Saturday, 20 December 2014

Spy vs Spy (First Star Software, 1984)

The year's final properly big entry comes a bit early, and isn't even seasonally thematic. I went for the big one now, so that I would have more time to prepare for the final entries of the year, because I will be too busy on the Christmas week with other things. So, this foreword is for giving you a bit of a warning, that you're in for a properly huge entry this time - the biggest single entry I have done so far, so grab a bucket of coffee and prepare for a long ride. Also, for those of you with slower internet connections, this entry is rather heavy in graphics.



Developed for the Commodore 64, Atari 8-bit computers and Apple ][ computers by First Star Software:
Coding - Michael Riedel on Commodore 64 and Apple ][, Jim Nangano on Atari 8-bits
Sounds - Nick Scarim

Also released by Beyond in Europe and Avantage in America in 1984.

Converted for the ZX Spectrum by Anthony Taglione and Malcolm Hellion under licence from First Star Software, and released by Beyond in 1985.

Converted for the Sega Master System by Yuji Naka and Michael Riedel, and released by Sega in 1986.

Converted for the Commodore 16 by Jools Jameson, and released by Tynesoft in 1987.

Converted for the Acorn BBC Micro & Electron by Kevin Blake of Artcrew Productions with music by Ian Waugh, and released by Tynesoft in 1987.

Unofficially converted by Jon Cartwright for the Dragon 32/64 computers and released by Starship
Software in 1987 as "Spy Against Spy".

Converted for the Nintendo Entertainment System by Fernando Herrera and Richard Spitalny, and released by Kemco in 1988.

Converted for the Commodore Amiga by Geoff M. Phillips, and for the Atari ST by Mike Spendlove, and both released by Wicked Software in 1989.

Unofficial conversion for the Commodore Plus/4 made by Bag and Jackye, and released as freeware in 1992.

Converted for the Nintendo Game Boy Color by Kemco, and released by Vatical Entertainment for the US market; by Kotobuki Systems for the Japanese market; and released by Kemco for the European market in 1999.

Conversions were also released for Amstrad CPC (1985), NEC PC-8801 and Sharp X-1 (1986) by Beyond Software, but none of them have further credits listed anywhere.



I seem to be developing a habit of doing one comic strip/book-based game comparison per month. This month's entry to the series comes in the form of First Star's Spy vs. Spy, which began its life in the brilliantly satire-heavy MAD magazine. Although not nearly as heavy in circulation as B.C. or as popular as Batman, Spy vs. Spy seems to have gained a respectively large cult following, and is certainly the most famous Cuban comic strip ever made. So this comparison is dedicated to the late great Antonio Prohías.

While I'm beginning to process this entry, the game has been ranked #51 in the Top 100 list at Lemon64 with a score of 8.4 from 188 votes; at World of Spectrum, it has a score of 8.09 from 49 votes; CPC Game Reviews gives a 9 out of 10 and CPC-Softs has a rating of 17 out of 20; at LemonAmiga, 26 voters have given it a score of 7.65; 466 Atarimania voters have given the 8-bit Atari version a 7.6 out of 10, while the Atari ST version has only been given a 6 out of 10 by just one voter; and the NES version has been given a D rating at at The Sega Master System version's score at SegaRetro was at the time based on 5 reviews, with an average of 79 out of 100, and finally, the Game Boy Color version's score of 4 out of 5 is taken from MobyGames, and based on 2 votes. All the missing scores are still missing.

Before someone starts complaining, why doesn't the unofficial Dragon version get compared to the others: it's because I couldn't get the damn thing working on any of my emulators, with any loading commands, with any setup combination, with any file of the game I could find. The loader just freezes on me regardless of all things in any combination, so for the second time during the history of this blog, I have given up on trying to get a version of a game working. If you want to help me get it working, please leave a comment with full instructions on everything regarding this matter. Thank you. -- And also, I haven't found a fully working NEC PC-88 version yet, so my review of that is more or less based on the SHARP X-1 version.



Spy vs. Spy is one of the most singular games that has the main premise of putting a player against another. Indeed, even in a single-player mode, you play against the computer, who controls the other ratty-looking spy you have chosen not to choose. As the comics go, the two spies are trying to accomplish some sort of a mission, and of course, they are both aiming for the same goal, so stopping the other spy from reaching the goal by any means necessary is the name of the game. And as expected, your time is running, too.

The game is played within one of 8 buildings, which are chosen with the level of difficulty option. On the easiest level, there are only 6 rooms to search through, while the highest amount of rooms is 36. In the bigger buildings, you are required to plough through two or three floors, each having increasingly difficult maps to navigate. All the rooms are shown in a three-dimensional sort of way, kind of similarly to old Sierra adventure games - the camera is firmly showing the rectangular rooms through the fourth wall, and you are able to move in the rooms in four directions: left, right, back and front. Both the spies are armed with a club, which is your only melee weapon, and with this weapon, you are able to score points, take some time away from your opponent, and if very successful, "kill" him off for a while, which takes up even more of your opponent's time.

But I don't think the game would have been nearly as successful, had it not had the possibility of setting up traps for your opponent. You've got bombs, heavy duty springs, water buckets, guns with strings tied to the trigger and time bombs. Successfully getting your opponent into a trap will make a specific sort of a death scene, and your spy will laugh at the other spy's failings. Very entertaining. You also have a map, from which you can see all the locations of the items you need to collect, as well as yours and your opponent's locations. Once you have collected all the items inside a briefcase, you need to find the hidden door to an airport, from where you can make your escape.

Still, 30 years after its original release, Spy vs. Spy is superbly entertaining, and two-player battling at its very best. Somehow, it manages to capture the essence of the Mad magazine comics better than even the comics themselves occasionally, and certainly a lot better than the criminally short cartoons most of the time. I cannot recommend this game highly enough.



Because we have so many interesting versions to get through this time, I'm making another exception from my rather ill-conceived rule of not comparing anything but the tape loading times lately. Naturally, I'm still excluding any cartridge version, because there is still no point in measuring their loading times, and all the results that I can't confirm on by any means will still be a bit questionable. These times, I have marked with an asterisk (*). The ones I have marked with two (**) are otherwise difficult to measure, because the duration of the loading time depends on the BIOS version, the amount of RAM, the processor and the quality of the disk drive in each machine. These times have been measured with the lowest commonly used settings on PAL systems.

