I’ve always considered myself part of the sneaking elite. Skulking smoothly from shadowy nook to shadowy nook, pilfering keys from another man’s pocket, becoming one with the darkness. My creeping sneak allows me to live out the twisted power fantasy of being a 70’s light-entertainment star. It was for this reason that Master Spy caught my, inexplicably able to see through walls, eye. A new 2D stealth game in the vein of Mark of the Ninja? There’d be nothing stopping me crawling around the two-foot sight range of my local electronics emporium (or digital client) employees in order to pick it up. To my disappointment, the ‘stealth’ was only set-dressing – a cosmetic overlay for what turned out to be a merely adequate precision-platformer.
There’s an immediate simplicity to the control scheme, movements which could have been mapped to an original Nintendo. Two-buttons: one to jump and another to turn invisible. Your invisibility makes you able to comfortably breeze through the guards’ line-of-sight, which would otherwise result in an instant game over. The usefulness is offset by a lack of speed and moveability. That’s the bulk of it. Challenge is ramped up by a steady inclusion of new obstacles and enemies; saw-blades, camo-ninjas, watch-tigers. They all become part of single-screen puzzles. If you’ve ever played 1001 Spikes or any of the other ultra-hard platformers that have swamped Steam, you’ve already walked this well-trodden path. Work out the route to the next screen and then die repeatedly until you’ve got the pixel-perfect timing down.
What will stick with you most on your traipse through constant death is the music. The bleeping-bloops of the retro-futurist soundtrack will play through your mind for weeks after completion. It’s old-school but without fitting neatly into a definite time – timeless, it captures the tone of a half-remembered sci-fi film from your childhood. Think Hotline Miami with the neon grime replaced with a sunset slowly fading into pink. There’s an Asia inspired theme which stands side-by-side with the original Deus Ex’s capturing of Hong Kong nightlife – the pinnacle of video game music. I won’t waste valuable internet space with the infinite lines of gushing praise I have for it, I can only suggest buying the standalone soundtrack yourself. It’s truly remarkable.
Unfortunately, that music is the only thing that will massage you through repetitive sections where sloppy design makes you unsure of what to do. There’s two examples from my own playtime which illustrate my pain. The first level introduces a slowly descending laser-veil, a forced-restart faces you if you’re caught in it. Your second encounter is several of them in a row, the slow descent giving you, seemingly, just enough time to run past before they touch you. Only after twenty minutes of retries where I was continually caught a single pixel from the finish line did I realise I had been doing things all wrong, the lasers only caught you if you were moving. Standing still and waiting was the solution. Later in the game you’re met with platforms which you’re unable to reach – no matter from what angle I leapt I was only jumping to my death. The solution was, how could I be so blind, to use the ‘flip jump’ ability – something which had never been explained to you nor is even useful other than for a few minor rooms. I appreciate Master Spy’s remit to not holding hands, but I consider it a basic decency to actually make the game possible. Just a twenty-second cutscene of a cat walking through the lasers would have been more than enough.
It’s indicative of a serious lack of play-testing on the developer’s part. A game that prides itself on being this impenetrably tough needs, more than any other genre, to have a sense of clarity. It needs to have the successful route laid out in front of you clearly, your failures only a result of not being quick enough off the mark, not having flawless timing. Too often I felt a degree of luck in completing the rooms – relief came from making it past them rather than pride. There’s small moments of synergy where everything comes together. Where there’s several screens in a row where there’s an openly delineated answer, where the timing is instinctive, where the only thing holding you back is getting in that zone where the link between your fingers and the actions on-screen becomes second nature. There’s a grading system that encourages replays, that should make you tackle the levels until you’ve got them pat. But the levels are too long to make it actually manageable.
Where you will find some joy is in the sublime pixel art. It’s beautiful; you’re given distinct but economical character designs and lovingly put together cutscenes inspired by Ninja Gaiden. After the recent barrage of 90’s pixel-aping, I’m suspicious of such relentless dedication to an antiquated style. The V/H/S scan lines are both pleasing and confusing. Who is the preferred audience here? People who vaguely remember enjoying Shinobi? We’re being treated as nostalgia-seeking man babies, clapping Pavlovian-like at anything which reminds of us childhood. But it’s obvious that there was truck-loads of time and care siphoned into making Master Spy as old-fashionedly gorgeous as the Megadrive games it tries to replicate.
I would usually judge this particular genre by returning to previous levels: judging the controls by how easily I can master past puzzles now that I’ve unravelled them, now that the inputs have scarred themselves into callouses on my thumbs. But the levels are as frustrating now as they were to begin with. There’s moments of brilliance, but you can only see them by forcing yourself through an hour of irritating insta-deaths. Master Spy has no unique ideas, and they’re not even executed to the reflective sheen that would’ve made it enjoyable. It’s serviceable, perfunctory. And in a market awash with ‘Nintendo hard’ platformers, that’s not good enough.
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