PUBLISHER: Electronic Arts
DEVELOPER: Millennium Interactive
RELEASE DATE: 04/1991 – (US, EU)
The name “James Pond” has haunted me since at least 1993. That was the year I began receiving video game magazines in earnest, and consequently, began seeing ads like this one…
and this one…
The ads themselves aren’t inherently offensive, but something about James Pond himself – perhaps his dead eyes or generic smirk – struck me as… wrong. Despite being an eight-year-old with no discernible taste in 1993, I had the good sense to stay far, far away from these games. Call it children’s intuition, a happy accident, whatever. Not even my beloved EGM could convince me that Super James Pond or James Pond 3: Operation Starfish were worth a go.
For thirty years, I’ve avoided the grasp of James Pond’s clammy fins. I’ve looked his snark straight in the eye and cried, “Nay, foul beast.” Running from one’s problems doesn’t make them go away, however. I must swim and face my adversary head-on. Today, I wrestle with a slimy secret agent fish and his seemingly infinite amount of puns. Today, I discuss the first entry in the James Pond series, James Pond: Underwater Agent. Not because I want to, but because I have to.
With a name like “James Pond,” I expected to be violently submerged in Bond references from the get-go. I was not disappointed. His missions have names like “License to Bubble,” “Leak and Let Die,” and “For Your Fins Only!” The main bad guy’s name is Dr. Maybe. Heck, the game opens with James Pond imitating the MGM lion’s roar, as terrible a sight as I’ve ever seen. Credit where credit’s due: Millennium Interactive committed to the Bond/Pond bit, for better and very much for worse.
If you thought fetch quests were a relatively modern invention within video games, James Pond: Underwater Agent is here to prove you wrong. Each of the game’s twelve missions is a fetch quest. Find the keys to open the lobster cages. Find sponges to plug all the oil leaks. Take expensive vases to a rowboat. On and on it goes, without so much as a car chase, a stop for a martini, or a seductive glance from a female fish (the title screen and cover art notwithstanding). Are we sure James Pond is a secret agent?
James Pond may or may not be a fully licensed secret agent. If your gaming skills aren’t superior to his agent skills, though, you’re in for a helluva time. See, the entire ocean is against James Pond. Clams spew pearls at him. Malevolent fish try to eat him. Demonic flowers sap his strength. In the stage, “The Fish with the Golden Bar,” Blackbeard the pirate’s ghost tries to devour his soul. These creatures are everywhere, to the point where I often died and I didn’t know what killed me. Was it a tiny evil flower? An item that looked like a power-up but was actually an explosive? Did Dr. Maybe actually recruit the entire ocean to thwart James Pond?
What’s worse, Pond’s one defense against this onslaught, his only attack is… blowing bubbles. His bubbles only work against certain enemies, though, like the fish. The rest, like the clams, the flowers, the pirate ghosties, he’ll need to avoid. Pond doesn’t move with finesse like Mario, either, oh no. He glides very quickly through the water, always at the expense of his own safety.
I approached James Pond: Underwater Agent with extreme trepidation, yet I’m still shocked how unplayable this game becomes after the fourth stage or so. This bears repeating: Enemies are everywhere, and they are constantly in your way. And why? Without the ocean’s intense aggression, you could easily complete Underwater Agent in thirty minutes or less. Collecting items in one part of a stage to bring to a different part of the stage takes very little time. Collecting items while avoiding the wrath of the watery deep is a true act of will that I frankly do not possess for a secret agent fish.
My hatred for James Pond: Underwater Agent was seemingly complete until I looked in the game’s manual. Right at the beginning, even before the Table of Contents, is an artist bio for James Pond‘s creator and lead designer, Chris Sorrell. He created the character and the original game for the Amiga platform when he was just 18 years old! While Chris had worked on other games’ graphics prior to James Pond, the latter was the first game he designed more or less on his own. As fate would have it, the game was enough of a success to spawn two sequels, both of which released on multiple consoles and computers.
James Pond: Underwater Agent on Mega Drive/Genesis absolutely isn’t for me, and I’m not sorry I avoided the series for three decades. Still, I have the utmost respect for Chris Sorrell who, at 18, created a character and franchise that people enjoyed for years. That is a remarkable achievement at any age, let alone for someone barely out of high school. Well done, sir.
CHRIS SORRELL’S STORY: A