It seems that everyone I know played James Pond: Codename Robocod in 1991. My sister remembers it. People at my poker game all remembered it. My friend Hannah happily peeped on the phone last night as an old memory was stirred. I've a 100% success rate in my unofficial James Pond: Codename Robocod awareness studies. So you can see why canny folks keep releasing it over and over again.
The odd thing is, anyone who remembers it clearly also recalls something else: it wasn't really all that good. It's much like the thankfully fading craze for releasing every half-baked children's show from the late '70s and early '80s, people buying them in a frenzy of nostalgic light-headedness, only to discover what a bunch of old arse they always were.
And as such, childhood memories of Robocod should not be trusted, as this remarkably loyal port demonstrates. Not loyal in the sense of recreating the exact same original game - this is in fact a port of 2003's slightly altered GBA version - but faithfully maintaining the same banality.
In case you're someone who might ruin my 100% recognition rate, Robocod was an early '90s platform game sequel to James Pond: Underwater Agent. It featured, and indeed features, a cartoon fish secret agent, who is charged with rescuing all of St. Claus' elves from the evil Dr. Maybe, who's trying to ruin Christmas by taking control of the North Pole central toy factory. Ho-hum. The platforming mechanic is predicated upon Pond's ability to stretch his robotic torso, and then cling on to the underside of platforms. Beyond this he simply runs and jumps at extreme speeds, and tucks up in his metal suit in a Mario-esque down-arrow attack for squishing bads. Or “meanies”, as the manual insists.
The trouble is, the game then fails to do anything with that. Levels are not increasingly taxing challenges to be solved with Pond's set of abilities - they're sprawling, aimless scenes lacking in purpose. Run past the elves to “free” them, and then exit. Repeat until bored.
Every level is smothered in items to pick up. But it's only pick up, not collect. This is about high score generation. There are occasional ankhs offering extra lives, and the dubious advantage of some bonus items such as brief invincibility or an umbrella for floating slowly downward (which you almost never need to do), but beyond these the myriad rest offer nothing beyond score. There's no reward for collecting every item in a level, or for reaching certain score levels... With one exception: collect enough bells and you'll open a bonus level, in which you can collect more items for more points. But this only ever feels a hollow aim. It's never interesting enough, or intricately challenging enough, to make the score feel something worth having achieved.
Of course, it's currently 2006, calendar fans. So what does Robocod uniquely offer to the DS? Not a great deal. The graphics, shrunk down and presented on a flood-lit DS Lite look bright and cheery, for 2D cartoons. But the backgrounds and foregrounds are almost impossible to tell apart at times, with, ridiculously, platform shapes used as background decoration... You can do the maths.
The sound is horrific, the music lasting about two levels before I gladly quit and started over again, just so I could turn off the hateful noise. However, one nice improvement is the implementation of the second screen. It displays current targets and remaining health, or a map of the level, which is reasonably helpful. And the screens can be switched over, such that the main game screen appears on the bottom. Which means... oh dear.
Yes, there's been an attempt to implement touch screen controls. A nice gesture, certainly, but completely appalling. It seems to choose jump or stretch at its whim, and will abandon all notion of moving left or right at any critical moment. It's no surprise that the game defaults to the top screen. There's nothing wrong with the d-pad and buttons, as New Super Mario Bros. so wonderfully demonstrates, so you might as well stick with them.
And that brings us to our final nail: New Super Mario Bros. Robocod is a relic from the past that cannot hold a drip of dirty wax from an old burnt out candle to Mario's sublime latest. The complete lack of inspiration (beyond a 15 year-old titular pun) pales to translucence in comparison.
It's pretty much impossible to hate the game. You'd have to have some peculiar vendetta with aquatic robots - perhaps they killed your mum - and I'd venture that's not going to be a majority of players. But it's similarly implausible that anybody could find the energy to demonstrate any love for it. It's mediocrity, leaning lazily toward being poor. It passes idle time, and it's not offensive or faulty. But such faint-to-falling-unconscious praise is damnation indeed.
5 / 10