ACORN BBC MICRO, disk: 14 seconds*
ACORN BBC MICRO/ELECTRON, tape: 9 min 39 sec
AMSTRAD CPC, disk (orig.): 18 seconds*
AMSTRAD CPC, disk (AUS): 15 seconds*
AMSTRAD CPC, disk (trilogy): 14 seconds*
AMSTRAD CPC, tape (orig.): 8 min 3 sec
AMSTRAD CPC, tape (Zafiro): 8 min 10 sec
AMSTRAD CPC, tape (Hi-Tec): 11 min 10 sec
ATARI 8-BIT, disk: 59 seconds*
ATARI ST, disk: 44 seconds**
COMMODORE 16, tape (orig.): 2 min 7 sec
COMMODORE 64, tape (orig.): 3 min 35 sec
COMMODORE 64, tape (trilogy): 5 min 10 sec
COMMODORE 64, disk (PAL): 2 min 41 sec
COMMODORE 64, disk (NTSC): 2 min 55 sec
COMMODORE AMIGA, disk: 27 seconds**
NEC PC-8801, disk: 25 seconds*
SHARP X-1, disk: 8 seconds*
SINCLAIR ZX SPECTRUM, tape (orig.): 4 min 57 sec
SINCLAIR ZX SPECTRUM, tape (Zafiro): 5 min 3 sec
SINCLAIR ZX SPECTRUM, tape (Hi-Tec): 5 min 40 sec
SINCLAIR ZX SPECTRUM, tape (trilogy): 5 min 33 sec

Phew! That's quite a lot of loading times right there - should please most of you hardcore comparitists' sick minds, and boost all the quickest competitors' egos properly. The most keen-eyed of you will have noticed, that the list is still very much incomplete, since some of the original versions are still sadly unavailable on the internet, and I have no intention of buying any of the game's versions for this purpose alone.

Loading screens. Left end: Acorn versions. 2nd from left, top to bottom: Amstrad CPC, Atari ST, Commodore 64.
Middle section: ZX Spectrum, Commodore Amiga, Commodore 16. 2nd from right: Sharp X-1, NEC PC-8801, Apple ][.
Right end, top to bottom: Sharp X-1, NEC PC-8801, Atari 8-bit.

Of course, we cannot leave the Loading section without saying something about the loading screens. Most of these follow the same idea - the White Spy and the Black Spy standing back to back, holding a weapon. The ones that don't follow this pattern (Spectrum and Amstrad) only feature the game screens filled with the Spy vs. Spy logo and some info text. Interestingly, the Acorn versions have at least these three different variations of the same loading screen (at the left end), and the only version to copy this particular form is naturally the only other Tynesoft release, which is on the Commodore 16. Most of the screens try to be as clear as possible that the game is MAD magazine's official product, and you get the obligatory publisher logo, the game title logo and the creator shown on the loading screens along with the two spies. The most interesting ones, to me, are on the Sharp X-1 computer and its sister of sorts, the NEC PC-8801 (which has two loading screens) - all of which look remarkably similar, but have a different background colour. Very strange, but all of them look nice. But I think that's more than enough about loading stuff for now.



This is one of those games that is insanely difficult to explain to any newcomer with any short method, so because I want to get on to comparing the game as soon as possible, click HERE to get a digital version of the full instructions manual from the game (located at Project64). It is a simple text file inside a zip archive for whatever reason, and the instructions are mainly for the Commodore 64 version. However, you should get a very good idea of how the game should work on any version. But contrarily to what I usually do, as the gameplay features such a vast deal of actions, I have no intention of repeating every bit of all the instructions and hints that the manual tells you, so I can only suggest you read the manual first before proceeding to read the rest of this section (or proceed with the manual alongside this comparison), unless you know the game well enough by heart that you have no need to do that.

Ready to continue?

In short, the basic gameplay involves walking around in three-dimensional rooms, engaging your opponent in a hand-to-hand... well, more like cane-to-cane combat, setting and disarming traps, finding items from random furniture and making a successful escape via the hidden airport. Every action in the game is handled by the chosen control method, which usually is a joystick by default, so you only get four directions and one action button. How you handle all this is in most versions very similar, and you will find the instructions in the above link. If you haven't read through the manual, I'm assuming you have played at least one of the versions to know what I'm talking about. Now, it's time to start the comparison proper.

Since you already seem to know how the game plays, I can now describe how the game feels to play. Because you only have four directions instead of eight, and just one fire button in use, it can be a bit cumbersome even for us who have played it more than a few just casual times. Pushing the button once does nothing by itself, unless you're standing next to a door or furniture. Pushing the button twice in a row, when NOT being next to anything, brings up the trap menu cursor, which can feel a bit unresponsive at times. The thing is, the game requires constant calculations for both the players, particularly when the other spy is played by the computer, so any action done by either player, even if it's as little as walking through the door, gives the game a very small pause, which can occasionally cause some slight unresponsiveness to the controls. But in most cases, this is not a very big problem.

Now, although all of the above text was written with the C64 version in mind, I can safely say that all three originals play pretty much exactly the same - only the APPLE ][ version has some crashing problems that might be due to the cracked version that I found, because there was no originals around. Also, a joystick is almost a necessity for the APPLE ][, because you can't control your spy properly with the keyboard - not only does the fire button (space bar) act as your walk-stopper, but you don't seem to have a button for fighting.

On the SPECTRUM, if you happen to lose your currently carried items, they might end up in ANY of the containers on the screen, even the ones usually containing tools. In most other versions, the collectables can only be inside regular furniture, such as bookshelves, televisions and desks. Medicine cabinets, tool cabinets and umbrella stands are usually only there for having a tool for a specific purpose, and cannot be replaced with a collectable item, but this is not true for the Spectrum version. The first difference in gameplay that has to do with how the game looks comes here in the form of a holding-slot, which shows you what item you are currently holding, instead of showing it in your spy's hand. This can be confusing at first, since any of the four items that should be collected into the briefcase will not be shown as something like a small bag, unlike in all the originals. It takes getting a bit used to, but it's not too bad.

