Friday, 7 June 2019

Switch Review - Impossible Mission


'Impossible Mission' may have once have been considered the best game on many systems, but does anyone today have the desire to play a re-release of a ten year old game based on a thirty year old game? 




It’s sometimes hard not to be envious that newer, younger players get to see the games you cherish with fresh eyes. They get to enjoy shocking narratives twists and jaw dropping bosses without having seen it all before. There’s a delight in not knowing what’s coming next. The exhilaration that comes from discovering something new is amplified when you have to work to achieve it. When something’s impossible to miss it’s hard to see how it’s rewarding to find.

However, it’s disheartening to see that many contemporary players lack the one thing that’s required to explore the unknown, they don’t have patience. They have become so accustomed to games telling them how to do something, that when an objective is vague or a goal unclear they simply give up. 

Acclaimed Industry critic Richard Leadbetter has been playing game since their infancy and also appreciates the joy of discovery. “Those times I failed weren't mistakes to be erased, they were layers of experience. I wasn't losing, I was learning” he wrote for Eurogamer. “The magical effect of not knowing what to do means I pay more attention to my surroundings, to what's going on, because I'm searching for clues trying to figure it out. There are no checkpoints, there are no map-markers, there are no invisible hands yanking me through. I have to prize what I need from the game because I won't be handed it. I have to invest, and as the old adage goes, 'you get out what you put in'”.

We have become used to just running down corridors, safe in the knowledge that we must be doing things right because the words “check point” appears on screen. We no longer explore fantasy worlds; we just head to the way point marker.  If the breadcrumb trail we are meant to follow isn’t clear all we need do is ask an NPC and they’ll make it even more obvious.


Of course some of the biggest titles available now are huge and sprawling, lasting hundreds of hours. There’s an argument that there’s so much content you can’t waste time heading in the wrong direction because to do that may mean you won’t have time to see all a game has to offer. Hand-holding is now so prevalent in games that when it’s absent it’s considered a selling point. ‘Rime’ for example dumped you in a world without any explanation or guidance. So while it seems Idiot proofing a game is now less common in smaller indie games, there was a time when even the biggest games made us figure things out. In a time before Game FAQs, I recall being stuck in ‘Grim Fandango’ for literally weeks. The game’s designer, Tim Schafer even once said that being stuck was what people used to call gameplay. “There's a real entertainment to being stuck in the right way” he said to Polygon.

Another infamously vague game is ‘The Legend of Zelda’. You start out on your adventure with no direction and just the advice that it’s “dangerous to go alone”. But this was the 1980’s where cartridge space was limited and designers didn’t want to waste time telling a player what they should be doing, where they should be going or how they should even achieve this.


Two years prior to the release of Shigeru Miyamoto’s pioneering adventure game, Dennis Caswell created ‘Impossible Mission’ for the C64. While it may not be revered in the way that the first ‘Zelda’ game is, it was much praised at the time. Zzap!64 magazine reviewers ranked ‘Impossible Mission’ second in their list of the best Commodore 64 games, while its readers ranked it first. Similar to ‘The Legend of Zelda’ the game makes no attempt to ease you in, in fact ‘Impossible Missions’ is infamously difficult, mainly down to the fact it takes hours to work out what you’re meant to be doing.





According to Euro Gamer’s Dan Whitehead “‘Impossible Mission’ is a game [...] that really demonstrates how much tunnel vision has afflicted game designers over the last few decades.” It starts without an introduction setting the scene, no onscreen help, and no step-by-step voice over. There are no flashing direction signs and there are not even helpful NPCs to talk to. To confuse things even more, at the start of the game, below your avatar is a complicated array of buttons, which actually serve no purpose until the end of the game.

Thankfully, at the start, your action options are limited. There’s a door to your left and one to you right. Regardless of which direction you head, you’ll be presented with a single-screen chamber filled with platforms that are accessible via lifts. These lifts are manually controlled and are limited in the amount they can move. Upon the majority of platforms are robots, moving along set paths intermittently firing electricity. Your goal is to navigate around the room, making best use of the lifts while avoiding the sentry droids. While doing this you must search random objects in the hope of finding picture slides, which will be added to your inventory. Of course with a game as obtuse as ‘Impossible mission’ you’ll have no idea why you’re collecting these, you just have to cling onto the idea that it’ll all make sense in the end. If your aimless search of the room doesn’t yield the mysterious slides, you may instead be rewarded with abilities that can be activated at computer terminals peppered throughout the game. These one-time-use abilities will freeze the robots or reset the lifts, which if used judiciously can make the game marginally easier. You have no other way of attacking the robots, but you can however leap over them using a well-timed summersault. In fact according to designer Dennis Caswell it was this move that lead to the creation of the game. "I animated the somersault before I had any clear idea how it would be used”.

Similarly, Caswell’s love of the memory game ‘Simon’ meant that some rooms have a chequered board in them. There’s no danger here, but success depends on memorising a sequence and activating lights in the correct order. It’s a refreshing change of pace but the novelty wears off quickly.

