Outwit Your Foes with Spy vs Spy

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The iPhone is no stranger to remakes of popular games from the ’80s. Some turn out to be lazy cash-ins, barely updated or reworked for touch controls and a small but high-resolution screen, while others seem to pull out all the stops in a bid to draw players both new and old. Robots and Pencils’ update to the 1984 hit Spy vs Spy thankfully falls into the latter camp, but it’s not without its quirks or shortcomings. Let’s take a look at them after the jump. 

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Comic Origins

Spy vs Spy, for those not in the know, is not just an old game; it’s a long-running comic strip from Mad Magazine that debuted back in 1961. It stars two identical spies — one dressed in white and the other in black — in an endless war to outwit one another and escape with the secret documents. To aid in their endeavors, they plant all kinds of elaborate booby traps. The original game adapted the comic into a split-screen, two-player, collect-the-items-and-exit affair, retaining the slapstick comedy and elaborate traps.

Retro mode, for the oldies and the purists, replicates the original game pixel-by-pixel.

Retro mode, for the oldies and the purists, replicates the original game pixel-by-pixel.

The iOS remake stays true to its source material, with the same core mechanics and visual aesthetic, along with sixteen new levels added to the eight from the original (for 24 in total). Modern mode sports new graphics, a redone theme song and a more fleshed-out combat system. There’s also a retro mode for pixel lovers, which includes the original graphics and theme, plus online and local multiplayer, and three stars to collect in each level.

Spy Games

The goal is simple in theory: collect the documents, money, key, passport and briefcase, then make your escape. These items are scattered around the embassy, hidden in objects like TVs, paintings or filing cabinets. You can bring up a map to see which rooms they’re in. Search the objects in a room to grab or hide an item. You’ll only be able to carry one item at a time, but the briefcase can hold all four of the other items together.

Get all the items and make a quick escape.

Get all the items and make a quick escape.

In practice, it’s anything but easy. You’ll encounter your rival spy many times as you navigate through each embassy (the name given to levels). Whenever you’re in the room together, all currently-held items are dropped. They cannot be picked up until one spy either exits the room or gets bludgeoned to death.

The black spy dismantles a trap while the white one gets caught — don't let it happen to you.

The black spy dismantles a trap while the white one gets caught — don’t let it happen to you.

To keep your rival spy at bay, you can plant traps on doors and objects. This is as simple as tapping on the trap in your Trapulator (the menu drawer on the right), then moving over to the object you want booby-trapped and tapping again. Traps can be disabled with their corresponding remedies — toolbox beats bomb, umbrella beats bucket, wire cutters beat spring, scissors beat gun-on-a-string. Each remedy is hidden in an easily identifiable object type spread around the embassy. If either spy falls for a trap, they die — losing time and any items they had, and being reset to the start room. The spy still alive typically snickers when this happens.

Interface Woes

Where the modern mode suffers compared to retro mode is in its interface. Neither mode uses an on-screen joystick — both offer relative touch controls — but the larger sprites and objects lead to you getting stuck in corners more often in modern mode. That’s not the worst of it, though.

The developers, it seems, have decided that a clean look is more important than ease of use. I’m all for hiding advanced functionality to aid novices, but accessing the map or any of the five trap types does not count as advanced in my book. It may help the game seem less overwhelming in the opening few levels, but it increases the number of interactions required by making you tap to expand the drawer that grants access to these tools.

Accessing traps in the Trapulator takes far too long in modern mode.

Accessing traps in the Trapulator takes far too long in modern mode.

This is bad interaction design. A core, essential component of Spy vs Spy is setting traps. Sometimes you need to be quick, because your opponent is in the next room. When you have to tap on the sidebar, wait for the drawer to expand, then tap on the trap to equip it — before finally setting the trap — you lose precious time. More than a second, in fact, when I tested the difference between grabbing the spring in modern compared to retro mode. In interaction design, it’s considered bad to bury the functionality for a basic or common task behind needless complexity. It wastes time, and in games like this, that can be the difference between winning and losing.

Broken Combat

Combat in the original game involved hammering on a single button until either you or your opponent died — although you could run away if you thought you were about to die. That’s preserved in retro mode here, but the modern mode adds a rock-paper-scissors element and on-screen health bars. Your options are club to the head, club to the stomach or kick to the shins. It’s completely arbitrary which you pick, leading me to question whether the implementation is broken or just poorly thought out. In any case, the best strategy is just to tap like crazy on one of the options until your opponent dies. If it looks like you’re in trouble, run around in circles getting hits out as often as possible.

Give your foe a good kicking for his trouble; the rock, paper, scissors mechanic is sadly broken.

Give your foe a good kicking for his trouble; the rock, paper, scissors mechanic is sadly broken.

Of course, if you’re smart enough in your approach you’ll never need to worry about the combat problems. That was the beauty of the original game, and it’s no different here. Cover your tracks with traps — and remember where they are — to put yourself ahead. It’s immensely satisfying to watch as an opponent successfully disables a bucket of water over the door only to stumble on a bomb in the filing cabinet. Spy vs Spy makes you feel smart when you win, even if it’s down to blind luck.

Good, with Caveats

When the touchscreen controls or the modern mode’s poorly-implemented combat system don’t conspire against you, Spy vs Spy is brilliant. But unfortunately, frustrations are commonplace. If you’re not put off by the pixellated graphics of the retro mode, it’s the better choice. In updating Spy vs Spy for a modern audience, the developers did a great job preserving the charm. But they added undue — and ultimately frustrating — layers of abstraction to the interface.

It’s a difficult game; getting through all 24 embassies takes considerable time and effort. And with a fairly robust multiplayer mode, there’s plenty of replay value. At $0.99, it’s practically a steal. The new Spy vs Spy tries to be too clever for its own good, but it’s a worthwhile update to a cult classic. Don’t let it sneak away.


A remake of the 1984 hit that was itself based on a Mad Magazine comic strip, Spy vs Spy is a solid update to a classic game of trap-laden split-screen espionage — although it sometimes tries to be too clever for its own good.