Don’t forget your spy gear because you will need it to make your escape!
To Beat: Win against the computer on any difficulty
To Complete: Beat all 8 difficulty levels
My Goal: Complete the game
What I Did: Complete the game
Played: 2/1/16 – 2/3/16
My Difficulty: 2/10
When playing two-player NES games, I think it’s better to have simultaneous play compared to alternating between two separate one-player games. Most of the time if the game is fun two-player it is probably just as much fun playing single player, however some games are tailor made for two players and Spy Vs. Spy falls in that category. I only player single player for the blog and Spy Vs. Spy left a lot to be desired, although I bet it really shines in two-player mode and I’m looking forward to trying it out sometime.
Spy Vs. Spy is a comic strip that debuted in January 1961 in issue #60 of MAD Magazine. The creator and cartoonist Antonio Prohias fled his native Cuba and pitched the idea of the Spy Vs. Spy cartoon to MAD Magazine in New York. They hired him and he would go on to write Spy Vs. Spy for over 27 years. The comic strip has been passed on to a few other writers over the years and it is still being created today.
The Spy Vs. Spy video game was released in 1984 for a large variety of computer platforms. It eventually made its way to the Famicom in 1986 but it wouldn’t debut on the NES until two years later in October 1988. All versions of the game were developed by First Star Software and Spy Vs. Spy is the only game they would develop for the NES. It was published by Kemco and it was their first NES release.
Spy Vs. Spy is an action game where you must race both your opponent and the clock to retrieve a set of items and escape the embassy. The embassy is a maze of single screen rooms and you can move to and from the interconnected rooms freely as you choose. This is a split screen game where both the white spy and the black spy are exploring the embassy and racing to meet the same goal. Everything is done in real time so you can see your opponent’s every move while they can also see yours. To escape the embassy and win you must first collect a briefcase, a passport, a bag of money, a key, and secret papers. Each room has a number of objects you can interact with such as furniture, pictures on the wall, doors, and so on. These hide the items you need so you will need to look in and around everything to find what you are looking for. Normally you can only hold one item at a time, however once you have the briefcase you can store all the required items inside of that. When a spy has an item you can see him visibly holding it on screen. You can also hide an item you are holding inside the furniture as well. Once you have recovered all of the items in hand, you must locate the exit door to escape and win the game.
While all this is going on, your opponent is also looking to complete the same objective so he will be actively trying to run your plan. If both spies end up on the same screen then they square off in hand to hand combat. A club and a knife are hidden in the embassy and these weapons can be held alongside one of the required items. The weapons are stronger than the default punch and will certainly swing the tide of combat. The spies don’t have to fight if they are in the same room and sometimes escaping into the next room is a smart strategy. Each spy has a power gauge which indicates health remaining. When a spy runs out of power in combat he is killed and floats up off the screen as an angel. That spy is out of the game for 10 seconds giving the other spy the advantage of free time as well as the ability to recover any items the defeated spy held. There is also a 30 second deduction to the clock when a spy is killed. Each spy has his own clock and whenever time runs out that spy is killed permanently for the rest of the game. Both spies will not necessarily run out of time at the same time which may be all the edge needed in a close game.
The other major feature of the game in which to hurt the opponent is with booby traps. The spies have a seemingly unlimited number of them to use. Holding a trap will cause you to automatically hide any other item you are carrying so that’s something to be mindful of. The traps must be hidden inside the furniture and you can see the spy laughing to himself any time a trap is successfully placed. There are four booby traps at your disposal. Both the bomb and the spring can be hidden inside any of the pieces of furniture except for the room doors. A water bucket must be hidden on the top of a closed door. The time bomb can be hidden in any room regardless of furniture. If a spy peeks into a piece of furniture armed with a trap, that spy is killed with the same penalty as if he died in combat, along with a humorous death animation. The time bomb is a bit special as it kills a spy if he is in the room for too long. You know you are in a room with a time bomb if your face turns blue, so escape right away. There are also remedies hidden in the embassy that disarm traps. A water bucket (not the trap water bucket) is found in a red fire box and disarms a bomb, the wire cutters are found in a white wall-mounted tool box and they disarm the spring, and an umbrella can be found on the coat rack and prevents damage from the water bucket trap. The time bomb is effectively disarmed if you are able to leave the room before it goes off. A remedy for a trap can only be held only if the spy’s hands are empty, so you can’t hold another item and a remedy at the same time.
