If there’s one game so far that exemplifies what I hoped to get from doing 100 Days Of MEGASHOCK, it’s The Super Spy. Across the whole Neo Geo library of games, there are games I love, games I don’t like, and then games I’m not sure what to think of because I haven’t given them their due. I might have never played them or might have just tried them out quickly, with not enough time spent on them to form a solid opinion. The Super Spy was one such game. From afar, I thought it looked like an interesting experiment that probably played awkwardly and was another case of “style over substance”. But after playing it for this post, my impression of it greatly changed to the better.
So far, all the games released on the Neo Geo were of already defined genres at the time. Action-platformers, sports games, racing games, side-scrolling beat ‘em ups, and mahjong games. NAM-1975 was a bit unique, but there was already a precedent with Kabal.
The Super Spy, however, is very different and new compared to other games released at the time, even across other consoles and arcade systems. It’s a first person shooter/brawler at a time when first person exploration was mostly relegated to turn-based dungeon crawling RPGs or maze sections in some adventure games, before Wolfenstein 3D changed all that in 1992 to introduce seamless smooth first person movement to the masses. The Super Spy is in no way a precursor to the rise of first person shooters, as it plays radically differently than your standard FPS, but it’s interesting that it at least can be described as first person shooter in the literal sense.
Unlike other first person games, movement is restricted in The Super Spy. You can only strafe left or right without turning. And you can occasionally walk forward or backwards when there’s a hallway going into the screen. It is awkward feeling. And it is kind of funny to imagine this super spy who can clear buildings full of multi-colored ninjas, but can only shuffle to the side and sometimes walks backwards in hallways. But at least the game is designed around that constraint.
So what’s does the manual say about the story? Well, you are 28 year old super spy CIA Agent Roy Heart. You are tasked with stopping the terrorist group “Zolge King” who have already initiated their attack by blowing up an underground industrial area, killing thousands. Now they have taken over the Tadoya building, the headquarters of the major car manufacturer, and plan to blow that up too. Only you can stop them, so you immediately take a taxi to the Tadoya building and end this madness.
Naturally as a Karate Master, you can punch & kick with A & B buttons respectively. The C button changes weapons, with a knife and a gun (which does a lot of damage but has very limited ammo) in addition to your trusty fisticuffs. The controls are actually quite intricate. You can duck by pressing down to avoid attacks, slip under cameras, or even avoid gunshots. But don’t duck for too long or enemies might re-attack and hit you while ducking. Pressing A+B makes you block, though it’s useless since it’s hard to time correctly, doesn’t block all attacks, and even if you do succeed it only just halves the damage taken. Stick with ducking. Pressing A with up+left or up+right on the stick lets you do a right hook that immediately knocks an enemy down. And it works against everyone, even bosses, a very useful attack. Sometimes pressing B would randomly trigger a grab against weaker enemies. But I couldn’t decipher how to do it intentionally. It’s not too useful anyway but it does look cool.
The Super Spy’s level design is a bit open-ended for an arcade game. It does not have distinct stages. Well, that’s not exactly true. There’re technically 2 stages, one at the underground industrial area, and then the Tadoya building. But since the underground area stage is quite shorter, with fewer bosses, the stage feels rather more like the prologue to the Tadoya Building’s main feature presentation. And the game is about 1 and a half to 2 hours long. And you actually can get lost going around in circles sometimes.
In each of the two stages, you start at the ground floor and work your way up or down the building, clearing halls filled with all types of thugs (green ninjas, blue ninjas, gold ninjas, white ninjas, ninjas with machine guns, guys who throw nets at you, guys who stab you with a screw driver, and many more). You search rooms to find hostages (who might heal you or give you a hint or a machine gun or a new knife or just spout some nonsense about the terrorist attack) or items (like a map) or even bosses. And you ride lots and lots of single destination elevators. In many cases, elevators are locked and require a key or keycard (usually held by a boss).
At first I just “didn’t get how to play the game right”. Since the guns have limited ammo, and since the knife degrades when used (by rusting, weirdly), I initially stuck with using punches. The problem with punching is that you can’t “combo” on an enemy in any dependent way. No matter how fast you mash A or how well timed your punches are, the enemy always gets ample time to retaliate while you’re attacking. Imagine in Streets Of Rage or Final Fight if, while piling attacks on a measly stage-1 thug, the thug suddenly punches back because your attacks are slow to come out or don’t deliver a long enough hit-stun to the enemy. Having encounters be a haphazard mess of random punches given and punches taken (like a game of Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots) is what The Super Spy first felt like. The combat was unpredictable, and therefore cannot be strategized. Which meant it wasn’t fun besides the novelty factor of first person punching and getting punched.
