The Many Faces of . . . Spy Hunter

By Alan Hewston

This review was created while the Spy Hunter theme, "Peter Gunn" played continuously in my mind. Spy Hunter was one of, if not the first games to combine the driving and shooting genres and did well enough at the arcades in '83 that it eventually spawned off a not-so-well-known sequel Spy Hunter II, in '87. As you know, there were official classic home versions released for the Atari 2600, Colecovision, Commodore 64, and the Apple and Atari home computers. A handful of more recent platforms also saw Spy Hunter as a port as well.

As secret agent 007 . . . oops, they couldn't come out and say that. This game is based upon secret agents like James Bond and their various super cars that came heavily equipped to fight the bad guys on the highway. In your ultra-equipped turbo-charged spy mobile, your mission is to use your unlimited supply of machine guns to shoot up the bad guys or run them off the road, namely, the Road Lord, Switchblade, the Enforcer, the Copter (called the Mad Bomber in the arcade), Barrel Dumper and Doctor Torpedo. You should avoid the innocent drivers on the road, who can cost you points if you shoot them, but then again, they can also cause you to crash as well. In this vertical scrolling shooter game, your primary fire button shoots your unlimited supply of machine guns in the direction you are headed. This will eliminate 90% of the traffic. For vehicles behind you, armored vehicles, and those in the air, a second fire button (or set of controls on the CV) activates the special weapons - only available from your weapons van. Always be on the lookout for your Weapons Van - let that big rig get ahead of you on the road and then drive up the ramps into it. You are rewarded with a limited supply (usage) of: oil slicks, smoke screens, or anti-helicopter missiles.

Besides driving on the road, Spy Hunter also had a boathouse and a speedboat for chasing the enemy agents on the water. You may be forced to use the waterways - warned via a text message to detour left, as the bridge is out ahead. But there are also some chances to enter the waterways on your own. Once past the boat house you come out on the other side in your Spy Hunter speedboat. The waterways are somewhat more dangerous and require slower speeds due to the many small islands that must be avoided. Another change in pace can be found when the road conditions change to icy (I've not seen any other type of condition alerts).

You begin each game with only one life, but you have 999 counts on a timer (about 90 seconds) where you get unlimited lives - that is, the weapons van will pull up and give you another spy mobile as long as time remains on the counter. Points were earned primarily for your driving distance but also when you "rubbed off" the enemy agents. Extra lives are earned for scoring 10k, 18k, 30k and every 30,000 up to 120k.

Arcade Game Designed in 1983 by: Bally Midway George Gomez & Tom Leon.

Classic Platforms: Atari 2600 (Sega), 8 bit (Sega), Colecovision, Apple II and Commodore 64 (Sega). No luck with any programmer credits.

Categories: Gameplay, Addictiveness, Graphics, Sound & Controls

More info on Spy Hunter can be found at:

Disqualified: Apple II (N/A)
Once again I've disqualified this platform, only because I do not own an Apple II or any other disk-only system. I cannot have or review all classic games/platforms.

Have Nots: Atari 2600 (33)
The 2600 does a good job including most of the Gameplay elements (6), including all the enemies, the special weapons, and 2 skill settings (A or B difficulty). There is no pause other than that after each new spy mobile is deployed you can sit along the roadside until you are ready. There are no detours or road condition messages reported to you, and no chance to chose the waterways/boathouse. Instead, at some points along the road, activity automatically freezes up and a transition to the waterway (speedboats) occurs - and then eventually back again to the road. The 2600 version of the waterway is nice in that in it uses up the entire width of the screen with water, making for more enemy boats, but there are far too few land/island hazards to avoid. The beginning game timer starts at 99 (seconds?), instead of 999 counts. The Controls are nice (8), but a little awkward due to the use of a second joystick port's fire button for your special weapons. The original packaging came with a Joystick Coupler that allowed you to place your two joysticks together so that one was in your hands to control and the other mounted just above it. Thus the second stick’s fire button would then be right above the primary joystick’s fire button, as close as you can get it to your “firing” thumb. If you do not have this coupler, or a Super Action Controller (for the Colecovision), your Spy Hunter enjoyment could be lessened a bit, but, you can always find a way to make the second fire button more handy, or simply play the game without using any special weapons.

As my writing deadline approached I noticed that the Digital Press Guide notes about a modification to a 7800 controller to play Spy Hunter. I will publish any information that I get on this in the future, as it would probably work for 3 of these 4 versions reviewed here.

The 2600 Graphics are decent (6), but clearly its worst feature. The screen is very dark and hard to see. The timer, score and weapons information is displayed at the top and bottom of the screen, quite the contrary to what you'd want in a vertical scroller - as this shortens the length of the road displayed. This same, inefficient layout occurs again on the Atari 8 bit and C64 ports, but not nearly as detracting as here. The Sound is good (6) but missing some of the effects, and limited use of music. The Addictiveness is cool (7), and compared to many 2600 games, you’ll find this one worth coming back to for more. Food for thought: Do the initials WV on top of the 2600 spy mobile stand for the programmers name, Weapons Van, or perhaps it is Volks Wagon, in reverse order?

Bronze Medal: Commodore 64 (39)
Coming up just short in the battle for a Silver, the C64 version could have improved its Gameplay. Albeit nice (8), there is no pause button and no choice for what special weapon to use. If you have 2 or 3 of the special weapons, the C64 and both Atari versions cycle through the weapon that is used for that press of the fire button. You get one, then the next, then the next. This works, but is a bit clumsy, especially if you need that anti-helicopter missile like NOW. The Controls are crisp (8), but unless you have a good way to work that second fire button (see the Atari 2600 above). The Graphics are enjoyable (8), but the score, timer and messages are displayed at the top/bottom of the screen. Easier to see, but taking up part of the screen that can better be used as roadway. The Sound is also crisp, (8) having a nice musical score of “Peter Gunn”. Unfortunately the music gets interrupted whenever there is a break (crash or transition) in the action. The audio clues and effects are all there but the volume does not seem consistent. The Addictiveness is very good (7), but I am disappointed. Perhaps its due to the high level of difficulty, or the actions of the sadistic Weapon's Van driver (trying to get me killed). It is frustrating in both the C64 and the 2 Atari versions trying to get on the truck and then the weapons van drives back out onto the road after you have loaded up. The C64 version can be found on both cart and disk.

Silver Medal: Atari 8 bit (40)
Having a pause button is probably just enough to win the Silver Medal, as the Gameplay is outstanding (9). The Escape key toggles the pause. All the C64 comments apply for this version's worst feature, the Addictiveness (7). The Controls are very nice (8), but have the same drawback with 2 fire buttons / sticks. The Sound is nice (8), but as was the case for the C64, programming or H/W limitations, the musical score does not keep flowing. Maybe this is good since there is no way to toggle the music off. The Graphics are crisp (8), better than most 8 bit games I've played. The Atari 8 bit version can also be found on both cart and disk.

Gold Medal: Colecovision (46)
Wow! a perfect Gameplay score (10). Everything is here, a pause, 4 difficulty levels, special weapon selection, and a Weapons Van warning icon - to alert you that the van is present. Neat stuff! The Controls also get top billing, with an outstanding (9), due to use of the Super Action Controller. No cycling through your weapons, just squeeze off the weapon of choice - on demand. The Sound is fantastic (9), and cannot be improved upon much. The musical score never ends . . .hmmn, that could be a bad thing too. The Graphics are fantastic (9), and the screen is laid out with the score on the left - maximizing the visible road length. The Addictiveness is superb (9), making this is the port that you’ll really want to keep coming back to.

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