Is it a Bond? Hmm, kind of. Is it a RoboCop? Yeah, sort of… ish. It’s Robocod! He’s part underwater secret agent, part armoured crime-fighter, all puntastic mud-skipper. You could look upon it as a cunning way of producing two movie tie-in games in one, side-stepping the whole costly business of forking out for a license, even if the resulting hybrid gumbo is an absurd parody. Gary Bracey must have choked on his morning coffee when he read that preview!
Robocod is the short-awaited consoley cute-em-up sequel to the 1990 platforming romp splash hit, James Pond, developed by Vectordean Ltd and Millennium Interactive for the Amiga, Atari ST, Acorn Archimedes and Sega Mega Drive.
In the first outing, James’ mission, should he have chosen to accept it (spoiler: he did) was to clean up the toxic, radioactive waste dumped in the ocean by the odious super-duper-mega-villain, Dr Maybe, plug the holes in leaking oil tankers (particularly disconcerting as Maybe didn’t even have a ‘License to Spill’!), and liberate a ‘risk’ of lobsters from incarceration (that’s the collective noun for them, I looked it up; not that I’m fishing for compliments). It was well-received, though where it flounders is that it plays like a fish in water, and as everyone who has ever played a computer game knows, water-themed levels are always the most tedious, frustrating ones. You persevere with them because you know as soon as you re-emerge and towel off, the game will get exponentially better.
Millennium were clearly on the same soggy page; in the sequel, 99.99% of the game takes place on dry land and as a result it’s far more fun to play. That said, if you yearn to play ye olde James Pond, you can revisit the first level by sinking into the titanic tub found in the bathroom level.
Cue the return of Pond’s arch Nemo-sis, Dr Maybe. Destroying the environment is so last year, and thus 1991 becomes the stage for an all-new nefarious conspiracy; this time the shellfish old codger intends to ruin Christmas for the world’s sprogs by hijacking Santa’s North Pole based toy factory and sabotaging the toys due for immediate dispatch.
An undisclosed number of them have been rigged with explosive devices and disguised as cute, huggable penguins. Although I’m no expert, this sounds suspiciously like terrorism, and we all know that’s bad because we’ve declared war on this adjective and persist in launching torpedoes at it. F.I.5.H. – the super underwater espionage unit – agree, and have once again called upon our eponymous aquatic hero to save the day.
The Fish With the Golden Pun accepted this mission too; Millennium & Co. made a game all about it. Your goal is to infiltrate the toy factory, track down the dirty bombs and disarm them before they can dislodge any limbs. This will be no cake-walk as the Doc has reprogrammed the toys to attack any intruders, giving him thinking time to cobble together his ransom demands. At this stage we are not made aware of his motives; he may be hell-bent on popping kid’s Bubbles of Hope (TM) just for the halibut. Who does he think he is, the Codfather?
Here’s where the story begins to get a bit muddled. In the animated intro, the stars of a series of vintage McVitie’s Penguin biscuit commercials sum up the situation with the following synopsis…
“Something fishy is afoot in the Arctic… (aside from penguins being spotted in the North Pole I presume they mean!)
Alvin… Dr Maybe has captured the toys!
Murray… And he has kidnapped our friends.
…Only RoboCod can help us now…
He must rescue the penguins… And defeat Dr Maybe!”
What makes the penguins think any of their friends have been captured in the first plaice? The ones to have been tampered with are actually inanimate toys camouflaged as lovable penguins according to the game’s manual. Didn’t Alvin and Murray bother to take a roll call? We used to do this every morning and afternoon in school. Nestling error there!
Should you kick the bucket, another cut-scene divulges their intention to turn our intrepid explorer into a breakfast platter of smoked kipper. So they’re clueless and savages! ‘Happy Feet’ was a bare-faced lie!
Nevertheless, Christmas just ain’t Christmas without firing up James Pond 2 for a spot of retro platforming action. It’s as much a part of the festive routine as the annual re-watching of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ or listening to Wham, Slade and Wizzard. Remember though, a Robocod isn’t just for Christmas; they need regular TLC and stretches throughout the year.
Luckily for us our fishy saviour has evolved between missions and is now sporting a fetching, turbot-charged, cybernetic Go-Go-Gadget-style expand-o-suit, allowing him to stretch his midriff indefinitely to reach overhead platforms.
Position yourself correctly and he’ll grip onto their underside and reel in his legs saving a great deal of clenched-teeth precision jumping.
It also comes in very handy when your only option is to shimmy across a pit of lethal spikes.
