Take pursuit of the top score as the bad guys pursue you.
This is another first for Take On The NES Library with the first racing game covered on the site. However, if you know anything about Spy Hunter then you’ll already know that this is a loose claim at best. Since Spy Hunter is less about racing and more about combat, survival, and high scores, we will have to save the first true racer for another day.
Spy Hunter is originally an arcade title released by Bally Midway in 1983. It was supposed to be a James Bond game and it carries that kind of vibe. Spy Hunter was popular enough to spawn a pinball game bearing the same name in 1984. Later the game was ported to a host of home computers and other consoles. The sequel Spy Hunter II was released in 1987 and featured more of a 3D perspective from above and behind the car as opposed to an overhead view. The NES port of Spy Hunter was also released in 1987 and was both developed and published by Sunsoft. In 1991, Sunsoft released a Famicom title called Battle Formula which plays as a racing shooter game similar to Spy Hunter. When they brought the game to the NES, they obtained the Spy Hunter license from Bally Midway and released the game as Super Spy Hunter in 1992.
Spy Hunter experienced periods of dormancy sandwiched between a number of reboots. The next Spy Hunter game was released in 2001 along with a sequel, Spy Hunter 2, in 2003. Around that time a Spy Hunter movie was starting up but it has not yet seen the light of day. There was a movie tie-in game called Spy Hunter: Nowhere to Run that was released in 2006 anyway despite no movie release to go with it. After another long quiet spell, yet another video game reboot of Spy Hunter was developed for handhelds in 2012. There have been rumors that a Spy Hunter film is still in development as recently as 2015, but at this point it seems unlikely this will ever come to fruition.
Spy Hunter is a top-down racing and shooting game. You control the G-1655 CIA Prototype Interceptor as you are being chased by a bunch of enemy agents who only want to destroy you. Your task is to take out the enemy agents, protect innocent bystander vehicles, and drive as far as you can.
The controls are simple. Use the D-Pad to steer your vehicle left and right. You go faster by holding up and you slow down by pressing Down. Your Interceptor is armed with a machine gun that you can fire with the B button. If you have a special weapon you can use it with A, and the Select key will switch between special weapons if you have more than one. There is no pause feature with the game which is a significant omission as far as I’m concerned.
When you begin the game you are unloaded by the big brown weapons van and you can start driving right away. Your score counter is displayed on the upper-right of the screen and it increases as you drive. You want to stay on the pavement since you don’t get score while you are riding along the edge of the road. If you go faster you accrue points more quickly while at a higher risk of crashing. There are a number of vehicles and hazards that will get in your way from both ahead and behind so you want to maintain a decent speed. You also earn points by defeating the enemy agents. If you happen to bump into or destroy a non-enemy vehicle your score counter blinks and stops increasing for a little while.
There is also a time counter on the bottom-right that ticks down pretty fast from 999. The timer ties to an interesting mechanic concerning your lives. As long as the timer is running, you can crash your vehicle and you can get right back on the road with no penalty. The timer runs out quickly and it only counts down once at the start of the game, so this juncture is when you want to be more careful. You want to drive well enough to earn at least 10,000 points before the timer runs out. Fail to reach that score and your next crash ends your game immediately. However, if you reach that mark then you get an extra life that is shown where the timer used to be displayed. If you play really well and get to 30,000 points you get another extra life, and you can earn another life at every 30,000 points beyond that.
The enemy vehicles on the road all share the same deep blue color so you can easily distinguish them from the others. There is a skinny enemy called the Tire Slasher. You can easily shoot it with your machine gun when it is in front of you, but if it gets to your side it will deploy spikes out of its tires and try to collide with you, causing you to lose control of your vehicle completely. The second enemy agent is a thick car called a Bullet Proof Bully. Naturally this vehicle is immune to your machine gun, so the way to take it out is to bump it off the road with your Interceptor. This enemy will try and do the same to you, so be careful. The third agent is a long Limousine. This vehicle attacks you via a backseat passenger firing a pistol out the side windows whenever you run along side of it, so you want to avoid approaching it just as you want to avoid the Tire Slasher. There is a fourth enemy which is a white helicopter. This is the only flying vehicle and you can hear it coming long before you see it. The helicopter drops deadly bombs on the road that create a deadly pothole in the ground should you run over it.