The AMSTRAD version is very much more particular about your positioning on the screen than any of the other versions so far, when it comes to hand-to-hand combat, setting traps and operating doors. It's also a bit slower than the other 8-bit versions so far, which is only made more severe by the more noticable pause caused by any action either of the spies do. Considering everything, while it looks acceptable, it feels more like a bad Spectrum port, with that holding-slot and everything connected to it.

Next on the line is the SEGA MASTER SYSTEM version, as it seems as though the list of versions is proceeding by the year of release. This one starts with a title screen, from which you get to the menu screen by pressing the START/1 button. The most notable in-game difference is the way you do hand-to-hand combat: instead of using a cane, you kick and punch each other, and you do this with the two designated fire buttons. Having a two-button controller also affects the way you set up traps - you get to the menu with one button, and choose the item with the other. There is a little problem with the game regarding sounds, which affects the playability slightly: you cannot hear the signal for a successful trap setup, so you can only guess if it works. Otherwise, the game plays fantastically well, and noticably faster than on any of the computer versions so far, with no notable pauses when any action takes place. In addition to the new two-button features, there is another new feature in the SMS version, which makes you continue to the next level straight after completing one level, and  thus adding to a total score. If it were not for the slight problem with setting up the traps, this would easily be the most enjoyable of the lot now.

Although certainly awkward at best, the SHARP X-1 version is still far from being the worst. The pauses for any actions are the most notable so far, and the death animation slows the game down immensely. Also, dying will give you the biggest time decrease penalty of any of the versions - during the death animation already, you will lose something close to two minutes of game time, and during the "darkness" period, you will still be losing many valuable seconds more. In the original versions, death will cause you to lose about 30 seconds before the "darkness" period. The most curious change to the game rules here is that you can set traps into toolboxes and other things now. Otherwise, the basic gameplay rules and mechanics are much the same as they are in the originals, only more awkward to use.

If the only previous occasion of having a Sharp X-1 in addition to the more regular NEC PC-8801 version is anything to judge the NEC version by, of which I unfortunately could not find a working version for this comparison, I would probably say this one is slightly better than the Sharp version. But since I have no way of truly knowing this, I will assume the NEC version is as good as the Sharp version, and judging by the comparison video by Wingnut of Gaming History Source on YouTube, it is. Hopefully, I will get to update this with proper knowledge as soon as possible - so if any of you readers out there have any clue where to find a working version of the NEC version of Spy vs. Spy, please do leave a comment.

As we get to the C16 conversion, we get to finally see some really big differences. First of all, instead of getting a cursor-operated menu, you get a very simplified title screen with two options shown: the number of players and the difficulty level, both of which are operated with two function keys. As for the difficulty levels, this one has only six difficulty levels instead of eight. Curiously, the HELP button starts the game, which on the YAPE emulator is F4, but on VICE, it's F8. The game itself is a horrible mess of bad controls, bad collision detection, and really strange changes to some of the actions. You get no time bomb or even a map, and using any of the traps is a very different procedure. You need to not only push the fire button, but to keep it down, in order to be able to operate the trap menu highlighter. Any item you have now highlighter, will be used instantly after you touch one of the places you are able to use them at. Accidental appliance of traps, and getting trapped into them yourself, is therefore a very great possibility. And this is not even one of the biggest problems in this version, because you can learn to deal with it. The biggest problem I had with it was, that I had to play the game for over half an hour before I figured out how to actually pick up items - it's pushing the joystick down while pressing the fire button while searching for objects... and even then it doesn't always work. Also, engaging the other spy in combat is as simple as keeping the fire button pushed down - you have no control over how you actually fight. Even something as simple as going through doorways has been turned into both a chore and a game of luck. It's just not a very functional conversion. But that's C16 for you. Happily, there is nothing wrong whatsoever with the unofficial PLUS/4 conversion, as it plays exactly like any of the originals, as far as I can tell. Only the graphics make it feel slightly different, but more on that later on.

Noticing that Tynesoft, who released the C16 version, also made the release for the ACORN computers, brought an ounce of terror into my suspicious mind. And I'm sorry to say, it's for a good reason. Although the ACORN versions do get a lot closer to the originals than the C16 version, it has almost as much of a problem with collision detection and the appearance of fighting as the C16. At least the game is finishable, which is a vast improvement over the C16 version, but there's an additional puzzle of figuring out how to collect all the items. Happily, you have the map again to find out where all the items are, so all you really need to do is first locate and pick up the briefcase, and then go and pick up all the items where they are, as you will not be able to move the other items around without the briefcase. Also, much like the C16 version, there are no other floors in any of the buildings, so you won't find any ladders around. That said, there are still 7 levels to go through, so the latter ones will become rather troublesome to navigate, even in their single-level forms.

As I already mentioned, I had no luck getting any DRAGON 32/64 version working. I was able to track down a .vdk file, which is a disk image of sorts, and it only gave me a headache with some error messages, such as "?SN ERROR" and "?UL ERROR", which I have no idea what either of they mean, and I have no patience to find out. I was also able to track down some cassette image file, which only got me as far as the loading screen, if you can call it that. It seems like the only potential way to get a working version of the game would be to buy this "Dragon 32 Universe" DVD, which would apparently also unlock all the downloadable content on the said website. Since I'm not making any money of this blog, I won't be purchasing anything that I don't really feel I should invest on unless I have more need for it than just this one occasion. I still might eventually do that some day, but for now, the only way you can see anything of the game for free is to check out the screenshots at MobyGames, unless you know how to get past the error messages.

The NES version takes another clearly different approach to the game mechanics. This time, you are not allowed to change the computer IQ level, nor hide the airport gate until you have all the items. Unfortunately, not getting to change the computer IQ level makes the game boring to play by yourself very quickly, so having a human opponent is very much a necessity here to make the game any fun at all. Another thing you don't have is the trap menu, but instead you have to scroll through the items (which are shown in your other hand) with the B button, and activate them with the A button. The A button also searches through the furniture. An interesting change to the game balance comes at some point in the later levels, when you are deprived of your cane, and instead need to battle with your fists - although you are still able to find the cane and beat your opponent with it. No, sorry - it's actually a cane AND A KNIFE. Of course, both the cane and the knife make more damage than fists, and to visualize this, you have an energy display, which is unique. Also unique is the ability to jump by pushing both A and B buttons simultaneously, but frankly, it feels a bit like cheating since this feature was not in the original game. And yet another also: if you're carrying an item when you have a fight and win it, you still carry the item after the fight, whereas in all the other versions, the item is lost anyhow and needs to be collected from one of the containers in the room in which you fought. To top all this off, the NES version plays a bit faster than even the SEGA version, which was plenty fast enough already. To balance out this list of new features, there are two things I'm not quite happy with: for one, the gun trap is missing, and two, the fighting is just button-smashing, and you have just one move which you can only hope to time well.