That is, until I watched this 1-credit clear video by LordBBH (who also wrote this expansive, comprehensive, super-detailed piece on The Super Spy that’s definitely better than the one you’re reading right now). The correct way to play The Super Spy is to stick with the knife no matter what, rusty or not. The knife, when brand new, deals greater damage than a punch. But even when it’s fully degraded, the damage is only reduced to be about equal to that of a punch. More importantly, the knife attack comes out faster than a punch and delivers enough hitstun to the enemy to allow you time to combo another knife attack, if timed well. I don’t know if this aspect was intended by SNK or not, but I guess you can call it a mishap that MAKES the game, rather than breaks it. Using the knife does not make the game easy or simple, and you still need to use all of your evasive tools like ducking or dodging. Even if you are timing your attacks well, enemies could move off angle and out of the knife’s hitbox. In addition, the 3rd consecutive knife stab always knocks the enemy away to the wall, so you have move around to reengage with that same enemy or in many times engage with another enemy standing on the side and try to get the upper hand again. So you still need to learn how to defend yourself to avoid attacks to then counterattack. With this revelation, the game becomes much more fun & intense than before. It almost becomes like a beat ’em up made out of mini Punch-Out!! style matches. It’s quite exciting to slash a purple ninja 3 times, knock him away dead, align yourself with a differently colored ninja, duck under his kick, and then stab him till he’s dead too.
That’s not to say The Super Spy doesn’t have any problems. For one, it throws way too many guys at you, barely giving you time to breathe. Once you clear a group, you only have a few seconds to move before the game spawns more. And it doesn’t matter how far you were able to move. The enemy spawn rate is purely time-based, unlike other standard beat ’em ups where enemies spawn based on how far you’ve moved and scrolled the screen (wherein not moving after clearing a screen would usually prompt a “GO! ->” sign to push you to move on. No such thing here). Clearing a floor can become quite the slog going thru tens and tens of thugs.
This confounds another problem with the game you encounter frequently. Often, you’ll find locked elevators that require keys, preventing you from progressing. These keys are found in one of dozen or so rooms within a floor being held by a boss. Sometimes, you have access to a different unlocked elevator that goes to another floor, so in some cases, you have to search around two floors going in room after room, beating up ninja after ninja for however long until you find the damn key. And these floors can get a bit labyrinthine; with branching hallways and off-view hallways that are not obvious to spot (they can only be spotted when the down-arrow indicator flashes on the top-right of the screen) that can only be access by backing into them. Granted, you can usually find a map in one of these rooms showing you where you need to go. But it still is a bit of tedious slog.
It also doesn’t help that the scenery doesn’t change a lot. You spend about %90 of the time in hallways filled with doors, going from elevator to elevator. Sometimes there’s a plant or a soda vending machine or an exploding barrel. Sometimes there’s a glass window showing blue skies or looking onto another door-filled hallway on the other side. Probably the most interesting scene is the entrance lobby of the Tadoya building, with several Tadoya car models placed in front of the reception. But then, it’s all just hallways, doors, and elevators, with little variety.
The ideas presented in The Super Spy are very cool. But SNK almost hit it out of the park with the execution. Once you learn about using the knife, the game certainly becomes much more fun to play. The music is great too. But having so many enemies thrown at you at a constant pace makes it tedious after a while. The Super Spy is still a fun game even with all these problems. So I recommend it.
Sadly, The Super Spy never got a sequel. And thus never got another chance to refine its mechanics and design, which I think has a lot of potential. Some of its ideas appeared in other Neo Geo games. ADK’s Crossed Sword is a sword-based fantasy twist on The Super Spy, though it’s technically more from an over the shoulders third person view than a first person view, but it plays very similarly to The Super Spy. Crossed Swords then received a Japan-only Neo Geo CD-only sequel, Crossed Swords II.
Shortly after The Super Spy was released, id Software released Wolfenstein 3D. It standardized the first person shooter and cemented it as one of the most popular genres for PC and eventually consoles. But of course, the genre focuses more on shooting guns than melee attacks, unlike The Super Spy. First person “brawlers” were few and far between. The few I can recall with an aspect of first person brawling are Namco’s Breakdown on the original Xbox, the Zeno Clash games, the Condemned games, the Riddick games, and Mirror’s Edge. And while it’s not in first person view, God Hand’s close camera (which emphasizes 1 vs. 1 combat), in addition to God Hand’s emphasis on evasion by ducking and swaying left or right, makes it feel sort of similar to a first person “brawler” in my opinion. Or this could just be a flimsy excuse for me to mention God Hand since that game is pretty awesome.
Oh and veteran Baseball Stars Professional & NAM-1975 voice actor Michael Beard is back. He just says “The Super Spy” at the intro. He might be voicing some of the enemies too.
BONUS ROUND: Is Geese Howard in The Super Spy?
Well, yes. There is A person named Geese in this game, though it’s not the most obvious one.
According to the manual, this is Geese:
In the game, Geese looks like this:
He’s a boss you fight. After defeating him, he reveals that he has strapped bombs onto himself, and then:
Strangely, you don’t even get scratched despite being with him inside a rather tiny room.
Then there’s King the final boss. He looks a lot like geese but with gray hair instead of blonde.
Oh wait, that’s just the 2nd boss, who’s an impostor pretending to be King by wearing a gray wig to conceal his…blonde hair!
Then there’s the real King, sitting on a desk on the top floor of a building with his feet on the table as a final boss should do.
Which is exactly what Geese does in the intro to Fatal Fury 3:
King also spouts some nonsense after he’s been beaten.
So which one of these 3 is Geese Howard? The man who shares his name? The man who looks closest to Geese? Or the man who acts just like Geese? Who knows. It’s a mystery for the ages.