My original, 2004 review of Mission: Impossible was sloppy and dismissive. I’m assuming I picked a recognizable name out of the list of NES games, played about an hour, and complained that it wasn’t what I expected. While that certainly mirrors the experience of renting a game based on the box art and being disappointed for the rest of the weekend, I’ve tried to increase the depth at which I write about games here in the interim years. The one point that holds is that maybe the Mission: Impossible name wasn’t the best choice here.
The Tom Cruise movies weren’t a thing yet, so in 1992, most people would have associated Mission: Impossible with the 1960s series. I watched a fair share of those episodes myself – as multiplying cable channels (TV Land, in this case) trawled past content for anything that could fill time. The clever “get in, get out, no one knows they were there” style of each episode still held up well, but the NES title doesn’t follow this tenet in the slightest. It’s an action-heavy overhead exploration game with some token nods to generic spy fiction, and a heaping helping of NES Logic enemies. Like I said in the original review, it is closer to The A-Team.
But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad game.
Based off the obscure 1988 revival of the TV series, the game has you travelling seven levels across the world to stop the “Sinister Seven” from forcing the kidnapped “Doctor O” from bypassing the military defense computer he designed and launching nuclear weapons. At least, that’s what the English manual says. Given that it also references the “cheesy Limburger case” and hitman “Jean Claude Killer” this could all be the usual tomfuckery from Ultra’s English manual guy. Apparently he had just read a Spider-Man comic and also thought a Digger Phelps reference would be hilarious.
You control three agents from the “new” show. Hearkening back to Ultra’s first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, each of these agents have different stats and you switch between them using Select while paused. Each has their own life bar, so you’re encouraged to switch away from a weakened agent and press on with someone less beaten up. They also act as lives. If an agent dies during a level, you’re still given the chance to continue with whoever’s left. Though without the fallen agent’s special ability or unique stat, you may not be able to complete the challenges ahead.
Max acts as your burly strongman. He’s slow and takes the least damage from hits. He has a gun with infinite ammo that reaches across the entire screen, and is ideal for taking out enemies at a safe distance. Since he takes the least damage (one bar on an attack that would knock off two or three from the other guys), he’s a great exploration character. His B button drops a bomb that can take out enemies around it in a short radius. Pressing B again sets it off, and the explosion doesn’t damage Max. I think there’s one time you use these bombs to clear a path – the rest of the time you’re free to hit patrols, get fast-moving claw assassins off your back, or destroy enemies that bullets won’t affect.
Grant is the son of Barney Collier from the 60’s series. He has the fastest movement speed out of the three, but takes the most damage. Grant is basically invaluable for rushing past the many timed traps of the game – laser gates, rushing water, steam blasts, etc. He also has the best B button attack in the form of a stun grenade with a relatively large range. If enemies wait around a corner in ambush, the stun grenade will give you time to deal with them. Unfortunately, he’s unarmed. Grant’s A attack throws a punch – it’s got the same damage as a gun, but not the range. However, a combination of stun grenades and his fast foot speed means he can clobber whole groups if you’ve got time to plan. He can also hack doors that no one else can through a minigame (scroll through numbers, listen for beeps), though this usually just opens shortcuts that aren’t necessary.
Nicholas is the Martin Landau character of the group. He’s an Australian, which Ultra decided obviously means he throws boomerangs. He’s got an infinite supply, they’ve got a medium range, and they do loop back to hit bad guys on the return trip. I’ve accidentally hooked boomerangs around corners that KO’ed enemies – no idea how I managed, but I’ll take it. His B attack puts on a disguise, which is textbook Mission: Impossible. You’ll turn into a brown suited goon and can just walk past enemies without being attacked. Unfortunately, the disguise lasts about three seconds. This is just enough time to slip past an otherwise unbreakable defense – like the stationary firebomb throwers – and let you knock them out without taking damage.
Levels seem influenced by Ultra’s NES port of Metal Gear. You’ll see the same overhead perspective, base designs, and rigid guard patrol paths. Just as Snake did, you’re going to want to use boxes to cut yourself off from straight, single-pixel sight lines, so that you can approach guards while their backs are turned. Rooms often act as miniature puzzles, as you figure out who to drop in what order to keep yourself from taking any damage. Enemies here only run after you if they see you – there’s no regard for sound or for klonking their buddy right next to them with a boomerang, so clearing screens happens much faster than Metal Gear. Very appreciated.
Also, I can’t say enough good things about the fact that dead enemies stay dead for the entire level. Completely opposite of Metal Gear, taking the time to drop an enemy is never wasted. You can even kill one, leave the screen, then immediately return to kill another one while everyone’s position has reset – slowly clearing entire rooms without putting yourself at much risk. This part of the game is much easier than Metal Gear’s take on combat, and much more satisfying for it.
