Ask anyone to name one of the most influential Amiga platform games ever, and they'll invariably mention James Pond in one of his previous incarnations. Taking what made certain console games the huge sellers what they are and making them better is what made Robocod the smash hit it was, and I'm pleased to be able to announce that in the sequel to the sequel, Millennium have gone even further. If you only ever buy two platform games for your A1200, this is one of them. (Bubble 'N' Squeak is the other, but you don't need me to tell you that).
If you're expecting another Robocod, however, then prepare to be shocked. Operation Starfish couldn't be further from that original smash. Robocod was far more in tune with Mario than this game, which features more than a tip of the hat to Sonic the Hedgehog, if only down to the intense speed this runs at. However, before I get you all excited over the game itself, how about a bit of the plot to get you really moving?
Doctor Maybe, the ever present enemy of F.I.5.H, has been keeping quite a low profile lately, ever since being defeated at the end of Robocod. Agents were put on his tail after the battle at the Toy Factory, but he soon slipped surveillance. The next thing of any importance to happen was the disappearance of a NASA Space shuttle. Maybe held a secret meeting in the desert, from which a large flash was seen streaking heavenward.
Only one conclusion can be drawn - Maybe has taken the shuttle and set up a base on the moon! What else can F.I.5.H do but send their top undercover agent to that large ball of cheese in the sky to track down Maybe and close down his operations for good.
In true secret intelligence style, Pond has been decked out with all the latest equipment, such as boots that allow him to move without the discomfort of reduced gravity and micro-sized breathing apparatus that let him run around freely in an airless environment.
As always there are dozens of items left lying around for him to pick up and use to his advantage, provided you can figure out where to use them.
SHAKEN NOT SHSTIRRED
You don't need me to tell you that Operation Starfish is a platform game, but what a platform game it is! Easily the biggest seen on the Amiga, there are over a 110 levels to play around with, and each one is absolutely huge, easily 20 to 30 screens long and who knows how many high. You'll find almost no similarity between them either. It's not as if you can work out a strategy for completing levels like you could with Robocod. The only thing that remains the same about each level is the fact that you start at one end and somewhere near the other end is a transmitter that needs to be activated by collecting a secret number of teacups, and then destroyed with a single punch.
The whole thing is held together with an enormous map which, in true console fashion, grows as you work through it. At the beginning, there is only a small selection and a single level displayed. Complete the level and the path to the next one is shown. Interestingly enough, only part of the 111 levels in the game need to be completed to reach the end.
Depending on how much of a level you complete when you reach the end - for example, if you only collect the bare minimum of teacups to activate the transmitter, instead of all the teacups on the level - then more than one path can be displayed. Depending on how you play, there are literally dozens of ways to work through the game, and the only levels you need see twice are the very early ones.
As I've already said, this game takes a lot more from, say, Sonic than it does Mario. Sure, there are still lots of hidden blocks to headbang against, and there are plenty of enemy sprites to leap upon and destroy with your feet, but the whole thing is considerably faster than the last game. In Robocod he rolled along at a leisurely pace most of the time, occasionally building up speed when he came down a slope. In Operation Starfish, James has a gearbox. You start the game in 'walk' mode, where he moves around at a controllable rate but can't climb the sides of mountains. Pressing the space bar takes him into 'run' mode, where no surface is too sheer, even hanging upside down.
Yes, Pond's boots recreate a field of gravity, but they do it on any surface, not necessarily the one that forms the crust of the moon. Remember, this time Pond isn't racing inside a conveniently-designed building. This is the moon we are talking about, and you couldn't hope for a more uneven surface to run around on. Still, unless you actually jump, Pond sticks firmly to the ground he's walking on, and as a result can often end up running upside down, up the side of a wall and even round and round a single block if you aren't careful.
All this has made for some very clever level design, and Chris Sorrell stands to be heartily congratulated for this. A finer designer of platform games has never walked this earth, in my opinion. Even though the game is so large, you are very rarely left wondering where to go next. Every screen is packed with clues as to what to do, even if said clues aren't particularly blatant. A tree might extend above the top of the screen, or you might come across a blank wall with a considerable amount of open space in front of it. It doesn't give the game away, but it does add a very nice puzzle element to what is already a superb game.
Take the first level, for example. Right at the very start there is a block just hanging in mid air. Leaping off it accomplishes nothing, nor does hitting it. Yet running along a bit you find a bomb. Drop the bomb on the block and when it explodes, it takes the block with it, opening up a wormhole to a secret bonus room. There is a prize of five games of your choice to the first person to map out all the secret locations in this game!
O SOLE O MIO!
Visually, the game is wonderful. Although it is very different to Robocod and Aquatic Games in that it is nowhere near as colourful (but what do you expect in space?). It also doesn't seem as cute as the last two games. Instead, this is a tougher, meaner Pond we're seeing. He is a fish of action, not silly little dances and cute expressions. There's bags of character in the game, too, although some of the cuteness gets used against the player.
Take the sweet little chicks, for example, who rush to meet you when you walk near them. Happily they waddle across the landscape, until they reach your feet, at which point they explode taking some of your energy with them. Gits.
One thing this game is, though, is very, very tough. The size of it alone means that it will take some people weeks before they see half of it. There are enemies just as tough as Pond, and if you can get through level two without losing energy the first fifty times of playing the game, I'll be very surprised. It isn't frustratingly hard, though, and that is partly what makes the game so addictive.
Whenever you lose energy or a life, you know you could have avoided it. There are no hidden, nasty surprises, and the controls are good enough to allow you to fly through the early levels.
The ultimate follow up? I think so. Millennium have the Pond series down to a fine art now, and I should think so too considering the number of platforms that Robocod got put out on. If you have seen the incredible Megadrive version of this game, then you'll be happy to know that this is identical.
An amazing game - it is just a crying shame that non-AGA owners will have to miss out.