For any scientists out there who are wondering, it’s this same suit that makes it possible for him to breathe out of water. Clever!
Your tin can togs also feature a defensive shield powered by batteries. With each hit you lose one and become more vulnerable, though your supply can be replenished by collecting stars. The state of your health is represented by a fishunculus (see what I did there?) in the bottom left of the game’s HUD.
Your remaining lives are indicated by the number of fingers held up, and your energy by the number of battery cells precariously balanced in Pond’s other hand. As you absorb damage, your facial features pucker up in a grimace of pain until Pond can take no more and you croak. A similar mechanism was implemented in Ocean’s Batman in 1989, though it was still a welcome novelty here. Batman also featured a penguin, and… I don’t have the foggiest Scooby-Doo where I was going with this… perhaps it’s a red herring.
Given that potential danger lies around every corner, Pond’s ability to extend his viewing scope slightly is a welcome new tool. You do this by holding down the fire button and moving the joystick in a particular direction. The ability to plan ahead with these sneak-peak vignettes helps you avoid making leaps of faith and will save your flippers on many occasions.
While Pond doesn’t have any weapons per se, you can accentuate the damage he is able to inflict by pulling down on the joystick as you pounce on a baddy causing him to contract into his ‘roboball’ manoeuvre. An added benefit of taking up this position is that you are immediately less vulnerable to mistimed head-stomps or collision hit-box anomalies.
While GTA is credited with teaching us that vehicles make perfectly adequate substitutes for weapons if you’re caught short, Robocod got there first, six years earlier. You can hop inside a Noddy car, pilot a biplane or (steer?) a bathtub. Once cocooned in any one of these vehicles, ramming anything in your path will snuff it out of existence instantly, and allow you to move around the labyrinthine levels much more rapidly, or reach areas you wouldn’t otherwise be able to on fin.
Each vehicle comes with its own unique change of wardrobe. Sit in the car and a cap appears on your bonce. Pilot the plane and goggles and a scarf take their place, while taking a soak in the bath conjures up a bathing cap. It’s these neat, humorous touches that set Robocod apart from the crowd of lazy production-line platformers that littered the shelves of WH Smith at the time… except it was John Menzies back then of course, and Snickers were Marathon bars.
The difficulty curve is mostly a smooth horizontal line with a few blips along the way indicating the forced-scrolling stages that can really test your reflexes, and patience. If you’re not on the ball you can easily miss a pixel-perfect jump and be squished between the edge of the screen and an overly tall obstacle. While these are tough, the game rewards you with plenty of extra lives in the form of collectable golden ankhs, and energy batteries, which look like stars for no apparent reason. Chris bought a job lot for his Christmas card making project that year and had plenty left over?
The umbrella power-up can be used to slow down aerial free-falls, allowing you to land more accurately, or collect airborne artefacts which otherwise you’d whizz by too swiftly to snag.
Collecting a suit of armour confers invulnerability for a limited period of time, while the wings (or a dodgy centrally-parted ’90s hairdo a la Duncan of PJ and Duncan fame?) can be used to skip precarious platform-hopping sections entirely, or sail right past baddies you’d normally have to clear from your path.
Couple these with the odd life-saving way-point and completing the game becomes more an exercise in perseverance than genuine l33t mad skillz, especially given there’s no opportunity to save your progress in the Amiga versions when played on original hardware.
In addition to the helpful performance-tweaking power-ups, unfortunately, there is an over-abundance of collectable tat that serves no loftier function than to rack up a bloated high score. Points definitely don’t make prizes here, and this isn’t Magic Pockets after all.
Our insatiable fishy friend is forever gorging himself on junk food, and yet there’s no handy diabetes-o-meteor (that’s a pun for the next JP game, not a typo! – I was told to stop carping on about fish!) in sight to predict an impending hyperglycaemic attack. Where’s the social responsibility, eh?
Kill or collect virtually everything in your path and you can expect to tip the scale at ten million points, merely for the hake of it!
Numerous gaming tropes have seemingly been lifted from the granddaddy of platform games, Mario, despite Robocod having been a long way down the development pipeline before Chris discovered the SNES and Super Mario World. For instance, you can head-butt blocks from beneath to dislodge power-ups, useful transport or even the odd curve-ball enemy or poison potion that will deplete your energy by one hit point. And what is it with early platformers and anthropomorphic, oversized bullets or canons?
