Thanks to 2D platforming and pixel art becoming perhaps more in vogue now than they were in their heyday, there are a metric ton of platformers on the market. As a result, crafting a game that stands out can seem like an impossible task. The folks at TURBOGUN have managed to do just that with this stealth-focused platformer. Stealth has been woven into other genres since the rise of Metal Gear Solid in the late ’90s, but it’s rarely done well outside of top-shelf games like Mark of the Ninja. That game in particularly did easily the best job of anything to date of mixing stealth into a platformer.
Master Spy, unlike MotN, isn’t an action-focused game. It’s very much a defensive man’s game in terms of attacks and that can be a tough concept to wrap one’s mind around. Gamers are used to being offensive-minded, with few games outside of the stealth genre offering up a rewarding experience for trying to stay hidden. Master Spy ups the ante by not giving you a life bar, instead only giving you one hit to live. If you’re seen or attacked by anything, you’ll lose. It’s stern; stern, but fair.
You have two means with which to avoid doom — jumping and the cloak mechanic. A jumps while X activates your cloak. Cloaking makes you invisible to human enemies, but they’ll kill you if you bump into them. Dogs are frequent rivals and they can feel your presence and will pounce in an instant. They give you next to no time to react, while humans can be a bit dense. You can’t just go through cloaked, however, because of how it hampers your movement. You’re a lot slower and carry a lot more weight — so your jump loses about 10% of its distance even if it retains all of its height. You can of course move a lot faster without the cloak, but have a greater risk of getting caught doing so. Even when using the novice difficulty settings, you need to have your reflexes at their peak to succeed.
It’s a game of trial and error that can be frustrating, but is more rewarding than anything else. Its controls are razor-sharp and using either an Xbox 360 or Xbox One pad feels natural for it. You can’t do a lot, but what can be done is done perfectly. Practice is the biggest key to success and persevering feels like a true accomplishment instead of just something you lucked into. Being able to replay stages at any time is a nice feature to improve your skillset and feel like you’ve mastered the game to at least some degree.
Master Spy‘s concept is lean, but perfectly-executed. It’s a love-letter to the past with its faux-CRT scanlines and sprite art, but manages to feel like more than just a throwback. Sure, there are little homages to the ’80s with the sports cars and the cutscenes are right out of the NES era Tecmo games, but it stands on its own too thanks to the unique premise. It’s got a difficulty level that will tax even people who grew up with the “Nintendo Hard” games of the past, and will probably be a bit too challenging for anyone who even grew up in the SNES era with saving becoming a more common feature.
Beyond “just” being a stealth game with twitch mechanics, it’s also got a precision platformer soul in there too. Without precise platforming, where even half an hour in you’ll need to be pixel-perfect with your falls, jumps, and switches in and out of the cloak, you will be doomed. Playing some Mega Man or Super Meat Boy beforehand is a nice way to get your mind and reflexes sharpened up. If you don’t do that before playing this, death will find you in a hurry. If classic 8-bit games are in your wheelhouse, you’ll find a lot to enjoy in Master Spy.
From an audio/visual perspective, the game succeeds in every major way it needs to. As a twitch game, lush animation isn’t needed. Instead, you get animation that works just well enough to be pleasing to the eye without being so elaborate that it affects the twitch mechanics. The pixel art style is also lush and full of color and life. Each screen, let alone level, feels different from one another and there’s far more color here than was on-screen for most 16-bit games with some impressive little touches like shadows thrown in. The color depth is impressive, and it’s always a joy to see in motion even if you’ll see a “you have failed” screen bathe the screen in red after admiring something one too many times.
RAC’s soundtrack is perfectly in line with 16-bit classics and would be a fun listen outside of the game. Luckily, there’s a version of the game with that included, or you can just get it separately if you so desire. The chiptunes fit the spy movie genre nicely and blend in nicely with the sound effects. They’re loud at times, but the right mix of realistic and 16-bit-sounding. The dog barks in particular are violent, and yet they could also be in a Sega Genesis game and seem right at home there.
Master Spy is an expertly-crafted stealth game blended seamlessly with a precision platformer. It’s a very tough game, but rewarding and one that will have you saying “just one more attempt” over and over — especially as you get past checkpoints and just want to keep soldiering on. This game is not for everyone and if you didn’t grow up on super-hard games that tested every reflect, it probably isn’t going to be a game you enjoy. However, it is an absolute must-buy for anyone who loves a challenge. It controls perfectly, looks and sounds great, and does everything it sets out to do nearly flawlessly.