Review: James Pond (Atari ST)

https://i0.wp.com/www.atarimania.com/st/boxes/hi_res/james_pond_-_underwater_agent_millennium_d7.jpg?w=782
James Pond going cheep (that would work better in a bird-themed game…)

ST Format Review

ST Format gave the game a fairly positive review

My Review

Welcome to another games review in the ST Format challenge. Today we’re taking a review from ST Format Issue 17.

Equipment

  • MiSTer box running the Atari ST Core – 1MB STE running TOS 1.62
  • Automation Menu Disk 321
  • Speedlink USB Joystick
Another Automation intro – non-Brits might not understand the reference

We now find ourselves in the territory of games that were a little bit slicker than the early years – the kind of games that would eventually come to define the later 16-bit years, where graphics and sound were polished and recognisable mascots fronted games – a trend which would reach it’s home computer zenith with Zool. Visually the game is an absolute treat, opening with a playful riff on the MGM lion roar and continuing through to a game which takes its underwater setting and runs with it. The various species are beautifully drawn and well-animated, and during the action the music feels fairly appropriate for a spy thriller.

A playful homage to the MGM lion

The game itself is reasonably straightforward – it’s a side-scrolling.. I hesitate to say platform game because James floats, what with him being underwater, but structurally it’s a platform game, just one with rather free and easy movement. That could have been terrible, no doubt, but the developers did a reasonably good job of creating tight spaces to navigate and enough enemies to deal with to make your escape fairly trisky.

Emerging from the pipe like Mario, but this is a very different kind of platformer. Here I have 3 lives left and have rescued 0 of the 6 lobsters. I need to collect the key (down and fire) and run into the caged lobsters to free them.

Your task varies from level to level, but usually consists of saving or collecting a number of things. The count is shown on the panel at the bottom of the screen, next to the timer – the top number represents the things to save/collect and the bottom represents how many you’ve managed. On the opening level for instance you’re looking for keys (the control for picking them up is somewhat unweildy with the expectation that you press down and fire simultaneously – this does not always work) with which to free lobsters before a diver reaches them. You can see a boat on the surface with a diver jumping out and making his way to capture the lobsters. On another level there’s an oil rig which needs to be dealt with, so you pick up sticks of dynamite and drop them at the base of the rig (surely that would cause oil to spill everywhere – and should we be encouraging terrorism in a kids game?).

Just to show I’m not completely incompetent

Another level sees you escorting fish to the exit pipe, though the fish are really quite ugly and it’s not immediately obvious that this is the goal. One of the things that takes a little getting used to if you’re still in the modern gaming mindset where things tend to be laid out on screen with arrows to follow, tutorial levels and being told not to leave the game area, is that these older games are sometimes a little obtuse about what they expect of you. We’ve had F-29 Retaliator for instance where mission briefings were not in the game but instead in the manual, and the same is the case here. Reading the manual we find the requirements for each mission, with the tasks getting trickier each time, with the collectables being found futher away from the dropzones in more inhospitable locations. One nice touch is that the levels have suitably bond-themed names like For Your Fins Only, A View To A Spill, The Mermaid Who Loved Me, etc.

Avoid the radioactive waste, trap the snail in bubbles. I only have one life left.

While mostly slick, there are of course a few small technical things to consider. Compared to the Amiga’s sampled sounds for instance the chip music isn’t anywhere near as impressive, nor is it as clearly Bond-themed in the pre-game screens (the Amiga version sails pretty close to the wind legally tbh). Also of note – the Amiga version does actually provide instructions about what you’re expected to do, where the ST version does not (perhaps they thought ST owners were smarter than Amiga owners). The scrolling is not bad by ST standards, but not great, and curiously the Amiga version is similar. While it moves around as you’d expect, there seems to be a jerkiness to it that I can’t quite put my finger on, almost as if the scroll is lagging behind the action on some level and then rushes to catch up.

This is your fishy home complete with satellite TV dish – the ultimate status symbol in the early 90s.

The Verdict

I had a good time playing it, though I can’t be sure how much of that was childhood nostalgia. Clearly the art work for the game is a big part of the game’s identity – mechanically it’s decent and fairly well thought-out but not outstanding, but visually it does rather stand out from the crowd. It’s a shame that more wasn’t done on the audio side – Jumping Jack’Son showed that the ST can be made to do some cool things on that side, so it could have been a little closer to the Amiga, but alas we get chip music.

If you don’t rescue the cuddly pink fish they turn into the fanged menaces shown here.

Clearly a game is not defined solely by the quality of its graphics, nor solely by its gameplay. A game can attain greatness with poor graphics and amazing gameplay, but we should recognise that well-designed art and sound can elevate an average game by investing the player in that game. This is clearly such a case, and the result is an enjoyably jolly experience, a game that doesn’t take itself terribly seriously but will generally give you a good time.

But if you do find a cuddly pink fish it’ll happily follow you to the exit pipe

Resources
Manual: https://segaretro.org/images/e/e6/James_Pond_MD_US_Manual.pdf

Yes I’m a child. Still, not quite as fun when you have so much room to swear. My finest work remains Xenon 2 with only 3 letters,

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