Your means of dispatching enemies is another braying elephant in the room. The old faithful head-bounce is so intrinsically linked to Mario it’s a wrench to play the game without that catchy 8-bit ditty chirping away at the back of your mind. Still, I suppose it was an excellent way of disabling nasties without resorting to graphic violence of any kind so would have passed the Nanny State test. The ESRB wasn’t founded until 1994, and PEGI in 2003, though that didn’t seem to stop independent meddlers sticking their oar in prior to this.
One game that captured Chris’s imagination in particular as a fledgeling teenage console gamer was ‘Mickey Mouse: Castle of Illusion’, and its influence is lucidly apparent in Robocod.
The bouncy, perky feel-good animation and catchy soundtrack is distinctly Disney in spirit. It’s bright, colourful and positively brimming with personality, charm and warmth. The springy, murderous pot plant especially puts me in mind of Fantasia, although I don’t recall that specifically being a Disney character in anything at all.
If it wasn’t for the tongue-in-cheek, absurdist, wry wit, it might have turned off the older kids who were looking for something a bit edgier than whatever the parent-friendly Mouse-House had to offer.
The unbridled level of imagination (a sentient, walking Bertie Bassett is even in there, Bertie Bassett people!!!) is so, like, totally random… in a teenage Valley-Cali girl world where ‘random’ means zany, kooky and not at all RANDOM by the dictionary definition of the word. That would just be insulting to Chris and Steve Bak who spent an eternity blueprinting the visuals, coding and plotting out the landscapes respectively. Is there space here for a lame joke about platforms made of Liquorice Allsorts and eye candy? No? Hoki, moving on…
You begin your quest at the base of Santa Claus’s tower swathed in wind-swept snowflakes that flit one way then the other in rapid succession. Each door leads to one of nine themed worlds; sports, games, bath-time, confectionery, circus, music and so on.
How you progress is somewhat linear in that you have to attempt them in the right order; the subsequent door in the sequence is unlocked once you have successfully tackled the one prior to it thanks to a glitch in Dr Maybe’s short-circuiting security system. Apparently it wasn’t designed to be operated under the Arctic’s sub-zero temperatures.
There are 70 levels altogether and 4 bosses to vanquish before reaching Dr Maybe’s loose-headed, jumbo snowman suit of doom. Each of the levels are completed by collecting a prerequisite number of penguins. The magic number is anyone’s guess, but you’ll know when you’ve reached your target because the beacons perched on top of the barber’s pole exit point will flash indicating that it’s open for business. Not that I’d bet my aquarium on it; you have to beware of the fake exits that will dump you right back at square one, forcing you to re-trace your steps from scratch. There’s no way of telling which are which, you just have to learn through trial and error and memorise their positions for take 2.
Complicating matters further is the oppor-tuna-ty to choose your exit from a range of options. At the end of one level there are four in fact, and only one represents the correct path.
Less conspicuous exits, those you have to deliberately go out of your way to locate, tend to lead to secret bonus stages plastered with power-ups and other collectables, so it’s always worth skipping by any exits that seem to want to make your journey too easy.
Variety (and therefore longevity) is one thing that sets the bar for platform games owing to their tendency to fall foul of formulaic level design and repetitive game-play. Robocod trampolines over it with ease and doesn’t stop to look back. There are several forced-scroll stages where haste is of the essence if you want to avoid being turned into fish paste. The most memorable takes place on top of a speeding train; you must traverse its length from back to front while low-flying harriers swoop down to lance you with their sneering noses. You’ll be left breathless if you’re lucky enough to duck-leap-duck-leap your way to safety without losing your footing.
Another diverse bonus stage sees you attempting to get your head around the world being turned upside down, literally. Your controls remain static so up is down and down is up until you reach the end of the level where normality is restored. Thankfully it’s a deliberately stunted level with minimal obstacles given that you’ve got enough to cope with without added complexity.
Not wacky enough for you? Try the jelly level. You’ll never guess what the springy, wobbling platforms consist of. The mounds function like a bouncy castle allowing you to catapult yourself a squillion miles into the clouds, assuming vertigo doesn’t get the better of you. You can boing your way into orbit, go and make a cup of tea, solve the Rubik’s Cube and still be back in time to grab the joystick before touching base. If that’s not discombobulating enough for you, try repeating the process upside down. You don’t have to be crazy to work here… but it helps.
Exploration and discovery is Robocod’s middle name (it’s double-barrelled, he’s posh like that), so don’t skimp on scrutinizing every last nook and (bus-evicted) granny or you’ll regret it when you finish the game and you’ve only seen a fraction of its delights.
