Golden Week is behind us now in Japan, and that means Hamster is back to its quest of putting seemingly every NEOGEO game SNK owns the rights to on iOS and Android. Before the break, we saw the release of the quirky Savage Reign, a fighting game from the middle of the long-lived console’s lifespan. It appears we’re back to filling out the library with the titles from early in the console’s life, as the latest release in the ACA NEOGEO line is The Super Spy ($3.99). It originally hit the arcades in 1990, and now you can have it in your pocket. But do you want it in your pocket?
I’ve written quite a lot of reviews of these ACA NEOGEO games already, and I hope that one of the things I’ve managed to express is that this console’s early days were really bizarre and subsequently charming in a particular way. Before Street Fighter II laid out the path the arcade business as a whole would take throughout the 1990s, SNK didn’t seem to have any clear idea where to go with its new console’s library. Clearly, it wanted some games that would show off what the hardware could do. Beyond that, the library reflects a company throwing an awful lot of mud at the wall to see what would stick. Fatal Fury would show the way forward, but that didn’t come until deep into the NEOGEO’s second year of life.
The console was more than thirty games deep at that point, and we can see a lot of different kinds of releases in that early bunch. Sports games of various types are a given, and there were plenty of those. A couple of shoot-em-ups, a couple of platform games, a couple of beat-em-ups, a couple of puzzlers. But perhaps the most unusual of these early games was The Super Spy. It may also have been one of the more ambitious. You play as international man of mystery Roy Heart, who has been sent on a mission by the CIA to infiltrate a building that has been occupied by terrorists. Hey, I’ve seen this movie. This set-up could work for a bunch of traditional genres, but SNK decided to make a first-person beat-em-up.
For some reason, our boy Roy has entered the building armed only with a knife and a gun with twelve bullets in it. But worry not, as his martial arts skills are impressive. You’ll have to get used to them, as you’re going to be using them a lot as you make your way through sixteen floors filled with enemies. You’ll find weapons now and then by rescuing hostages that temporarily add some sizzle to the steak, and you can use your knife until it rusts from overuse (that’s not how that works at all), but most of your kills are going to be with your bare hands or well-toed foot. There is some extremely light exploration here as well, and I will say that this was all very dazzling to look at in this game’s time. Really big characters, decent scaling, lots of impact.
The hand-to-hand combat takes a lot of cues from Nintendo’s Punch-Out!!, with the ability to block and duck the attacks of your foes between your own swings and hooks. If you try to slug it out without making use of these features, you’ll end up emptying your wallet of coins in a hurry. You know, if you had to worry about that with this version. You don’t, you can feed virtual coins as often as you want to get through this sheer endurance battle of a game. But I beseech you to actually engage with that melee combat system, as if there is enjoyment to be found in The Super Spy it is through mastery of it. Once you get the hang of how it works, I dare say you might even start having some fun.
I wish I could tell you that fun lasts for the duration of the game, but we’re all too old to believe in faery tales. It gets monotonous after a few floors’ worth of similar-looking ninjas, and I’ll remind you that there are sixteen in total. Worse, things step into the realm of frustration a bit too often as enemies step out of the range of your dukes. Hope you saved some ammo. Once you learn the game and know when and where to make use of your limited weaponry, things can go a little brisker and more pleasantly, but I’m not sure how many people would set their minds to do such a thing unless they paid a couple hundred dollars for a cartridge.
Sounds like bad news for The Super Spy, then. Wrap it up, prepare a couple of stars, and we’ll all get on with our day. Except! Except Hamster has done what it usually does for its releases here, and one of those usual things actually makes The Super Spy a lot more interesting. The extra modes that the developer always adds are included here, complete with online leaderboards. That means you have a score attack and timed caravan mode to play, both of which limit you to but a single credit. And that in turn means that if you want to make any headway at all in these modes, you must come to grips with the game’s distinct mechanics and intentions.
It is in doing so that you’ll find that The Super Spy is a bit better than it sometimes gets credit for. Sure, beating the game is a bore and a chore, but I could say the same for Capcom’s 1942. Arcade games are so far away from their context here in 2023 (or whenever you’re reading this) that I think we sometimes forget that they weren’t necessarily meant to be beaten the first time you sidle up to the machine. You weren’t supposed to have infinite credits, dropping in another coin every time you fail instead of learning the game properly and building your skills. I’m not going to sit here and say The Super Spy is fine art, but I will say that if we appraise it under its original conditions, it’s alright. And Hamster’s stock extra modes force you to do that, albeit to an extreme.
I suppose it’s time to go through the normal bit. You can play with an external controller if you want, and honestly it’s a much better way to go about things if you have the option. The button layout isn’t especially complicated here, but the emphasis on dodging and replying with speedy timing can make the touch controls a little unreliable. You get a lot of options to play around with here, and we’ve already talked about the extra modes and online leaderboards. The emulation is good, but I’m sure we all expect that by now. A more bespoke set-up might have benefited The Super Spy, but I get how the whole business model works here.
The Super Spy is a game that is perhaps at its worst if you choose to play it by credit-feeding your way through its tedious campaign. I can understand why it wasn’t particularly well-liked by AES owners back in the day, and I similarly get why modern reviews don’t have a lot of nice things to say about it. But I don’t think it’s totally without merit, and the extra modes in this ACA NEOGEO mode make the game interesting enough to be worth tossing a few bucks at if you’re a curious retro gamer. It’s extremely Early NEOGEO Core, and if that sounds cool to you then I will give this a hesitant recommendation.