Some things are best left untouched.
I’ve heard people mention Spy vs. Spy before, and it is generally in the context of an old game with fond memories attached. We all have games like that, and sometimes when we go back to visit them we are left wondering what we once saw in the experience. While I haven’t played Spy vs. Spy before its arrival on iOS, I would wager that fans of the 1984 original would have an entirely different feeling . Perhaps they will be left with an even deeper longing for the original home console release, because the iOS implementation gives a glimpse at what could be an enhanced version of an old classic… but isn’t.
The game of Spy vs. Spy pits the two comic spies from MAD magazine against each other in a race to escape from one of 24 embassies. I’ll be honest, I’m not familiar with Spy vs. Spy or even MAD magazine. I wanted to try this game because it seemed to be such an original concept for its time, and a kind of gameplay that I haven’t seen replicated in more recent games. You see, Spy vs. Spy tackles the problem of split-screen competitive gameplay head on.
The entire objective is to collect a set of items, and escape via the exit. These items are hidden throughout the embassy in drawers, behind pictures, etc. and each player is in a race to collect the complete set. The game is scored based on completion time and the actions taken during the play session. Players can directly compete with the enemy spy via combat, but the combat is uninteresting and always devolves into mashing the on screen buttons until either you or the enemy dies. There is no element of thoughtful play while fighting, although the player always has the option to flee mid-fight (something the AI does all too often). However; there is also the option to lay traps in rooms with the hope that the enemy will later spring it and drop all of their items. Traps aren’t foolproof, though, for each trap there exists an item in the level to counteract it.
How would the enemy even know a trap is there, you ask? The entire game is played in split screen, something that existed out of necessity with the original version and remains in the iOS release for gameplay purposes. This reveals just how integrated the split screen mechanism was with the original release. Not only are players allowed to “cheat” and look at the enemy’s play screen, they must do their best to keep track of what the opposition has picked up, and what traps have been placed. Any traps that are sprung are done so through carelessness, or simply the inability to focus on one’s task while glancing down at the enemy simultaneously.
This is the brilliant element of Spy vs. Spy, and what I am assuming would make it so much fun to play with a buddy at the television. However; the enemy AI is by necessity governed by some degree of random behavior. What determines if the enemy sees you place a trap, a random number generator? Playing against the AI just isn’t as fun as how I envision the game would be played out on the TV.
After my initial disappointment of playing against a bot, I thought to myself, “thank goodness this game has multiplayer.” That was before I attempted to play the multiplayer. I experienced nothing but frequent disconnects when playing online. Originally I assumed that someone hadn’t gotten their way and had decided to rage quit, but when the game started disconnecting in the middle of a round I just had to assume there was something wrong with the system. As of this time, try as I might, I haven’t been able to complete a round online.
If that were the game’s primary fault, I would be more inclined to seek out someone to play the game with in local multiplayer. However; the game also implements a rather poor system of controls. The on-screen d-pad feels inaccurate, unresponsive, and floaty. I felt as if the controls were fighting just as hard against me as my opponent, and more often than not came directly in the way of my progress. The inventory cycling system is also poor, as the game makes it difficult to retrieve the items you would like to take from rooms. This is a touchscreen game, why can’t I just drag and drop things into my inventory?
This release had the potential to be a revival of a critically acclaimed classic made available to a vast new audience. Yet the negative impact of the control system cannot be understated, something that only raised my frustration with things like the simplistic combat.
Fans of the original may enjoy seeing the 8 bit retro mode, but may be largely disappointed with the lack of care taken with this iteration of their beloved game.
Spy vs. Spy is available as a universal app for $0.99