If there’s a ledge that seems to serve no porpoise, jump on it and push against the ‘solid’ wall to see where it might lead. If there’s an eel-ly big vat of icing with an open top, leap in it headfirst. If you see a colossal tub on the bathroom stage, dive right in. You never know, it might just take you to a pixel-for-pixel recreation of the first level of the original James Pond game, should you wish to take a dip. Anything’s possible.
Easter eggs abound! I’d make a pun about caviar what with it being sturgeon’s eggs and all, but I fear it would be a bit tenchuous. A roeful idea r-eel-ly.
Early on you can collect a computer which turns the screen black and white for a limited time. In a later bonus stage the backdrop consists of love hearts and on one of these is etched the initials of Chris Sorrell and his then-girlfriend Katie (they are now married and work together).
The ‘Auto 9’ pistol Bond – I mean Robocop – I mean Pond – is seen brandishing on the front cover of the box was inspired by a secret in-game bonus stage. You can find the special weapon in the sports zone if you know where to look.
Tap on the gargantuan ten pin bowling skittle to reveal it is hollow inside. Now caress its contours until you locate the hidden, hinged seam and prise it open. climb inside, grab the source code and use it on the computer terminal next to the golden football trophies.
From your inventory, select the programming expertise, imagination and pixel art prowess, combine them using the Pritt Stick and scissors to form a pulsing, green orb, and then insert it into the computer’s slide-out deposit box.
Hit the big red button labelled, “don’t activate under any circumstances, ever (I mean it)”, wait 10 seconds and the system will begin to gurgle, gargle, vibrate, rotate and then eventually disintegrate releasing a chemical cocktail of dense noxious gases into the ether. When the plumes of unearthly smoke dissipate, a gleaming new Beretta 93R machine pistol wrapped in a bow and gift tag will emerge. This is no ordinary cyborg shooter, it has been heavily modified to incorporate a longer barrel with a stonkin’ great compensator/flash hider shaped like a casket, plastic grips, and a taller rear sight to match the raised front sight.
Take it and shoot stuff thoroughly until it dies dead, as and when the inclination arises. The more you shoot a baddie, the more deaderer it becomes.
You must remember this? It was on GamesMaster way back when.
Dotted about various levels are collectables that look remarkably like jars of baby food. I’d imagine this is a knowing tip of the hat to Robocop, who was forced to subsist on the stuff having been rehabilitated as a cyborg with a limited, soft diet as his only option for sustenance.
The Robocop franchise is harvested to tremendous effect once again in the “nine seconds to comply” continue screen, parodying ED-209’s lines from the debut movie…
(for demonstration, Mr Kinney points a pistol at ED-209)
ED-209: (menacingly) Please put down your weapon. You have twenty seconds to comply.
Dick Jones: I think you’d better do what he says, Mr Kinney.
(Mr Kinney drops the pistol on the floor. ED-209 advances, growling)
ED-209: You now have fifteen seconds to comply.
(Mr Kinney turns to Dick Jones, who looks nervous)
ED-209: You are in direct violation of Penal Code 1.13, Section 9.
(entire room of people in full panic trying to stay out of the line of fire, especially Mr Kinney)
ED-209: You have five seconds to comply.
Kinney: Help…! Help me!
ED-209: Four… three… two… one… I am now authorized to use physical force!
(ED-209 opens fire and shreds Mr Kinney)
End of level bosses are disappointingly absent from James Pond 1. Here they are blinkin’ enormous, and take great satisfaction from sticking two fish fingers up at the mere suggestion the Amiga may have limited processing power!
At the time we were still revelling in that novel phase where sprites had to adopt either one extreme or the other. Who would win in a fight, a nano-army of Lemmings or a humongous BC Kid dinosaur boss? These are the questions that keep me awake at night.
The surreal, cute, but gnarly-grimaced teddy bear and sentient-devil-car (is that you Christine?) guardians are super-sized renditions of enemies you’ve already encountered, except this time round one has been remodelled with a spiked backside, and the other flings mini-me vehicles at you.
Subsequent bosses are less predictable; there’s a double-whammy, mirror-image obese ballerina that has to be destroyed by employing duel Ponds that leap about her lair in tandem.
While the throne-bound Queen of Hearts assailant discharges smirking playing cards onto our protagonist by flicking switches embedded in the arms, with overtones of that notorious cat-fondler, Dr No, from the inaugural James Bond movie.
They may look overbearing at first glance, yet we soon realise that they tend to stick to predetermined patterns of movement, so once you are able to second-guess their next step, they are easy enough to dispatch with a bit of practice.
