This was one of the hardest games I’ve ever played. The title was so perfect — Impossible Mission. And nearly every time I played it, it lived up to its name without remorse.
Initially released in 1984 for the Apple II and the Commodore 64 by Epyx, this 2D action adventure transformed players into a jumping, flipping, acrobatic agent sent into a vast underground hideout to stop the malicious Elvin Atombender.
Elvin’s a smart guy, but one day, snapped when the power failed just as he was about the flip 100 billion points on Giggling Penguin Invadesr from Outer Space In The Vicinity of Ursa Minor. Swearing revenge against the world that had robbed him of victory, he went from being a college student to a renowned professor expert in computers and robotics technology. And then he disappeared eight years earlier, only to resurface inside a labyrinth of deadly machines and supercomputing power.
He’s planning to crack the missile codes of the world and launch his own little war in six hours, so it’s up to someone to go in there and stop him before it’s too late.
The manual set up the fiction by casting itself in the role of a mission briefing complete with a dossier on Atombender and spy-speak describing the “pocket computer” you would take with you as your only piece of equipment. The previous agents who went in (and never came out) managed to share what they have learned of his complex leaving it up to you and your handy PDA to save the day.
Elvin’s base is divided into columns of rooms separated by elevator shafts which provide the only means to travel between them. Some rooms lead on to the next sections, but most others are just dead ends filled with platforms, furniture and computer hardware to search, and deadly robots.
Defending his home are a small legion of these little metal guys armed with plasma streamers and who have their own behaviors. Some might just roam back and forth on a platform, others will race towards you, others won’t even shoot at you — just try to follow you. And others will simply patrol along a stretch of floor, firing every so often. All of them will try to kill you.
The weird thing is that Elvin has hidden passcodes throughout the base to temporarily turn them off. Owing to his eccentric nature, furniture sits high up on platforms, candy machines are on seemingly inconvenient spots, and refrigerators sit between lifts that can take you up and down floors. Some lifts are even stacked linked to the ones above them limiting how high or low they can go, forcing players to figure out how to get through a room to search everything.
And there’s a lot of searching involved in this game. A gauge comes up to let you know how long you need to search something forcing you to time your efforts against dodging the robots that might be on the platform with you. Codes such as those that can temporarily turn off the bots or reset all of those platform lifts are hidden everywhere and can be used on a computer in the room.
More important are the puzzle pieces needed to piece together the passcode to Elvin’s control room. Your pocket computer can even call HQ for a hint on whether you have all the pieces needed, or need to reset what you’ve done to the puzzle pieces already to try and fit them together. But all of this eats away at the six “game hours” that you have to survive it all. Death knocks ten minutes off the clock while calling HQ can eat up two. And just like Namco’s Dark Souls, you will die in this game.
In addition to searching furniture, there were also musical rooms that you can use to snag robot or lift reset codes by following a game of “Simon’s Says” tapping the squares in the right sequence which get more and more complex the more you play.
This amazing title was a one-man show. Dennis Caswell programmed everything himself in assembly over ten months of development, even down to the meticulously animated sprites for the agent’s moves, as he relates in an interview with Mat Allen’s Mayhem in Monsterland, a C64 fan site. The synthesized voice if Elvin mocking you in the game (and at the end), a killer feature that helped make the game stand out from the rest, was supplied by a company called ESS Technology making it one of the earliest titles to use it though not all of the ports would be able to use it (or all of the sound effects). For example, the Apple II version was largely silent except for the agent’s footsteps, elevator, and Elvin’s somewhat incomprehensible final words to you if you made it to the end.
The game also had a rudimentary form of auto-mapping — a feature that RPGs would later implement — with the in-game pocket computer which was hugely helpful in showing which rooms you’ve gone to. It was especially important because the rooms, their contents, and the robots in them would randomly generate every time you started a new game. And there was no “difficulty level” to pick from, either. You played Impossible Mission on its own terms like many PC games were apt to demand of their players back in the day.
The brutal difficulty gave it its longevity along with a scoring system. Coupled with searching objects, using a computer to interfere with the enemy’s security, and a little puzzle solving, Impossible Mission was an innovative game for the time with a number of concepts that would later be seen in other “spy oriented” titles from Spy vs. Spy to Mindscape’s Infiltrator and Infiltrator II.
It was also amazingly fun despite how harsh it is and was ported to a huge number of platforms from the Atari 7800 to the Sega Master System. In 1988, Impossible Mission II was released with an even bigger headquarters for Elvin to hide within and more challenging codes to discover. Impossible Mission 2025, released in 1994, was the final title in the series and was released only for the Amiga. Europe would even get the Commodore 64 version on the Wii VC in 2008, though North American fans would be shut out.
Impossible Mission was innovative, fun, and a technical marvel for its time. The gameplay even holds up today and of the many titles being given HD makeovers, I wouldn’t mind seeing someone do the same thing for this platform puzzler.