From the two handheld Nintendo versions, the GAME BOY COLOR version seemed to be the closest to the original, which is why I have included it here. (The one made for the original Game Boy is more based on the sequels.) Still, the differences are quite vast, so I'm not entirely certain even this one should be considered a conversion or a remake. The basics of the gameplay are pretty much the same as in the NES version, with how the controls work and how the game progresses. Only the jump is now gone, but the gun trap is also still gone. The biggest difference to all the other versions is the amount of levels here, which is now 32 compared to the original 8. Because of this massiveness, the GBC version also features a password system. Like any other Spy vs. Spy game, this can also be played against another human player, but you would need a link cable and another GBC for that to happen, so that makes a proper versus game much more difficult to have. Luckily, the solo mode now has some proper difficulty level settings, which affect the computer IQ as well as the amount of time you get for each level. For me, though, even the easiest mode turned out to be a real challenge, because the fight mechanics are now slightly faster and more accurate than on the NES, so the AI usually has an unfair advantage in this, most particularly once he gets a weapon. Another really big new element is the fake exits, which can keep you prying on your enemy for nothing, if another exit is the correct one, so you really need to be quick and brutal, as well as perfectly aligned and timed in your every action. To balance the fake exits, there are no security guards now to beat you up. There's also a training mode, in which you get to know the controls, which is nice to have if you have never played a game of Spy vs. Spy before, and if you don't have a manual. Unfortunately, there are also a lot of instructional cutscenes, which take away from the immediacy of the game.

Finally, we come to the two 16-bit versions. There's not much to tell of these - only that if you try to even get close to the airport door without all the required items with you, the security guard will bounce you off. In all the other versions, you need to try to open the door first. This little difference can be a little troublesome, if you happen to die in the room and your items are lost in a container just next to the door. The AMIGA version has a small disadvantage to the ATARI ST version in that using the fire button is VERY sensitive for some reason, and you might often fall into your own traps while setting them up. This I found to be true on a real Amiga as well, so there seems to be some sort of a bug in the controls system. Then again, the ATARI ST version plays a bit slowly - even slower than any of the originals, but at least it has no control problems.

It's not very often that I get to compliment so many versions of an old game for being as perfect as you could ever wish. Some of the conversions could be even considered a bit better than the original, at least in gameplay, but it's really a matter of opinion, how do you like Spy vs. Spy to be for you. For an NES gamer, for instance, their version is probably the only one they can ever think of playing, because it has the jump feature, it's faster than the originals and it has two different weapons. The GBC version has so much more extra content to it, that it could be preferable to all the others just for that, but it's more difficult to play against a friend. But since I have to compare every version against the original, of which there are now more than one, I need to consider whether each conversion gives you all the originals do, and how well do they manage to deliver all the necessary aspects... so here we go:

6. DRAGON 32/64 (until further experiments)



To me, the most interesting part of this comparison is the graphics. Not because there is all that much to actually see in the game, but because most of the versions are very much based on the original threesome in as many ways as possible. The thing is, Spy vs Spy's style is such an original one, that it would have been almost impossible to make the game work any differently. Not that nobody ever tried.

Title screens and menus. Click on the picture to view it in proper size.

Since the game was basically designed to work within one screen layout, the menu screens were also built within the action screen frames. Some of the later conversions feature additional title screens and different menu styles, probably designed to give a more polished overall feel to the game... but I think the different styles are there just to take your focus away from everything else that is different in the game. Basically, the way the options menu looks like is directly relative to the way the game looks in action. Every version that looks like one of the originals in menu, will look more or less exactly like the originals in action. The ones with more elaborate graphics in the menu will have slightly more elaborate graphics in the game, and the ones with less graphics will look like crap.

Just so you don't necessarily have to click on every single picture to see everything properly, I decided to put all the available versions' screenshots into their own slots. The events shown are in order: hand-to-hand combat, ladders/hatches, carrying all items in a room with the gate to the airport, and a successful escape. All the deaths caused by traps are shown later on.

Screenshots from the Apple ][ version.

Here we have what you might call a basic blueprint for the game's graphics. The APPLE ][ version's rooms all look the same, apart from the furniture of course, and although everything looks pretty much as they should, the overall graphic output is a bit monotonous, having no variety in colours. Still, the basic 3D effect is implemented as well as it should, the quality of all the graphics is pretty much what it can be, and all the animations are as good as it gets, which isn't much. In other words, apart from the lack of colours, the game looks as good as it should even on the APPLE ][.

Screenshots from the Atari 8-bit version, using an original .atr disk image on the Altirra emulator.

Screenshots from the Atari 8-bit version, using an executable .xex file on the Atari800win emulator.
The only way I could get the original .atr disk image of the ATARI 8-BIT version working was by using the Altirra emulator, and no matter what settings I would be using, I would always get this garbled noise bar at the right edge of the emulation screen, as well as those room-coloured border extension things on the left. I'm hoping this doesn't happen on a real Atari, since it does make the game feel a bit unpolished. However, (UPDATE!) a reader called krupkaj helpfully mentioned another version, which worked better, so the second set of Atari screenshots above are made using the Atari800win emulator, which uses a very different palette by default. The emulator he mentioned is different, but at least it works with the one I had. If anyone can confirm that playing the game on an original Atari, using an original disk (or tape) works just as well as the .xex file, please throw a comment.

Screenshots from the Commodore 64 version.

