When I was a kid, I was obsessed with everything that had to do wish espionage and spycraft–that whole fantastic world of cloak and dagger–primarily because of James Bond. I was a Bond fan from a very early age because they were routinely broadcast on TBS, so I got to experience the films and enjoy them on a fairly regular basis. My interests branched out from there into things like those children’s science experiment kits–the ones that would show how invisible ink or fingerprinting or Morse code worked–and there was trading cyphers and setting up “treasure hunts” with my friends, coming up with clues and hiding them around the house, anything that would allow me to pursue the fantasy of the secret agent. Because of this, I knew about Mission: Impossible (the television series, as this was well before the Tom Cruise film), but it sort of existed as a cultural meme–I wasn’t really intimately familiar with it like I was James Bond, though, as it wasn’t something that was on my “cultural radar” at the time (if it didn’t come on TBS or if it wasn’t a cartoon, it practically didn’t exist in my world)
Fast-forward a couple of years, and I’m browsing the Nintendo aisle at Toys R Us when I find that there is a Mission: Impossible game for the NES. Of course, I still know nothing about the franchise except that it’s basically an American James Bond, full of action and spycraft, and I knew that I had to experience it! Like so many other kids of the era, I was completely sold on the game by the cover art alone. It screams action and intrigue! However, apparently unlike many of my peers, I actually like the game! It’s an action game, but it’s not super actiony. It’s actually a fairly “slow” game, incorporating more puzzle-solving and exploration elements along the lines of The Legend of Zelda than the twitchy platforming of Ninja Gaiden. The game is even projected top-down, so it is very much like Zelda except with spying–which makes it awesome. On top of the puzzle-solving elements, you have a character select mechanic like one of my other favorite titles of the era, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which I thought was awesome because I could play as my newly-adopted favorite character Nicholas Black. Of course, I had no idea that hot-swapping characters was part of the game’s strategy, I just thought it was awesome that one of the characters was a “master of disguise”, was an Australian who carried boomerangs (Crocodile Dundee was one of my absolute favorite movies at the time), wore glasses like I did, AND WAS A FREAKING SECRET AGENT!!! Of course, I never made it very far with Nick by himself, and I learned to begrudgingly use Grant and (ugh!) Max for specific actions in the game.
Despite the difficulty of the game, I always enjoyed playing it. There’s a very focused puzzle-solving mechanic to the sprawling level designs, and I feel like that helped keep my interest in the game piqued over the years. The game is definitely a puzzle adventure first and an action game second, much like its Konami predecessor Metal Gear (M:I was published in the USA by Ultra Games, an “alternate label” that Konami used to get around restrictive quotas set by Nintendo). Mission: Impossible definitely borrows from Hideo Kojima’s masterpiece, but does so in a way that doesn’t feel like a cheap copy. The gameplay is slower and more deliberate with fewer boss battles or run-and-gun opportunities, but you get a sense of the pedigree that M:I inherits: it’s an interesting mix of Metal Gear, The Legend of Zelda, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles that shines as its own clever, if underappreciated, title on the NES.
As much as I personally enjoy the game, it seems that many of my peers do not like the way that Mission: Impossible plays. It is a difficult game, but it is generally not an arbitrarily difficult game in the way that titles like Ghosts n’ Goblins or Ninja Gaiden are. The difficulty of Mission: Impossible lies in its tight tolerances for success–the need to proceed with precision and finesse rather than nimble reflexes–much like Zelda II. Enemies generally do not respawn over the course of a level, and there are ways to navigate around most encounters without taking any damage. Unbeknownst to my younger self, the biggest strategic advantage in the game is knowing which character to use when–each has his specific skills and abilities that make him uniquely qualified to proceed through specific areas. In this way, the game plays more like The Lost Vikings. If you approach the level with the mindset of getting all three agents through the level alive (rather than as three chances for one character to make it through), then the connection to the game’s source material becomes more apparent. The Impossible Mission Force has to work together to complete a mission. Grant is the electronics expert that can break locks, Nick can use his disguises to sneak past impassable gauntlets, and Max is the marksman who can take out enemies before they see him! The game requires practice to get each level’s “choreography” right, but the game doesn’t punish you too badly for failure. There are unlimited continues, though you are reset to the beginning of the level (which can be quite frustrating during very long sequences like levels 3 and 6), and the level design rewards exploration despite the dangers faced. Admitted, to finally finish the game, I used save states on my NES Classic Edition. The game is still quite difficult, but this took a little bit of the sting out of trying to complete the final level (which, I will admit, suffers from the worst game-lengthening cop out: the “Uh-oh, now you have to play this super difficult level all over again!” trope), and allowed me to continue to enjoy a childhood favorite since adulthood tends to rob me of that precious practice play time.
Of course, every good spy thriller needs a chase sequence, and Mission: Impossible does not disappoint! There are two “chase” levels that evoke the action one would come to expect in such a genre–one in a speedboat and one skiing downhill–and they provide a deliciously novel break from the slower-paced stealth action of the main game. I would often jump to these levels using their respective passwords when I felt like a quick arcade-style distraction without commitment–great for commercial breaks or between homework assignments! These different gameplay elements help to complete the feel of a great piece of spy fiction while Jun “Dog-Man” Funahashi’s banging soundtrack reminds the player that this is definitely a Konami title.
Mission: Impossible is not Metal Gear, nor does it really pretend to be. The latter is definitely the OG granddaddy of the stealth action genre, but M:I stands on its own as a fine entry in the Konami catalog. It’s a cleverly designed homage to spy fiction, and honestly plays more into those tropes than contemporary platform action games based on the James Bond franchise. There are puzzles to solve, chases to be made, sneaking to be done, and worlds to save. If you’re a fan of either Metal Gear or The Legend of Zelda, I would give it a shot. You might be surprised by this undercover gem.