Gamers of a certain age often have fond memories of Goldeneye 64 and split-screen multiplayer in what was arguably the first console title to really make FPS deathmath play work. Some of us, however, have a different early association when someone says “spy versus spy" deathmatch. We remember the granddaddy of them all, Spy vs Spy ($1.99), in glorious pixelated 2D, and now in Retina on your iPhone.
Returning to this game, I was shocked by its depth and complexity. This is one of those games, like UFO/X-Com, that could have spawned a genre. But it didn’t. Here’s what I mean. This game was designed for split-screen. Goldeneye players ofter refer to looking at another player’s quadrant of the screen as “cheating." In Spy vs Spy, it is essential, basic strategy. Spying on what the other player is doing is the only way to know what kind of traps they’ve placed where (so you can have the appropriate countermeasure).
It’s also a memory game. You are just as vulnerable to your own traps as the other player’s, so if you think you placed a bomb trap in that wall safe (hidden behind a painting, of course), when it was actually a spring trap, bye-bye-birdie.
If it was just those two things, I’d probably be aces at it, but it’s also a fast-paced action game. So if you’re staring at the other player’s side of the screen, you may get to watch him collect the passport, money, key and all-important secret plans and take off for the airport. Or, if you’re slow placing your traps, the other player might walk into the room you’re in and slap you silly.
Face to face combat is one of the game’s weak points: as in the original ZX Spectrum (Atari, C64, etc.) game, fighting is random button-mashy. Also up for debate are the movement controls, basically in the form of a touch-anywhere d-pad (touch to show the pad, then move relative to the pad to move your Spy). The effort is good, and the pad lighting up in the quadrant you’re moving in helps, but it still tends to be imprecise. A smart tap-to-move control schene (tap the dresser to walk to it, tap the other spy to pursue and him with your blackjack) would have been a nice option. The App Store description mentions new controls coming soon, so we’ll see.
The game’s multiplayer is seamlessly integrated, and all that’s missing is the ability to curse at the other player and attempt to slap their controller out of their hands (no chat – there’s no time for it), but you can also start a local game via Bluetooth, which risks turning into a game of B.U.T.T.O.N.
Robots and Pencils deserves kudos for the game’s new look, with larger objects, and more distinctive rooms than the original, all in a funny cartooned style very similar to the original Spy vs Spy comic. There’s also a “cheat" map, which shows you which rooms you’ve explored and where the key objects you need to win are (but not what or whether they’re trapped). They also included a very faithful “retro" mode, which strips out features that didn’t exist in the original game (like that map).
Antonio Prohías, a talented Cuban cartoonist, created Spy vs Spy for Mad Mad Magazine in 1960. The near-wordlessness of the strip was intentional: he spoke little English on his arrival in the states (fleeing censorship and accusations of being a spy). He satirized the schemes and one-upmanship of the Cold War for almost 30 years, before he went up to the great “BOOM" in the sky in 1988. I think he would be happy to see that his creations are continuing to senselessly blow up, electrocute, and blackjack each other, and that they’re now doing it in people’s pockets.