When I was a child, arcade gaming was a way of life. In addition to dedicated arcades such as Aladdin’s Castle, arcade games could be found in all sorts of ancillary locations. Laundromats, convenience stores and even some restaurants would have a couple of cabinets on hand to pass the time. You could hardly swing a cat without hitting an arcade machine, which is just how I liked it, even if the cats didn’t appreciate it so much. Dedicated arcades were the province of malls or other out-of-the-way places, so most of my exposure to these games came from those isolated cabinets. One of the earliest arcade games I fell in love with was Bally Midway’s classic Spy Hunter, located in a Stop-n-Go in the Florida town I lived in.
Spy Hunter puts you behind the wheel of a tricked-out car on a never-ending race against the eponymous spy hunters. Your vehicle comes equipped automatically with infinite-capacity machine guns, which can be used to take down some of your enemies. Other opponents are either bulletproof or remain out of reach of machineguns. For these foes (and to help with the others whom you can still shoot, of course), you’ll need to upgrade, which is accomplished by driving up into a semi, much like Knight Rider, the television series that premiered a year before. Via the semi, you can acquire limited supplies of oil slicks, smoke screens and even surface-to-air missiles. A light on the cabinet’s display will even flash to get your attention when the semi approaches, which would hopefully help prevent you from accidentally wiping it out with said weapons. In addition to weapons, you can also ram some enemies off the road, but you’ll have to exercise caution not to run off the road and into a tree yourself.
Your car is controlled through a gas pedal for speed and a steering wheel (complete with weapon triggers) for direction and attacking. Points are awarded for distance covered as well as enemies eliminated, so driving faster will result in a higher score but make it more likely you’ll rear-end someone, totalling your car. And you do not want to crash this car. In addition to the travesty of smashing up this sweet ride, you’ll end the game very quickly. Unlike many games, Spy Hunter starts off with a timer, about a minute and a half long, during which you have infinite lives. Get destroyed during this period and you’ll lose nothing but scoring opportunity. Once the timer ends, however, you have only the car you’re driving, plus any extra cars you earned from bonus points.
Civilians are an issue. They populate the roads and get in the way of your glorious escape. Accidentally destroying them isn’t as punitive as it is in, say, Operation Wolf, Lethal Enforcers or even City Connection — they won’t cost you a life — but they’ll temporarily disable earning any points. While you’d often have to actually try to destroy civilian cars (watch that machinegun fire), it’s very easy to nudge motorcycles with your own car and wipe them out. But really, that’s kind of what they get for being in your way. You’re trying to save the world from some nefarious plot; they’re just trying to save a little gas by driving a bike.
Stay alive long enough and you’ll have the opportunity to covert your spy car into a boat and take to the open water. This provides a nice dash of variety, even if the gameplay changes only slightly (the coolest change being that oil slicks catch fire, leaving a trail of flames that torches enemies.) Eventually, you’ll cycle through terrain changes, such as the gray environments of an icy winter.
Technically, Spy Hunter was and is a remarkable game. It sported a much larger resolution (480×480) than almost any other game of the time or, for that matter, most arcade games following it for the next two decades; even modern widescreen sprite-based games rarely crossed 400 pixels in either dimension. This enabled the sprites it used to be small yet surprisingly detailed, an important element in trying to tell the good guys from the bad guys without relying on silly high-contrasting elements like pink cars. The graphics and sound, use of multiple weapons, different enemies with distinct attack patterns and even the ability to detour into playing on water were significantly above the depth offered by many other arcade games at the time, including hits like Zaxxon, Xevious and Pole Position.
Despite a legacy that includes a buggy-but-fun NES port, a terrible arcade sequel, and some very respectable re-imaginings on the PS2, the original Spy Hunter is still the best. It’s also one of those games that, unfortunately, you need to play in a cabinet to truly appreciate; while the game can be emulated, the experience of controlling your car through a keyboard, joystick or even mouse ranges from mediocre to rage-inducing. You’re best off seeking out an old-school arcade (for a variety of reasons, in truth) and spending some quality time cruising to the tune of Peter Gunn.