Other than for the strange border glitches on the ATARI, the C64 version looks pretty much exactly like it. There might be some differences in the palette, but they're barely worth mentioning. Otherwise, the animations, the sprites and everything look very much the same on the ATARI and the C64. From the three originals, the most differences are to be found on the APPLE version, which seems to have only one colour scheme for all the rooms, but more obscurely coloured screen borders and the trap menu panel. The panel also looks more protruding on the APPLE compared to the other two. Of these three, the C64 version has overall the lightest colour scheme, which serves the game's dark humour as a nice contrast. But there are some minor differences, which might escape a quick inspection. The C64 version is the only one of these three to feature some different floor patterns, and it also has a more cartoony version of the ending, where the plane takes off and flies off of the action screen and past the trap menu panel. In the ATARI and APPLE versions, the plane just disappears when it passes the action screen's border.

Screenshots from the ZX Spectrum version.
This is where it gets really interesting. Usually, when colourful games are converted for the SPECTRUM from other machines, the game will look noticably different from the source material. Mostly, you would get hi-res monochrome sprites and sometimes a fairly colourful background, which mostly serves the purpose quite well. This time, I would say you get the worst of both worlds - monochrome with lo-res graphics, and the amount of variety in room colouring and floor patterns is the same as on the APPLE version. Still, it plays much like it should, so I'm guessing the choice of graphical style was made so that the playability wouldn't suffer so much. The only real problem that I have with the graphics is that instead of showing you the item you are carrying in your hand, as it usually is handled, the SPECTRUM version has a holding-slot under the panel of traps, which is where you see what you are currently holding - one of the traps or the briefcase. Due to the screen size, the HUD has been modified a bit to show different things in different places, but since everything is still shown somehow, I'm fine with this rearrangement.

Screenshots from the Amstrad CPC version.

Strangely, the AMSTRAD version combines the palettes of the C64 and ATARI 8-BIT versions with the holding-slot from the SPECTRUM version, and then adds a unique floor pattern into the mix and takes away the airport runway surface. It's surprisingly close to the originals, and still manages to be interesting with its few exclusive quirks. Because of the holding-slot, though, I can't really say it's as good as the originals, but it's certainly closer than the SPECTRUM version.

Screenshots from the Sega Master System version.

While the SEGA version's basic layout isn't quite as stylized as what the originals have, it works well enough and doesn't take much away from the overall feel. Mostly because the rooms and the two spies have a distinctly different look as well. What I don't like about this version's graphics, is that the spies look like a Japanese game designer's idea of a French rat in a suit with a straight back, while they should look a bit more sinister with a slightly hunched back, and more particularly, more Italian or Portuguese. What I do like about it, are the upgraded furniture, item and airport graphics.

Screenshots from the Sharp X-1 version.

The SHARP X-1 version looks okay'ish for what it is capable of. Curiously, the conversion team has gone for a completely unique approach to the colouring issue - here the White player's rooms are always green, and the Black player's rooms are blue. If both spies get into the same room, the screen in use will be the Black one instead of the White one, which it usually is. The biggest problem with this version is the insane amount of sprite flickering, which makes your eyes hurt after a while, and getting a good screenshot when something is moving (see the airport picture).

Screenshots from the Commodore 16 version.

I couldn't get much of the required screenshots from the COMMODORE 16 version, because frankly, the game doesn't meet all the requirements. One thing I noticed was while hunting for good screenshots was that the C16 version doesn't have any levels that would take place in more than one floor, so the buildings are pretty two-dimensional in that sense. Because you have no map or a properly informational inventory system, you can get easily lost in even the smallest buildings, and lose anything you might ever find, because it takes a lot of time before you can really tell whether you are carrying anything or not. Although there's more colour here than on the APPLE and SPECTRUM versions, there still seems to be less things to see. That's because the trap menu panel has been reduced to the bare minimum above the action screens, and the action screens have been widened to give room to some useless screen ornaments. The 3D-effect hasn't been well implemented at all, which I might have mentioned already, but it deserves another mention - that's how utterly useless it is. Some more degraded elements include the airport gate, which looks like a regular door with the letter "A" on it; the doors at the bottom of each screen, which are difficult to notice if they're open; and the reduced fight animation, which is made of two frames, and mostly points to the left. And when you finally get through a level after hours of useless fumbling, there's no proper ending of any kind, just a useless "congratulations" message.

Screenshots from the Acorn Electron/BBC Micro version.

Perhaps these screenshots aren't quite as representative of the ACORN versions as they could be, but it's hard to take any sensible screenshots when there are too many colours to choose from and intense flickering on top of everything. Don't get me wrong - I like games to be colourful, but this is just psychedelic. All of the graphics change their colours as you go to a different room. When there's a time bomb in the room, the room goes berzerk with changing colours every 1/5 of a second. I do appreciate that they tried to make it look as close to the original as possible in the overall graphic quality and style, but the colours are just way too much. Besides, the game is missing a proper ending, and there aren't even multi-floored buildings, so I wasn't able to get a screenshots of that here. It's definitely a case of too much focus on unimportant things, and too little on the important.

Screenshots from the unofficial Dragon 32/64 version. (Taken from MobyGames)

These screenshots are, I admit, snatched from MobyGames, and if you have read through everything so far, you already know why. There are more screenshots on the MG Spy Against Spy page, but none of them really give the information I'm trying to show here, and I have no idea what this version looks like in action, so you'll have to wait until later to get an update on this. But you have to admit, it does look a bit ugly, doesn't it?

Screenshots from the Nintendo Entertainment System version.

The NES version has a surprisingly simplified look, although there's definitely a unique sort of a style to it. There never seems to be more than two container elements in any room, apart from the exits, of course, and the colouring is more pastel-oriented. At least the spies both have a fairly traditional look, which is nice. The unique features on the screen are a power indicator for showing your energy, the lack of any sort of trap menu panel, and a 1970's photo book framing style. And then the inventory slot looks very different too. The area in which most progress has been made for the NES, is the end sequence, which now goes as such: the winning spy walks to the airport, only to find he has forgotten the briefcase, so he turns back to fetch it. Meantime, the losing spy has been catching up with the winner, and now follows him to the airport, only to get left behind the dodgy one-man plane. The loser is left behind, running back and forth in a panic, until his time runs out and he explodes. Great stuff.

Screenshots from the Commodore Amiga and Atari ST versions.

