A boom in any game platform leads to a fair amount of remakes, but their quality can vary. Remaking a classic can be an even bigger risk, and Robots and Pencil took that risk in remaking Spy vs. Spy. If you aren’t familiar, this was a game that used the beloved Mad Magazine characters to create a really unique video game. It was very complex despite its limitations, and still holds up rather well. Before you go digging out that old Apple Iic, the iOS remake captures the game perfectly. In fact, nostalgic players can set the game to display the pixelated version from their childhood.
If you were a fan of the original game, you should already be dancing around with your phone in breathless anticipation of the icon dropping into your home screen. It captures the original game perfectly, and updates the game with modern graphics. Now if you’re not familiar with Spy vs. Spy from anything other than Mad Magazine, this might seem like trying to adapt the impossible. You would think so, but no. You get a simple goal: collect the documents, money, passport, key, and briefcase to make your escape. Trapped in the embassy with you is the rival spy. If you’re less than creative, you can simply chase after your opponents and bludgeon them to death. This costs them time, and returns any items they found to the original spot. The time becomes a bigger factor as each player has a countdown to complete their mission, and during the time-out that countdown runs faster.
More creative spies would never be caught being so crude; instead they set elaborate traps to eliminate the competition. Jason Bourne may never have used a string tied to a revolver to take out his tail, but he doesn’t quite get the same laughs as the spies. There are five different traps each with their own set ups, though the bucket must be placed on a door. The rest can be placed in TVs, desks, dressers, all in an attempt to catch your opponent off guard. Just as in the classic game, you can always see your opponent’s screen. This allows for you to catch glimpses of them setting traps, or see how close they are to making their escape. When playing multiplayer there is nothing more fulfilling than clubbing the black spy to death, and stealing the briefcase full of documents. Doing this in the same room as the exit leads to the kind of sadistic glee that makes your coworkers worry about you.
Pixel art from the classic era of gaming has been fetishized and stylized in a myriad of ways, but no one remembers exactly how bad it looked when you actually had to play games. Not to mention that the original Spy vs. Spy is somewhere between Adventure and Super Mario. (Though I will admit that the game doesn’t look that great, there is nothing you can say to convince me that the original music isn’t one of the best soundtracks of the era.) I’m glad to see that Robots and Pencil put a really nice sheen on a game that could have been just pushed out the door with a virtual controller and still would have sold well. Instead they made a decent effort at creating something that looks and plays like a modern game. Better yet, you can easily switch back to the classic graphics. You lose the combat interface, which slims down the original’s single option.
That combat tweak is a simple rock, paper, scissors mechanic, but it allows for combat to become more than just wailing on the button. Well, in theory. You find that the physics aren’t much more complex than they were in the original game; it doesn’t break the game that the choice of club to the head, club to the stomach, or kick to the shins is arbitrary. It is broken, which merits a mention. There a few bugs around combat in general. I think it might have to do with the way the entire screen changes focus. It’s easy to just run in circles and count on little imperfections in the engine to protect you. The problem seems to be more pronounced against the AI.
Weirdness aside, the game is fun. In addition to the original levels, there are sixteen new levels unique to the iOS version. This is another commendable facet to this remake; new content in a remake that actually expands the game is rare. There is an additional mechanic to each level as well, as each level now has three different stars stashed throughout. There must be some kind of rule in the App Store that every iOS game must have some sort of star collection based challenge. It likely has to do with making the level selection screen look familiar to gamers that cut their teeth on Angry Birds.
However, if there was any real change to the game, it is the inclusion of online multiplayer. It’s not a dramatic change from the local multiplayer, but that isn’t really the point. The game uses Apple’s Game Center for matchmaking, and it seems that there is a fair amount of available players in the world. The multiplayer performs pretty well, and there isn’t an abundance of lag. Game Center adds leader boards as well. If setting traps for strangers doesn’t have the same feel, you can also play over Bluetooth locally.
This is how all nostalgia gaming should work. A classic game is updated with new material, and given access to new tech that recreates the old experience. Robot and Pencil did a great job on all fronts there, though the game isn’t without bugs. The bugs aren’t enough to totally mar the game, but they do consistently pull you out of the game. However, Spy vs. Spy is only a buck and it’s universal, so it’s a fairly small complaint.