"Do you expect me to play an action-adventure arcade game?""No,
And that, in a nutshell is S.P.Y. Special Project Y.
Released in 1989 by Konami, S.P.Y. Special Project Y is the tale of two men who have developed a gun that fires jalapeño chilis instead of bullets. That certainly sounds like a special project, alright.
Not really - as this shot from the attract mode makes clear, it's a Bond rip-off / homage (depending on how generous you're feeling) that's been run through the prism of Japan's arcade sensibilities. There's not much in the way of story, or even any indication that these guys are spies and not just bloodthirsty mercs: there's certainly no espionage or intelligence-gathering here. I guess they just reached their twenty-fifth special project, saw that the acronym was "spy" and set out for adventure. Lucky for us we didn't start at Special Project A, that was just a series of massages, pedicures and hot rock treatments.
Your orders come in via high-tech wristwatch that can apparently receive telegrams. If you were trying to save money by abbreviating your message, you could have probably left out the "threat to peace" bit. Armed nuclear warheads rarely promote togetherness and unity.
So, your mission is to infiltrate the enemy base and stop the nuclear bomb. Like all good international criminal organisations, your opponent's base is located on a heavily-guarded island. How do you get to the island? You Space Harrier your way over there, of course!
Subtlety levels are low with this one, folks. The villains obviously either knew this secret agent was on his way, or he just happened to arrive as the troops were in the middle of jetpack practise. Eitehr way, it shows a lack of forward planning that doesn't bode well for the rest of the game.
So yeah, this is a lot like Space Harrier except not particularly good. The joystick moves our hero aroud the screen, and you can fire at the enemies with the (wait for it) fire button. When I say "at" the enemies, I mean "in their general direction" - the main problem with this stage is that it's overly difficult to get your bullets to go where they need to be. They seem to travel roughly towards the centre of the screen no matter how you manipulate the joystick, which isn't very helpful when the enemies like to congregate right at the bottom of the screen to take potshots at you.
The odds are evened a little by collecting the extra weapons that the orange-clad enemies drop. There's a rapid-fire machine gun and a shotgun that fires in a horizontal spread, as well as a "Fire Ball" that comes in a floating attache case and destroys everything on-screen when activated.
To recap - this secret agent is approaching his mission objective by flying in on a jetpack, shooting hundreds of men and setting off small nuclear explosions. Let's just hope the troops on the ground don't have radar or binoculars or ears.
Before you can land, there's a boss to dispose of. It's a helicopter that has severly diminished its own attacking power by refusing to point directly at out hero, instead choosing to drift through the clouds side-on. Maybe it's shy or something.
Konami seem to have decided that "restraint" is a quality reserved for the weak, and so the helicopter disgorges an endless stream of flying minions while simultaneously firing enough rockets at you to dislodge the very Earth itself from orbit. Hopefully you've collected a better gun, because your default weapon has the stopping power of a light spring shower and you'll be overwhelmed quicker than you can say "maybe I shouldn't have flown directly toward the enemy base like a vengeful, coked-up albatross". Still, you can continue as often as you like, so eventually you'll wear down the boss and clear stage one.
Quickly, but with caution, huh? Nope, sorry, this guy only has one setting and it's bloody rampage.
Stage one's sub-Space Harrier antics were a little underwhelming, but fear not because stage two is a completely different game altogether!
Now Special Project Y is a beat-em-up, and I gotta say it's a change for the better. It might just be my fondness for the genre talking, but this stage feels a lot more... polished? Sensible? It's definitely not as much of a spray-and-pray kaledioscope of semi-useless gunplay as the opening area, at any rate.
You can punch and kick, and sometimes throw enemies that walk into you although I couldn't get this to trigger with any degree of reliability. One solid kick to the undercarriage is all it takes to dispose of most goons, so "I can kick like a mule" must have been near the top of out hero's CV (just above "some jetpack training" and "light clerical duties").
You get your first proper look at your character, too. He's got something of a Lupin III vibe to him - it's the red jacket that does it - and his white leather boots are a nice touch. Overall, a seven out of ten on the Eighties-Outfit-O-Meter, eight if you assume that's a skinny tie he's wearing.
His lack of preparedness comes back to haunt him, as he's entered the enemy stronghold without a gun. He had one earlier, but I suppose you could argue that one was part of the jetpack apparatus and so his reluctance to smuggle a pistol in down his acid-washed white jeans smacks of raw stupidity. He's in purely on-site procurement mode here, but at east there are plenty of weapons to steal from the orange enemies. As well as basic pistol and machine gun, you can also collect some very handy grenades, although the grenades do promote a strategy of running past as many enemies as possible until there's a mob following you, then hurling your explosives at the assembled throng. I wasn't kidding when I said this guy's switch is permanently flipped to slaughter mode.
