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by Luke "VGJunk" Taylor - February 2, 2016

Sly Spy / Secret Agent シークレット・エージェント - Arcade (1989), ZX Spectrum / Commodore 64 / Atari ST / Amstrad CPC / Amiga, Wii

Japanese Arcade Flyer

US Arcade Flyer

Computer Version Artwork

In 1988, Data East's Bad Dudes vs. DragonNinja famously asked the player if they were a bad enough dude to rescue the kidnapped American president. It was a theme Data East would return to a year later with Sly Spy (AKA Secret Agent in Japan and Sly Spy: Secret Agent in the home computer ports). The leader of the free world is once against abducted, this time by terrorist organization the Council for World Domination, and there's only one man who can save the president - a secret agent who is as close to being James Bond as possible without actually being James Bond.

The game even begins by prompting the player to enter their own three-digit code number - perhaps surprisingly, there are no consequences if 007 is entered - before the sly spy leaps from a plane, kicking off the action with a skydiving shoot-em-up section. Terrorist agents fall alongside Sly Spy, and he must pick them off with his handgun before unfurling his not-particularly-covert stars and stripes parachute. The gameplay is strangely sedate, with slow-moving characters and no real sense that the player is hurtling through the air, but it's an appropriately dramatic start to the adventure none-the-less.

Once the hero has touched down, Sly Spy becomes a side-scrolling action shooter. These stages make up roughly sixty percent of the game's content, and it becomes clear that Sly Spy's other major influence besides the Bond movies is Namco's classic Rolling Thunder, itself a homage to the spy films of the sixties and seventies. Unlike in Rolling Thunder, Sly cannot enter doorways in the background to hide or find items, and nor can he vault between platforms, but otherwise there is a lot of similarity between the games. The player presses forwards, eliminating the terrorists (whose forces, as was traditional for villainous organizations in 1980s video games, contain some mohawked punks) with their trusty pistol. The pistol's ammunition is limited, and can be replenished by collecting items dropped by defeated enemies, but if you run out altogether Sly resorts to kicking attacks. It's a familiar brand of gameplay, and a fairly hectic example of the genre as many bad guys appear at once and will quickly swarm over you unless they're eliminated efficiently.

The rest of the game is composed of less traditional action stages: as well as the opening skydiving scene, there's a motorcycle chase along a Washington highway that's enlivened by your ability to pop a wheelie to shoot down airborne enemies, as well as two separate scuba-diving stages that are packed (as you might expect, given Sly Spy's inspiration) with killer frogmen and deadly sharks. Variety seems to have been Data East's main goal, with none of the stages lasting longer than a few minutes and so Sly Spy has a breakneck quality as Sly dashes from one locale to the next, with each stage preceeded by a still image of Sly getting information about his next target. It's a noble effort on Data East's part but as a result the gameplay suffers from a lack of focus, with no one style of gameplay rising above the mediocre. The on-foot shooter stages are probably the most enjoyable, perhaps because the developers had the experience of working on games such as Bad Dudes to inform their work - Sly Spy's planner, Makoto Kikuchi, also worked on Bad Dudes - while the other sections are not quite as much fun. As mentioned, the skydiving segment suffers from a lack of pace, and the same is true of the motorcycle chase - it just doesn't feel fast enough, and the bike is barely mobile at all, leading the stage to devolve into simply ducking under enemy bullets and firing back. The scuba stages are better, despite feeling a little imprecise, although that's not to say that they, or any of the stages, are bad. Sly Spy is a mostly solid arcade experience throughout that's never infuriating and doesn't last long enough to become tedious.

Sly Spy will undoubtedly hold extra appeal to James Bond fans, as the game is packed with references to Ian Fleming's most famous creation. Sly himself is decked out in a tuxedo and his pistol looks about as much like a Walther PPK as it can in so few pixels. There are bosses based on Jaws and the hat-flinging Oddjob, and the last stage sees Sly putting a stop to a rocket launch in a manner that owes a debt to Moonraker. There's also Sly's secret weapon: by collecting enough of the parts occasionally dropped by defeated enemies, he can assemble and use the Golden Gun for a limited time, a powerful weapon that fire large energy bolts.

There are also plenty of nods to Data East's other video game hits throughout Sly Spy, including posters for Chelnov and Karnov, billboards advertising Bad Dudes, and the rather macabre sight of RoboCop's headless corpse lying on the floor of one of the game's later stages. Curiously, the "Oddjob" boss is a similar build to, and is standing in the same pose as, Karnov himself, perhaps hinting at a familial relationship between the two.

Separated at birth?

As nice as it is to imagine a Karnov dynasty spreading out through the entire Data East universe, sadly the boss battles are the weakest part of Sly Spy. Aside from an entertaining struggle against a pack of hungry tigers, most of the bosses don't do much in the way of fighting back and too many of them can be defeated easily because their attacks, unlike Sly's bullets, don't travel all the way across the screen. In the case of "Oddjob" and the deep-sea diver that guards the underwater stage, it's a simple matter of standing as far away as possible and firing, while the final encounter is an anticlimactic battle against a force-field that you merely have to hit a certain amount of times to destroy. Sly Spy's greatest strength - its sense of variety - can also be a weakness, because some features of the game flash by so quickly the player might never even experience them. This is mostly true of the power-ups: there are different weapons to collect, as well as a jet-pack and an underwater scooter, but they appear so infrequently (and taking a hit causes you to lose them) that their inclusion is almost pointless.

These flaws aside, Sly Spy has enough quality to still be a fun experience, albeit one that never reaches any great heights. It's a good-looking game with some stand-out flourishes like the well-rendered Lincoln Memorial in the first stage, a soundtrack that's appropriately energetic and enough frantic action for it to be worth playing. In the game's ending, the newly-rescued President hints that the player "missed a few things" and should go back, but this seems to be a fake-out with nothing new awaiting those players who take on Sly Spy a second time.

Sly Spy was also ported to many of the home computers of the time, the ports handled by Ocean and Software Creations, and on the whole a very good job was done on converting the game - even the ZX Spectrum version features all the stages and enemies of the arcade original. Additionally, many of these ports received an all-new soundtrack composed by Geoff Follin. An arcade emulation also appears on the Data East Arcade Classics compilation for the Wii.

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  • Makoto Kikuchi

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Sly Spy (Arcade)

Sly Spy (Arcade)

Sly Spy (Arcade)


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