The Spy Who Fragged Me

The Spy Who Fragged Me
Griefing in Black and White

Peter Parrish | 16 Feb 2010 13:11
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Spy vs Spy first appeared in Mad Magazine in 1961. Created, drawn and authored by Antonio Prohias, an exile from Castro's Cuba, the near wordless black-and-white strip featured the absurd and violent antics of two battling secret agents. Identical save for the color of their attire, the pointy-beaked Black Spy and White Spy relentlessly dueled each other with ludicrous traps, subterfuge and basic trickery. Sometimes White would defeat Black. Sometimes Black triumphed over White. Occasionally, honors were even. Yet aside from an apparent pathological desire to crush the other agent, the Spies' ultimate goal was rather nebulous.

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It didn't take long for the nascent videogames industry to recognize the value of an IP that depicted a perpetual battle between recognizable characters that required little to no backstory to understand. The first in a series of Spy vs. Spy titles appeared in 1984, released for the Atari, Commodore 64 and Apple II, but the game was so successful that it ultimately saw release for almost every major 8-bit and 16-bit system of that era. The ports vary in quality, but the 1985 ZX Spectrum version that introduced me to the series was produced with clear affection for the material (and given the graphical capabilities of that machine, it certainly didn't hurt that the protagonists were monochrome).

Spy vs. Spy stays very faithful to the original comic. Both Spies have a vague objective to run around a building complex, secure a nondescript briefcase and flee the scene in a plane. They also have a variety of traps at their disposal to prevent the other Spy from succeeding before him. These devious devices include electrified buckets of water that can be placed teetering over doorways, classic bombs to be tucked away in desk drawers and guns whose triggers are tied to bits of string and subsequently attached to nearby hat-stands. Each trap also has a counter, but the great pleasure of the game is blitzing your opponent with a succession of increasingly hilarious (and aggravating) attacks.

Blood Will Have Blood

Although playable against the computer AI, Spy vs. Spy's greatest technological achievement was its two-player split-screen gameplay. The idea of "multiplayer" in the mid-'80s still usually referred to the rather pathetic workaround of passing a single controller back and forth between two or more players. This "takey-turney" version of the games' regular single-player mode was never anything other than disappointing. But with Spy vs. Spy's split-screen approach, players could battle it out in real time. The term "griefing" had yet to be coined, but this title was absolutely made for it.

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