Spy Hunter was released to the arcades in 1983 by the predecessor to the modern company we know as Midway. Originally released as both an upright cabinet and a more immersive sit-down version, Spy Hunter was a huge success in the arcades, leading to numerous ports to other systems, including the NES. As it originally spawned in the arcades, Spy Hunter is a classic score attack sort of game, with points awarded for distance traveled and enemy cars destroyed, while your point tally stalls if you damage a civilian car.
This game plays out fairly simply. You are behind the wheel of a high tech spy car, and must evade destruction from enemy limos, tire slashers, bullet proof cars, and helicopters. The player can control their forward velocity, everywhere from a pokey idle to downright suicidal speeds. Trust me on this one, avoid going the maximum speed unless it is just for a second to avoid an enemy. The top speed provides almost zero chance to react to slow moving civilian cars that you may come across, often resulting in your car exploding in the violent rear end collision. Initially, the counter in the bottom right of the screen counts down to zero. Until that happens, you have essentially unlimited lives. Once that timer expires, however, the player can only continue after death by earning extra lives through their score.
Your car starts out with one armament: machine guns. Fortunately, you have unlimited ammo here so you can be liberal with your bullets, as long as you aren’t destroying too many civilian cars. Every once and a while you will come across a red weapons van – if you pull off the perfect Gumball Rally move and drive your car up into the trailer of the truck, you will be outfitted with one of three weapons: the smoke screen, the oil slick, or the missiles. Smoke screens and oil slicks are good for causing enemy cars on your tail to wreck, while the missile are useful for the annoying helicopters that crop up and try to destroy the road in front of you. Equally as annoying as the helicopters themselves is actually trying to hit one of them with a missile. I found it very frustrating to actually land a successful hit on a helicopter, usually requiring at least two tries to down each bird.
As you drive along, the road forks and splits allowing the player to pick their own route. Eventually, the route will start over, unless the player happens to stumble upon a boat house. At this point, the car morphs into a catamaran style speed boat, and takes the chase to the river. Two different enemy boats as well as helicopters will harass the player during this part, and there are no weapon vans in sight. Hopefully you entered the boat house with a full weapons load.
The overall difficulty of this game comes down to how fast the player goes. If you play it conservative and go slow, you might find yourself in a more constant battle with enemies, but less risk overall of collisions. Likewise, going fast can allow you to outpace your pursuers, but often results in crashing into another vehicle or running off the road altogether. It will definitely take a few runs at the game to find a groove that allows you to play the game for more than 30 seconds – but the overall difficulty isn’t too bad after that. Collision detection can be a little wonky at times, but for the most part you will only die if your reflexes let you down.
Gameplay: Gameplay is somewhat enjoyable albeit simple and repetitive. There is little variety to be found in this game and the constant dodging of enemy cars wears on you quickly. This game mixes it up even less than most score attack arcade games, and makes it hard to keep playing for extended periods.
Sound: Endless looping of the Peter Gunn theme. Some people might not find this too bad, but having attended Gunn High School, we had to play that song constantly in band at the football games, despite our school’s namesake having NOTHING to do with Peter Gunn. Long story short, I can’t stand that song. The sound effects are pretty bland and unimaginative as well – but no worse than most games of the era.
Nostalgia X-factor: I had never played this game for more than 5 minutes on the NES. A family friend owned it, I remember playing it only slightly, and honestly had a much better memory of how it played vs. reality.
Final Score: 4/10
Worth Playing? Not worth your time. The gameplay is too boring and repetitive even for an early NES arcade port.
Buy it on Amazon: Spy Hunter for NES (disclaimer: affiliate link)