Master Spy

words manifested by: AJ Johnson

A game by Turbogun for PC and Mac, originally released in 2015.
In Master Spy, you play the role of a heavy-lidded fellow who actually goes by the name of Master Spy. Master Spy hires himself out to perform various acts of espionage, and he lives by a strict code… always sticking to the deal and only killing when it is absolutely necessary. Rather than traditional ninja garb, Master Spy dresses in formal business attire, with dress pants, a dress shirt, and a black tie, while adding gloves, a ski mask, and a prototype jacket that allows him to turn himself invisible.

This invisibility jacket is the basis for much of the gameplay, as players need to move around the environment unseen in order to collect keycards and infiltrate five different locations. However, activating the jacket greatly reduces Master Spy’s speed and mobility, making it more likely that he will be caught by a patrolling guard or killed by one of the game’s many environmental obstacles. If he is spotted or killed, the player must begin the mission again.

Aside from his jacket, Master Spy has few tools at his disposal. He cannot kill patrolling enemies, nor can he disable or distract them. Aside from a few foes in the final area, enemies stick to rigid patrol routes, which makes proper timing the game's primary challenge.

Master Spy has a 2x nonvariable jump, and he has an odd flip move that may be performed by pressing JUMP again while in the air, which sends him flipping horizontally to the left or right. Getting the timing right on this maneuver is a bit difficult, but there are only a handful of instances where it is ever required.

There are five missions in the game, split into 10 levels each, as well as eight additional VR missions that are unlocked as you play. Players may begin the game in either the Novice or Master difficulty setting, with the Master setting removing all of the mid-level checkpoints for an added challenge.

Completing the game opens another difficulty called Blind Master mode in which the player can only see his immediate surroundings (which also requires foreknowledge of enemy patrols and the placement of cameras and other obstacles). That said, there is plenty of challenge to be found on even the easiest difficulty setting.

In the early going, players only need to avoid patrolling guards, stationary guards, and cameras. In these situations, players can generally remain cloaked in order to grab the keycard that opens the door to the next level. Most of these levels are single-screen affairs where the player can see his objectives and patrol patterns from the outset.

Soon, the player is introduced to guard dogs – and tigers later on – that react to his presence whether he is cloaked or not, and dogs move very quickly. Since Master Spy slows to a walking speed when cloaked, players will want to de-cloak when dealing with dogs in order to leap away quickly, hop over them, or grab keycards before getting tackled to the ground.

This adds an additional level of difficulty, as players will often need to hop between platforms with patrolling guards and dogs, which means that players will need to cloak and de-cloak quickly, often in mid-jump.

One early challenge sees the player walking off a ledge in front of a stationary guard and onto a platform with a dog. Above are 1-way platforms and two more dogs, along with a keycard that you need to collect, followed by a platform with three patrolling guards. Here, the player must become invisible, walk off the ledge to bypass the guard, disable his invisibility to get past the dogs, and then get the timing right to jump up behind the guards as they’re walking or turn invisible again to avoid being spotted before moving to the exit. This sequence is complex and requires Cracker Jack timing... and this is one of the game’s simpler challenges.

The eye line for being spotted is a straight horizontal line, so guards will see you if you are positioned directly to the left or right of them, but not above or below, and the same is true of security cameras, even though they are graphically represented as being aimed at a downward angle. Security cameras move to the left and right, with a red light flashing to inform the player of when the switch is about to occur. Coming in contact with a patrolling guard – cloaked or not – causes you to fail the mission and restart the level.

Early on, the player begins to encounter multi-screen environments, made up of a series of interconnected single-screen rooms. There are occasionally branching paths or a choice as to which route to pursue first, but most offer only one route forward, and most areas still only consist of a handful of rooms. Players must collect two keycards for most doors, and some tougher areas feature multiple switches spread around the area.

On the Novice difficulty, checkpoints are placed fairly frequently, appearing as hovering file folders. Most of the time, these file folders are placed immediately following screen transitions, making them impossible to avoid. In some areas, however, the player is able to avoid collecting file folders, giving him the choice as to whether he wants to activate the checkpoint immediately, or try to complete the room’s challenge and save more of his progress by activating it afterward.

