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Nostalgia-Driven: ‘Spy Hunter’ Gave Us a Ride Fit For A Secret Agent

In this recurring series, Ground Truth explores iconic technology throughout pop culture history that left an indelible impression about the future of artificial intelligence and what self-driving could become. Not necessarily the most capable robots or flashiest driverless cars, but the ones that connected most deeply with us and remain parked in our brains forever.

In hindsight, the basic concept behind the long-running Spy Hunter series of video games is brilliantly simple: drive a fast, sleek sports car stuffed to the grills with all the technology and weaponry a CIA super spy could ever want, from guns to smoke screens to oil slicks. Oh yeah, and it transforms into a boat, too. 

Released by the company Bally Midway originally in 1983 as a stand-up and sit-down arcade set, Spy Hunter is one of only a few hit video games I can think of where a single vehicle  — in this case, a fictional car known as the G-6155 CIA Prototype Interceptor — is the star of the show, rather than a person or anthropomorphized animal character. 

The game takes place entirely from a top-down, aerial view. Your Interceptor is white with red stripes and resembles a 1984 Isdera Imperator 108i. When the game starts, you’re immediately dropped off on the side of the road by a semi-truck and must begin driving to keep up with traffic. Civilian cars and motorcycles come up behind you in red, pink and blue, while “enemy agents” appear in dark blue vehicles with names like “The Road Lord,” “The Enforcer,” and “Switch Blade.” They try to ram you off the road, slash your tires with retractable tire knives, and otherwise make you into a fiery wreck. There’s even a helicopter that flies overhead and drops bombs on your vehicle. 

To fight back, your Interceptor has a number of fictitious enhancements shown off on the side of the arcade set: Dual 50-caliber continuous fire “Leon-type” machine guns in the headlights, surface-to-air infrared heat-seeking “Tomcat BC” missiles on the sides. In back there is a high density smoke screen and “G-style” dual port oil slick ejectors, and inside: an 800 horsepower “DQTLC” (double overhead cam) twin turbo “Barr fuel” injected “JCK” engine. 

While you have the machine guns from the outset, you’ll need to survive long enough and defeat enough enemies, earning points while you do, to drive onto semi trailers that upgrade your vehicle, unlocking all the other features. Later in the game, you’re transformed into a boat to defeat enemy watercraft. 

The Interceptor is clearly a super spy’s dream vehicle, the kind you’d see in James Bond or a Fast and The Furious movie. But unlike those franchises, Spy Hunter zeroes-in on its car alone and builds an entire world around it. The game was a staple of 1980s arcades and went on to be reimagined for Super Nintendo, Playstation, Xbox, Gamecube and PC, and pretty much every major home console of the early 2000s. 

According to a 2012 interview with the game’s co-creator and lead designer George Gomez, Spy Hunter was, in fact, directly inspired by his very 1980s purchase of a James Bond movie theme cassette in Tokyo, which he listened to on his Sony Walkman. As he said: 

“I started thinking about the scenes in Bond movies where he is obviously overwhelmed with enemies and the music comes in and he has to out-fly or out-drive the enemies. The tension to survive, the way the music makes you feel heroic, the power of manipulating the weapons and the vehicle. I could see it in my head so clearly.”

The Interceptor’s realistic sounding numeral prefix was also chosen by Gomez as a sly nod to his own birth date (G-6155 for 06/01/1955). 

Gomez and his fellow creator Tom Leon, both of whom also worked on the video game behind the movie Tron, first sketched the idea for Spy Hunter on a long roll of paper that they stretched out around their office cubicle.

That roll of paper became the primary metaphor of the original game mechanic: driving your car upwards on the arcade screen along a 2D track as more enemies and obstacles appeared to wreck you. 

Interestingly enough, the original game didn’t feature the Interceptor’s driver much.  The arcade game’s housing, the console game cover, and the loading screen depicted two nameless people, a flowing haired man and woman. But they weren’t given a backstory and did not appear in gameplay. One could even be forgiven for thinking this super-powered car was perhaps autonomous. At least until the 2001 3D PlayStation remake of the game introduced the driver character as Alec Sects, negating that proposition.

As I reflect on  Spy Hunter’s multimodal Interceptor vehicle now, nearly 40 years after the game’s initial release, it’s almost inconceivable to believe such a technologically advanced car couldn’t drive itself. But as we’ve seen in the real world, developing reliable, scalable, self-driving technology is a complex project.

Unlike in Spy Hunter, I can say from my perch within Argo AI, a leader in autonomous vehicle technology development, the real future of transportation that’s being built today will be quieter, cleaner and safer. 

Still, I do think Spy Hunter was prescient in some ways about transportation technology. It made you excited to get into a vehicle bristling with advanced tech, which is also what I’ve felt when getting into autonomous vehicles today. Spy Hunter also emphasized the fact that driving can be fun, and will remain fun for those who choose to do it in an increasingly autonomous future. 

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