The AMIGA and ST versions don't really differ at all, apart from the screen resolution, so I didn't include the other one on this list. Whether you like it or not, both of these conversions have been made to be as close to the C64 version as possible, with only slight improvements in the animations, as well as the details and the colours of all the objects and rooms. I know some of the 16-bit purists might find this a waste of hardware capabilities, but I happen to like it the way it is - just upgraded enough to still work with the context, and not too much decorations to seem as if the focus was taken off from the gameplay... which it unfortunately is, but only very little.

Screenshots from the unofficial Commodore Plus/4 version.

Getting back to the 8-bits for the final two versions, here's what the unofficial COMMODORE PLUS/4 version looks like. If you don't count the ridiculous psychedelia of the two ACORN versions, this one is as colourful as the 8-bits get, when they're made properly. The graphics are otherwise very well converted from the C64, but the animations have some slight glitching, which is barely noticable in action, and perhaps requires a trained eye to catch any anomalies. Or a couple of badly timed screenshots. Curiously, though, the PLUS/4 version has adopted the "hold" slot from some of the less traditional versions, but at least it shows the small item bags as well as the briefcase in a more noticable manner.

Screenshots from the Game Boy Color version.

If the differences in playability didn't convince you that the GAME BOY COLOR version practically belongs to its own category, perhaps the graphics will. As I mentioned, there are 32 levels in the game, which are divided into four areas. All of the actual game takes place in a similar building, but with different room elements and items, and the areas are shown by their escape vehicles, which are: Stealth Jet (basically the same as the plane in all the other versions), Speed Boat, Rocket Ship and Spy Car. The biggest difference in these new areas is the escape cutscene, but I decided to include pictures of all the different items from all the different areas into the collage above just for completeness' sake. As you see, the differences are quite vast, and do not only affect the game cosmetically - the movement space in the rooms is drastically lessened by the room sizes themselves, as well as all the super-sized furniture. Sure, it looks great, but much has been sacrificed in gameplay to get the game look as good as it does... although I have to say, I don't really agree with the decision to change the ladder and trapdoor mechanism to a simple passage of stairs. While the ending sequences are even more elaborate and detailed than they are on the NES, some of the fighting moves and animation has been reduced to a similar level as the likes of C16 and the Acorn computers. Overall, even with the smaller resolution than any of the other versions, the GBC manages to produce a potentially more attractive game to most gamers more easily attracted towards graphics than gameplay than any other machine on the list.

Map screens from all the available versions, where available.

It's time to go hardcore in our graphics comparison this time, and take a quick look at the map screens in all the different versions. There is a point to this, though: while the originals only show a basic map of the building along with the locations of all the items and a flashing square on the room where you are, some of the later versions give much more information, such as which rooms have some sort of a trap in them, and where the other spy is at the moment.

Death scenes from various versions.

Finally, here's a comparison of the death scenes in the game. Since you already know what the game basically looks like on each machine, I decided to leave out the most similar looking versions from this collage. Every death scene ends in your transparent angelic form flying upwards, but what comes before it depends entirely on the method of death. When you die in combat, the angel bit is the only result, but getting yourself caught in traps will play a small animation. All of the trap-induced death sequences start with your spy showing a question mark over his head, as in "oops". After the question mark: 1) igniting a bomb will show an explosion animation with "BOOM" written diagonally over the explosion sprite; 2) activating a spring trap will send you off backwards until you hit the first wall you encounter, so you might even pass a room or two if there are open doors aligned accordingly; 3) dropping a water bucket from opening a trapped door will show the bucket fall and splash you in water, which causes the spy to be electrocuted, because he apparently carries electronic devices; 4) activating a gun trap will show the gun automatically fire three or four shots at you, which will show up as bullet holes; 5) walking into a room with a time bomb will end similarly to the bomb ignition, but depending on the version, you might or might not see anything to imply there's a time bomb in the room; and finally, 6) trying to walk through the airport gate without all the required items will cause the security guard show up and send you off backwards like a spring trap. I'm not going to elaborate on the details of the differences in all the versions' death scenes, but it should be made clear, that the least capable versions clearly show a lack of detail and variations in animations, and by contrast, the most capable versions have clearly more detailed and usually even lengthier animations. Naturally, since the NES and GBC versions don't have gun traps, neither do they have their designated death sequences, but having a time bomb in a room makes your spy turn blue.

Tinkering with a fairly good set of graphics is always a tricky business, particularly when the game is such a unique one, that it will not work properly, if you go and do any drastic changes to the engine. Sometimes, the gamble pays off nicely, but other times, it just doesn't. Trying to get the game fit onto some clearly inferior machine like C16 was never going to work too well, but I do have to applaud for the attempt. Then again, just the choice of colours can make a lot of difference in the game's overall mood, as can be seen from the NES and ACORN conversions - the other feels like a baby's playhouse with all the pastel colours, and the other is a psychedelic trip. But the thing is, both the original comic strips and the cartoons (1995-1998) were always made in either black-and-white or greyscale, so in that sense, the SPECTRUM version would win for being the most faithful in colouring. Too bad it doesn't really look all that good, with the otherwise similar quality as the originals, but in an uncomfortable interlaced mode. So, based on just plain good looks, the results are...




Most people who know of Spy vs Spy as more than just a comic strip, will remember the either the original game's melancholic and understated theme song, or the pseudo-tribute/parody of Peter Gunn Theme made for the MADtv cartoons. Invariably, people who have played the game will remember the theme song more fondly, because they will have listened to it for more than just 30 seconds at a time, unless you really hated it and decided to turn it off from the start. I, for one, didn't even know you could actually turn it off until now - not that I would in most versions.

Having no music at all makes me think, that the APPLE ][ version could have been the first one to get finished, and the music was included in the other versions as an afterthough - but that's just a theory. It could very well be that there is no music on the APPLE because there is no proper soundchip to support any good music playback, so they left it out intentionally. All the sound effects are just basic bips and bops, and you can choose not to hear even that, if you so wish, but the effects are there for a reason. They notify you on every little thing that goes on in the game - searching through furniture, picking up stuff, opening and closing doors, fighting, taking damage, successfully planting a trap, time running out and so forth. It's just more difficult to figure out which sound is for what purpose with the not so very descriptive sound system, and everything usually happening simultaneously.

