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.
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.
More often than not, players of Spy vs. Spy would completely ignore their mission and enter into an endless cycle of revenge. Waving at your hapless opponent as your Spy took to the skies with the briefcase in hand was certainly sweet, but sweeter still was to lull your foe into the mistaken belief that he had a slim chance of success, only to cruelly crush his dream at the last possible second. The tactic of letting your adversary do all the hard work while you lay in wait just outside the airport was so commonplace as to be almost cliché. Naturally, once you’d fallen foul of this mean trick, it became necessary to get even. As fresh wounds mingled with old scores, the definition of “victory” shifted from the simple act of stealing a briefcase to the total psychological humiliation of your opponent.
It’s testament to the exceptional design of Spy vs. Spy that it’s emergent gameplay so closely mirrored the ongoing narrative of the original comic strips. The game’s designers were well aware that the method of victory would almost always rankle with the loser and therefore made it as fun as possible to win in a manner that left your adversary seething with rage. In deftly drawing players’ attention away from the bigger picture and focusing it on their own meaningless rivalry, Spy vs. Spy was able to go even further than its pen-and-ink inspiration. Whereas the comic strip could only use imagery to suggest the arrogance and nearsightedness that fuelled the “conflict within a conflict” between the CIA and the KGB, the videogame actually let players experience it for themselves. Spy vs. Spy demonstrated the effects that wounded pride and the subsequent desire for revenge could have on moral decision making. Screw the mission: What matters is the prestige and satisfaction of crushing the other guy.
Spy vs. Spy‘s early foray into two-player gaming meant that players were only able to compete against one other in the same room and on the same gaming system. Inevitably, this meant they would sit side by side as they battled it out. Thanks to both this close proximity and the many ways in which the game fanned the flames of hatred between combatants, the concept of violence spawning violence would often manifest as real-world player versus player combat.
With frustration levels constantly hovering in the stratosphere, the urge to poke, slap or otherwise physically abuse your opponent during play was almost overwhelming. The close proximity to your foe was a key factor in nurturing those feelings of resentment and malice. Their unpleasant, wheezy guffaw as another one of their lame traps went off in your face; their smug, self-satisfied expression as they stole away your triumph; their disgusting body contorted in a mockery of dance as they made off with another briefcase. You could be forgiven for failing to keep your anger in check. Certain scenarios began to drift through your mind. Would a jury really convict when presented with such clear evidence of provocation? you’d wonder. Of course, that was madness … but perhaps it was worth reading up on ways to inflict pain without leaving any bruises just in case.
Compounding this antagonism was Spy vs. Spy‘s terrific split-screen layout. Unlike the real Iron Curtain, everything that happened on either side of the on-screen barrier was fully visible to both players. In theory, you could see everything that the opposing player did – every trap location, every movement. This gave the distinct impression that anything that happened to your character could have easily been avoided – hell, it was your own fault for not paying attention.
But therein lay the genius of the design: Just as soccer officials struggle to accurately call an offside violation, so too did players flounder when trying to watch two points of the screen at once. It was impossible … though this clear impossibility didn’t prevent that feeling of humiliation when yet another bucket of electrified water was deposited on the head of your unfortunate Spy. The rebellious blob of brain matter repeatedly whispering that it saw your opponent set the trap really didn’t help. In fact, it only made matters worse: Even your own brain was against you.
When Spy vs. Spy was ranked 20th in Your Sinclair’s “Top 100 Spectrum Games of All Time,” Stuart Campbell’s blurb declared, “This must surely be the game which has ruined more beautiful friendships than any other.” While other titles have since emerged to challenge that distinction, Spy vs. Spy went years without any realistic contenders. It had the power to effortlessly turn friend against friend, brother against brother and, should you be so reckless, even spouse against spouse.
It’s impossible to say whether Antonio Prohias ever played any of the videogame conversions of his comic strip. But if he did, I hope he felt they did his creation justice. It’s rare for videogames based closely on other media to channel their source of inspiration rather than the final product, but on almost every level, Spy vs. Spy stays true to its thematic roots. Be it U.S.S.R. versus U.S., KGB versus CIA, player versus player or Spy versus Spy, the subterfuge, misguided sense of pride and perpetual cycles of violence are, at their heart, one and the same.
Peter Parrish is priming some exploding underwater cigar holders with radioactive hemlock.