Retrospective: Spy vs Spy

Black and White and dead all over

"Spring plus desk, facing door." This was probably the very first video game note I ever wrote to myself: a formula for something that, as a kid playing on his older brother's Commodore 64, I found deeply - almost fatally - hilarious.

The game? Spy vs Spy. The objective: slapstick comedy. Revenge. Revenge is never easy, though. To make the formula work, a lot of different pieces had to fall into place, and the first one was absolutely critical. You had to find a desk facing a door inside one of the game's endlessly reshuffled suite of rooms. Then you had to put a spring in the desk.

In Spy vs Spy, you could trap pieces of furniture, see: rig a gun or a bucket of electrified water up to a door, perhaps, or stick a time bomb in a bookcase. It tied in with the game's main action, which had two spies racing each other to locate the various pieces of kit they needed to abscond on a little airplane, and it tied in with the theme, too, which foregrounded gratuitous unpleasantness from start to finish: assault, battery, grievous bodily harm and plenty of mental cruelty on top.

So yes, the spring went in the desk, and then you opened the door. That was the basics taken care of. Ideally, though, it would go much further than that. In the next room, there'd hopefully be another door facing the first, and in the room beyond that, yet another. That was hitting the level design jackpot, and what it meant was that you could lurk in this final room and just wait. Eventually, your rival would search the desk, trigger the spring, and then TWAAAAAANG.

It was the best thing I had ever seen in a game: my brother's avatar - he always nabbed the black spy - propelled backwards through one, two, three rooms, before hitting a wall and then turning into a creepy little angel and disappearing up to heaven. He was arguably headed in the wrong direction. Spy vs Spy wasn't just a game about a comic strip: it was a game in which you could manufacture actual comedy, building it out of the locations you found yourself in and the tools you were given.

Looking back, it's a formula for multiplayer fun that could only have been created before genres had become too codified, before feature sets had been locked in place. In Spy vs Spy it's you against him, of course, but you're not in direct conflict. Instead, you're both after the same handful of things that will get you to that plane - the briefcase, plans, travel money, key and passport. These things are randomly hidden around the motel-like isometric game levels (the adventure's actually set within an embassy, apparently). They're shut in drawers, tacked behind pictures, lurking under a closet, and there are two details for you to keep in mind as you hunt about for them: how many of the vital elements you already hold, and how many your rival has collected in your absence.

Cue strategy. Cue stalemates, fake-outs, and pyrrhic victories. It's possible that you have almost all the items, but your enemy holds the last one. What to do? March into the same room as them and fight them head on? Never a wise tactic. We're spies, remember, and spies rarely opt for a direct approach. Much better to hide all your belongings in a wall safe or a coatrack and then booby-trap them. You're not going anywhere, but neither is your foe. He'll eventually search the wrong piece of furniture, though, and then boom or zap or ka-blam or whatever. He'll be dead, you'll have everything you need, and it's game over. Victory.

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Mike Riedel, the game's designer, went on to make Postal and Postal 2.

Oh, but it's never that simple. All but one of your best booby trap items - they're stored, rather brilliantly, on a device called a Trapulator - can be countered. Springs can be cut, for example, and explosives can be defused with a bucket of sand. Only the time bomb is inviolate. You'll need the correct counter, or remedy, for the specific situation you're faced with, though. You'll look pretty silly being machine-gunned to death as you march through a doorway with an umbrella held over your head, won't you? This ensures the game has yet another layer of tactics waiting for you, and it also makes the central search itself unbearably tense. You walk the same rooms as your foe, but you'll rarely, if you're a good player, bump into him. Has he been to this chest of drawers already? Has he trapped it? Or have you? It's part race, part treasure hunt, part strategy game, part test of the ol' spatial memory. What a classic.

It was mesmerising stuff back then, and it's not half bad today, either. You can play it to see the road not travelled, the path not taken, as video games were seduced by the death match, the duel, the CTF map and the Oddball rule sets. It helps, of course, that it's based on, well, Spy vs Spy, the immortal and wonderfully vicious comic strip from Mad Magazine and the Cuban cartoonist Antonio Prohias.

I loved Mad Magazine as a kid. I loved the fold-ins, the more grown-up references that I didn't quite understand, the nods to classic movies, and the art by legends like Sergio Aragones - I bet Hothead's a fan - and Don Martin, who drew the best, most delicate and expressive hands and fingers in the business. Oh man, and I loved those two spies, as well: one in black, one in white, endlessly pitted against each other and endlessly gouging away.

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The game had the most deviously wonderful music ever programmed - Faltermeyer tones and sinister whistling.

Black chops White in half at a tollbooth, White gives Black a hat filled with acid and his face melts off. Forget the cold war context, I had brothers and sisters. That was enough to ensure I understood the rules of this cruel new world. I would have killed for a real-life Trapulator.

Black and White were caught in the churn, I guess. Trapped within the same cyclical, decontextualized series of attacks and reprisals that marks out the modern online game of COD or Battlefield 3. They were a duo made for multiplayer, in other words, even though it was sheer good fortune their game tie-in ended up in the hands of the ingenious designer Mike Riedel, who was both a serious follower of Mad Magazine and a Robotron: 2084 devotee. (Aren't we all, Mike?)

Spy vs Spy wasn't the first game to offer players the chance to plant traps, then, but it was the first to foreground the inherent bitter comedy of triggering them. It's still one of the smartest, most engaging uses of head-to-head dynamics, and it's still one of the only games where spring plus desk, facing door, equals really, really good times.

Twang.

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