Greatest Games: Impossible Mission

The cover for the game helped reinforce the secret agent mood.

The cover for the game helped reinforce the secret agent mood.

In the early days 8bit computer gaming, there was one title everyone I knew was playing on their Commodore 64s and that was Dennis Caswell’s Impossible Mission, published by Epyx in 1984.

Though multiple ports of the game were released in the years after the C64 version, it still remains one of the best versions to play as most of the others had to forego features such as the audio and the controls are spot on. If you have access to an emulator, you won’t regret giving this game a shot.

The game casts you as a secret agent tasked with infiltrating the base of the evil Professor Elvin Atombender and to access his control room within six hours. To do so you need to search the rooms of the base (arranged randomly each game) collecting puzzle clues to help reveal the password to access the control room.

Not everything you search will give you a puzzle piece. Sometimes you can be rewarded with programs (usable at a computer) to reset lifts in a room or temporarily disable all of the robots. Having a lot of these in reserve can pay off towards the end of the game.

As you play, the timer is constantly ticking down which forces you to keep moving. That may seem like a long time but each time your agent is killed ten minutes will be further deducted from that timer meaning mistakes made later in the game can lead to some frustrating endings.

There was a sequel to the game released in 1998 (Impossible Mission II) which provided more tools and robots but was more limited in map variety due to how it was grouping rooms into themed towers that made the random generation of the level arrangment far more predictable. Unlike the original, I was able to complete it a few times.

Despite that additional challenge, I think the original game succeeds immensely because it keeps the core of the game simple by separating the puzzle aspects from the action.

“Another visitor! Stay a while… STAY FOREVER!”

The loading screen gives little indication of the game to come.

The loading screen gives little indication of the game to come.

On starting Impossible Mission, you’ll be greeted by the digitized voice of Elvin Atombender taunting you with those famous words. Quote them to another C64 gamer and they will know exactly what you are talking about.

As a whole, the audio is spectacular; the C64’s SID chip may not be pumping out the kinds of tunes it was famous for but it delivered audio at a quality that was rarely heard at the time. From the sound of your agent’s footsteps, to the robots and more from Elvin, there was nothing you could fault about the game in this department.

And everyone at least once tried killing off their agent just to hear the sound…

“Destroy him my robots!”

At first glance it seems that the robots you face are all pretty generic but as you progress through rooms you’ll notice that there are a set of random behaviours assigned to each of them. Some will stay on the spot, others will patrol a route and others will just charge straight for you. It’s dangerous enough that they are electrified; some of them will also fire a death ray to make your life just that little bit shorter.

The combination of random map and robots means you can’t always predict how you are going to attack the game and are often forced to take each room as it comes. Remembering which rooms you hadn’t fully searched was key to ensuring you had collected all that you could.

“Jump, run, up, drop… AAAAAAaaaaaaaaaahhhh!”

Character animation in the game is great in action. Good, because you'll be seeing a lot of it.

Character animation in the game is great in action. Good, because you’ll be seeing a lot of it.

The bulk of the animation in the game was tied to the movement of your agent and it was fluid in a way that compared well to Jordan Mechner’s Karateka, a game renowned at the time for its animation and also released in ’84.

Backing up that animation was some pixel perfect collision detection that would make it clear that when your agent died it was from your own mistakes. Missing jumps or colliding with the electrified robots were regular occurrences.

“Ready please, Mister Music!”

A neat touch that you’ll appreciate when you find it is the music room which presents your player with a music matching game that rewards you with additional programs for resetting lifts and disabling robots.

However, like the game Simon, every time you completed a music sequence the next one would require you to remember more which will test your memory over more.

With the odds stacked against you, this little concession to help the player is a welcome and memorable addition that fits in perfectly with the game.

A unique take on platformers

Though Impossible Mission was followed up with a sequel four years later, there really hasn’t been anything else I’ve seen that comes close. Versions did appear for Wii, DS and PSP but it’s a shame that it did not reach more platforms as it would now be a perfect fit as a modern indie title.

The unpredictability of the game’s level arrangement and robot behaviour made for something that would offer a continual challenge over multiple play throughs. Even now, that’s a feature of significant value to a single player game and shows that even thirty years ago there were innovations back then that are just as relevant to gaming now.

Greatest Games is a feature where we highlight our favourite games from the past and try to explain what we think makes them great and worth searching out to play again. If you’ve got your own thoughts on the subject, please feel free to share them in the comments below.

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