SpyHunter: Who Needs Stealth?

Midway’s 1983 title Spy Hunter is a fairly well-loved title from the golden age of arcade games. While some would argue it’s not quite as well-known as the Pac-Men and the Space Invaderses of the world, it’s still a game a lot of people have fond memories of.

Its top-down combat racing action provided an interesting blend of different genres to enjoy; there was the high-speed skilful manoeuvring of racers, coupled with the focus on high-score chasing typically associated with shoot ’em ups. And it had a distinct sense of style, too; originally intended to be a licensed James Bond game, the game ended up becoming iconic for its use of Henry Mancini’s Peter Gunn theme as its in-game music. And early example of a video game being genuinely “cool”.

When a mechanical reboot and narrative sequel showed up for PlayStation 2 in 2001, then, it had quite the shoes to fill. How well did it pay homage to the original while providing an up-to-date experience for the early 21st century gamer? Let’s take a closer look.

The original Spy Hunter is a typically “endless” arcade game in which your aim is simply to get as far as possible, scoring points along the way. A sense of structure is provided by the game’s road branching in different directions at various points and, in some cases, allowing you to drive into a boathouse to transform your car into a boat. There’s no ending, though; it’s a pure case of surviving as long as possible — with the interesting additional mechanical wrinkle of the player enjoying infinite lives for a temporary, timed period at the start of each playthrough.

SpyHunter, meanwhile, which immediately declares its 2001 cool credentials by dropping the space from the middle of the title, unfolds as a linear sequence of 14 distinct missions. Canonically following on from the non-existent conclusion of the 1983 game, the new title casts players in the role of Alec Sects, a former F-15 pilot who underwent FBI training with a focus on international affairs. He’s supposedly also the same agent who undertook what the game refers to as “the 1983 mission”, thereby making him the ideal candidate to once again strap into the G-6155 “Interceptor” transforming car and deal with the machinations of the sinister organisation known as “NOSTRA”. Yes, after Nostradamus.

There’s a potentially interesting cheesy espionage movie-style narrative to SpyHunter, introduced with a well-written prologue in the game’s manual and an enjoyable (if very 2001) cutscene after you complete the first training mission. That’s all you get, however; after that introductory sequence, the game seems to completely abandon any sense of coherent narrative whatsoever, and simply casts you into the remaining thirteen missions one after another — there isn’t even really an “ending” to the game as such, aside from a big explosion and the Interceptor dramatically driving away, followed by the credits (featuring music by Saliva, don’t you know — they make a big deal of this in the manual). It would have been nice to at least have a bit of the main villain screaming “NO!!!” to the heavens or something. But what’s done is done.

Thankfully, the game itself more than makes up for its narrative shortcomings by being an incredibly satisfying and enjoyable arcade-style experience — and, from a modern perspective, a potent reminder of how, sometimes, it can be nice to enjoy a game that is split into discrete, linear levels with clear objectives rather than constantly running around a sprawling open world with no real direction to what you’re up to.

Each mission in SpyHunter provides you with a primary objective that must be completed in order to move on to the next stage. Alongside that, each mission also has a string of secondary objectives that you can ignore completely if you please, but there’s an important consideration to bear in mind: unlocking subsequent missions is not only dependent on completing the primary objective of the previous stage, but also having completed sufficient objectives in total across your entire playthrough. And just to make matters a bit trickier, if you want your completion of all the secondary objectives to count, you have to accomplish them all in a single run through the level while also achieving your primary goal.

This is where SpyHunter’s longevity and replay value comes from. Each mission is a heavily scripted affair that sends you along a distinct “course”, and memorisation of what happens when and where during the progress of a stage is key to accomplishing all of those secondary objectives. In many cases, secondary objectives will require you to spot “secret” routes around the stage; most of the time, these are relatively easy to spot and involve crashing through walls, doors, windows and places of worship, but there are one or two throughout the game that are rather sneakily hidden in undergrowth or behind formidable groups of enemies.