By teaming up with McVitie’s to promote their “one of the chocolatiest biscuits in the world” Penguin confectionery, Robocod is often credited as being one of the first games to feature product placement, though it all depends which angler you’re looking at it from.
If we are referring to the first appearance of a real-world, commercial product in a video game, then Midway’s 1976 arcade racing game, Datsun 280 ZZZAP, takes that crown. The title makes no attempt to conceal the brand it set out to propagandise, and in 1983, Bally Midway sought to up the ante by marketing Budweiser to kids!
If we take into account celebrity-endorsed sports games or those brandishing billboards, Robocod wasn’t even the first Amiga game to endorse a commercial brand.
Nevertheless, the Penguin brand was an inspired choice in that it was utterly germane to Robocod’s core Arctic theme (erm, assuming you ignore the fact that penguins are found only in the Southern Hemisphere, and mostly near the South Pole, in Antarctica). It was subtle, quirky, humorous and added an extra welcome dimension to the game-play. Other developer’s agreed and it paved the way for the likes of Jaguar XJ220, Cool Spot, Zool, McDonald Land, Global Gladiators, Theme Park, Push Over, One Step Beyond and Superfrog.
If you were paying attention during the games’ opening preamble you will have spotted that the two penguins setting the scene are known as Alvin and Murray.
Totally not even a little bit coincidentally these are also the names given to the talking penguins in McVitie’s early 90s TV commercials.
They depicted the two pals shambling around the Arctic’s ice shelves making mundane, human small-talk in a surreal talking penguin sort of scenario. It was surreal because they were, erm, penguins, and they were, umm, talking. That’s something they don’t normally do, I read it in a science book once.
The exquisite synergy between the boundless talents of Chris Sorrell and Leavon Archer and the ingenuity of the Amiga’s – way ahead of its time – hardware give rise to a stunning array of visual voodoo.
The bright, vibrant, Disney-quality graphics are gorgeous throughout, though where the game really excels is in its employment of the Amiga’s copper chip to produce psychedelic, demo-style parallax scrolling backgrounds. In some of the most striking examples, we witness a transitional cycle of the entire colour spectrum, scrolling all the bitplanes individually from one horizontal scanline to another. It dislodged my Totes slipper-socks at the time, and even now all these years later has the power to make me smile on cue.
In the land of the rubber ducks, translucent, foreground sponge platforms have been superimposed over a background composed of bathroom tiles, and as you criss-cross the stage, what lies beneath is fleetingly revealed and concealed in a lattice framework of visual trickery.
Yes, in essence, what I’m saying is the foreground is see-through. It doesn’t sound like much by today’s standards, but this was 1991 and personally I’d never seen anything like it before. It might be the case that it hadn’t been done before. I’m all out of computer historians at the moment.
The jaw-dropping effects are deftly complemented by witty, inventive mechanics, animation and hand-drawn sprites. In toy land, for instance, one level consists of a giant snakes and ladders board. Stumble into a ladder and you’re beamed up to the next plane, touch a snake and you’ll involuntarily slide down it to the one beneath as if to chastise your carelessness.
Fixed snake-slides aside, the entire scene is populated with the slithering variety transforming it into a deadly ‘Temple of Doom’ style pit.
Similarly, in the confectionery world, some of the floors are constructed from holey Aero bars and you progress up the level by hopping between floating blocks of chocolate.
Better still, there’s another level where you scoot across multi-layered Christmas fruit cake and ascend by way of individual, cherry-topped, iced sponge cakes, all set to a backdrop of red and white candy canes. It’ll charm the pants off you, or at least make you want to ransack a Mr Kipling factory.
As you decline down a steep slope, you rapidly pick up momentum, your fins becoming a blurry smudge of super-human propulsion. Apply the brakes and you skid to a screeching halt equally swiftly, in an animation reminiscent of chase-caper cartoons such as ‘Wile-E-Coyote and The Road Runner’. As if by magic, insta-grin! It’s an involuntary reflex.
When Millennium squeezed so much magic into a half megabyte game like Robocod, it does make you wonder why Ocean struggled so much with working around the Amiga’s processing limitations when coding Addams Family. Both are pure, unadulterated game-play on a stick, yet the latter is a background wasteland, and Robocod is, well, Robocod. Have you been living in a clamshell?
Representing the final part of the dream-team development quartet is the late, great Richard Joseph who provides the audio.
It’s impossible to describe Robocod’s soundtrack without using the words ‘catchy’ and ‘memorable’ yet this doesn’t remotely begin to do it justice; it’s practically an insult to his legacy.
