Games nostalgia is an unusual beast, often thought of fondly but never properly sighted. It's probably got some kind of fuzzy looking tail, with a kind friendly smile and an aura that gives it a rosy glow. Once the lights have been switched on and harsh reality intrudes, however, the friendly beast sheds its illusion, and all too often the creature is revealed to be rather more rough around the edges, possibly coated with inconvenient shards of glass that make play not quite as fun as you remember it.
Now, granted, that's an unusual way to start off a games review, but then Spy Vs Spy is an unusual game. It's an update of a classic 8-bit title that saw the light of day on machines as diverse as the Sega Master System and the Commodore 64, even seeing a few sequels in along the way. There aren't many titles out there that have waited quite so long to make a reappearance as Spy Vs Spy has, which is doubly unusual when you consider that it's based on a relatively well known bit of intellectual property.
A quick introduction is probably in order here for those who look at a game called Spy Vs Spy and wonder if it's the final and seemingly inevitable duel between Solid Snake and Sam Fisher. Spy Vs Spy is based on the extremely long-running MAD magazine comic strip that dates back from the days when the cold war was still running hot. Created by Antonio Prohias, the strip and the game both feature the exploits of two constantly warring spies. In best James Bond tradition, the black and white spies - you're never told that either side is "good" or "bad" - both use a variety of wacky gadgets in order to steal secret plans and documents from each other, intermittently incinerating each other (and often themselves) along the way. The concept is played in true Looney Tunes fashion, with the spies surviving multiple incinerations, explosions and excoriations while the opposing Spy giggles like a hyena.
The original 8-bit Spy Vs Spy saw you take on the mantel of one of the monochromatic pair and duel with traps and Spy-Fu through some simple flick-screen layout levels, trying to recover the plans for a mystery weapon and escape within a set time limit. This remake takes that basic premise and expands it into a fully realised 3D world, with more weapons, more traps and a whole expanded world to play in. It's a fine premise to begin with, but unfortunately it's one that's only really half realised, as in both single and multiplayer modes you're constantly left feeling that more could have and should have been made of the concept.
The single player game is a mixed trap and combat game against the enemy spy - you can choose either the white or black spy, but in best Wesley Snipes tradition, we'd suggest you always bet on black - thrown into a relatively mundane 3D platform and puzzle game. The first and most obvious strike against Spy Vs Spy is in the simple fact that it's not as though any console is lacking in tepid 3D platform games, now is it? Spy Vs Spy further throws itself into the mediocrity pile by presenting you with a mish-mash of poorly explained mission objectives that are often achieved via obtuse methodologies. You'll often find yourself wondering where you're meant to head to next, and sometimes even why. You're provided with unlimited lives, but many deaths will see you reincarnated back at your spy hideout, often a long and tedious trek back to where you needed to be, as levels are large and all too deadly. Ultimately Spy Vs Spy single player suffers because it's just not that much fun to play, even with some well thought out and designed comedy elements.
Multiplayer could have been Spy Vs Spy's saving grace, but here the larger levels provide problems, as it's often too easy to wander around without finding anyone in particular to either trap or beat to death. When you do find the others, the combat is rapid but uninspired. The closest comparison in gameplay terms for the combat has to be the early Xbox title Whacked, which fared about as well with gamers as we suspect Spy Vs Spy will. The Xbox version we tested supports Live play, but here the game has an unusual distinction. Over multiple days of testing, we never once saw a single other online player of Spy Vs Spy. Digging back through the archives, we could find single games of even esoteric titles such as Tetris Worlds and Whacked!, but no Spy Vs Spy players at all. Does it still count as having Live support if there are no Live players out there?
Those who yearn for a return to yesteryear will find little solace in the game's so-called "classic" mode, which isn't an emulation of the 8-bit original, but simply the original game's layout structures and objectives within the new game's visual style. Quite who that's meant to appeal to is a bit tricky to figure out, as new gamers won't want to play an old game, and older gamers won't want their beloved nostalgia beast to have been needlessly tarted up for no good reason.
Spy Vs Spy doesn't push any current console's capabilities - we tested with the Xbox version - but it's a game that uses its basic design ideas of cold war spies with huge conical noses and elaborate traps well, and while nobody's going to drop jaws in amazement at anything it does visually, at the same time it manages to raise a few chuckles with ample mid-game cut scenes and some really black humor to offer.
Spy Vs Spy isn't being sold as a full priced title, and that's something that has to be applauded, really. Games companies will typically try to wring every last dollar they can out of a new game, especially one based around a licensed property, so it's unusual for a company like Take2 to offer up cheaper goods. Given its limitations in both single and multiplayer modes, that's definitely for the best.