The name “James Bond” never appeared in Bally Midway’s Spy Hunter, but the 007 influence was unmistakable in this 1983 arcade classic. Game designer George Gomez was an avowed fan of the British secret agent with a license to kill, and Spy Hunter allowed him (and the rest of the world) to live out a dangerous, Bond-esque mission over land and sea.
Spy Hunter was actually a fusion of two popular genres: driving and shooting. The secret agent’s car came equipped with grill-mounted machine guns, the better to blow away the nasty vehicles that cluttered the road. Switch Blades were the most common bad cars—black sedans with tire-puncturing knives that extended out from their tires. These baddies could either be blown away or forced off the road, but other cars wouldn’t go down so easily. Road Lords were impervious to your guns, and their bulky size made it difficult to run them into the side of the road. As the game went on, players also ran across The Enforcer, a black limo with a gun-toting passenger.
Not every vehicle on the road was evil, and that only made the spy hunter’s life trickier. With its two-speed shifter, your car could move extremely fast, and swerving to avoid innocent cars and motorcycles often meant a quick skid out to your doom. Luckily, the game didn’t end with crashes, because most gamers caused several. Spy Hunter was a timed game, with points and extra time awarded for distance covered as well as for enemies killed. If your vehicle crashed, a supply truck simply dropped off another one, and the game picked up where you left off.
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The trucks served more purposes than simply dumping off new cars, however. At certain points along the road, your car passed parked big rigs with special icons on the trailers. By pressing the “Weapons Van” button on the front of your steering yoke, those trucks pulled up in front of you, allowing you to drive right up into the trailer.
Once docked, your car was outfitted with one of three special weapons: smoke screens, oil slicks or missiles. The first two took care of enemy vehicles on your tail, while the latter was needed to take out “The Mad Bomber,” a helicopter that dropped pothole-making bombs later in the game. Separate buttons controlled each weapon, allowing skilled players to deck out their vehicles with a complete arsenal.
Every once in a while, Spy Hunter’s vertically-scrolling road branched off in two directions, giving players a greater freedom of choice than many driving games of the time. At some junctures, separate paths actually gave your spy hunter a new vehicle. By driving into a boathouse at the side of the road, your secret agent emerged in a shiny speedboat, taking to the waterways. The Mad Bomber was still in hot pursuit, and evil Barrel Dumpers and Dr. Torpedo menaced your watercraft as well. At a certain point, the ship ran back to the ground, and your speedy car resumed its spy hunting.
The driving/action combination was a winner for Spy Hunter, one of the most popular games of 1983. With its James Bond attitude and catchy Peter Gunn theme (the Bond music was too pricey), the game caught fire in arcades everywhere.
Bally Midway released a sequel, the little-seen Spy Hunter II, in 1987. The new version allowed two secret agents to play at once, driving in a mock 3-D perspective from above and behind the car. The sequel was a disappointment for the company, but that did nothing to dim the popularity of the original Spy Hunter, which maintains a large fan following even today.
This post originally appeared on the long defunct website, Yesterdayland. It now appears here as a way to preserve it.