyway? I will need to carry it for a bit though to pull off my scheme, as it's haunted by a mean poltergeist that gets freed when I drop it. And then drop it again, and again... I really have to beat the hell out of this screen to wake the spirit. But once he's out I can jump on his head and ride him directly upwards into the sky!

But there is a horrible cost to riding the ghostivator: it subtracts some points from my score every time I jump on him. The amount of fucks I give about this is... well it's incalculably insignificant. Bit weird though.

Anyway I didn't use the ghost in the end, I just glided over to the exit on an umbrella like Mary Poppins, if she looked and smelled like a fish.

Whu? What the hell kind of password's that?

Did they really expect players to get out some notepaper and write 'gold pickaxe, gold flower, gold cake, gold milk bottle, gold rocket, gold PC, gold blob creature, gold mushroom, gold spanner, green sweet, gold PC, gold rocket, gold milk bottle, gold car, gold blob creature, gold sweet, gold cheese, green skull, gold rocket, gold bomb, dark blue teeth, red umbrella'?

Because that's a lot to note down!

Still, at least it didn't pull a Castlevania and make players draw out a grid.

Uh? I tried to start the next level and this message came up telling me that there's no entry until I come back with a friendly frog. It's a bit frustrating as it doesn't figure on filling me in on where I might find the F.I.5.H. agent, so now I've got to fly back through former stages I thought I was finished with to fetch this Finnius fucker.

Fortunately it is letting me backtrack and revisit previous levels so this isn't a 'restart and try again' situation, though I'm not seeing any clues on this map indicating what stages have things left to grab in them.


LATER.


I've completed a couple of secret levels now, but still no frog. I did find another micro-map-making unit though, so now I've got a secret path leading from this secret level to somewhere double secret. If I was on the moon and I had to hide a frog from a possibly cybernetic secret agent fish, that's totally where I'd put him.

Oh c’mon! Seriously? I've been frog blocked again.


SECRET LEVEL, UH, 4.1? CAERPHILLY STEPPES.


I continued down the secret path looking for Finnius and it hasn't been all that difficult so far. In fact on this stage I can pretty much just run right to the exit without any problem. Well except for the exit being locked.

In RoboCod I'd have to hunt down and collect a certain number of penguins to get out, but on this stage I need to first activate the beacon with a clearance code before I de-activate it. Can't break a thing that's broken after all. The thing is, it's a teacup code, which means I need to grab all the cups, and they're either up in the sky above this question mark block, or down underneath those cheese bricks. Or both. And I can't get to them.

I threw my umbrella to form a mid-air platform, but when I got up I discovered that I'd need another umbrella jump to get to the next platform and I didn't have one... I'd thrown it. After a while I gave up and used the pause menu to quit out, but it turns out that it only lets me restart the level. I'm stuck here until it's solved or I turn the game off.

Oh duh, I can use the cake on this other block as a step! Then I glide over, jump up using the umbrella as a platform, grab the dynamite from the platforms above, and throw it at the cheese bricks below just before it explodes in my hand! It's all so easy, except for the part where I do it.

James, mate, are you even trying to land on that star block? Because it looks to me like you're just wasting my fucking time here.

Well there wasn't a frog there either. I've completed every stage available to me now, secret or otherwise, and I remain frogless.

You know what's really annoying though, aside from the fact that I can't harvest lives from completed levels? I could get a game over at any moment and have to redo everything I've done after getting that password. The game really needs proper battery backed up saves, like its idol Super Mario World. Or like the Amiga versions.

Actually what's really annoying is that I resorted to checking a walkthrough and when that didn't help I started scanning through YouTube videos, and I still have no idea where to go. Seems that no one wants to tell me where this wayward frog is.


MUCH LATER, BACK AT GOUDA GULLY (THE TNT BOX STAGE).


Aha, I knew that if I flicked the switches in the right order I could get hold of some dynamite then switch off the floor, drop down and blow up the TNT crate! Now all these crescent moons are mine; I only have to grab another 948 of them to get an extra life! Yep every other platformer ever made gives you a life for getting 100 coins, but this goes the extra mile and then some.

Hang on, is that green blob creature flipping me off? Fuck you too pal! I break you out and steal your moons and this is the thanks I get? Hey, I don't suppose you've seen... a green... frog looking... thing... THAT'S THE FUCKER I'M LOOKING FOR! That's a frog flipping me the bird down there, not a blob! It's my buddy Finnius, the key I need to get me through to the next part of the game. I'm finally making progress again!

Where do I find Finnius Frog in James Pond 3: Operation Starfish? Under the TNT crate in Gouda Gully. - That's for the next person who gets stuck and tries searching Google for help.


LEVEL 6: HOT CUSTARD SPRINGS.


Well I've left cheese world behind and moved onto the custard zone, but I won't be getting much further until I figure out how to get up this wall. I bet the frog could make this jump, but I haven't found any way to switch yet, so I'm kind of stuck again.

I'm going to check YouTube again because there must be something obvious I'm missing here.

All I needed was a simple umbrella jump! In fact Finnius Frog wasn't needed at all on this stage after all that work I put in to get him.

Also it's cool that the designer took inspiration from the Sonic and Mario games, but it would've been nice if he'd ripped off the bit where Sonic can roll into a ball and kill enemies, because I'm sure getting sick of accidentally running into them. That didn't actually happen here, the monster stopped right at my face, turned around and slithered away, but it's annoying when it does happen.


MEANWHILE, BACK ON THE CD32...


Amiga CD32
What the hell kind of level design is this?

