Vice: Project Doom – Secret Agent Man

I’d not heard of Aicom’s Vice: Project Doom (aka Gun-Dec in Japan) prior to Nintendo adding it to the Switch’s NES app. And neither, it seems, had a lot of Switch owners, since its addition to the lineup attracted even more complaining than you usually find underneath a Nintendo social media post.

I looked into it, though, and I was both intrigued by the prospect of the game… and unsurprised that no-one seems to have heard of it, despite it having had a Nintendo Power cover feature in May of 1991. It did, after all, come out at the very tail-end of the NES’ mainstream lifespan — and after the Super NES had helped bring console gaming into the 16-bit era.

It’s a shame that no-one’s heard of it, though, because it’s really frickin’ good. Let’s take a closer look.

In Vice: Project Doom, you take on the role of Quinn Hart, a former mercenary-turned-vice officer who, after chasing down a madman in an armoured truck on what he thought was a relatively “routine” car chase, finds himself neck-deep in a bizarre situation that involves a deadly drug called Gel, mutated humans, aliens and lots of heavy military hardware.

Vice: Project Doom features a pretty strong emphasis on plot for a NES-era title. The game’s first level — in which you play Hart chasing down the aforementioned madman in a top-down driving-cum-shoot ’em up sequence — unfolds immediately after the mysterious introductory animation, and the game’s main title screen doesn’t even appear until after you’ve successfully completed this level.

This is a game that very much wanted to emulate action movies of the era — and given the technological limitations it was dealing with, it actually does a surprisingly solid job. Each level opens with a short cutscene featuring some absolutely gorgeous character art, and these do a good job of providing context for what you’re about to head off and do in the next stage; after that, it’s up to you to take care of the “action” side of things.

The stages themselves primarily unfold as side-on platform stages that are often compared to Tecmo’s Ninja Gaiden, but to write this off as a simple clone is to do it an injustice. What we have here is a straightforward but mechanically sound action-platformer with very tight and responsive controls, plus some really nice little tweaks to the usual formula.

Of particular note is the fact that you can move while crouched, but unlike most games of the era that offer such mobility — which actually wasn’t that many — you’re not forced to crawl on the floor at a slower speed. Rather, while Hart ducks normally when stationary, when pushing diagonally down on the D-pad he simply hunches his shoulders and lowers his head while otherwise walking upright, making him a smaller target but still allowing him full mobility and offensive capability. This is absolutely brilliant for impromptu action movie setpieces such as ducking under a wave of shots, then hitting your foe upside the head with your laser whip.

Yes, laser whip; we’re very much in sci-fi town here, but in the form of that interesting fusion of sci-fi and fantasy that we saw in a lot of “futuristic noir” media throughout the early ’90s. Tonally and thematically, it’s quite similar to Dynamix’s classic 1990 adventure game Rise of the Dragon — complete with a certain element of Chinese mysticism being involved at one point of the narrative, plus a strong anti-drugs message thanks to a narcotic that literally turns people into monsters — but mechanically, this is an all-action affair.

Interestingly, as the very first level suggests, Vice: Project Doom doesn’t confine itself purely to action platforming. The driving sequence returns later in the game, and there are two first-person shooting sequences peppered throughout the stages, too. These unfold as an automatically scrolling level in which you move a crosshair around rather than explorable first-person environments, but provide a welcome bit of variety.

In fact, a fairly apt way to describe Vice: Project Doom would be to compare it to Ocean’s numerous movie license games from the late ’80s and early ’90s; these typically featured platforming for the majority of the game plus additional sequences involving things like driving, flying, shooting or puzzle solving. The company’s popular Batman: The Movie is a good example of this.

But there’s a couple of key differences here.

Firstly, Vice: Project Doom isn’t based on a movie, despite its North American cover star bearing an uncanny resemblance to Mel Gibson, and its Japanese art looking suspiciously like Die Hard-era Bruce Willis. This means it’s not tied down to any existing source material, and, as a result, it takes great glee in going absolutely batshit insane by the end of its 11 stages, both in difficulty and in terms of the absolute chaos Hart has to deal with.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, Vice: Project Doom is way more technically and mechanically solid than anything Ocean put out as a movie license. This is a game that has been designed with care, attention and a complete understanding of what the NES is capable of.

That latter aspect is particularly remarkable; while this game is clearly pushing the NES to its limits in terms of colours on screen, layers of parallax scrolling and overall level of detail, it does so without any real noticeable slowdown or sprite flicker; it’s absolutely one of the most technically competent NES titles you’ll ever see.

And this technical proficiency doesn’t come at the cost of the mechanics, either; this is a highly playable, addictive game with a well-aligned difficulty curve, lots of variety in environments and enemy encounters, and excellent level design that provides gradually escalating challenges without ever feeling cheap or unfair.

Okay, the whole thing is pretty short — a one-credit clear would probably take less than an hour, and infinite continues mean that most people would likely be able to brute-force their way to the end sequence eventually — but in some ways that works in the game’s favour. This is a game that you can boot up any time and have a good time with, just like settling down to watch an Arnie movie for the umpteenth time. You don’t need to think, you just need to enjoy.

And if you manage to successfully beat the game, you can wring further structured longevity out of it by trying to clear it without continues, or with the highest score possible, or as fast as you can. Or, of course, you can always just enjoy it for the sake of it without feeling like you need to make any sort of “commitment” to it.

Vice: Project Doom is absolutely a hidden gem of the NES’ library, and now that it’s so readily available to every Switch owner out there, I strongly recommend giving it a go. It’s yet another example of an overlooked, underappreciated game that deserved better — but at least now it has another chance to shine.

More about Vice: Project Doom

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Thanks for reading; I hope you enjoyed this article. I’ve been writing about games in one form or another since the days of the old Atari computers, with work published in Page 6/New Atari User, PC Zone, the UK Official Nintendo Magazine, GamePro, IGN, USgamer, Glixel and more over the years, and I love what I do.

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3 thoughts on “Vice: Project Doom – Secret Agent Man”

  1. I got my copy back in the eighth grade when it came out. I’d seen it in Nintendo Power and was instantly enamored by the maps, and art so obviously I wish-listed it for either my birthday or Christmas and like most of my game collection, still have it today. It’s a fantastic game that while not cost-prohibitive these days isn’t exactly cheap either so I’m glad Nintendo quietly threw it up on the Online ROM service.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting. I’ll have to check it out soon. Speaking of hidden NES gems, have you played Star Tropics? I tried it on a whim and was completely hooked.

    The story is charming and the gameplay strikes a good balance of accessible and challenging – you might have to retry a dungeon but you’re unlikely to get stuck. It’s a breezy adventure you can finish in under 10 hours.

    Liked by 1 person

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