This all seems really complex, and it is in the beginning, but it all eventually makes sense. One thing that helps is that each spy can also look at the map of the embassy. The map screen appears after cycling through all the possible traps. It shows the location of both spies, which rooms have items, and which rooms have traps. It is quite helpful but it does have a few shortcomings. It doesn’t show which rooms are connected, it doesn’t indicate if a room has both an item and a booby trap, and it doesn’t show the presence of an armed time bomb. Despite all that, the map is very much appreciated as it makes the levels much more manageable.
When starting a game there are three modes to choose from. Training mode simplifies the game by requiring only the briefcase and one additional item instead of needing all of them to escape. Vs Com is the main game against a computer opponent, and Vs Player is the main game against a human opponent. You can also choose from one of eight levels. Each level is a different embassy map and they are progressively larger and more complex. The lowest level embassy only has 6 rooms in total while the later levels have 30 or more rooms as well as a second floor in some instances.
I have played Spy Vs Spy before when I was a kid. One of my babysitters had an NES with some games and this is one she had. I sort of remember playing it but that’s all. I acquired the game in a three game lot on eBay around 2009. It came with Stinger and Bump ‘N Jump. It’s an ordinary game lot for sure, but the real reason I remember that lot is because those carts arrived in mint condition. I don’t like how often the word mint is used in describing condition as I feel it is mostly exaggerated whenever it’s used. In this case it’s true. They are beautiful carts and they will be on my shelf for a very long time!
I admit I was not looking forward to playing this game. I felt that it was too complicated after reading the manual and that I was going to struggle completing all eight levels. As it turned out, I more or less breezed through this game. There is a bit of a learning curve to be sure but a quick run in training mode alleviated those issues for me. I started on the levels after that and didn’t lose once. I found the AI to be pretty dumb overall. He moves between rooms slowly and focuses more on setting traps and less on acquiring the items needed to win. In the early levels, it’s possible I guess to lose if you don’t get the hang of combat and run out of time quickly. I can see it happening too if I were to get all the items and get killed right in front of the exit door. Other than that, I’m not so sure if the AI is good enough to win legitimately on its own. The later levels are big but as a result you don’t interact as much so it is more about figuring out the layout of the level and beating the time limit.
I developed a successful strategy early on that carried me through, so if you want to try this on your own skip this paragraph. You’ve been warned! I use the map to locate the rooms with items and seek them out as quickly as you can. I would usually acquire the knife during my search giving me the upper hand in combat. The priority is the briefcase so if I come across it, great! If the other spy has the briefcase, then I would go after him right away and take it for myself. I would also make a mental note of where the exit is if I passed by since it doesn’t appear on the map. I barely bothered with traps at all. One time I trapped the other spy in a dead end with the water bucket, and the time bomb is useful at the bottom of a ladder for a guaranteed kill if entering the room from above. I don’t know if this is the optimal strategy but it certainly worked for me!
There were two other Spy Vs. Spy games but neither one made it to the NES. The second game is Spy Vs. Spy II: The Island Caper which takes place on a tropical island. Features include larger rooms that scroll instead of the fixed sized room in the original game. Players must also build their own traps from parts found on the island. The game did receive a release on Famicom. The third and final game is Spy Vs. Spy III: Arctic Antics and it was only released on various PCs. This one obviously takes place in the arctic! A fourth game was planned and would have likely been called Spy Vs. Spy IV: Spies in Space if it had been released.
You may be wondering what is up with my difficulty assessment on this one. There are two things I want to address. The first is the 1/10 difficulty. I went on and on about the initial complexity and I’m not backing down from that. The game is so easy simply because it is very short. Considering strictly the bare minimum to get the ending, I say the game can be beaten in 15 minutes or less on the first time playing. It takes a little bit of time on training to get used to the controls, how the traps work, and how combat plays out. The first level has a time limit of only 5 minutes and it doesn’t take that much time to finish since that first area is so small. I’m sure it’s possible to luck into a win even if things don’t go too well. The other spy has a bad habit of running into his own traps. The ending sequence is the same after each level and the only difference is the text showing which level was completed.
The other thing you may have noticed is that this is the first time I gave a game a higher personal difficulty than the overall difficulty. I based my difficulty on my goal instead of just the minimum to beat the game. I didn’t find the game to be very difficult, but it does take some trial and error to navigate some of the larger levels. I don’t think Spy Vs. Spy is quite among the easiest NES games when going for completing all the levels.
Spy Vs. Spy is a clever concept that plays well, but it ultimately falls short as a single player experience. I am definitely keeping this game in mind to play with friends sometime. As it stands for me right now, this is just another easy title for me to mark as finished.