Tuesday, January 31, 2012

NES Memories: Spy vs Spy

I was terrible with money as a kid. I've improved slightly as I've aged (at least I hope) but when it came to money in my childhood I had to spend it as quickly as possible. I received an allowance for light chores--cleaning my room, shoveling the driveway, picking up dog shit--and when I was paid I would invariably head down to the local card shop or arcade. At the card shop I could get a box of Topps hockey cards for $20. Even if I already had the complete set from that year I'd still buy more boxes because I loved ripping open packs and getting doubles of my favorite players like Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Patrick Roy, and Brett Hull. Though arcades were starting to thin out in the late 80's due to home video consoles, our local arcade was still the hub of the video game community in town. Plus, playing the arcade version of Double Dragon with your buddy was infinitely more entertaining than playing the NES port. At the arcade, high score games were challenged and bested, tips and cheats shared, new swear words learned, and even NES carts bartered or swapped. There was always one kid with a cup full of quarters willing to share because he wanted to beat a four-player game like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Some days (such as allowance days) I was that kid in Jams and a Rude Dog t-shirt, willing to share my toiled-for money to beat a video game and enter my initials on the fingerprint-smeared glass screen. So after a few hours, allowance money spent, I'm back at home, scheming for a way to squeeze more money out of my parents.

I had two magazine subscriptions as a kid: Nintendo Power and Mad magazine.  The latter my mother vehemently argued against--she considered it as smutty as Playboy.  My dad had a subscription to Mad as a kid and convinced my mother to get me a subscription by saying he would peruse the magazine beforehand to seek out questionable content for my ears and head.  I never missed an issue.

Whenever I wasn't reading Nintendo Power I had a Mad magazine in my hands.  My favorite Mad departments were The Lighter Side of..., Don Martin, any Star Wars spoof, and Spy vs Spy.  I went through them quickly and reread back issues.  I had an Alfred E. Newman shirt that read "What, Me Worry?", and the Mad Magazine board game, which played similar to Monopoly but the object of the game was to lose all your money.  My dad found his old collection at my grandparents' house and gave them to me in a Coca-Cola wooden crate.  I created my own Mad magazines, with my own Spy vs Spy and Don Martin strips, as well as a character named Spider-Moon who had a head shaped like a crescent moon.  His shtick was that he was always running out of web and falling on his head.  I still have them, tucked in a box somewhere in my house, probably near my Star Wars and He-Man action figures.

I bought only one NES cartridge in my childhood--all others I was lucky to receive as birthday and Christmas presents.  My birthday is in December so sometimes my aunts and uncles would lump the two together to give me an NES game.  The rest of the year I rented or temporarily traded with friends for new NES carts.  That one lucky game I bought with mostly birthday money was Spy vs Spy.

I don't recall how I first found out about Spy vs Spy.  Most likely a little snippet from Nintendo Power like "We are 'mad' about the Spy vs Spy game coming to you from the great people of Kemco."  All I knew was that if there was a video game about Mad Magazine characters I had to have it.  It didn't matter that I hadn't read any reviews or actually played the game.  The only thing that mattered was that Mad Magazine would be on my Nintendo Entertainment System.  

The day after my birthday my dad drove me to Toys 'R Us.  Quite possibly the slowest drive of all time--every stoplight was red, endless throngs of people crossing the street, a goddamn frog trying to weave himself through traffic.  After pulling into the parking lot the second my dad put the pick-up in park I was out the door.  I was already in the store by the time he locked up and lit a cigarette.  I cruised past the G.I. Joe aircraft carrier and Real Ghostbusters action figure displays.  I glared at a kid as he loafed by pinching a video game slip between his fingers.  There would be hell to pay if he grabbed the last slip for Spy vs Spy.  (Quick aside.  In the old, old days video games at Toys 'R Us were locked behind the register.  If you wanted to buy a game you snagged a slip from the video game display box if there were any left and the clerk would retrieve your game behind a locked glass case).  I was locked in, ready to ignore every NES game not named Spy vs Spy.  I shuffled down the row looking for my familiar white and black spies.  When I reached the "S" games my hands began to sweat.  I rubbed my hands on my corduroys, glimpsed a display box that might look like Spy vs Spy, but were there enough slips left?  I closed my eyes, lifting one lid slowly.  There was a whole stack of Spy vs Spy game slips!  I couldn't believe my luck.  I peeled the slip from the pad as careful as I could, somehow afraid if I tore it I wouldn't be allowed to purchase the game.  I held the slip in both hands, like I had just found the Golden Ticket in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  My dad came up from behind me and said the whole store smelled like cat piss.

I had the box open and manual read by the time we reached home.  I was concerned the manual didn't have any Mad gag humor and that Aflred E. Newman wasn't mentioned, but figured he had to have some roll in the game.  After all, how could Alfred E. Newman be omitted from a game starring characters from Mad Magazine.  I dashed into the house and nearly leaped down the entire flight of stairs to my bedroom and popped the cartridge into the control deck.  No blows into the cart, not even for good measure, this new game was pristine.  I played for about an hour before I realized Alfred would not be waiting in a room for me to either give or take away a power-up, or that a Don Martin character wouldn't be yukking it up in a barber chair before his ears were cut off by mistake.  I searched every room for something to like about this game but couldn't.  The deaths were nothing funny like in the magazine, the hand-to-hand combat sloppy and boring, and the only humor was when someone died and floated to heaven.  I expected every time a spy would die it would be because of a hundred missiles were fired at him at once or he was pushed off the ledge of a building and fell into a pool of razors.  I hated the game for not being what I had imagined in my head.

For the next month I tried to force myself to like the game.  I mean, come on, it was a Mad Magazine game!  But it was nothing more then a Kemco game featuring characters from my favorite magazine.  Had the game not had a dust sleeve, it would have collected dust.  I lamented my purchase, knowing I could have bought a Mega Man or Castlevania game, or the new Zelda game.  I exchanged the game with friends as often as I could for one of their games, but they were quick to return it back.  I was stuck with it, an expensive decoration on my bookshelf, and reminder to research video games before you purchase.

Spy vs Spy is not a terrible game.  It's average or slightly below.  If I hadn't had the expectation this would be a silly Mad Magazine type video game, I may have enjoyed it.  When I got back into retro gaming a few years ago and began to collect games like mad on eBay, Spy vs Spy was one of the first games I won for a measly price.  I can't tell you why, I just needed to have it for my collection.  Perhaps as a nostalgic reminder of the NES era I grew up with, or I'm still clinging to the fact that I could force myself to like the game.  I guess it doesn't matter, because I still hate the damn thing. 

1 comment:

  1. Ha! I love it -- your expositional nostalgia, the sly little Frogger reference, the childhood innocence dashed. I can relate a little too well, I believe. By the way, those slips? I had totally forgotten about those!! And my mom WORKED at Toys R Us...