To help fend off the enemies, you can find three special weapons. At certain times the same brown van that drops you off at the start appears with a symbol on the top. If you get close to the van it drops a ramp so that you can drive up into the back of the van. If you do this, the van will pull over to the side of the road and drop you off with your new weapon. The weapons are indicated by letters in the upper-left corner of the screen. The one denoted by an S is the smoke screen which lets you spew a wide fan of smoke out of the back of your Interceptor. This pretty much causes everything behind you to crash, including innocent drivers which halts your score counter. The M is a homing missile that is used solely to take out the helicopter. You have to drive in a way to keep the helicopter still long enough so that you can hit it, and getting the hang of it takes some time. The O is an oil slick which drops a car-wide stream of oil behind you. The effect is similar to the smoke screen but it is much easier to target a single enemy. These weapons are useful but if you crash you lose them all.
As you drive you will occasionally find forks in the road. You have to be careful to pick a side so that you don’t crash in the median. You will also drive across long bridges. When you come out of the other side the background scenery changes. There are four different areas you drive through and each one corresponds to a season. You can bounce around a bit between the different seasons, but usually you go through Spring, Summer, Fall, and then Winter.
If you get really far into the game you will eventually come across a small branching path to the left with a small building at the end. It’s very easy to miss it when you are going fast, and it is completely optional anyway. Drive into the building and you switch over to a boat and drive on the river. There are two types of enemy boats you will encounter and no friendly vehicles to avoid. Cruise boats fire torpedoes both ahead and behind them, and speed boats drop explosive barrels you need to navigate around. Enemy helicopters can also join the fray. You can stay on the water for as long as you want, or eventually you can find a path back to the boathouse and get back on the road.
Looking around online, it seems a common rumor about Spy Hunter back in the day was that the game eventually has an ending if you play long enough. I can put that rumor to rest: Spy Hunter is an endless game. With an endless game comes deciding on what constitutes a win. The closest thing Spy Hunter has to levels are the seasons and the river. Winter is always the last unique season you will encounter in the game, so my winning condition is to drive through the Winter scene and also survive one loop of the river.
Spy Hunter is one of my childhood games and one that I spent time with on an occasional basis. Play sessions are pretty short so this was a good choice for a pick up and play game. I never committed to it long enough to ever get really good at the game, so this was my first real shot and beating it and seeing everything the game has to offer.
Because Spy Hunter is a pretty short game I ended up recording all my attempts, so I have some hard data on my effort in beating the game. It took me 18 attempts over almost exactly an hour and a half of total playtime. 17 of those attempts took place the first night I played, and the next time I sat down to play I had my winning run on the first try. I took on the river at my first opportunity and ended up getting through it for the first time in my life. The river scene was a childhood gaming nemesis that I was super proud to finally conquer. Going from car to boat or vice versa is the only time the game stops for long enough to capture a proper picture since there is no pause feature. I managed to capture a quick image with my camera even though I hadn’t technically finished the game yet. I was able to drive well enough to pass through Winter and beat the game with a final score of 108,595.
My 11th attempt was where I got my highest score. I looped through Winter twice and was going pretty well when I decided to go for it and try the River. Unfortunately, I failed out pretty fast. I earned a score of 134,525. I don’t remember what happened after that but I must have been pretty disappointed that I missed my best chance to that point. I stopped recording for a little while and then started back up again a little later. Those last attempts that night were not very good so I smartly cut my losses and went to bed.
During my 4th attempt I unintentionally triggered a glitch that soft-locked my game. I was trying to drive into the weapons van when I bumped into another car at the same time. The game started the sequence of steering the Interceptor into the van without actually putting the car inside. It left my car in a state where it was hovering over the road where I couldn’t move it and no one could touch it. That’s the first time I’ve seen that happen while playing and I had no choice but to reset and start over. I bet the timing of the glitch is really tough to reproduce!
Spy Hunter is a classic game that would be a good fit it any NES collection. There may not be a lot of substance to the game, but it plays well and it is a great game to pop in if you just want to kill a few minutes. I’m just glad to say that after all these years of playing that I have finally seen all there is to see, and it didn’t take me nearly as long as I thought!