It’s also absolutely not just a clone of Metal Gear, and has a great variety within its levels. While you can (and should!) shoot everyone in sight in the third level, the first level will call police after you if you start blasting. Spies can give you clues or access cards, or could be double agents that call in fast-moving claw guys to attack. Switches disable traps or open pathways, with helpful messages telling what they’ve shut off. The second and fifth levels are short arcade challenges, seeing you race a speedboat through canals or ski down a hill under fire. The ending is an embarrassingly blatant ripoff of WarGames, but at least battling a master computer with your wits is creative for a video game.
Unfortunately, we get back to what makes this less of a Mission: Impossible game with the gameified enemies and the ridiculous level hazards. This is where the game goes from being a neat spy romp to an infamously rock hard bastard of a challenge.
After sneaking your way through Moscow and meeting with informants, you head down into the sewer – where you’ll need to dodge cycling steam pipes and blowing fans to get to the end. After clearing out the upper levels of a Venice cathedral, you’ll have to navigate conveyor belts in the basement and dodge moving statues swinging axes. There’s fire jets and crumbling bridges in Switzerland. There’s spiked walls and spider sentries that trigger alarms. Most of these traps kill you instantly. You have two more guys, but they may not be fast enough to get through, so it’s just “game over” with extra steps.
Even its best areas overstay their welcome. Level 3 has a pretty brilliant corridor lined with comically oversized magnets. These curve both your bullets and enemies’ so that they hit around corners. It’s a neat diversion to figure out where to aim to hook a bullet around a pillar without exposing yourself to a bad guy. But it just. keeps. going. on – somewhere between eight and ten full screens of this, with the knowledge that enough damage to your guys will probably blow your run at completing the level.
Remember, these traps make up one spot in a very long level, with more, similar traps ahead. It ultimately comes down to requiring near perfect execution every time. Yes, there are medkits that let you heal one guy – only one! – back to full, so you can mend the hits you take. Yes, there’s no time limit, so you can spend all the time you need setting up or watching the timing. And yes, thankfully, passwords exist so at worst you’re only kicked back to the beginning of the level.
Still, it’s antiquated game design that asks you to repeat levels endlessly until you get it right. I’ve never enjoyed this, not even as a kid. I’m not learning choreography for a dance here, or a part in a two-hour play. I want to play a damn video game without trying to nail a long series of timing challenges and being told “whoopsie-doo, try the whole thing over again!” if I’m off by half a second. Some people love overcoming the challenge and nailing the perfect run. I’ve never walked away feeling satisfied, only frustrated at how unbelievably long it took. Mission: Impossible is a poster child for all this, and I never would have given up the time to try and beat it without save states.
The most prevalent enemies are soldier types who fall in one hit, but their damage quickly adds up if your timing is repeatedly off. I never found more than three medkits in a level, so finding ways to off these guys without taking any damage becomes critical. There are occasional burly dudes that act like stationary turrets, actual stationary turrets, robot claws, and the aforementioned statue guys who all take multiple hits and require different tactics to take down.
If you manage to best the traps and the foes, most levels will end in a lopsided boss fight that feel like a real slap in the face after running a 30 minute gauntlet of horrors. In level 3, you must fight a ninja on a tile floor where tiles fall away if you step on them too many times. Stick to a good pattern or fall to your doom and restart the level. In level 4, the boss has taken a hostage. You have to find ways to hit him without hitting the hostage as they both move around the screen. The sixth and final level has you fall down an unavoidable pit after easily beating its final boss and replay, basically, the entire level again. At this point, I’m almost too tired to be angry.
If you’re into this, there’s great graphics and a solid presentation. Level music is Konami’s usual best, controls are tight (when they’re not intentionally being thrown off by a trap), and clearing a screen can often make you feel clever… the first time. Playing them over and over again, well, takes a special mindset. You can absolutely argue that this was “value” back in a day when we didn’t have 200+ games in a Steam library all bought at less than $10, but it’s still a big ask any way you look at it.
If I haven’t made it clear by now, Mission: Impossible is exhausting in an old NES sort of way. I can’t call it outdated, because I hated this design when it was contemporary, but it especially feels outdated now. This is the kind of game where you probably wouldn’t beat the first level in a weekend rental. I’m sure you absolutely can struggle through replaying levels to nail a flawless run, but I wouldn’t want to even try. I love the variety they’ve put in. I’m no fan of the challenge.
Pretty solid implementation of three characters with notably different skills. Good variety in levels and challenges. Trying not to draw attention in Moscow, or bending bullets in the magnet hall make this more than a simple shooter. Passwords are greatly appreciated.
Ruthlessly difficult and barely forgiving. If you don’t build up precision timing against increasingly goofy traps, you’re sent back to the start of the level to play the whole thing again. Lots of instant kills. Scarce medkits. Fuck that level with the trapdoor that makes you play through it twice.
It’s too late. The world is ending. World War III program is counting down now. This world should disappear!” — Main bad guy