I remember first becoming aware of MAD magazine sometime during First Grade in Elementary school. All of the older kids (aka: ‘cool’ kids) were reading it, and I wanted to be like the older kids, so naturally it became the most important thing in my life. I was born in 1981, so I would’ve been in First Grade around 1987. MAD magazine back then wasn’t what it was today. Back then, it had a ‘counter-culture’ vibe to it. It was a magazine that ‘stuck it to the man’ and exposed all of the hypocrisy prevalent in our society — whether it be double-sided government politics, false advertising, or just social norms we’ve come to know and accept but never really questioned. It was labelled as a ‘satire’ magazine, so they could publish these things and no one could ever sue for libel.
All this to say, just about anything with the ‘MAD magazine’ logo on it was instantly popular. MAD magazine decided to enter the computer gaming fray and introduced it’s first licensed computer game in 1984. Developed by First Star Software, Spy vs Spy (the video game) was released for the Commodore 64, Apple II and the Atari 8-bit home computer.
This game was based on a recurring comic strip within MAD magazine about a white spy and a black spy who were always trying to entrap/destroy the other one with the goal of stealing secret plans or etc. Spy vs Spy first debuted in 1961 and was created by Cuban expatriate cartoonist Antonio Prohias — the comic strip was Prohias‘ veiled critique on the futility of the ongoing Cold War (see? told you MAD magazine was subversive).
This is a computer game that has always held my fascination (as soon as I was aware of it’s existence). My first experience with this game was while at a ‘cool’ kid’s house (his mom was my babysitter, how about that?). I’m not sure why I was in front of the family computer (most likely a Commodore 64), but they booted up the game and let me play. After a few runs of the game, I think I found it too daunting and made a mental note to play it again when I had a 2nd player who wanted to play with me. I spent the rest of the evening playing Boulder Dash instead (also by First Star Software).
Among other things, the Spy vs Spy computer game was known for being innovative. It wasn’t a run n’ gun or side-scrolling space shooter, it was the white spy and the black spy trying to collect items in a labyrinth of rooms and laying traps for the opposing spy (all while racing against the clock) … and it supported two player simultaneous play! This last feature was thanks to First Star Software‘s creative Simulplay™ and Simulvision™ features created by Richard M. Spitalny (co-founder of First Star Software, Inc.) as part of his overall design idea for the 1984 Spy vs Spy computer game.
I recently had a chance to replay the C64 version of the game and found that it hadn’t lost any of it’s original charm. The game was fast-paced and it took me a few trial runs before I could figure out how to properly navigate the C64 controls again. Playing against the computer in the C64 version was a little frustrating; the computer opponent spent all of his time attacking me and I was never able to escape long enough to set a trap. Setting a trap is one of the most entertaining aspects of this game — you can either set a trap to KO your opponent (and have him waste valuable time), or you can find items to disarm traps that your opponent may have set for you. This was all courtesy of the Trapulator™ (also created by Mr Spitalny): a right-hand menu that allowed you to arm traps for your opponent with a few button clicks. It’s probably worth noting that playing an opponent with the same skill level as you is key to the enjoyment of this game.
Mr Spitalny was kind enough to take a few minutes to answer a few of my questions about the creation of the game:
“I came up with the underlying stories for all three games in our Spy vs. Spy series, which all include hunting for objects.
Including traps, setting them and having ways to disarm them, as part of the games, was also ‘my idea’. But, of course, there were usually traps in the comics as well. In discussions with the programmer and a co-designer, Mike Riedel, we came up with ideas for traps and how to disarm them together. Two suggestions I favor most, of mine, were the ‘gun with the string’ and the ‘bucket of water over the door’!
MAD did need to approve everything in the game; but, they did not offer suggestions. Their comments were focused on making sure that the black and white spies looked like they should within the game.
One of the things I found most appealing about the Spy vs. Spy comic was the surprise ending. In thinking about transforming the comic into an interactive game I focused on designing it in such a way that the determination of the winner (the ending) would likewise be something saved for the very end! By requiring the winner to possess all the required items simultaneously, in their briefcase at the moment they exited the embassy (in the case of Spy vs. Spy vol. 1, for example) this allowed the other spy to ‘turn the tables’ at the very last moment either in hand-to-hand combat or with a trap. Thus, since players did not have to wait to take turns, as was the case in other games before Simulvision and Simulplay; and, players could occupy the same room at the same time and engage in hand-to-hand combat, the ending to any given play session was only determined at the very last moment.”
Mr Spitalny assured me that the Simulplay™, Simulvision™ and the Trapulator™ features were specifically designed for the 1984 Spy vs Spy computer game, and were never used in any other games other than the Spy vs Spy sequels.
1984’s Spy vs Spy by First Star Software was successful enough to merit several re-releases over several different platforms during the last twenty years, as well as two sequels — Spy vs Spy II: The Island Caper and Spy vs Spy III: Arctic Antics. For those of you who did not own a home computing system during the 1980s and were more into consoles, you may be more familiar with the 1988 Spy vs Spy video game for the Nintendo Entertainment System.
The 1988 Spy vs Spy for the NES was a nice port of the 1984 computer game, but removed the Trapulator™ feature in the process (your traps and map are toggled by the ‘B’ button). Having two buttons and a directional pad (versus the C64‘s one single button and the directional pad/joystick) made it quicker to set traps. Additionally, since the NES comes with two hand-held controllers, it was easier to convince my wife to be my 2nd player opponent. ;)
I really enjoy this game and would wholeheartedly recommend it to everyone and anyone as a game you’ve got to play at least once. I’d strongly recommend playing it with a real-live second player, too. I’d probably even go so far as to claim it as a piece of ‘gaming history’ since it was the first ever of it’s kind. You’d think that being able to see what your opponent is doing simultaneously as you play would give you a great advantage, but it really adds one more layer of complexity to this already strategic game. Watching an opponent trigger a trap you set is extremely gratifying, and getting bashed into submission by your opponent just as you’re about to complete the level can be very… disenchanting (but only in a way that makes you want to get revenge on your opponent in the next round). As an older gamer, I can appreciate that the controls to this game only require one or two buttons and a joystick, making it pretty easy to pick up and learn quickly. Overall, just a fun game that stands the test of time.
I was initially concerned that this game would get lost to the annals of time, but thankfully someone [Robots & Pencils Inc.] had the foresight to port this game to the iOS (and yes, it even includes a ‘retro mode’).
For any ‘curious coders’ out there, Mr Spitalny revealed to me that it took First Star Software about 6 months to design/create this game, and that it was written in 6502 Assembly language.
Extra big ‘Thank You’ to Diane Press.
Back in 2012, Jay Henningsen interviewed Mr Spitalny (for venturebeat.com) about the new iOS version of Spy vs Spy. Mr Spitalny discusses the major differences in the video game industry between the 1980s and present day, and the challenges of porting a console game for an iOS device. Read it here: http://venturebeat.com/2012/08/01/spy-vs-spy-interview/