Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Let's Meet: Super Spy Hunter

at 6:25 PM
Sunsoft put out a good deal of mediocrity, to be generous. Their early NES offerings, like Atlantis no Nazo and The Wing of Madoola, bear charming concepts tied to ornery gameplay and brutal difficulty. Later, as the 16 bit generation wore on, Sunsoft published unpleasant titles like Aero the Acrobat and Taz-Mania. Granted, at the time, Sunsoft was also developing some decent U-four-ia spinoffs.

Blaster Master is kind of THE Sunsoft game.
But there, in the late 80s and early 90s, Sunsoft had a good thing going. Blaster Master is among the best-known adventure platformers on the NES, and Batman remains an exemplary licensed game. Additionally, internet critics like the Happy Video Game Nerd have since praised lesser-known Sunsoft games from that period, such as Journey to Silius and Gimmick!. Every one of these games evidences Sunsoft's forte: hectic but (mostly) fair action, following a school of gaming not unlike Konami's Contra.

If those last two paragraphs lost you, that's kind of the point. Super Spy Hunter was released in 1992, towards the end of Sunsoft's golden era. Being an NES game, it would've been obscure at the time, and there's already a boatload of better known Sunsoft games to unearth - some good and some bad - so it's easy to see why so relatively few have discovered it. It's not impossible to find discussions on Super Spy Hunter, but its brethren get much wider acknowledgement.

But Super Spy Hunter stands unique among its peers. With any game, the player must learn its interface. In a platformer, for instance, this means learning how high your hero jumps in response to your button presses. Usually, this is an up front cost that's soon forgotten as you settle in for the game. Super Spy Hunter, however, makes learning how to control the focus of the game.

Initially, the controls may seem like a standard vertical space shooter. Hold up, and your car moves towards the top of the screen; hold down, and the car will move towards the bottom. However, pressing up and down adjusts your car's speed first and its placement on the screen second.

At your fastest, you'll have consistent aim, making it easy to strike down enemies. More than that, it gives the gameplay a nice, exciting pace while things whiz by at high speeds. But this brings in tension, since your car will sit near the top of the screen at its fastest, giving you little time to react to oncoming traffic.
For this segment, you'll need to slow down
in order to handle a diagonal bit of road.
However, this means you'll have a hard time
pegging that neon pink helicopter.

At your slowest, you'll have more time to maneuver. Not only will your car be farther down the screen and away from the onslaught spawning at the top of the screen, but your car itself will make sharper turns. But now, your nose will stray left and right as you move in those directions, making your aim inconsistent. Plus, if a bullet approaches you, you might not have enough momentum to evade it.

The first stage looks dumb and easy, but it's aimed squarely at making you look terrible with Super Spy Hunter's controls. Turrets installed on the side of the road will follow you, but you can't outrace them; instead, dodging their fire means slamming on the brakes, potentially screwing up your gunfire's fix on an enemy vehicle. Later in the stage, enemy drillcars will accelerate to pierce your car from behind; in order to escape their attack, you'll have to decelerate in just the right way to trick them into passing you without hitting you. Simple acts of moving up and down become calculated measures. If you clear this stage, it's safe to say you know how to use Super Spy Hunter's car.

Not only will your car trudge through
this sand, but quicksand will tinker
with your steering, too.
The second stage will drag you through a desert with sluggish, shifting sands, taking your car's basic controls and rigging them against you. Enemy craft remain simple, though. They don't employ any special patterns or attacks; they just shoot directly at you or try to run you off the road. It tests how well you can handle your car in adverse conditions.

So, it's only fitting that stage three is a bore. You've proven your skill at handling, and the game doesn't have any smarter enemies to throw at you. Instead, you get a casual cruise along a highway while you face squads of fighter jets that can only aim straight ahead. This is only halfway through the game, and I found myself asking what the point was.

As if in response, stage four abandoned the acceleration mechanic altogether, letting me move anywhere on the screen I wanted without any sense of momentum. Granted, the game also saw fit to pile mobs of enemies on me; if organized packs couldn't take me, Super Spy Hunter figured, maybe organization wasn't its best bet. Overcoming that, the game sent my car on a series of jumps through flocks of hostiles, complete with floaty horizontal aerial momentum and death if I didn't catch a bit of highway on my way back down.

The game continues like that to its conclusion, constantly rewriting the rules in search of some way, any way, to frustrate the player's success. The first half proves the extent to which the game can muck up a car, so the second half goes as far as possible to change what a car can do, even going so far as to transform it into different vehicles.

And I didn't even get to talk about
how awesome the bosses are.

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