For a moment I was worried that the boss was going to be another helicopter, but it turned out to merely be transportation for the actual boss. It's Duke Nukem in a trenchcoat! Duke here must have his mouselook sensitivity turned way down, because the best way to deal with him is to run up behind him, kick him directly in the arse and then jog around to the other side. The boss turns so slowly that you'll have little trouble repeating this over and over like some brutal Benny Hill skit without him being able to draw a bead on you. Think of it as a metaphor for the Duke Nukem franchise as a whole: your character represents quality, and poor old Duke just can't keep up, impotently firing into nothingness.
There's no time to relax, and you're immediately thrown into yet another new genre with a stage directly inspired by Konami's own Devastators. It's similar to the first stage, but now you have to push up on the stick to move forwards and you're locked to the bottom of the screen. It works a little better than the flying stage, mostly because your bullets are easier to aim now that they're restricted to one plane, but it's still not much cop - the scrolling effects are nowhere near as smooth as in Sega's similar titles, and the lack of any cover or evasive manoeuvres means this stage rapidly devolves into a button-mashing contest with a very limited chance of survival. The screen tends to get busy. How busy?
Kinda like this. I'm all for high-octane thrills, but this is a little ridiculous and, frankly, pretty dull. Sure, you actually have a gun during this stage, but so do all the enemies, plus they have attack dogs and those cars that look like military limos. This is what you get for walking up the front drive, you plank. Bond would have seduced a maid, snuck in via her laundry basket and made a quip about "messing up her sheets." You just got run over.
The boss is a man with a rocket launcher, and there's not really much to say about him other than that his rockets will kill you almost instantly and that this screenshot represents one of the rare moments when he wasn't accompanied by a bloodthirsty chorus-line of disposable grunts.
Oh good, some more beat-em-up fun. I know that sounded sarcastic, but honestly the last stage did nothing to convince me that these brawler sections aren't going to be the most enjoyable parts of the game.
One thing I have enjoyed so far is the flow of the levels and the way they all connect in a logical manner. I flew to the island, made my way through the village surrounding the mansion, walked up the garden path and now here I am in these opulent surroundings, kicking a barefoot karate master in the stomach. It's a minor thing, but it beats the usual "city-factory-woodlands-underground computer maniframe" style of disconnected progression.
There are also fat men who can breathe fire. I'm sure I've brought this up before, but why? Why, in almost every side-scrolling beat-em-up that features it, is the ability to breathe fire tied to a high BMI? Is petrol full of calories? Does being overweight grant access to an otherwise unused flame-producing gland? It's such a consistant portrayal that there must a reason behind it, but I have no idea what that reason could be. So I proceed, as I always do, by kicking the fat man so hard that he can't breathe air, never mind fire.
Oh christ, it's a man with a stick! Run!
Sadly, as much as I'd like to scarper, this guy is the boss and I'm trapped with him and his stick. He's very good with his stick, too, and for the first time in the game I felt threatened by a boss. That's the power of kung fu, folks - far superior to rocket launchers and uzis. So I died a few time, mostly because I was hesitant in running up to the boss and kicking him because his attacks can travel further than mine, but overall it was about as generic a boss battle as you could imagine.
The enemy leader doesn't take kindly to underequipped secret agents breaking into his mansion and beating up his army of skilled martial artists, and in a fit of pique he presses a button to blow the place up. He's even got a Blofeld / Dr. Claw (this game is definitely leaning more towards Inspector Gadget than 007) style pet cat!
Actually, on closer inspection I don't think that's a cat.
That's not a cat.
Our hero escapes the explosion by way of a balcony and his jetpack, but instead of another into-the-screen shooting stage, the next area introduces yet another style of gameplay.
A style of gameplay rather akin to Rolling Thunder, a game I seem to be mentioning a lot recently. S.P.Y. is now a single-plane platformer, and your mission is to reach the top of this cliff by jumping up onto the level above you and beating up all the enemies. You can't just climb up there as fast as you like, oh no - each time you reach a new platform, you have to defeat all the enemies that appear before the game will let you proceed. I suppose it's a good job, because otherwise this stage would take roughly twelve seconds to clear.
The sudden appearance of battle-mechs took me aback, equipped as I was with the twin weapons of "nothing" and "sod all," but it turns out that you can just drop down in front of them and pummel in the pilot into unconciousness before they even get a chance to fire. It was nice to feel tough - well, maybe not tough, let's say competent - for once.