So this problem has been fixed for the other two originals. On the C64, you get a fairly well-made set of sound effects, in which everything useful can be recognized for what they represent. The low rumbling comes from the spies walking around, the swishing and crashing sounds come from the spies having a go at hand-to-hand combat, and the swishing is also played when searching through things. A high-pitched "pip" signals a door opened or closed, and when you find an item, the signal for that is a slightly lower-pitched "ping". Successfully planting a trap or looking at the map results in a rhythmic "pup-pup-pup" effect, which goes on for a couple of seconds. When a death occurs and the dead spy's angel flies up through the roof, you will hear a high-pitched tingle as long as the angel is still on the screen. Igniting a bomb of either kind will play a nice explosion-type noise, getting cast off by either a spring trap or a security guard will play a strange low-pitched sound that fades in and out, setting off a gun will result in a few clear gunshot effects, activating a time bomb will play a clock-like tick-tock kind of an effect in the room the time bomb is in, setting up a gun trap will sound like you're electricuting something small, and getting trapped under a water bucket will sound like a loud splash followed by a loud alarm-type sound synchronized with your electrocution. The famous theme tune is made very well, and as I said, is quite understated. The basic instrumentation features a percussion track of sorts, an easy-going chord arpeggio in the place of a bass line, and a flute-like instrument playing the melody, which has a bit of nice off-time phrasing towards the end of the melody. As I also said, you can turn off the music if you wish to, but it doesn't really take much away from the sound effects, nor vice versa, even if both of them are on simultaneously.

The first time I tried out the ATARI 8-BIT version, I thought something was wrong with it, because the melody in the theme tune felt faulty. Unfortunately, I found a video on YouTube of someone playing it on real hardware, proving me that the version has a badly written version of the tune. The problem is, throughout the high-pitched main melody bit, the timing is way off both ways at different times. So I would really rather not listen to it on the Atari. Happily, the sound effects are close enough to their C64 counterparts, although I do miss some of the filters from the C64 version, for example when you take off on the escape plane.

Believe it or not - although the SPECTRUM version has as much music as the APPLE version, the effects on this one sound more fitting for the game than what you hear on the APPLE. For a change, the Spectrum beeper has been put to a fairly good use even without any fancy tricks.

Unlike the 48k Spectrum, the AMSTRAD CPC is equipped with an actual soundchip, but somehow, that doesn't really help this time. Again, you only get a bunch of sound effects, which are arguably better than the ones on the 48k Spectrum, but... that's precisely it - it's only arguable.

On the SHARP X-1, and apparently also the NEC PC-8801, the sound effects are even worse than what you get on the APPLE ][, and you still get no music of any kind. Not very flattering. At least the COMMODORE 16 version has some slightly different sorts of sound effects on it, even if it's still painful to listen to.

The ACORN versions actually have the theme tune included, only it's turned off by default for some reason. I found this to be frankly a bit puzzling, since the tune is rather well made, even if there is no percussion track. The compensation for it is having three different variations of the melody played back to back in a seemingly random order, although the variations are more about expressions than melodic variations. As for the sound effects... When the game has loaded, you hear a short twiddly sound effect to signal that the game has loaded - and you will hear the same effect in the game when you open the trap menu. Otherwise, the sound effects are basic bips, bops and shuffling noises with very little distinction for any particular noise.

Getting into the console ports for a while, let's start with the SEGA conversion, which is a completely unique kind of a deal when it comes to the sounds. There are four unique tunes here: a short latin-influenced title tune, a swinging rock'n'roll tune to go with the action, a short straight rocker for completing a level, and another small ditty for Game Over, which reminds me of some nursery rhyme melody. Most of the sound effects are fairly basic and blippy, but there is the occasional good effect as well - the gunshots, the explosions, the water bucket, and the sound effect for any death, which sounds like a really irritating laughter.

Compared to the SEGA, the NES version doesn't have as many tunes, but at least it has a rendition of the old classic theme tune, which is played during the game. I can't say I'm a big fan of the NES arrangement of it, with no percussion track, and very little expressiveness, but it's there. The title screen has its own small rock'n'roll tune, which loops after a few bars, but of course, nobody is expected to stick around in the title screen for more than a few bars anyway. The sound effects are quick and to-the-point, if perhaps overly melodic for the context occasionally, but perhaps exactly because of it, fit very well for their own purposes.

The last of the three consoles is our only handheld, the GAME BOY COLOR. It starts off with the same tune as the NES version, but drops the original tune from the mix, and adds a vast quantity of unique tunes in its stead, most of which are quite jazzy. I would guess the total amount of new tunes is close to around 10 tracks or so. Additionally, you get probably the most polished set of sound effects you could get in any version, so it certainly rivals the C64 and SEGA versions in this sense. Of course, it can be easily thought of as the best one of the lot, but then again, it is such a vastly upgraded game in almost every sense, that it probably shouldn't be mixing with this lot anyway.

Moving on to the two 16-bits then. The ATARI ST version has a two-voice rendition of the theme tune, which has some slight melodic alterations and even less expression than the 8-bit Atari version with its faulty melody. I will admit, this is still nicer to listen to, simply because this one hasn't got the flaws. The main focus on the ST's soundtrack has been given for the sound effects, which for the most part are better than on the C64. Perhaps there are less effects here, but they are more fitting for their purposes (for instance, operating the doors sound more like a door slamming) and there is neither too much nor too little of the effects. If it weren't for the cheaply rendered music, I might like this one more than the C64 version.

Strangely, the AMIGA conversion follows the ST one in that the music is only a two-voice rendition, perhaps to make room for the sound effects. Also, the tune has the same melodic alterations as the ST version, but the instruments are quieter here and more reminiscent of actual instruments. The sound effects have more authenticity to them than what the ST version has, but otherwise it's a similar setup, and I cannot really say if I like either one over the other. And in the end, neither of the 16-bit versions are as rich in sound as the C64 version is, let alone any of the consoles.

Finally, we have the unofficial COMMODORE PLUS/4 conversion, which only has a tinny three-voice rendition of the classic theme tune with no percussive track, and there is no option for sound effects. This is a pity, since the game almost requires the sound effects for you to be able to play it properly. Still, beats having just one sound effect for the whole game.

