Mad Magazine’s black and white duo were one of the things I looked forward to the most in their pages. With just a few inked panels, missions would be won and lost with a pie in the face or an explosive shoe. It was great fun, but it also provided plenty of material ideally suited for a great game.
Booby traps, head-to-head competition, and crazy espionage that way that only Mad could do seemed like a perfect combo, and First Star Software thought the same thing in 1984 with their video game adaptation on the Commodore 64. It would also appear on the Atari 8-bit computers, Apple II, and then exploded across a vast number of other systems from the Amiga to the Nintendo Entertainment System. This was a busy title!
The concept was simple – as one of the spies, you needed to search an embassy for the items you need to make your escape which meant snagging the cash, passport, a key, and the Top Secret plans while ensuring your escape. Floors were set up in a grid-pattern of interlocking rooms packed with furniture, cabinets, and other searchable goodies. You were also on the clock with a limited amount of time to find everything and make good your escape.
This wasn’t so much about dodging cameras and guards but more about searching for what you needed while avoiding the other spy, and here’s where the game did something incredibly awesome at the time. It split the screen showing both you and the other spy wandering about. But things got more interesting when another player jumped in alongside you for competitive head-to-head action!
The game called it “Simulvision” but the concept was pure greatness. Both spies also had a repertoire of goofy gadgets with which to lay down booby traps using the Trapulator off to the side to kill off the other spy and run their clock down into failure. Doors, drawers, and whatever else they could trick the other player with were up for grabs — though it kind of spoiled things in being able to see where they were laying the traps down in the other screen, testing your memory later on whether you found yourself in the same room.
When both spies found themselves face to face, combat was a little bizarre requiring you to waggle the joystick so as to club each other down. Death was temporary, and usually funny if it was dealt by one of the traps, though the time it would cost you was irreplaceable.
It wasn’t all about fast action, nor did it necessarily pave the way for more “serious” fare like Sid Meier’s Covert Action or Activision’s Spycraft. But it was a boldly imaginative take on a comic strip design-wise, made for a great party game, and innovative in its use of an early splitscreen system for competitive gaming — something that would be emulated years later on consoles to great success. It’s also what some have called part of the sparsely populated “trap-em-up” genre where the protagonist would actively use the environment and an arsenal of tricks to win the game.
Spy vs. Spy would get two sequels. The Island Caper, in 1985, took place on a tropical island and both spies built traps out of items they could find, like coconuts, to stop the other while trying to find a secret missile. In 1986, Arctic Antics would send our duo to the cold to do it all over. Both games would sport the same “Simulvision” setup, traps, and zany antics that the first game pioneered. Eventually, a remake made the jump tothe PS2 and the Xbox, but was critically panned. As great an idea that it was, it’s novelty was quickly eclipsed by a vast ocean of multiplayer games — notably shooters.
The rest of the world had moved on, though the innovative concepts that First Star Software brought to the table eventually found their way into many other games since then. Split screen, the use of multiple devices against your opponents (which we can see in tower-defense titles or something as frenetic as Team Fortress 2’s Engineer…or Spy), and head-to-head competition would become staples for fun multiplayer experiences. And like the comics, those ideas keep plugging on in one misadventure to the next.