Monday, March 23, 2015

Shades of Resonance: Fond Reminiscence - Memory Log #27

Spy Hunter

Take one look at any list of gaming's all-time classics and you'll notice a trend: A great many of them are most closely linked to a single piece of dedicated technology. Pac-Man, for instance, was and forever remains a pure-blood arcade game. Super Mario Bros.'s legacy is married specifically to the NES hardware. The first three episodes of the Commander Keen series are the very picture of the DOS scene in the early 90s. Tetris, which began life on the IBM PC, was strictly associated with the Game Boy for most of the 90s and was what the mainstream considered a prime example of a "portable game." Sonic the Hedgehog was the Sega Genesis.


Those lists are likely to be rounded out by a small number of rare crossover hits--nomadic titles like Ultima, Elevator Action, Kung-Fu Master, Pitfall II: Lost Caverns and Karateka, which were ported all over the place and managed to find success on multiple platforms in a single time-frame. One of the more ubiquitous of their kind was Spy Hunter, which everyone knew about and had experienced in some form. A lot of the kids I knew played it on a daily basis in arcades. Others played it at home on one of several different computer systems. There were even a few poor saps who swore by the 2600 version. For me, it was my brother's Commodore 64 version, which I could be said to have "played" in much the same way you'd describe what Coleman Francis did as "making films."


The only thing I knew for sure about Spy Hunter was that I liked its main theme, which I was certain I'd heard somewhere before but could never put my finger on it ("Isn't that one of those James Bond songs?"). Really, though, it didn't matter if the ditty was ripped off or inspired by some old movie--I thought it was the perfect expression of "spy music," tailored as such that it would have communicated to me that a secret agent was behind the wheel of that car even if I wasn't aware of the game's title or theme. It was the game's greatest, most-enduring attribute and the first thing that would come to mind whenever I'd hear the Peter Gunn theme ("That's where I heard it!") in the years following.

Otherwise, I had no idea what I was supposed to be doing in Spy Hunter. I understood what an arcade-style game was and that one of its core elements entailed accumulating points by shooting the other cars or otherwise bumping them off the road, but there was no hint as to what my ultimate goal was or if I was missing some greater experience by choosing one route over another. The problem was that I couldn't stay alive long enough to find out, which became a real point of contention with me as I struggled to deduce why the game's lives system seemed so arbitrary. I mean, sometimes the game would allow me to crash multiple times without consequence, and then suddenly a single wipe-out, even if was only my third since the start, would decisively end my campaign. I just didn't get it.


If I drove too quickly, I'd crash within seconds, sent sliding off the road after making the lightest of contact with another car or violently colliding with the trees as the roadway quickly narrowed. If I slowed down, it was either that the blue cars with the white stripes, which I'd identified as "rubber bouncy cars," would hyperactively bump me off the road or those with the buzz-saw hubcaps (the "berserk forky dudes") would take me out with one well-timed ramming attempt. There were times when I'd successfully board a specially marked red truck, if I didn't accidentally shoot it beforehand, and earn myself an oil- or smoke-spewing ability, but I'd predictably get out of control as I'd deploy it. So I'd crash. And I'd crash and I'd crash and I'd crash. If, somehow, the point of Spy Hunter was to find new and creative ways to crash as often as possible, then I was surely the king.


That's the way it always went with me and Spy Hunter, no matter which version of it I was playing. I could reliably make it to the first water section and on a good day reach as far as the early segment of the brown and yellow area, but that was it. There would never be greater progress.


If there was one reason for me to return to Spy Hunter (particularly the NES version) as often as I did, it was that I became proficient at extracting from it a rather unique form of entertainment. That is, I liked to incite what I called "The Red Truck Conga Line," which could only be induced during the first two minutes or so, when lives were infinite, as I eventually learned. Now, when you die in Spy Hunter, you return to action via a red truck, which drives in and momentarily brakes at the side of the road to drop off your next car; if you die immediately thereafter, another red truck will arrive and do the same even though the previous conveyor is still onscreen. 


Once I realized that this could be done almost perpetually, the abuse of this mechanic seemed natural. My favorite thing to do was drive a screen's-length ahead of the expelling red truck and crash, which would cause a second red truck to move in and drive in proximity to the first. Then I'd repeat the process, beckoning the arrival of a third, a fourth, a fifth, and so on. If things worked out properly, I'd successfully establish an endless conga line of red trucks, the pack so closely grouped together that a particular scene was forced to repeat: After being released from the innards of one red truck, the next one in line would instantly bump me off the road, further necessitating a never-ending loop (at least until the initial timer expired).

This was my life.

What else could I do? I liked playing Spy Hunter, but I was no good at it. I knew that I was never going to find out what the latter half of the game had in store for me, and I felt safe in assuming that it entailed only more crashing and more death--mainly a larger helping of rocky waterways, bomb-dropping helicopters, drive-by limousines, and all of those other obstacles I had great trouble negotiating. It was best that I didn't even try, I thought, if not for the sake of the trucking industy, which I imagined would collapse trying to support my efforts.


That's what Spy Hunter was to me--a game I recognized as a classic but probably not for the same reasons so many others regarded it such. It was yet another familiar playground for me to shape as my own back in age when games were sometimes so inexplicable that you had to make your own rules. And in my intepretation, Spy Hunter was a game about forcing a string of red trucks to spasmodically hug up against one another and repeatedly send the hapless hero crashing to his death.

And, by God, I was the best at it.

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