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by Sotenga - August 12, 2011

Mission: Impossible - NES (1990)

American NES Cover

Americans are practically required by law to have at least heard of Mission: Impossible at some point in their lives. Created by Bruce Geller, the original television series focused on a group of agents in the Impossible Mission Force (IMF), a covert government organization that specializes in black ops to stop schemes concocted by dictators, crime lords, and the like. The IMF boss, Dan Briggs, was played by Steven Hill in the first season, but was replaced by Peter Graves in his most memorable role as Jim Phelps. Briggs, later Phelps, often assigned missions to a foursome of agents which most frequently consisted of tough guy Willy Armitage (Peter Lupus), electronics genius Barney Collier (Greg Morris), sexy femme Cinnamon Carter (Barbara Bain), and disguise master Rollin Hand (Martin Landau).

Mission: Impossible lasted for seven seasons with some changes in the roster during its course, most notably Leonard Nimoy as The Great Paris taking over for Landau's role. The show was incredibly popular for its time, as were most spy-themed series in the sixties thanks to the advent of the timeless James Bond film series and similarly-themed television shows, including The Prisoner and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Without question, the show's most popular element is its catchy and thrilling theme song composed by Lalo Schifrin. Arguably more famous than the show itself, it is frequently used today in modern television shows that feature parts where characters concoct and/or carry out secret missions, most often for the sake of parody.

In 1988, Mission: Impossible was revived and presented as a new series, with mostly different actors but a similar format and feel to the original. Peter Graves reprised his role as Jim Phelps and assembled a new team of covert agents holding roles akin to agents from the sixties series. The muscle of the group was soldier Max Harte (Tony Hamilton), the female agent was Casey Randall (Terry Markwell), later replaced by Shannon Reed (Jane Badler), the disguise master was actor Nicholas Black (Thaao Penghlis), and the technology expert was the son of Barney Collier, Grant (Phil Morris, the real-life son of Greg Morris). Lasting for only two seasons, the revival was not quite as monumental as the original in terms of both duration and success. Regardless, it was modestly successful and is far truer to the spirit of the original series than the current line of action films with the Mission: Impossible name on them.

However, the main focus of this article is on the video game based on the eighties series. In the long-standing tradition of basing video games (often loosely) off of television or movie licenses, Mission: Impossible eventually got its own game for the NES courtesy of Konami, one of the more generally beloved developers of the decade. Being that M:I is an American series, it makes sense that the game was developed in the states under Konami of America's subsidiary company, Ultra Games. The plot is as straightforward as most episodes: Jim Phelps tasks Max Harte, Grant Collier, and Nicholas Black to rescue the brilliant Dr. O and agent Shannon Reed, posing as his secretary, from an anonymous organization called the Sinister Seven. This mission (should they decide to accept it) starts the heroes off on the streets of Moscow before moving them to a high-speed boat chase in Venice, the Syrinx Temple of East Berlin (a possible reference to 2112 by Rush), a prisoner camp in Switzerland, a race to safety down the Swiss Alps, and the Sinister Seven base found in Cyprus.

Considering the series' genre and this game's developer, it is not surprising that it plays somewhat akin to Metal Gear, albeit at a faster pace and with more emphasis on the action. There are six stages, four of which play down in an overhead perspective (stages one, three, four, and six) with the remaining two (stages two and five) playing as short-yet-speedy racing segments where you must reach the goal without dying. The bulk of the game is found in the on-foot action stages, all of which are surprisingly large and mostly nonlinear maps with multiple areas to explore. In these levels, you get to switch between Max, Grant, and Nicholas while the action is paused; each agent has a primary weapon with infinite use for button A, a subweapon with limited quantity for button B, and different walk speeds in accordance with the range of their main weapon.

Max totes a rifle with infinite ammo that fires across the entire screen and ten powerful remote detonation bombs which waste most enemies instantly. However, being that he has the heaviest weapon, he also moves the slowest out of the three agents. Grant fights with his fists and does not have much attack range, but as he is not burdened with heavy artillery, he is the fastest runner of the bunch. He also carries ten paralyzing gas grenades and, true to his techno-whiz nature, can disable electronic locks on security doors by inputting a simple four-digit passcode. Nicholas moves faster than Max and tosses out boomerangs with better attack range than Grant. His thespian training also comes with five temporary disguises which cause enemies to not attack him for a brief period of time.

The goal in each stage varies, but the basic premise is the same: Fight and/or sneak your way past lots of enemy guards and traps to reach the desired target point. It is not often clear what exactly you need to do in each on-foot stage, though there are information dealers found in various spots which will tell you of where to go and for what to watch out. The end of these levels are always found beyond a special door next to a control panel that requires the input of an ID card, but you need to find a forger to make ID cards for the agents before you can pass these checkpoints. Whether the objective is to destroy a boss, rescue a captive, or whatever else, only one agent need finish the stage. Your three agents essentially act as lives, and if all three of them are killed in action, the game is over. Each agent can take a fair amount of punishment (except from a few powerful weapons like Molotov cocktails), but they can easily die instantly by falling off into a dark pitfall or inescapable water.

