Monday, June 16, 2014

Shooter Month: Super Spy Hunter

Super Spy Hunter
  • Publisher: Sunsoft
  • Developer: Tokai Engineering
  • Release: NES, February 1992
  • Genre: 2D Action (Shoot-em-up)
  • Players: 1
  • Save: N/A
  • Rarity/Cost: Moderate, US$20-30
Previously on the SDP, I reviewed the NES port of Spy Hunter. And it was... okay. But it turns out, the NES also plays host to a pseudo-sequel titled Super Spy Hunter. Is it any good?

Let me state for the record that I'm not of the mindset that a sequel should slavishly follow whatever concepts were established by its predecessor. I believe my Zelda II review made that perfectly clear. But try telling that to general public. For some reason, sequels that stray from what is commonly perceived as the original formula are forgotten at best, and shunned at worst. For example: what comes to mind when you think of Spy Hunter? You drive a car that can shoot machine guns to disable other cars, and you pick up special weapons like oil slicks, smoke screens, and missiles from weapons vans. Actually, our new game's still got all that. But Super Spy Hunter throws so many little changes into the mix that it develops an identity of its own.

When you press and hold the B button, your car shoots bullets from three directions: one from the front, and two from a turret on the roof, which you can change the angle of by holding A. I suppose this offers a degree of versatility, even strategy, to gameplay, but I for one just found it an unnecessary encumbrance. I had an easier time finding one of the power-ups that automatically sets the angle to lock-on to enemies, but I guess your mileage may vary. Just don't pick up another one of those items, or you'll lose the ability again. Which brings me to my next point...

The weapons vans make their return appearance, in concept anyway. Instead of driving into them, you shoot them up to release whichever item they're holding. The red ones offer upgrades to your weapon power, fire rate, maximum health, etc., and the blue ones hold special weapons and other miscellany. Curiously, special weapons are triggered with the same button as the one that rotates your turret, so if you haven't found a lock-on item yet, enjoy spending a precious extra second resetting your angle. Unlike in Spy Hunter -- and indeed many shoot-em-ups of the time, I'm not singling out its "predecessor" or anything -- you don't go down with one hit. Instead, you have a lifebar, which can be refilled or even extended by picking up certain power-ups.

I found bosses considerably harder than their preceding stages.
Also unlike in Spy Hunter, the structure of this game follows a more traditional format of levels and bosses. Unfortunately, the difficulty curve can be a little schizophrenic. With the right upgrades, the main stages are a breeze, except for the occasional environmental trap (for example, the deep water in Level 1 and the quicksand in Level 2). The boss fights, on the other hand, are disproportionately tougher. They all absorb many, many hits, and from Level 3 on, include instant-death lasers in their arsenals. And when you do get taken down, your upgrades get taken down a peg as well, making your next attempt that much tougher.

Super Spy Hunter ups its game in more areas than just gameplay, though. As a game made for a console which found itself in the shadow of a successor product just a year earlier, it had to stand out in some flashy way in order to have any hope of decent sales. To that effect, Super Spy Hunter employs some innovative graphical moments for its time. On certain levels, the road will curve to the left or right, and the screen scrolls along with it. True, this effect chugs the frame rate something awful, but for the NES in 1992, I appreciate the effort. Other memorable moments include sections of level 2, where you dodge quicksand pits in the desert, and level 4, where you go off ramps to take monster jumps, and attempt to land on the road again as it zooms in from the background. And as further homage to the original Spy Hunter, later levels have your car transform into a boat and even a plane.
Super Spy Hunter employs impressive, if technologically taxing, special effects by the NES's standards.
So many changes... How did this happen? Well, it turns out that Super Spy Hunter was first sold in Japan in 1991, as the Famicom game Battle Formula. But when it came time to sell it in North America and Europe, publisher Sunsoft apparently slapped the Spy Hunter brand on the game. You may also remember that Sunsoft did the NES version of the original Spy Hunter. Perhaps they were on good enough terms with Midway that they borrowed the licence that way, I don't know. What I do know is that apart from the title screen, Battle Formula and Super Spy Hunter are identical. Even the Peter Gunn theme, made famous by the original Spy Hunter, is used in both versions of this game. So if I had to guess why Super Spy Hunter's been left by the wayside of history, my only conclusion would be that no one from the original team was involved in its production. But don't let that be a reason for you to pass it up. It's original among 8-bit shooters and holds up well to this day. Yup, change can be a good thing.

+ Innovative departures from the Spy Hunter formula.
+ You can take more than one hit per life.
+ Graphical effects that are unique for the NES.

- Too-tough bosses.
- You still lose some of your upgrades when you die.

Control: 4 weapons vans out of 5
Design: 4 weapons vans out of 5
Graphics: 4 weapons vans out of 5
Audio: 5 weapons vans out of 5
The Call: 85% (B+)

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