I get the feeling that an umbrella jump is the key to this problem as well, but no matter how many times I tried I just couldn't pull it off. Well okay I only tried twice, but after that I was done with it. I've still got my save if I ever want to come back here and throw myself into boiling custard again sometime.

Of course it could be that I need to change into the frog to get past this, it was pretty adamant that I find him, but in that case maybe give me a frog box not an umbrella box! (I don't know if the game has frog boxes).

I've unlocked three exits this time! I must be amazing at this game. The Cheese Tower's locked though so I'm heading east to Chicken Surprise. I need to hold on just a little longer so I can get the next password, then I can turn the game off.


LEVEL 9: CHICKEN SURPRISE.


The surprise is that it's a boss fight? I kind of figured there'd be one coming along sooner or later.

It's not going well so far though, as they've given me a gun but the apples aren’t working! I need a new strategy. There must be something else here can I throw at it.

Are these weird flowers something I can use or just creepy distractions?

Hmm, there's blue blob creatures on the platform above so I'll try throwing one of them over. Maybe they hit harder than an apple.

SOLVED IT!

Wait, ah fuck… that really was a surprise. He’s a phoenix rising from the custard! So this would be the time to run for the apple gun, huh? I'm running for the apple gun.

Quit punching air and pick up the damn... crap,

Well I had a good run, kind of. At least I can say that I know what the boss fights are like now.

Well at least it remembered my password... from ages ago.

By the way there's a secret here, at least on the Mega Drive version, where if you leave it on long enough a little mouse comes along and hugs the cheese cursor.

I wish I could like this game even half as much as he loves that cheese.


CONCLUSION

James Pond 3: Operation Starfish hasn't been the highlight of my week so far, but honestly I was bracing myself for worse. I remembered this game being a real pain in the ass, but it was only a moderate pain in the ass and there's a reason for that: I was remembering the Amiga AGA version, with its nightmare controls exacerbating the bullshit level design.

Maybe I'm being a bit harsh there, but when a game covers its levels with slopes and then punishes you for running, there's a problem there. It's like a blend of Sonic the Hedgehog and Super Mario World put together by an Amiga developer and that sounded great to me up to the point where I tried to get James Pond to jump up and land on a damn block. There's no time limits and that's good because you need a might need a lot of patience to get up into those secret stashes in the sky. And you need to collect a lot of crescent moons from them before you get anything for your trouble. 1000 per life.

The game might be stingy with the lives, but you don't seem to get any continues at all. Passwords (on the console versions) and saves (on the Amiga) take some of the sting off, but they're infrequent and awkward. Which is a shame as the game is bloody huge and it'd be nice to have the option to turn it off at any point and come back to it later. There's over 100 levels here and you can replay them to find secrets, so it didn't even need to be bastard hard to last a while.

Trouble is that I didn't much want to replay the levels as I wasn't enjoying them much the first time. They're all cold and alien looking, with yellow land, blobby purple backgrounds and grim inky blackness for the sky, and everyone there's an asshole. You can take enemies down by jumping on them, punching them, shooting them with fruit guns, blowing them up, or even throwing cheese at them, but I didn't find a way to have fun while I was doing it. They were less an obstacle course to negotiate and more a series of roadblocks placed to trip me up.

But you'll get a slightly different experience depending on what version you play:
  • The original Mega Drive game has (relatively) crap music quality, good graphics, decent controls, blinding speed, passwords and a high level of bullshit in its level design.
  • The Amiga versions have great music quality, no parallax backgrounds, saves instead of passwords and similar levels to the Mega Drive game. Also playing it with a one-button joystick will transport you to a dimension of anti-fun.
  • The Game Gear version does its own thing. Its own thing is bad.
  • The SNES version sounds good, looks good, has good controls, uses passwords, and many of the levels I played had been redesigned to make them fairer. Also there's a voice clip of your boss saying "Good luck Pond," before each level, while the other versions get "We're depending on you Pond". Which is weird. Maybe they swap them around on later levels, I dunno.
So overall it's not the worst platformer in the world by a long shot, it may not even be a step down from RoboCod, but I don't see myself going for a rematch against Surprise Chicken. Those 14 small levels I played were enough for me.


This week's 'next game' clue might seem tricky at first, but if you've played it and you can't figure it out you'll be kicking yourself when you get the answer.

If you want take a guess at what the next game is, or tell me that I'm wrong about James Pond 3, or say nice things about my site, or whatever, you can leave a comment in the box below! It has many uses. Though if you want to give me money you'll have to use the 'donate' button up on the right near the top instead. I apologise for this inconvenience.

6 comments:

  1. I don't know what the next game is, but that graphic style looks LucasArtsy. I'm probably wrong.

    I loved RoboCod but I don't think I played this one at all. I seem to remember it getting a bunch of 70% scores in the magazines at the time and like an idiot I took 70% to mean "rubbish" rather than "above average". It looks like the magazines were overestimating the quality of the game, so perhaps it's for the best.

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    1. Robocod was great back then, but i tried it about 10 years ago and found it immensely dull. It hasn't aged well at all. I never played JP3, but magazines at the time panned it.

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  2. No, you are absolutely right about the graphics style, Kelvin ;)

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  3. Day of the Tentacle.

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    Replies
    1. Yeah, it's the extremely LucasArtsy Day of the Tentacle.

      Delete
  4. I'm surprised you liked the SNES music more than the Mega Drive, I thought the SNES version sounded dreadful, honestly!

    I loved this game as a kid but replaying it as an adult... it's got some flaws to say the least.

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