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Retrospective: Impossible Mission

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Dark blue icons of video game controllers on a light blue background
Image credit: Eurogamer

Playing it these days, my first question is always the same: How did I get in? Impossible Mission kicks off with the game's lithe secret agent already safely inside the underground complex, standing in an elevator with no apparent roof access, and surrounded by thick walls of rock on either side. (Dennis Caswell, the game's enigmatic designer, was apparently fairly proud of his rock-scrambling algorithm.)

What's the story? Was there a hatch or a service tunnel hidden by the game's side-on perspective? Did I beam in using alien technology? It feels like a magic trick: I've breached the perimeter, but I can't see how I did it exactly. I'm inside, but I shouldn't be.

That's today, of course, and the question itself only reveals the lapse into unlovable pedantry that has characterised my slow crawl towards adulthood. It's the kind of fixation on minutiae that can only come to mind when you're already balancing weekly shopping bills and council tax, worrying about the plumbing, or ordering books like "Monetary Policy: Fiscal Policies and Labour Markets" on Amazon. (Granted, that book is totally rad though.)

Back then, however - back in the 1980s - the question was always: How am I going to get out? Ahead of me there were dozens of rooms filled with deadly challenges: precision jumps, laser beams, nasty little robots. Survival was unlikely, and actual success was pretty much fantasy: it really did seem to be an Impossible Mission.

Impossible Mission is a game about snooping around in someone else's belongings. You progress through the adventure by searching a series of rooms, a single item of furniture at a time - tearing through bookcases one moment, gym equipment, reel-to-reel databanks and bathtubs the next.

Few games - Uplink is another, perhaps - get as much tension from progress bars as Impossible Mission.

In a game where you have absolutely no aggressive options at your disposal - unless you count putting robots to sleep for a few minutes with the right computer program - all of this hunting and spying still manages to make you feel a bit guilty, and a bit vulnerable. You're deep inside somebody else's house, they know you're there, and you've just found out what they keep in their humidor. I know: it's pretty much the MadWorld of burglary games.

The context provides some decent justification for rummaging around in a stranger's stuff, however. This is a proper evil genius's lair, filled with colour-coded elevator shafts, endless metal walkways, and truly deadly AIs, and your breaking and entering action is all in the name of trying to save the world.

Dr Elvin Atombender owns the place, and he's planning to nuke the entire planet, if memory serves. For once, you're facing a baddie with some quasi-understandable motivations, too: rather than turning to evil because he reckons a chuckle-voiced old cheeser killed his old man (Charlie's Angels), or because somebody flash-toasted Maggie Gyllenhaal (The Dark Knight), or because of, um, copper-poisoning (Speed 2), Atombender gave himself to the dark side when the penguin-heavy computer game he was playing crashed just as he was on the cusp of a really high score.

No room for sympathy, though. As a secret agent, your objective is to root through Atombender's stuff, searching for puzzle pieces that will eventually reveal the password to the good doctor's inner sanctum. Then you've got to put the pieces together. Then you've got to remember where the inner sanctum is.

It's a lot of fun, actually, not least because the game's a beauty to behold. Your secret agent's sprints and tumbles set the standard for animation at the time of Impossible Mission's release, while the sound effects - from the Bacofoil riffling of running feet on steel walkways, to the hubble-bubble technogrumble of the individual rooms, and the endless synthesised taunts from Atombender as you work your way deeper into his lair - were probably never bettered on the Commodore 64.

And beyond that, the setting remains completely fascinating, offering a bizarre clash of the deadly and the domestic as you pass through gantried chambers filled with nippy little robots, giant looming chess boards and fireplaces, arm chairs and old hi-fi units. That by itself is enough to suggest that, if nothing else, Impossible Mission could have been the basis for one of the world's great sitcoms. It's such a shame Leonard Rossiter is dead.

But back then, the game was not remotely funny. As a five- or six-year-old, Atombender's fortress was absolutely terrifying. The jaunty, high-contrast subterranean world was claustrophobic and lonely, its hundreds of nasty quirks and tricks were capable of keeping me up at night long after I'd finished playing it.

The doctor's robots may have looked pretty harmless - in certain colour schemes, they actually kinda resemble Snoopy, which should be frightening only if you've had some very bad experiences with dogs - but they were absolutely merciless as they lasered you to pieces.