If you lose any agents but somehow manage to finish the stage, you start the next mission with all three active. Should all three die, you continue at the very beginning of the mission, a rather crushing punishment considering how incredibly long the on-foot stages are. This lack of mercy is only one element in the game's foremost flaw: Its difficulty transcends the point of "interesting challenge" and falls into the territory of "painfully frustrating". While the stages are not too terribly complex and confusing to navigate, it is likely you will die before figuring out what it is you are supposed to accomplish unless you have played the stage many times before and know what to expect. Most areas are full of enemies, the most common being green and purple soldiers respectively carrying knives and pistols. More obnoxious enemies include shield-toting sprinters who attempt to push you off over fatal ledges, stationary punks who can potentially kill you with a single Molotov cocktail (or drain half of your life at the very least), assassins with claws that rush in if you trip an alarm, and evil flamethrower guards in the final level who are responsible for what is arguably the game's worst segment.

The game is not totally bereft of leniency, as your continues are infinite, and every level after the first has a four-letter password to resume your progress at a later date. Furthermore, each stage has first aid kits that can completely heal any agent (though only one at a time, so choose wisely) and suitcases which max out the stock of one agent's subweapon. However, you still have to be incredibly careful of your surroundings and learn from your mistakes if you lose all agents. Even losing one agent cripples your chances for victory, especially Grant and his electronic lockpicking skill. The game only has two real boss fights in it, but this may not be bad considering how truly vile one of the fights turns out to be. The bad guy in a wheelchair you face at the end of the first level accidentally kills himself in a very stupid fashion by falling into a pit, and while the actual boss fight in stage 4 takes Agent Reed as a hostage, he is not so bad to deal with if you play it carefully. However, the boss you fight at the end of the third stage (an unfitting albeit obligatory ninja) is made terribly aggravating thanks to weak floor tiles that will break and instantly kill your character if they stand still for more than a second.

The two vehicle segments are incredibly short compared to the four other stages, but even they are not without their gripes. A single crash forces you to restart at the beginning, and the high speed at which the screen scrolls gives you such minimal time to react that you might as well learn where not to turn through trial-and-error. Getting shot at or crashed into by enemies only takes off some of your lifebar, but these enemies tend to strategically hide before rushing at you. Unless you can time an attack or dodge right, you might end up careening into a wall. The first such level, a boat chase through Venice, at least gives you a straight-firing gun that can take care of distant threats. However, the second chase is down the Alps with nothing but ski poles with relatively short range. This speed course is made particularly maddening with some bad hit detection on what constitutes a fatal fall into the abyss. Despite how relatively short it is, it certainly takes patience to learn what and what not to do.

The challenge breaks the maxim of fun in the final level. Flamethrower jets, falling floors, every variety of enemy imaginable, and other nasty surprises hinder your progress at every step you take. While the Sinister Seven mastermind is some old guy in a chair who dies in a single shot, an inescapable pit opens up as you try to go past his body, forcing you to redo the most brutal segment of the game. If you know what to do and stay alive, you come to the last scene of the game, which inexplicably rips off off the finale to the beloved eighties film WarGames. You have to stop a supercomputer from launching nukes, and after inputting a four-letter password which you hopefully remember from Dr. O after rescuing him in stage 4, you have to tell the computer to play Madelinette, a game rather similar in design to tic tac toe. After playing three draw games, the computer goes nuts and eventually realizes the "game" it is playing is not very fun, thus saving the world in a way that would make Matthew Broderick proud. Naturally, if you screw anything up during the climax, you must start the level from the very beginning, though it is recommended that you take the time to scream your throat raw in anger before resuming... or quitting forever, whichever feels more appropriate.

The vicious difficulty of Mission: Impossible sucks most of the fun out of it, but it has its upsides. If nothing else, it has an awesome soundtrack that compliments the action-spy motif. Starting from a catchy beat on the Moscow streets, evolving into a hellish secret underground base theme later in the level, and ramping up the tempo for the two race levels among many other neat tunes, the music is a fine compliment to the gratuitous amount of danger you will experience. The graphics are quite good if nothing special, featuring accurate portraits of your three agents and varied yet appropriate colors to give each stage a unique feel. The game is actually entertaining when you first play it, especially since the interplay between the three agents makes you feel as if you are actually making use of the IMF's greatest strength: Teamwork. Of course, if any one agent dies, this limits your options severely, and if two die, you might as well just start over unless you are confident you can go solo. Mission: Impossible is actually not bad for a game based on a television series, but the heaven-high difficulty mark makes it inaccessible to all but the most insanely devoted gamers.

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Mission: Impossible (NES)

Mission: Impossible (NES)

Mission: Impossible (NES)

Mission: Impossible (NES)

Mission: Impossible (NES)

Mission: Impossible (NES)

Mission: Impossible (NES)

Mission: Impossible (NES)

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