If you're asking for a good overall experience with Spy vs Spy, you will have to play a version with properly assigned sound effects, and hopefully a good soundtrack. Whether you want the soundtrack to be traditional and iconic, or maybe a bit less iconic, but very good nonetheless and entertaining, you do have a few very good options. This is why I cannot in all honesty put just one version at the top, because a new soundtrack means a different scale. Of course, I still have no idea what does the DRAGON conversion sound like, so that one has to take the last place until further notice. Surely, it can't be as bad as the Sharp/NEC versions, can it? Anyway, here are the results for this section:

6. SHARP X-1 / NEC PC-8801 / DRAGON 32/64 (?)



This being the first new game comparison after I got the permission from Gaming History Source to link their videos on the blog, for which I'm able to do this, let's start this new trend now properly. This is the extra section where any video links will be from now on, whenever the occasion arises. Wherever has been possible to do so, I have lately included video links for some old blog posts in their Overall sections - the entries include Commando, Bionic Commando, Bump 'n Jump and The Goonies. But now, the video for the game of today...

This video for Spy vs Spy does not feature all the versions, although the missing ones are Commodore Plus/4 and Dragon 32/64, which are both unofficial conversions, so it's probably as good as you'll get for now. But apart from those two, the video should go nicely together to support all the screenshots and my comments above on everything.



Phew! Even with one of the versions almost completely out of reach, this comparison has been the longest single entry that I have done so far. So, I hope you will forgive me for not doing a proper monster comparison entry before the end of the year... but worry not, something highly thematic is still sure to come.

Now, the problem with games such as Spy vs Spy is the amount of conversions made due to its immense popularity. Some of them are sure to be utter failures, while some of them can be too much upgraded to even be considered the same game anymore, much like the Game Boy Color version is here. For reasons I'm sure that you will understand, I will now officially disqualify the GBC version from the Overall scores, and just say that it is certainly a good game, and a thoroughly updated and upgraded version of the original Spy vs Spy - at least as far as sounds, graphics and the amount of content can go. As for the rest of them, here are the final mathematical results, at least until I can get my hands on the Dragon 32/64 version:

1. SEGA MASTER SYSTEM: Playability 5, Graphics 7, Sounds 6 = TOTAL 18
2. COMMODORE 64: Playability 6, Graphics 5, Sounds 6 = TOTAL 17
3. ATARI ST: Playability 5, Graphics 6, Sounds 5 = TOTAL 16
3. COMMODORE AMIGA: Playability 4, Graphics 6, Sounds 6 = TOTAL 16
3. ATARI 8-BIT: Playability 6, Graphics 5, Sounds 5 = TOTAL 16
4. NES: Playability 5, Graphics 4, Sounds 5 = TOTAL 14
5. COMMODORE PLUS/4: Playability 6, Graphics 4, Sounds 3 = TOTAL 13
6. APPLE ][: Playability 6, Graphics 3, Sounds 2 = TOTAL 11
6. ZX SPECTRUM: Playability 5, Graphics 3, Sounds 3 = TOTAL 11
6. AMSTRAD CPC: Playability 4, Graphics 4, Sounds 3 = TOTAL 11
7. ACORN ELECTRON/BBC: Playability 3, Graphics 2, Sounds 4 = TOTAL 9
8. SHARP X-1 / NEC PC-8801: Playability 3, Graphics 2, Sounds 1 = TOTAL 6
9. COMMODORE 16: Playability 2, Graphics 1, Sounds 2 = TOTAL 5
10. DRAGON 32/64: Playability 1*, Graphics 1, Sounds 1* = TOTAL 3*
(*due to availability issues)

As usual, you should not take these scores as the gospel truth - go and have a try yourselves. I would say that I agree with the scores for the most part, although I still prefer the C64 version over the Sega and GBC remakes, but I would be lying if I claimed that's only nostalgia speaking. The gameplay is just that much better in the original versions, which is why I would recommend any one of those over most of the conversions.

In the tradition of immensely popular games, Spy vs Spy spawned a couple of sequels for the 8-bits, and even a few later remakes for the PC and PlayStation 2. Each of them are definitely worth checking out, but I don't think any of them ever truly hit all the right spots like the original did.

It's time to put this one to sleep, so I'll end with a recommendation: go and have a listen to this Herbie Hancock'ish remix of the original theme tune. One of my favourite game tune remixes ever.

Thanks again for reading, hope you enjoyed it!
Comments, suggestions and corrections are as welcome as they have always been, and will continue as such.
Next up: special seasonal treats, part two!


  1. I always liked Spy vs Spy very much although I reckon the Spectrum version is lacking in both visual (blocky graphics, not exactly what we were used to) and sound departments.

    As you pointed out, however, playability - and replayability, due to the random elements and customization options - is to be found in spades :-)

    A black humor gem that can be enjoyed across so many (retro-)platforms, indeed.

  2. Blimey that unofficial Dragon 32/64 version hurt my eyes to look at.

  3. I have just tried file from Fandal's archive on atari800 v3.0 and it works perfectly.

    1. Thanks for the hint, I hadn't heard of that archive before. I'll update the screenshots soon. =) Just for clarity's sake, I used the .atx file I found from the Atarimania archive, because I always try to use as perfect a tape/disk image file that I can find for my comparisons - mostly due to the loading times and possible bugs and anomalies that original game files might have. The .xex file from Fandal's archive definitely works better, although I can't be sure if it represents the original game release as close as possible.

  4. ;-)
    page not updated since long time....
    for me, the most fun is the 2
    with two good players, it's great

  5. Impressive review considering the huge number of different versions for this game.

  6. The only versions I ever played this on, was the C64 and the NES. C64 was still commanding the higher ground of the two, even years after Nes's release, and this game is but another title of C64's at the time, to exemplify this. I think Sega's graphics and design of this version could not be any more styless, than perhaps the Nes's, and the Nes's version to me, could merit no more than a rating at the ground level of this list. Some of these versions are outright guilty of importing far too many colors, and Gameboy color, although impressive by comparison, is all the more unimpressive, considering how late of it's release.

    Thank's for your all your work and time in this article!

    " I am not obnoxious, just unendingly opinionated "