Spy vs. Spy Review

Spy vs. Spy c64 box art

Cartoon style frantic strategy game with a focus on setting traps.

Story

The crazy rivaling spy duo White and Black duke it out in an embassy in a far away land. Their objective is to secure a passport, some secret plans, a key, the traveler’s checks and to sit on the plane before it leaves. Time is ticking and the rivalry between the two spies knows no boundaries.

The Game

The video game Spy vs. Spy is based on the 1960’s comic strip with the same name featured in MAD Magazine. The game is full of the same kind of dark but lighthearted over-the-top violence you’ll find in the comics. With that in mind, there is an instant authenticity to the game.

You play as the spy only known as White, and you’re stationed in an embassy. Somewhere – randomly placed – lies four items that you need to collect in order to complete your mission, but your rival, Black is also there to do the same. The game is played from a dollhouse-like perspective where you walk from room to room, or even up and down ladders to explore various levels of the building. Each room has furniture that you can search, and you can hinder your rival by placing deadly traps of various kinds.

Controls

The controls are somewhat unconventional. It’s easy to accidentally discard items, and you can’t walk diagonally, which makes for some stiff movement overall. This is especially notable during fights. Also, when both spies get into the same room, any held items are automatically discarded in favor of pulling out the baton, which is confusing at first.

Setting traps is only a matter of selecting the desired trap from a menu and placing it on an object. There is no visual feedback on that a trap has been placed other than that the trap item disappears from your hands – it looks exactly as if it was merely discarded. You are, however, given a sound effect that confirms that the trap is armed. This also means that you’ll hear when your enemy places a trap, giving you a fair chance to spot where it went.

Entering the menu is done by two quick presses of the fire button. It’s easy to accidentally enter it, but luckily it is disabled during close combat.

Content

Spy vs. Spy is one of the early video games to feature a split-screen setup allowing two players to play independently and against each other. It’s showing White’s perspective on the top screen and Black’s perspective on the bottom screen. This holds true even in a single player game, meaning that you’ll see every move of the computer controlled opponent on the bottom screen.

The various traps you have at your disposal are bombs, springs, acid buckets, guns with strings and time bombs, all of which will instantly kill the victim when triggered. Placing a trap is easy, but you need to know which kind of traps can be used where. For example, acid buckets can only be placed on doors while bombs can only be placed in furniture. The game won’t show you this – it is something you must figure out yourself or read in the instruction manual.

spyvsspy3You are given a limited number of traps when the game begins, but they’re always plentiful so generally you don’t really need to worry about running out of traps. There’s always the risk of falling victim to your own traps though, which obviously is a central concept of the game, so you need to stay ahead of your own as well as your rival’s mind.

There are means to bypass traps however. You can use clippers to cut strings, umbrellas to protect you from acid buckets and water to defuse bombs. These amending items are all found in infinite numbers from special cabinets, but you can only carry one item at a time. Also, in order to disarm a trap, you must know where it is and what kind of trap it is. Once you grasp how all the traps work, the game becomes almost like a frantic puzzle where you have to plan ahead and memorize where traps are and how you can bypass them.

Collecting the mission items is somewhat special. Unless you find the briefcase you can only carry one mission item at a time. There is only one briefcase in the game, so the one who finds it first has an obvious advantage.

You are given a map that shows you the locations of the mission items, so tracking them down is basically only a matter of referring to a map. While you’re carrying a mission item and press the fire button, the held item is automatically discarded. It can be found again by searching the furniture in the room in which it was discarded. Any other discarded items are gone forever.

If a spy dies, his held mission items are discarded in the room in which he died. It is thus important to keep track of where your enemy dies so that you can collect the items that he eventually dropped. Also, upon death you are penalized with a time penalty. Each spy has their individual timer as indicated on the screen. If you fail to complete your mission in that time, your game is over.

If traps fail to stop your enemy, you have a trusty baton that will come in handy for close quarters combat. Fighting is done by holding the fire button and rocking the joystick either up and down, or left and right. This translates into downward strikes and thrusting stabs, but there’s no way of telling which attack is the most effective in any given situation. The faster you rock the joystick the quicker the succession of attacks, and as each successful attack stuns the opponent for a brief moment, the game seems to reward quick strikes. Fighting is always risky, because it’s practically impossible to avoid being hit in the process – there’s just no way to defend yourself. It is thus a matter of knowing your striking distance and rocking the joystick faster than your opponent.

The game can be played on eight different difficulty levels, which adjusts the complexity of the embassy. The harder the difficulty level, the more rooms there are to explore. The number of traps you have and the time limit also scales up hand in hand with the difficulty level, effectively giving you more of the same.

Independently from the difficulty level you may also adjust the skill level of your enemy. The higher skill level he has the faster he will work at finding the mission objectives. He’ll also be more deadly in hand to hand combat up until the point where he’s practically impossible to beat.

Playing with two players is without a doubt the main attraction of the game because the enemy AI just isn’t very fun to play against in the long run. He makes no mistakes except for walking into traps that come in his way, and it’s pretty easy to predict his actions. When it comes to close combat fights, he will relentlessly hunt you down until either one of you dies. Thankfully all these issues disappear when you play with another human player. Then, it really becomes a battle of wits.

Since the game has a certain level of difficulty and certainly has a few quirks of its own, it may be hard to find an equally skilled player.

Graphics

Visually Spy vs. Spy works okay. On the whole it has simple and clean graphics, and it also has a lot of charm to it. The building you are operating in has some wild color variation which makes it easy to recognize previously visited rooms. The animated violence is comical and true to the spirit of the original comic strip.

There are some details that are hard to identify due to the low resolution sprites and the same few furniture are to be found over and over again. But other than that, it delivers some fun comic book style humor.

Sound

There is only one song in the game and due to its minimalistic style it mostly sits in the background. The song is pretty original though, and it has a tendency to stick for hours after you’ve shut the game down. It goes perfectly with the setting of the game even though it is pretty repetitive.

The sound effects get the job done too, but they’re nothing out of the ordinary. It mostly consists of the noise of shuffling furniture and footsteps of the spies.

Summary

Spy vs. Spy is a competitive and original game. It hasn’t got a whole lot of variety so it’s best played in short bursts. Thanks to that it randomizes levels though, it has good replay value and stays fresh for a long time. In the two player mode the game offers lots of laughs and nasty mind games. Playing with an AI controlled opponent tends to become a joke on you however.

Developed By: First Star Software
Published By: Beyond Software
Version Reviewed: Commodore 64
Genre: Strategy
Players: 1-2
Also Available On: Amiga 500, CPC, Apple II, Atari ST, BBC, C16, Game Boy, Game Boy Color, MSX, Nintendo Entertainment System, Master System, SX1, ZX Spectrum
Released: 1984

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