S.P.Y. Special Project Y had to share 1989 with two other Konami beat ’em ups: Crime Fighters and the green monster that overshadowed everything else, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It also didn’t help that S.P.Y. wasn’t that great.
Granted, Konami was just getting its feet wet in experiencing the whole beat ’em up thing, but to hedge their bets, it seemed that they wanted S.P.Y. to be some kind of super-hybrid. It had run ‘n gun shooting a la Devastators (which Konami had also done) from 1988, a 3D “maze’ corridor sequence reminiscent of 1987’s Contra, flying shoot ’em up sequences like Sega’s Space Harrier, and tying this James Bond mash up together were the shallow beat ’em up levels that paled in comparison to their peers. It really tried to be a master at everything only to end up as something of a mediocre entry in Konami’s arcade lineup. But you had to give them points for inventiveness.
The game ran on one of Konami’s random boards as they were still like many other arcade builders back in the day focused on creating custom solutions for the games they developed. Outfits like Capcom and SNK, by the late 80s, were actively seeking a way to cut down on costs both for themselves and their customers, arcade operators, by building standard kits like the CPS-1 and the Neo Geo MVS respectively. Others, like Konami, grabbed whatever they could and cobbled it together into a Frankenstein cupboard of boards servicing as few as two or three games to others that were generally used for quite a few more.
The PCB that ran S.P.Y. was also used for a large number of other titles from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to Aliens in 1990. The CPU was a Konami custom Motorola 6809 8-bit CPU which, according to System 16’s own look at the hardware, was Konami’s first custom chip. It also used the ever-reliable Zilog Z80 with Yamaha chips supplying the sound.
Konami’s seemingly infinite appetite to license everything in their later years didn’t grant them a license to Bond…James Bond, that is. Instead, S.P.Y. shamelessly cribs from the films. The “gunbarrel” teaser, a villainous mastermind with a cat at his side, and villains that left little doubt as to who they were based on from May Day (A View to a Kill) to Jaws (The Spy Who Loved Me, Moonraker). Whether or not Konami actually lost out on licensing Bond is an interesting question, but S.P.Y. really leaves little doubt as to what the game was borrowing from.
Plot-wise, our agents (up to two can save the world in co-op) go in to save the world from a madman with a nuke. They do so by punching, kicking, and shooting their way through seven stages (the boss fight in the last stage took place in a smaller area off of the main zone) to stop the missile launch. What was Special Project Y? Who knows? Is it the giant missile? The nuke? Your guess is as good as mine especially since the ending really doesn’t say anything about it, either.
The beat ’em up sections are often of the 2d vertical (players have to clear out a wave of enemies before advancing upwards by leaping to higher floors) and side-scrolling 3D type (putting the 8-way joystick to use) with punches and kicks with no cool looking combos. There’s also no real jumping aside from the vertical areas — one attack button does punches, the other does the kicking. Weapons are sometimes dropped allowing you to blaze away with assault rifles, pistols, and laser guns for as long as you have ammo or aren’t knocked down. Characters have a damage gauge with blocks of health to weather some of the beating.
Mobs of recycled, purple uniformed thugs rush at you from every side…over and over and over again…along with several other types, most of which can be beat down simply by mashing either the kick button or the much faster punch attack. Spamming punches on enemies caught by the side of the screen or on bosses in the side scrolling scenes proved to be the fastest way in taking them out (except for that laser truck that shows up at the end of one of the stages). There’s really not a whole lot of variety here.
The run ‘n gun shooting stuff consist of the Space Harrier-esque flying intro at the start (gunning down flying soldiers, gliders, and a giant chopper boss), storming a mansion (with enemies on foot and cars racing down the sides of the path to gun you down), and running through corridors as you pick whether to go left, right, or just follow the arrows. That’s not too exciting, either, especially with the ninja boss at the end that was just a slog to kill because of his disappearing/reappearing trick every time he would get hit.
S.P.Y. also does something pretty daring. Getting to the end doesn’t finish the game or “win” it — the main bad guy flees on the flying chair — which kicks off a SECOND run through the entire game. At the end of that loop, you finally get to face him once you get past his portable missiles and kill him with a well-placed punch or kick. No epic fight, no brutal battle just like most Bond villains once you get past their muscle (like Taito’s head bad guy in 1987’s The Ninja Warriors, an evil President hiding behind a brainwashed army) which I thought was actually a neat twist to the mega fight at the end.
As repetitive and bland as the game sounds, what was exciting was the soundtrack — S.P.Y. has a pretty great one thanks to Seiichi Fukami who had also worked on Gaiapolis‘ amazing music among others. Visually, the game also did a few neat tricks especially with the ocean at the start and the explosion effects but overall, it stuck to doing the job without pushing things.
It’s probably not that much of a surprise that S.P.Y. didn’t appear in any Konami classics collection. At least, not yet.
S.P.Y’s catch-all explosion of action that didn’t quite make it as exciting as other focused efforts such as Midway’s Spy Hunter in 1983 and Taito’s Rolling Thunder in 1986. Konami’s later efforts in the beat ’em up genre would also continue to concentrate on the kind of tightly designed efforts that TMNT and Crime Fighters were already built on. At the same time, introducing a potpourri of elements weren’t an entirely terrible idea even though the implementation in S.P.Y. left other pieces of itself feeling dodgy.
Console and computer games, in particular, often attempted to combine several different disciplines into their increasingly complex and diverse approaches to tried formulae giving players more to do than shoot targets on the screen or kill monsters by the dungeon load. Titles such as Bethesda’s The Terminator blended driving, shooting, and RPG-like exploration in a sandbox environment. Nintendo’s Metroid blended side-scrolling shooting action with adventure elements such as exploration and puzzle solving. So S.P.Y. had a few neat ideas that, if they were on a console or a PC, could’ve worked out with a few more extras tagged in…even if it didn’t quite find its license to kill in the arcades.