Everything from the Robocop remix parody in the opening credits and the accelerated, synthesised mash-ups of ‘Jingle Bells’ and ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas’ as heard in the bonus sections, to the buoyant, entirely original main game composition, reverberate with sheer class, and pitch-perfect relevance. The music is Robocod; you couldn’t imagine the game without it.
It’s bouncy, perky, jolly and jovial, complimenting Robocod’s jaunty hip wobble swagger and personable nature like Tom’s Jerry or Del Boy’s Rodders. Hell, it’s verging on an acoustic anti-dote to depression.
Anything else this sickly sweet and you’d waste no time encasing it in a block of concrete and burying it 20,000 leagues under the sea. Robocod gets a pass mostly because its acutely tongue-in-cheek and self-aware. It’s no morality tale with a ‘lesson for the day’ finale, it’s Care Bears with fangs. Irreverent fangs, now there’s a thought.
The Amiga edition was the flagship product, and the one favoured by Chris himself who reveals that he had an extra month to fine-tune it owing to pressure to rush out the Mega Drive release.
Pond is agile and the controls tight and responsive, making precision jumping and Sonic-like dashing a breeze once you get the hang of it. The initial OCS/ECS iteration is stunning, and the subsequent Amiga releases served to build upon its solid foundations.
The AGA release was fleshed out with enhanced visuals and beefier acoustics, ramping up the volume to eleventy-stupid. That’s a real setting on my Chinese knock-off stereo, and I can tell you, it’s LOUD! The highlights include a trawler-load more animated, madcap parallax backdrops as seen in the bonus stages and exclusive extra levels.
Unusually for a CD32 port, this release wasn’t simply the floppy version bunged on a CD. It takes the A1200’s AGA code-base and augments it substantially with a full-motion video, cartoony introductory synopsis to set the scene, and a 7 track Red Book CDDA soundtrack.
Sure, the quality of the FMV is ropier than an industrial-strength rope at a rope-pulling championship final, but then this was 1993 and it’s perhaps the best we could expect for the time. If you can look beyond the grainy, whale-sized pixels, the animation itself has an offbeat charisma reminiscent of Danger Mouse, particularly for the hyperbolic, dramatic voice-over as adopted in a typical Colonel K briefing delivery. Millennium even capitalised on the chance to assign one of the joypad’s buttons to the jump function.
Finally, the CD32 outing incorporates a ‘Fi5h Files’ trivia section. This is fundamentally a briefing document issued by your secret service employers detailing the profile’s of Dr Maybe’s henchmen, and a clue as to the antagonist’s motivations for world domination.
There are a few interesting nods towards the series’ future games and even ‘games that weren’t’, though mostly these characters don’t put in an appearance in the present game at all, so skipping it entirely won’t exactly leave you wondering what the flipper is going on if you only own one of the floppy disk-based versions.
The SNES and Mega Drive versions are comparable on the surface, at least in terms of game-play, even though Chris didn’t contribute to the SNES release. The later console ‘ports’ didn’t fare quite so well. Technically these are remakes – shoddy approximations to be honest – containing new graphics, levels and sound. Critically they suffer from the original team’s lack of involvement.
Sound effects have been stripped from the Atari ST version and the backgrounds in the Mega Drive/SNES versions have generally been dumbed down and the game-play diluted. Some aren’t as vibrant as their Amiga counterparts, and the copper effects and parallax motion have been dropped. The SNES version tries hard to recreate the psychedelic backgrounds, though the unfortunate pay-off is that they are too prominent and distracting. In the PlayStation 2 version this is compensated for through use of a darker background palette compared to the foreground.
As a consequence of the SNES’s busy backgrounds, it suffers from frame-drops and stilted fluidity. Curiously, the upside-down levels remain, except they have been flipped over, rendering them ridiculously easy. The SNES game also sports a super-sized score tally that can obscure your view at times. Incidentally, in the ST version, it has been shifted to the lower right of the screen, and any jazzy background effects have largely been omitted. Disappointingly they are anaemically static, the game suffers from a lower frame rate and thus sludgier gameplay.
Robocod was made available for download via the PlayStation Network in 2009, and prior to this in a physical disk format on the PlayStation 1 and 2 in 2003 and 2006 respectively.
These versions feature disparate animated introductory sequences, a password system or auto-save function, and rather than penguins, much like in the Game Boy Advance (2003) and Nintendo DS (2005) releases, you scour the icy milieu for elves in order to activate the exit beacons owing to the expiry of the licensing deal with McVitie’s. The DS version does, however, benefit from the inclusion of a map which occupies the upper screen of the handheld device.
