Have You Played… Spy Hunter?

Have You Played? is an endless stream of game retrospectives. One a day, every day of the year, perhaps for all time.

It’s possibly I remember this more for the music than anything else. I still whistle it to myself on a regular basis, although today – when I fired the thing up in order to inform this piece – was the first time I’d heard it in some 20 years. For the longest time, I wasn’t even sure where the song I was whistling came from, and looked blank whenever someone asked what it was. If nothing else, playing the 1984 vehicular action game again today finally told me what that ancient tune was. It’s the theme tune to an unofficial Knight Rider arcade game.

The traffic dodging/car-shooting Spy Hunter seemed like the fastest game in the world at the time – even though I first played it on PC years after its initial 1984 arcade release – and while it’s disappointingly treacly and jerky when played today, it’s still got an impressively unforgiving forward momentum. The controls are sadly Frogger-like, abrupt lurches to left and right rather than fluid driving, but this makes it a sort of puzzle racer, as you slam around the screen trying not to be knocked off the road or bombed to oblivion.

It was hard then and it’s hard now. In the early 90s, at school, its – to most of us – unseeen later stages were the stuff of legends, and tall tales abounded that your little spycar eventually transformed into a plane and a robot were never proven one way or another. We all saw its temporary change into a speedboat early in the game, so we all believed that still greater things lie ahead. Only as of today do I know better, and I am bitterly disappointed.

Still, though. That music.

You can play Spy Hunter in your browser via Archive.org here, but it’s legally grey area. The DOS version there is also significantly less attractive and fluid than the arcade and console versions.


  1. paranoydandroyd says:

    That music is the theme for Peter Gunn.

    • Antsy says:

      Theme from Peter Gunn. Playing Spy Hunter in the 80’s I associated it with The Blues Brothers though :)

      • Antsy says:

        Wasn’t tying to correct you. Don’t even know how I ended up replying!

      • ansionnach says:

        Yes! Was thinking there was a much better rendition of that tune in Blues Brothers – and in the PC version, too!

    • Spuzzell says:

      It’s from Rock’n Roll Racing and I shall brook no mention of minor technicalities such as 1958 being before 1993.

      No sir.

      • Thankmar says:

        Rock’n Roll Racing was, besides getting to know the Peter Gunn Theme, the first time I actively connected the song title “Paranoid” with the melody, which I unconsciously knew before. and they say you don’t learn sth. from videogames.

  2. Adam Dawes says:

    I heard someone made a remake based very loosely on Spy Hunter. ;-)

    link to retrospec.sgn.net

    Though crikey, even that is 12 years old now…

  3. clem2k3 says:

    I remember playing this on our BBC Master back in the day. Admittedly I mostly remember that you had to change file systems to play this game and I had to get my big brothers to do it for me … so I barely got to play it. I remember the colours being better than that screenshot though!

    The remake in 2001 wasnt appalling either.

  4. GallonOfAlan says:

    I played the C64 version a lot, which was not bad although would have been better with a portrait orientation playfield. Also I discovered you could drive over the landscape and position your car halfway into the screen border, and just leave it there. Since you racked up points by staying alive, you could piss off for dinner and come back to a load of extra lives.

    There is a boat section, but no planes or other vehicles.

    The arcade version is bitch hard and not in a nice Defender-type way.

    • El Mariachi says:

      The key to the arcade version is not keeping your foot all the way down on the pedal. At full speed your car will explode on impact with slower traffic appearing from the top of the screen, but if you keep it just a touch under you can safely plow through even civilian slowpokes. I found a pizza place near my high school that had the top throttle set at maximum safe speed and it made the game far more manageable. (It would also give you free credits if you knew just where to kick it, Fonz style.)

      One really nice thing about Spy Hunter though was that you got a guaranteed amount of time before limited lives kicked in. I imagine they had one too many playtesters lose all their lives inside of the first five seconds.

    • Kefren says:

      I used to do that on the C64 as well! However, I think sometimes I couldn’t get back, dying reset me in an impossible place and all the lives disappeared again.

  5. Fnord73 says:

    The game that actually was fast as lightning was Burning Rubber, at least for the C64. Those jumps!

  6. Robmonster says:

    I always thought of The Spy Who Loved Me on the Amiga was a nod to this game. It had a similar feel to it.

  7. DelrueOfDetroit says:

    Similar to the last HYP, I used to play this one at the arcade. It had a sweet steering wheel with little red buttons for your gadjets.

  8. Niko says:

    Played it on ZX Spectrum (well, a more or less identical Russian clone of 48K), it was quite a fun game, and things like having to enter trucks for upgrades, or using oil as a weapon felt quite novel.

  9. JB says:

    Ah, fond memories. This and Turbo Esprit were my go-to spy/car games for a long time.

    • FurryLippedSquid says:

      I often wonder how the 9 yr-old, Turbo Esprit playing me, would have reacted to GTA 5.

    • PostieDoc says:

      Turbo Esprit was superb and way ahead of its time.
      A true Spectrum classic.

  10. GR says:

    Spent a lot of hours playing this on an Apple II.
    Henry Mancini’s theme was without a doubt the main reason I kept playing.

  11. webwielder says:

    Shouldn’t today’s entry be Omikron: The Nomad Soul?

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      gritz says:

      Yeah, I was hoping that would be the HYP for today, but oh well.

  12. Pizzacheeks McFroogleburgher says:

    Was there actually anything in the game’s implementation or narrative to effect that you were actually hunting a spy? They should’ve called it Drivey Chase Change Boat, or similar. Speccy version was awesome.

    • LintMan says:

      I always thought it was that YOU are the spy being hunted by the game. The evidence for which is the slick James Bond-esque car you drive that comes equipped with machine guns, oil slicks, and smoke screens. And of course the awesome Peter Gunn theme which just exudes “undercover operation”.

  13. WuXeS says:

    Played it a lot on my Atari XE. Cool music. :)

  14. zombieshotgun says:

    Normally I shy away from attempts at updating nostalgia (especially to sell something), but this commercial nailed all the elements I loved from the game and has that same, awesome theme:

  15. Llewyn says:

    Hmmm. I played it and remember rather liking it, but don’t remember playing it a lot. Given the ubiquity of TDK C90 tapes in those days I have to wonder if I only played it at a non-C64-owning friend’s house. I also remember there being some inertia to the steering – slightly more “realistic” than the Frogger approach perhaps – but whether this is nostalgia talking or down to version differences I couldn’t say.

  16. seroto9 says:

    I recently bought Downwell, and on playing (although I’m sure RPS will hate me saying this) dismissed it as a Spy Hunter clone. But down.

  17. Flit says:

    No pics of the arcade cabinet? It’s really quite marvelous, take a look:

    link to ianmaw.smugmug.com

    link to priglmeier.com

    • thinkforaminute says:

      I threw quarters at this game just to sit in that cabinet and listen to the music.

  18. zeep says:

    The NES track is blasphemy. That should have been C64.

  19. SoulStatic says:

    The great Henry Mancini wrote the music that’s ripping off: link to youtube.com

    And chances are you know it from the hugely-successful Art of Noise cover from the 80s (with video starring the late, great Rick Mayall!): link to youtube.com

    Ah, Memoriiieeeess….