In a way similar to a ‘Metroid’ or ‘Etrian Odyssey’ game, exploration fills in a map revealing the layout and structure of the complex. Once all rooms have been explored you'll hopefully have enough slides to create nine keys. This is done using the bizarre control panel seen at the very start of the game. Using this unnecessarily complicated interface, you’ll rotate, flip, colour change and combine four slides to create solid coloured keys.  Doing this successfully generates a letter in a password, and unless all nine letters are created the game can’t be completed, even if the password can be guessed from the letters found. In practice it’s perhaps even more tedious than it sounds. According to Eurogamer, ‘Impossible mission’s own designer was aware of the problems with the game’s final moments. “Caswell himself once noted that those players who are sufficiently adept at completing the platforming aspect often struggled with the second half of the game - assembling the pass code.” The reason for the struggle was perhaps also down to a complete lack of explanation.

You can only complete the game if through some miracle you’ve found all the slides and combined them in a way that generates every letter in the password. The game’s name may have been used to cash in on the success of the 1960’s TV show but it’s surprisingly appropriate.  The game is close to impossible to complete, especially as all the tasks must be completed in a set time limit. Depending on the mode chosen you’ll have 6 or 8 in-game hours to compete the game, which translates into 30-40 real world minutes. Every time you get hit by an enemy you don’t take damage but instead you’ll lose 10 minutes from this total. It’s a clever mechanic but it’s got obvious problems. Make too many mistakes early on and it’s impossible to finish the game in the time remaining. This is especially true when you factor in the time consuming password generating you have to do at the end.

For the time you can see why this game was so popular, as ‘Impossible mission’ tries so many new ideas. The problem is what was inventive 30 years ago is painfully archaic now which is why it’s so surprising that’s it’s still being re-releases on modern systems.

While it may be presented as “totally updated new version” of the original C64 game, the Switch version of ‘Impossible mission’ is actually a lazy port of a Wii game created by Developers System 3. The game Play is identical but the graphics had been revamped. Sadly, considering the Wii was on the Market a decade ago they now look horribly dated. In fact, even in 2008, reviewers were savage in their criticism of ‘Impossible mission’s “abhorrent” new look.  “Grabbing generic blurry stock textures shows that System 3 made no effort to make this look good”.

The backgrounds are atmospheric, but bland, and with static lighting and no environmental effects you’ll never feel integrated into the environment.  There’s a selection of characters, but as they play identically the choice is purely an aesthetic one. Your decision will likely be based on which you consider to blend into the background least. With their ‘Matrix’ inspired trench coats and dark glasses, your playable character has the unfortunate ability to vanish into the environments. While this may make narrative sense considering they’re meant to be spies, it hardly makes the difficult, ‘prince of Persia’ style platform-leaping enjoyable. If you’re like me you’ll probably favour the original C64 era graphics or at least the “merged” mode that takes the blurry backgrounds of the revamped version and the clearer sprite of the c64 iteration.  It’s a weird amalgamation of ‘old’ and ‘out-dated’ but it’s the most functional.

Each failed attempt to complete the game (and there will be many) is rewarded with a terrible un-skippable PlayStation-quality FMV sequence. Something similar is also the only reward for success, but with such appalling voice acting, you’d wonder if the effort was worth it. The audio changes are actually to the detriment of the game. The iconic spoken dialogue from the original ‘Impossible mission’ game was one of the first to users of digitised speech. Tragically the infamous "another visitor, stay a while; stay forever” been replaced with a new version, where the voice actor stutters in their delivery.  It’s astonishing to think this made the final Wii release and it hasn’t even been repaired in the subsequent Switch edition.  It’s indicative of how little effort was put into the title. Ten years ago IGN were critical when reviewing a port that plays identically to this Switch version. “Time has not been kind to ‘Impossible Mission’. It may have had some innovative design ideas two decades ago, but bringing it all back in a straightforward port probably wasn't a good idea”. A decade of ageing has made the game seem even worse. “The exploratory gameplay mechanics might've been a new thing back in the day, but now it's incredibly archaic and repetitive.”

Thankfully there is now at least a tutorial which makes the game a bit more accessible to brand new players.  But, true to the game’s legacy, the ten minute bombardment of information isn’t exactly clear. Once finished you’ll vow to never touch ‘Impossible mission ‘again. It’s a slow, frustrating, obtuse and at times unfair game.

If the youth of today can’t find the time to devote to the masterpieces of yesteryear there’s no way they’d want to spend the hours required to fully understand the mechanics of ‘Impossible mission’. Yes, games today may have taken away the joys of discovery, but at least they welcome you and invite a player to actually play. We may not like to be treated like fools that must be babysat, but at least that’s a fun experience.  Ultimately, experimentation and exploration is only enjoyable if the discovery is worth the effort.

Where Did I get this game from?
Bizarrely, UK retailer Argos seem to be exclusively selling five games by publisher Play It. However, in the box isn’t a game cartridge, instead you get download code which can be used on the Nintendo eShop. At £9.99 each, they’re the same price as the digital equivalent, but obviously you get the benefit of an empty box to put on the shelf. Better yet, at the time of writing Argos are doing an offer where you can buy two of the five games for £15, meaning they’re only £7.50 per game – cheaper than the same thing on the eShop.  Also available are Switch Versions of ‘RoboCod’ and a sequel to ‘Super Putty’, both of which are far better games than this monstrosity!

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