The GBA, DS and PlayStation 2 versions all feature the same brief introductory sequence involving Pond emerging from a hollow, fake snowman with a clandestine telescope for a nose. Having spied Dr Maybe rigging explosives to an elf, he exits the make-shift, camouflaged observatory to begin his mission. The animation style is in harmony with the in-game graphics, and it quickly establishes the plot reasonably well.
The PlayStation 1’s opening animation shares the same general theme, except Pond riding inside the fake snowman is dramatically launched out of a helicopter. Upon touch-down, he explodes from its chest and pulling off his best superman impersonation speeds towards Santa’s castle.
En route, he nonchalantly dispatches a few baddies before disarming the elf-bomb and entering the building. The animation style is reminiscent of the very earliest, amateur flash games; it truly is an abomination!
Despite the enhanced processing muscle of the PlayStation 1 and 2, these releases introduce loading screens, and Robocod’s signature inertia has been rendered null and void. The range of movement found in the Amiga version is also absent, making precision control a chore.
Many of the clever nuances that make Robocod such a joy to behold have been left on the cutting room floor for the remakes. The upside-down and auto-scrolling levels, mirror-image ballerinas and quirky bonus stages are all missing. The levels are all new, yet seem extremely linear, generic and bland, possibly even auto-generated. Steve Bak who took care of the map layouts in the Amiga version wasn’t involved so that’s that mystery solved.
In 1993, the sequel – Operation Starfish – propelled the Robocod concept into orbit. It had aspirations of being Sonic on the moon in a space-cowboy cossie, yet the fun-factor was sorely neutered by unwieldy play mechanics, and it was largely met with a lukewarm reception. At a time when consoles were quickly eclipsing home computers as the dominant platform for arcade games, it saw its initial release on the Sega Mega Drive, while the Amiga had been relegated to a scant afterthought.
In the interim, Pond took a brief sojourn from planetary stewardship to star in the 1992 spin-off title, The Aquatic Games; a maritime-themed riff on the Olympic games. It’s an enjoyable diversion in short bursts if you can track down one of those real-life human people to pit your wits against. It principally appealed to a younger demographic at the time; those kids who had yet to refine their lust for blood and carnage. Hmmf, primitive oafs.
A fourth outing dubbed ‘The Curse of Count Piracula’ was also in the works, though by then the planet was entranced with Doom-rapture and every new game had to be 3D or it wouldn’t have been awarded shelf space. The project didn’t make it to the launchpad, let alone the stratosphere, and beyond.
I had vague recollections of the Robocod character being used in an educational title produced for Thames Water to teach kids how water processing plants work. My epistemophilic urge got the better of me and I set about dredging the web to confirm I hadn’t dreamt the whole thing.
Google was apparently playing its cards close to its chest, and I resurfaced empty netted, save for rooting out a comment by another curious Pond groupie who had similar vague recollections, yet alas no answers either.
As the sagely advice goes, “if in doubt, ask a policeman”. There were none about due to cutbacks and an unprecedented escalation in mad-scientist-led terrorism shenanigans, so I dropped Thames Water a line instead.
Their very helpful and on-the-ball education manager, Liz Banks, knew exactly what I was waffling on about and got back to me within 24 hours to solve the mystery…
“I do recall this game when I first joined the education team at Thames Water, at the time it was a couple of years old and was distributed to schools free of charge as a CD Rom. I believe it was quite a popular game following fishy James Pond around the Thames Water Ring Main as he investigated the water treatment process and distribution throughout London. As with computer games it became old fairly quickly and schools moved on from CD Roms to interactive whiteboards and internet connections so I would estimate that it went out of circulation around 2004.”
It seems my mistake was to use the keyword ‘Robocod’ in connection with ‘Thames Water’. Evidently feeling under supreme pressure to deliver the goods for the globe’s premium Amiga podcast, it didn’t occur to me to instead try probing the ‘toobs’ for ‘James Pond’ and ‘Thames Water’. You live and learn.
Something fishy from the Thames Water
“Robocod, the popular series of computer games featuring James Pond, has given Thames Water a license to thrill primary school children. In a new educational game developed by SkillsWare, Pond takes children “on an underwater adventure through the Thames Water Ring Main” – the longest water tunnel in the UK. This helps them to understand how the city gets its water supplies.
