I remember way back in 1990 renting a manualless copy of Spy vs. Spy for the NES and wondering just how you were supposed to play this weird split-screen game. I'd make my spy walk around a bunch of rooms, pushing stuff like paintings and bookcases. Sometimes he'd find a briefcase, sometimes his face would turn blue and then he'd explode, and sometimes the black spy would enter and we'd beat each other with canes. But I had no idea how to win.
Nearly a decade later, I played an expanded port on Gameboy Color, and thanks to the ingame tutorials, everything made perfect sense in retrospect - the titular spies are searching a maze-like embassy for a bunch of hidden items - the secret plans, a passport, a wad of cash, a key, and most importantly of all, a briefcase to hold them in. Since you need all of the items to win, and your rival is likely to acquire at least one thing before you do, you'll need to kill him to get it back, and this may be accomplished by strategically placing booby traps, or by simply bashing his head in. Your rival, meanwhile, will try to do the same to you.
Now, in 2022, I'm trying the original Commodore 64 version of the game, armed with knowledge of how things work. And I'm wondering just how you're supposed to play this weird split-screen game.
|Typical gameplay. Icons to the right represent items located, but not necessarily items possessed, as I'm about to unpleasantly discover.
A lot of the confusion comes down to some interface quirks, most irritating of all that doing just about anything - placing traps, checking the map, searching an empty container, just pressing a button when you aren't standing on the exact pixel necessary to interact with a thing, fighting, etc. - causes whatever object(s) you are holding to be dropped and become hidden somewhere in the room. If you aren't yet used to this, you might not even realize that you dropped your briefcase some rooms back. I played a few rounds with "R," and while we eventually came to grips with the interface, we never really got a sense of how to play with strategy.
What becomes clear very quickly is that goals revolve around who has the briefcase, as this is the only player who can hold more than one item. Have the briefcase? Then your goal is to find everything else, likely having to kill the other player for the last item. Don't have the briefcase? Then your goal is to kill the other player for it, perhaps by booby trapping an item they need.
Your arsenal of traps include bombs and springs, which are hidden inside furniture and sprung on the victim searching them, buckets of water placed on doors which fall on and electrocute (?) the spy who opens them, gun traps which are placed in furniture before being wired to a door but for all intents and purposes function as a door trap, and time bombs, which just explode and kill anyone in the room after a brief interval. Tools to bypass all of these traps except the time bomb can be found throughout the embassy, but taking one causes you to discard your inventory. Watching your opponent's screen is necessary in order to strategize, and the manual encourages this, rather than denounce it as cheating.
|Black spy wiring up a gun trap
In practice, these traps didn't get used very much. The "trapulator" interface is slow and cumbersome, costing you time instead of buying it for you, and it's not made completely clear when a booby trap is set correctly, which would lead to to backfiring traps when we assumed it failed and set it again, only to discover it was set right the first time as it blew up in our faces. And if you plant a trap to create a problem for your opponent, and he doesn't spring or disarm it, then it becomes a problem for you later on, since both of you have the same goals. Victory generally came down to button mashy stick fights, initiated whenever both spies enter the same room, and I usually won, transferring ownership of the items to me.
|The black spy futilely blocks my escape with a stick.
If the better stick fighter isn't you, then I'm not really sure how big brain play will help you either. Even if you manage to trick your rival into springing a trap, and manage to snatch up the items dropped during the few seconds he's out cold (itself no sure thing as dead spies respawn quickly and he might still spawn closer than you to the bounty), you're bound to cross paths again and just lose them back to him.
But let's say you are the better stick fighter, your rival knows it, and has ran away like the coward he is, turning the rooms in his wake into a funhouse of traps. You could force a win by simply waiting out the timer with the briefcase (or any other item) in hand, engaging in fights when possible to make his tick down that much faster.
I didn't get a chance to play enough two-player mode to really test this theory, but it held up in singleplayer. The AI at IQ level 4/5 is easily beaten by brute force on the most difficult maze. At IQ 5/5, it is an invincible fight master who magically knows the location of the briefcase and every item and the final exit and will take the most efficient path to hit them all without fault. He might run into your traps, or even his own, but it doesn't matter because he'll just get up a few seconds later to hunt you down and take his stuff right back from your battered corpse before fleeing the embassy.
GAB rating: Average. This is yet another good idea with a poor execution. I'm a fan of Prohías' comic, as well as his body of satire, and the game aspires to embody the spirit of his slapstick "joke and dagger" antics and even his politics to the extent that the 8-bit 64KB format allows. First Star's designer Mike Riedel could have simply gotten away with copying a tried-and-true formula, say, Donkey Kong, and inserted the Spy vs Spy characters into it, but instead he came up with an original design that aims to capture the essence of the comic and its absurdist take on cold war espionage, with all of its plotting and scheming and doublecrossing, and undercurrents of the pointlessness of it all. I wanted to like it better, and I did enjoy the GBC version, but the C64 original lacks balance and polish.