The objectives themselves are varied and interesting. Generally speaking, throughout the course of a single mission, you’ll be required to destroy certain targets, interact with certain other targets without destroying them, minimise (or, later, completely avoid) civilian casualties and still make it to the end before time expires. And, as you progress, you get more gadgets to play with, beginning with powered-up versions of your initial weapons and continuing with nifty gizmos like an infra-red scanner, EMP blasts and a rail gun.

At heart, this is an arcade racer, though, and thankfully it handles great. The Interceptor is responsive and enjoyable to drive — though it would have been better to have the turbo function on a different button rather than requiring a double-tap of the accelerator — and the tracks are designed in such a way that you can drive at full pelt without slamming into walls for a lot of the time. Indeed, one stage on the French Riviera even sees you invading a Formula One race in progress, weaving in and out of the cars as you desperately try to make it to a bomb before it explodes — and, rather delightfully, you can hear the commentator of the race going absolutely nuts about this unexpected event while you’re on the track.

SpyHunter is full of exciting setpieces like this. Most missions involve making use of the Interceptor’s ability to transform between car and boat, allowing missions to unfold seamlessly across water and land, much like the original arcade game. While the boat form of the Interceptor handles noticeably heavier than its land-based counterpart as you might expect, this isn’t overdone. You still enjoy tight, arcadey handling — and can pull off some pleasingly ridiculous waterborne stunts in most of the levels — but there’s sufficient distinctiveness between the two forms of the vehicle to keep things interesting.

While you’ll likely require at least a few playthroughs of each mission to be able to nail all the objectives in a single run, the game does provide plenty of helpful on-screen feedback to help you determine and memorise the best route to go. Targets you need to destroy are marked with a red reticle and can be locked on to with missiles; targets that need to be interacted with by scanning or tagging with GPS devices have a yellow reticle, and friendly vehicles — such as the series’ iconic Weapons Van, which replenishes your health and ammunition mid-mission, and helicopters carrying “Stealth Gates” later in the game — are marked with blue reticles. You can see these reticles even if you’ve taken the “wrong” route through the stage, so you can either turn around and attempt to take an alternative route if you think you have enough time available, or you can simply remember it for a future run and try again later.

On top of all that, the game features a series of unlockables that can be acquired by completing each of the 14 missions in very fast times; this is perhaps best left as an endgame challenge, since completing all of the objectives in all of the missions allows you to unlock an invincible, infinite ammo mode where you can concentrate on getting the best times. Your rewards for your hard work include music videos from Saliva (lucky you) as well as a few ways of tweaking the game’s visuals and gameplay, plus some behind-the-scenes footage. Nothing super-exciting, but it does at least provide some incentive to return to the game after you’ve beaten it.

As for how well it pays homage to its source material, obviously the newer game is structured very differently, but the arcadey immediacy is certainly very much in keeping with its roots. And there are plenty of subtler homages throughout, too; most of the enemy vehicles you’ll encounter are 3D reimaginings of the various enemies from the original 1983 game, for example, including the cars that attempt to shred your tyres with diamond-tipped spikes, and the helicopters that relentlessly pelt you with missiles from above. (Thankfully, by the time you encounter these, the Interceptor is more than capable of flinging a few missiles back at any airborne assailants.) And, of course, the Peter Gunn theme is present and correct.

While SpyHunter has its shortcomings — most notably the fact it appears to completely forget its narrative exists after the second mission — it’s a lot of fun, and, like some other games from this era of gaming, has aged remarkably well thanks to the fact it contrasts so heavily from how games are structured today. While the amount of content developers put into modern games is admirable in many ways, there’s a lot to be said for a concise experience with a clear endpoint that knows not to outstay its welcome. And that’s exactly what SpyHunter provides from today’s perspective.

And now onto the sequels. The third one has The Rock in it, you know.

More about SpyHunter

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