At the top of the cliff lurks the boss, or at least he lurks as much as a jeep with metal plates welded to it can lurk. It's an instantly-forgettable opponent with only one attack - firing the laser cannon on the back - but I still think it's my favourite fight in the whole game purely because of that scientist operating the gun. In a game that has been marked by genericness since the opening screens, that scientist fills my mind with a world of possible scenarios that lead to him being out on the battlefield. My prevailing theory is that after years of research and development had culminated in the creation of a cumbersome and slow-firing laser cannon, Herr Doktor refused to let any of these simple-minded fools touch his greatest creation, demanding that it be attached to the back of a truck so he could operate it himself. Herr Doktor is my favourite character in this game.
Oh, and the truck's a snap to destroy: just steal a machine gun and shoot it.
More on-foot shooting in the next stage, and it's no more fun than it was last time. There is at least the addition of corner into the mix, and sometimes you even get to make a decision! Between left or right. With both directions leading to the same place. Truly, choice is an illusion.
Oh, and if you're wondering whether the flow of enemies is as overwhelming as it was last time...
What have I told you minions about driving cars inside the base? Just wait until our supreme overlord hears about this!
Oh good, I was wondering when a ninja was going to turn up, and it's good to see that he's continuing the tradition of all videogame ninjas by wearing the gaudiest, least-camoflauged outfit he could find.
This "shadow" warrior is the toughest boss in the game, thanks to a remarkably sensible attack pattern. He teleports right up into your face while summoning four clones, whacks you while you're shooting at the wrong target and then teleports away again. It's not so much the ninja's attack themselves that grind you down but the fact that what with all his teleporting he's barely on the screen long enough for you to hit him at all, and the endless cannon-fodder enemies have a long, long time to whittle away at your health. The drawback to the ninja's scheme? Sometimes he appears right in front of you, and if you're playing S.P.Y. correctly then you'll constantly be firing, so eventually he'll pop up right in the path of your bullets enough times to see him off and send you on your way to the final stage.
It's another platform climb, with the addition of some tougher female bodyguards and the rare chance to steal a new electricity gun that makes short work of anything that gets in your way. These sections are at least better than the Devastators-type sections, but they the suffer most from the feeling of blandness that permeates the entire S.P.Y. experience.
There's one last bit of brawling to be done, against Jaws. The Bond villain, not the shark. Fighting a giant shark with your fists would show a level of inspiration that this game sadly doesn't possess. There's not much I can do to describe this fight beyond "you punch the guy." Nothing fancy, no special techniques, it's just a slugfest. He doesn't bite anything, but I feel confident in my claim that this guy is inspired by Jaws. Why else would he be wearing those suspenders?
Oh, thank god for that - I've cornered the mastermind at long last. So, what's his move going to be? Giant battle robot? Cunning death trap from which there is seemingly no escape, but there totally is because I'm a secret agent and "inescapable death trap escape techniques" is day-one kindergarten stuff when it comes to spy training?
Oh, you son of a bitch. There's nothing in my arsenal that can combat a rocket-powered recliner, (mostly because I don't have an arsenal,) and the terrorist leader flies away in style and with excellent lumbar support. Oh well, at least I can disarm the nuke and go home now. Mission complete!
Ha ha, nice try, fucko. Nope, the villain has relocated to a different-yet-completely-identical island, and you've got to hunt him down by playing through the entire game again.
I think the difficulty level is increased - there definitely seems to be more enemies about - but otherwise it's exactly the same as before. I actually did much better on the second playthrough, partly because I knew what was coming but mostly because I didn't so much as throw caution to the wind as I did punt caution into a tornado. Paying no heed to my spy's wellbeing seemed to get the job done much faster, and soon I was once again squaring off with the head honcho.
You should have stayed in your rocket-chair, pal. You're mine now.
With one blow, the boss is incapacitated and the game is finally, really, truly complete. I love it when games do that, when they present you with the real final boss who is incredibly weak and only takes one attack to kill. There's a reason they had to build up a whole army, after all.
I am outta there, and not a moment too soon. Shockingly for a Konami game of this vintage, the island doesn't explode. I know the whole point of my adventure was to prevent an explosion, but it still doesn't feel right.
They say too many cooks spoil the broth, and S.P.Y. Special Project Y just goes to show that too many genres makes the arcade action unpalatable. The four different styles included here range from decent (the beat-em-up areas) to the frustrating and tedious, (the shooting sections) but none of them are good. It's obvious that this lack of focus is what drags S.P.Y. down, and Konami could have had a neat little beat-em-up on their hands if they'd focused exclusively on that, but in the end the experience is bitty and unmemorable.
There are some aspects of the game I can appreciate: the music is very nice, and the graphics, while not exactly fizzing with innovation, are at least colourful and stylish. Plus the boss telling you to "Prepare a coffin for yourselves" was almost worth the slog on its own. If you're hankering for some Konami arcade action, though, you can skip this one and play one of the games they really got their teeth into.