Few things draw more mixed reactions from gamers than the news of a remake in the works for a revered video game classic. Hopes run high for the chance to relive the memories of gaming bliss that have only grown stronger over the years, but there is also an equal amount of trepidation. Most gamers have been hardened to the idea of such remakes after countless disappointments that now litter video game bargain bins at gaming shops across the world. It is not as if game developers have helped their cases. Exaggerated press releases and grandiose claims generate the interest they are seeking, but also raise expectations—often to a level few could ever hope to reach. The resulting product is usually such a shadow of its former self that consumers are left feeling betrayed and even exploited. It would be so simple if developers and publishers asked a very simple question: Is there enough to this game to make the transition to a next-generation console? With so many duds hitting the market, its clear they aren't asking themselves this question or if they do ask, they ignore the answer they get.
Despite their shoddy record, game remakes can often succeed in enough areas to soften the blow of its crapitude. If the gameplay isn't a step backward in gaming evolution and the visuals are pretty, then such games can survive on their names alone. I can't say for sure whether Midway faced the dilemma and debated whether to release SpyHunter, but the game clearly falls into the category I just described.
For those who never visited an arcade during the early 1980s or were still in diapers during the Reagan Era, SpyHunter was one of the more popular arcade games of its time. You played the part of Alec Sects—a lone super spy in the same vein of a Simon Templer or James Bond—given the mission of foiling the plans of an evil organization known as NOSTRA International. SpyHunter was a top down 2-D, action racer where players controlled Sects' high-octane vehicle that was equipped with all the latest gadgets that self-respecting spy would be without. The missions usually called for destroying enemy targets along the roadside and fending off assaults from other drivers on your way to completing a mission objective. It was all very simple, but the pacing was quick and it also had an ace that one could argue was a key contributor to its success. SpyHunter featured one of the most memorable pieces of theme music ever planted in a video game: "The Theme from Peter Gun." This all fit together in a package that was perfect for its time.
Things are a bit different this time around. Three-dimensional graphics are the order of the day and so the perspective has changed from the familiar overhead position to a third-person perspective. This was no doubt the riskiest of endeavors for its developer, Paradigm Entertainment, but it delivered on almost every account. The graphics are crisp and each stage is now a relatively complex 3-D world with large car and environmental models. For whatever reason, the framerates are choppy and pop-in shows its face in the foreground to taint the presentation somewhat. But even with that, the game is an improvement on the primitive 2-D graphics I can remember.
This new perspective called for a slight change to the play mechanics. The Interceptor is no longer restricted to moving up, down and to the left or right, it now handles like a car in the real world would. Granted, we are not talking Gran Turismo 3 physics, but some care must be taken on tight turns and while dodging traffic—issues that were never of much concern in the franchise before. In addition to the car handling you have to now deal with launching attacks on both airborne and earthbound targets. This adds a new dynamic to the game, but to Paradigm's credit it can be done while keeping an eye on the road.
One area of the game that clearly got the most attention was the Interceptor. It has been remodeled for the 21st century and its a beauty. It comes with in four different forms that, two of which come into play automatically at different points of the game. You start the game as a suped up concept car, but as you approach water, the car transforms into a very stylish hovercraft. The transformation itself is surprisingly smooth and doesn't interrupt the flow of the game in the least. The third transformation occurs after the car has taken a certain amount of damage in which case, it casts off an outer shell to reveal a compact motorcycle underneath (it too can take to the water as a single-occupant hovercraft). This difference in car modes has more than an aesthetic affect on the game. In addition to the new water areas that are available, the different modes also affect what you can do in the game. The motorcycle for example, though fast and maneuverable, lacks the offensive punch of the car and is much more susceptible to damage. At times, usually towards the end of a stage, it leaves you vulnerable and without the means to defend yourself. This often leaves you with only the option of finding one of the transport trucks, situated at key points in most levels to swap the motorcycle with a new car. It's not often that you complete objectives on the motorcycle.
One of the original strengths of SpyHunter was the constant drive you felt to get to the "finish line" of a stage. It's the same here. As you go careening through streets, highways and dirt paths, you do so under the foot of an ever-present clock. It ticks down the minutes and seconds you have to complete your mission and by extension, save the entire world. Paradigm constructed the levels to take advantage of this. Each stage is essentially one track with branching paths, where obstacles pop up or drive out in front of you. If you think of it as a moving shooting gallery, you'll get the idea.
So why does SpyHunter only garner a 7.0? Well, it's largely because the game does little to separate itself from its predecessor in the gameplay department. As my introduction hinted at, I am in favor of developers being mindful of the original they are trying to remake, but SpyHunter definitely needed more than it got. The mission objectives are infinitely simplistic requiring no more effort than driving over a certain amount of glowing icons strewn about the level or hitting stationary targets. Some enemy targets are positioned along the side of the road, high in the air or in elevated locations, but can be locked onto with relative ease thanks to the healthy supply of auto-targeting rockets. This allows players to focus less on the targets and more on getting through the stage and completing other objectives, but it isn't particularly fun.
These objectives are not that different from those in the 2-D arcade game. They might only seem new thanks to the perspective. They are also maddeningly monotonous. At most they will require no more than two tries to complete all the objectives if they even hold your interest. The enemies and obstacles can cause some problems, namely damage to my vehicle, but most can be easily defeated or circumnavigated if you simply remember where they will appear and which weapon will make quick work of them. Paradigm tries to hide this simplicity by piling on the objectives and enemies in each stage. Simple objectives and easy gameplay were enough for the arcades, but its not enough for this remake.
While I'm on the subject, I have to call Paradigm and Midway on giving the false impression that unlocking all of the mission sub-objectives in each stage is optional. It is most certainly not the case. Beating the primary objectives will get you through most of the early stages, but it doesn't help later on. Each mission objective grants you points, which are tallied at the end of each stage. If you reach a certain number then you can unlock a later stage. In other words, if you don't unlock all of the primary and secondary objectives in each stage, you can't beat the game. Having to go through each stage completing every mundane objective got old really quickly and even the incentive of unlocking a "Making of SpyHunter" featurette or a movie of Saliva performing their version of the theme song was not enough to keep me playing.
Paradigm adds a two-player mode to add some longevity to this title, but it wasn't anything to write home about. I wasn't expecting much since SpyHunter is known for its single-player mode, but I was certainly expecting more than I got. Do you think running down chickens with a friend makes for a roaring good time? Well, the rest of the multiplayer modes were actually less interesting than that. The soundtrack is another disappointment. What should have been a high point had little to no impact on me while playing. In all fairness, alternative band, Saliva, does a serviceable rendition of The Theme from Peter Gunn, but I didnt think there was even a need to update the song. The rest of the soundtrack is made up of forgettable leftovers that had to be taken right out of old James Bond movies. Without any kind of stamp on the game, SpyHunter loses its appeal rather quickly.
In the end, SpyHunter is a decent remake and given the competition, is perhaps one of the better ones. Paradigm Entertainment managed to keep the arcade gameplay in tact—for better or worse—and put together a good game. Ordinarily all you can ask is that they at least match whatever positives were in the original, but in the case of SpyHunter that means it hasnt risen about a primitive arcade game released almost two decades ago. SpyHunter is little more than a graphical update to an arcade classic. It isn't horrible, but it's hardly a compelling release.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the PlayStation 2 version of the game.