Each themed area introduces new hazards to put the player’s skills to the test and further ramp up the difficulty. These include fast-moving laser barriers that you need to avoid, generally requiring that you remain uncloaked in order to move quickly enough.

Motion sensors detect any sort of movement, whether you are cloaked or not, and a visible cone of red light moves up and down so that you can get the timing right. These set up some time-based challenges, as you may need to move quickly while also avoiding a patrolling guard.

Another time-based obstacle comes in the form of pressure-sensitive floor pates that activate when you stand on them. Stand still for too long, and they explode. To further complicate matters, jumping or falling onto one of these plates sets it off immediately.

The third area introduces cloaked assassins. These guys are invisible aside from an occasional shimmer that appears around them. If you stand with your back to them, they decloak and move toward you, killing you if they reach your position. Turning to face an assassin will cause it to stop and recloak, similar to the behavior of Boo enemies from the Super Mario Bros. series. Players must be careful not to let these assassins back them into a corner, and must get the timing right when there are multiple assassins in the room, as it is easy to become trapped. These enemies cannot follow you up or down, so it is possible to lure them away and then jump onto a higher platform to escape.

Later challenges test not only your cloaking and uncloaking abilities, but also your platforming prowess. These include platforms that fall out from under your feet a moment after you step on them, others that open and close with a set timing, and some that trigger a barrage of darts the moment you set foot on them. Players will also encounter dangerous equipment, including fast-moving saw blades, huge crushers, and blasts of electricity, leading to some more fast-paced sections that are less reliant on stealth.

Often, new obstacles aren’t previewed in any way, so the most likely method for discovering their function is to be killed by them. Fortunately, the short levels and frequent checkpoints support this quick trial-and-error method to moving forward, with the player losing only a few seconds of gameplay upon discovery of some new deadly trap. On occasion, however, it can be somewhat difficult to separate foreground and background elements, potentially causing some deaths because the player can’t visually parse his surroundings.

Still, most of the challenge comes from a legitimate understanding of the dangers present and requires very precise timing on the part of the player. There are loads of situations where the player’s opportunity for cloaking and uncloaking is less than one second, and often the player must reverse the effect only a moment later.

Even the player’s movement speed comes into play for many of the challenges in the back half of the game. Since the player moves more slowly when cloaked, players may need to jump over a guard, uncloak in the air to gain extra speed (defying real world physics, but supporting traditional video game logic) and then cloak again before hitting the ground.

Everything in the game runs on a precisely timed cycle, so players always know what to expect and how to adjust their timing with each attempt… and players may need to attempt some challenges a dozen or more times in order to make it through (again, with only short bits of replay). Inching your way slowly toward success also means that you may find yourself making silly mistakes, like walking uncloaked directly into a guard.

A summary appears between each mission to inform the player how well he did in terms of completion time and the number of times spotted/killed. You can expect to see some triple digit numbers on your first playthrough.

The game is presented with a retro-style pixel aesthetic, and is made to appear as if the image is being displayed on an old CRT monitor, complete with scanlines and curves at the edges of the screen, similar to You Have to Win the Game.

A great deal of extra flavor is offered through the addition of cutscenes. These are mostly along the style of Ninja Gaiden, with images sliding to the left or right and text appearing below. However, these scenes are significantly longer than anything seen on the NES, and some of these have animated sequences as well, helping to add character and convey the narrative. The story fits the style of the game and simple beats of NES-era games, offering a bit of intrigue and betrayal, an unflappable hero, and plenty of grandstanding on the part of the bad guys.

Master Spy was developed by Turbogun, a 2-man studio headed by artist John Coxworth and developer Kris Truitt. The pair worked on the game in their spare time over the course of a couple of years while keeping their full-time jobs. The soundtrack for the game was composed by André Allen Anjos / RAC. This was the studio’s first commercial release.