James Pond – Underwater Agent is said to be suitable for Key Stages 1 and 2 of the National Curriculum. For secondary schools, SkillsWare had developed a business simulation game called Running Water. Players have to make decisions about the most efficient way to run the Ring Main to deliver water to customers reports the Newsbytes on-line newsletter.”
The Guardian newspaper
Crucial keywords adjusted, they return quite a few hits including a web site where you can still buy the 1995 title for a fiver, a 4-page preview in issue 14, and a 4-page review in issue 17 of the Acorn users’ magazine, Eureeka. Not quite the obscure enigma I first envisaged then!
James Pond and the Deathly Shallows (a Harry Potter pun for those of you older than your shoe size) was inflicted on iOS users in 2011. You can think of it as an atrocious, underwater ‘Flappy Birds’ cobbled together with one of those awful ‘make a Flash game in under five minutes’ drag and drop web tools. I’ve signed a covenant in blood, agreeing never to mention it again. I’d appreciate it if you’d do the same.
In 2013 a Pond-resuscitating Kickstarter project was announced. The aim was to develop a sequel worthy of the IP’s proud heritage, and one with which fans of the original game would approve, especially given the way it has been mistreated in recent years. While Chris doesn’t own the rights to his creation, he was brought on-board by Gameware Europe to lend the title that critical air of credibility, and hopefully to steer it in the right direction.
It made me smile to discover that Chris had been in talks with McVitie’s with regards to reviving their sponsorship partnership, even if he was also open to offers from other investors. I wasn’t quite so enthusiastic when I also learnt that he would consider making the new game 3D as he has always been keen to embrace current trends and modern technology.
Sadly, the campaign was cancelled 12 days prematurely after only 336 backers had pledged £16,000 of the £100,000 target that would have ‘greenlit’ development. The downfall of the project was believed to be bringing it to the public’s attention much too soon. There was far too little to show beyond blueprints and artists’ impressions to generate sufficient enthusiasm and belief that a final product would transpire from the promises and good intentions.
I was absolutely gutted to hear it wasn’t going to get off the starting docks. Docks! Gutted!
Chris hasn’t closed the door on the idea entirely, and it’s also possible that System 3 – who own the rights to certain elements of the Robocod franchise – could breathe new life into the character.
In fact, they did announce they intended to reboot the series back in 2013 for modern platforms including the Nintendo 3DS and Wii U, but an actual release has yet to emerge from the murky depths.
Millennium Interactive – the publishers-turned-developers Chris produced the original James Pond games for – was bought out by Sony Computer Entertainment in July 1997 and subsequently renamed SCE Cambridge Studio. Chris now resides in Canada where he runs his own game development company, SpoonSized Entertainment, with his wife Katie.
I fell in love with Robocod (the artist formerly known as ‘Guppie’) from the moment I clapped eyes on the cover disk cake level demo (Amiga Action issue 26, November 1991, disk 18 – just sayin’, you know to paint the picture); sickeningly cutesy, yet still somehow edgy and subversive.
That year I pestered Santa to bring me the full game for Christmas (easier said than done given he’d already been run out of town by Dr Maybe!), and have completed it several times over the years without ‘cake-hammer-earth-apple-tap-ing’ one iota.
If on the other hand, you were a PC gamer at the time, you may have fond memories of the demo that came on one of PC Format’s coverdisks which allowed you to unlock the entire game with a cheat code. Spectacular own goal!
James Pond resolutely defined an era where a couple of guys had free reign to Monty Python-ise a game sans first putting it to a shareholder’s vote, or applying to the EU for permission. The extendo-torso was an innovative, inspired play mechanic which breathed new life into an already weary genre.
Nevertheless, the aggregate of its movie-mashing, seafood smorgasbord, rather than a single revolutionary, killer feature made it one of the all-time classics; catchy, effervescent music, tongue-in-cheek humour, herculean end of level bosses, radiant, alluring visuals, myriad bonuses and secret rooms, multifarious game-play styles from shoot-em-up to forced-scroll platforming action, and silky-smooth 50/60 FPS parallax scrolling.
The extent to which Robocod has become imprinted on my psyche can’t be overestimated. Only the other day my brother overheard me humming the Robocod theme tune and smugly pointed out that he’d recognised it as the one from Robocop, half expecting me to award points for his astute observation skills.
‘Cop‘ …with a ‘p‘ no less!!!
The only reasonable response was to pummel him unconscious with a goofy pink hippo until my incandescent, blind fury had abated.
We no longer speak.
Some things you can let go… some things.
The gloopy red stuff may be thicker than water, but nothing, nothing comes between a retro gamer and his pixelated Guppy.