This is the fifth of an ongoing series of posts in which I list, in ascending order, the games that have most influenced me. If you want to know how and why this project started, read this introduction.
Now, let’s jump right in shall we?
Spy Vs Spy
ZX Spectrum, 1985
I could have been an eSports star. I could have made millions of dollars by playing videogames. I could have been adored by baying crowds filling disco-lit stadiums, all chanting my awkward but unchangeable PSN handle. Alas, Spy Vs Spy, the original eSport, was a generation ahead of its time, and our talents went unnoticed outside of our bedrooms.
Spy Vs Spy sees two secret agents going up against each other in espionage combat. Best played with a friend in split-screen fashion, you explore an embassy, trying to be the first to find a set of six objects and then escape to the airport before the time runs out. The characters and theme are spun off from MAD Magazine’s long-running comic strip of the same name. Think Tom and Jerry, except instead of a cat and mouse it’s a delicate Cold War allegory.
This would be little more than a basic exploration game but for the cartoonishly devious traps you can set for your unwitting opponent. My favourite was the shotgun-behind-the-door trap. You attach one end of a piece of string to the trigger of a loaded gun, and the other end to a door handle. You then place the weapon on a chair facing the door. Then you go to explore the winding corridors and briefing rooms of the embassy. You rifle through filing cabinets, pat down jackets on coat stands, finding a few helpful items. Then you walk into a room you don’t recognise and BLAM! you get shot in the chest by the shotgun-behind-the-door trap you set just two minutes earlier.
You will occasionally come into direct contact with your opposite number (actually your opposite colour - the protagonists are White Spy and Black Spy, identical but for their outfits), and when this happens you can engage in a bout of joystick-waggling hand to hand combat. But the real ecstasy and agony of Spy Vs Spy is found in the glory of a well-placed booby trap - or the ignominy of forgetting your own.
I think this may have been the first multiplayer game I ever played, and were it not for minor issues like the internet not existing yet, and Spy Vs Spy never being big in the stadia of South Korea, it could have been a career-defining moment.
Qix (pronounced “Qix”) was a classic arcade game that I always seemed to end up playing despite knowing that it was lousy, and that I was lousy at it. The basic game is simple, so much so that I just spent ten minutes on Wikipedia reading about the Danish political system in order to explain it. I’ll try to do so for you now without once referring to a “supermajority.”
You control a sort of cursor thing. You are initially constrained to the edges of a rectangular arena, inside which patrols a bouncing line of light that would go on to appear as the star of a Windows 95 screensaver. Also running along the edges are sparks. Touch the sparks or the line thing (which is apparently called a Qix, pronounced “Kickx”) and you die. As you move, you can come into the interior of the rectangle, leaving trails that block out other rectangles. Complete such a rectangle and it gets filled in. Once you fill in enough of the area, by proportion, to secure a supermajority... DAMN!
Qix (pronounced “Quiskt”) resembled a Maths GCSE geometry problem combined with a Geography GCSE map-colouring-in exercise, and was about as much fun. Yet I seem to remember it as a staple of Blackpool arcades for years, sitting between the likes of R-Type and Gauntlet long after it should have disappeared for good.
Atari ST, 1988
LED STORM! Lazer Enhanced Destruction! LAZER! Lazer Enhanced Destruction Storm! The Ultimate Devastation Machine! With a LAZER! It’s enough to make even the most conservative graphic designer reach for the emboss and gradient effects.
The game didn’t deliver on the promise of its fonts. A vertically scrolling drive-em-up with lots to hit but little to do. The scrolling, which was impressively smooth for an Atari ST game, was twice as fast as a human can possibly react to. Rocks, traffic cones, differently sized rocks, gaps in the road and even other vehicles would appear in your path so quickly that crashes were inevitable. Thankfully those crashes were largely without consequence, merely slowing you down just long enough for you to wonder why you weren’t playing Spy Hunter instead.
Other than moving left and right to flukily avoid the obstacles you guessed might be coming, your only available action was to make the car jump. Occasionally some good would come of it, but never in a way that felt satisfying, never anything over which you had agency.
LED Storm wasn’t a badly made game, it’s just that there wasn’t enough game there to engage you. It was more like a fast-paced shmup than a driving game, only without the baddies and bullets.
Trantor: The Last Stormtrooper
ZX Spectrum, 1987
If there was a better example of style over substance on the Spectrum then I don’t know what it was. This was the kind of game you wept about. You wept for joy over the adverts, the screenshots, the blurb. And then you wept in agony over the gameplay, the tedium, the price.
Trantor was a butch 80s superhero of a sprite, standing fully seven feet tall even on a tiny bedroom telly and attribute-clashing with anything that stood in his way. Named after the imperial planet from Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels, he was the last of the Stormtroopers from Star Wars. Or something. Yes, he was a mess of science fiction references, but after seeing the intro movie you were prepared to forgive him.
That’s right, this Speccy game had an intro movie! Trantor’s spaceship is seen dropping to the surface of a planet, its communication dish spinning to find nearby signals. The suspension of its landing pads takes the weight of its bulky fuselage. Trantor emerges from the airlock and beckons to the other stormtroopers inside, but before they can follow, the ship disintegrates and he is thrown to the ground. I’m actually not kidding, I'm not exaggerating or misremembering: it really was that detailed.
How disappointing then that the game descended into a chore of walking along a repetitive corridor, spraying repetitive enemies with a repetitive flamethrower. You’d occasionally collect letters, from which you would eventually be expected to solve an anagram, all while a clock ticked down. I never finished the game, but presumably the end boss was Susie Dent in dictionary corner.
That's your lot. I assure you there are plenty of good games coming to this series, just... well, not for another couple of years.
Thanks for reading. Did you love or hate these games? Hit the comments below.