SSPA – Mission: Impossible

There was a strange period in the 90s where Hollywood was making film adaptations of TV shows from the 60s and 70s. It may just be that the 90s was a peak time of nostalgia for people who grew up watching them, but it was an unusual trend. There was The Fugitive and The Beverly Hillbillies in 1993 and Lost In Space and The Avengers in 1998. This trend continued into the early 2000s as well with movies like The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle in 2000 and I Spy in 2002. Not many of these saw wide-spread success even with name recognition and a degree of nostalgia. But one film managed to become a franchise almost forty years after its original television run, 1996’s Mission: Impossible.

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The movie is a pretty good action thriller that used elements from the show to tell a new story. Brian De Palma’s directing is very good, Danny Elfman’s score fits well and does a good job of emulating the style of Lalo Schifrin while mixing in his own flavor, and the acting is pretty solid. The film was a hit and although it is not really a major classic it is still a rather satisfying action film. However, as an adaptation of Mission: Impossible the show, it stumbles pretty often.

Now I have no pretense about the show being high art or untouchable. It is very cheesy and the plots of the episodes were often unrealistic or downright goofy, but it is still a very fun and enjoyable experience. The basic structure of the show is that the Impossible Mission Force, a covert team of American spies, is given implausible assignments and the team’s leader would devise a plan, and pick the best members suited.

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As an audience, we are in the dark as to what the plan is and how everything comes together. The focus is not on any one team member or actor, but on how every member and action fits together to accomplish the seemingly impossible task at hand. Part of the problem with the movie is that it is a vehicle for Tom Cruise rather than a big team focused experience. He’s not a bad lead, and his story is interesting, but the other characters don’t get enough development. However this is a small gripe compared to the thing that ruins the film for most fans of the show and that is the handling of the character of Jim Phelps, the leader.

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-Spoilers for the film ahead-

Although the show was a team effort, Jim was still the leader and the only character to persist through both the original run in the 70s and the 80s sequel series. In the movie, Phelps is revealed to be the villain. His motive in the movie is completely out of character. After the end of the cold war he feels unappreciated and so therefore sells out IMF and leaks vital defense secrets to America’s enemies. This twist may have played alright with newcomers, but for those who loved the character, this was a ridiculous change. Peter Graves, the original actor who played Phelps back in the day, was actually offered the chance to reprise his role for the film, but refused when he found that they made Phelps a traitor, so instead he is played by Jon Voight.

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Personally, I also find this change to be a bad move, and in all honesty you wouldn’t have had to do a lot of work in the script to fix this. Simply switch the name of Cruise’s and Voight’s characters. The story would have worked as a telling of how Phelps came to lead the IMF, instead of the entirely new character Ethan Hunt.

-Spoilers end-

In 1998, Infogrames produced a video game adaptation of the movie for the N64. This was a game that I had only ever gotten glimpses from at friends houses, always failing to find a proper rental copy. I remember being blown away at the idea of a stealth game where you had to hide in plain sight. Being in a Nintendo household at the time, I was unaware of the Metal Gear series, so my frame of reference for stealth in games was very limited to tip-toeing past piranha plants in Mario 64, or sneaking through the gardens of Hyrule Castle in Ocarina of Time. These were just small variations on gameplay in otherwise action focused games, to the thought of a game centered on stealth was novel to me.

A lot of time passed and I gradually forgot about the game. Later I was looking for games to get to flesh out my PlayStation collection and discovered that a port of the game had been made. By this time I had played through several fantastic stealth games, so I was interested to see if the game held up. It did not. The PS1 version was not quite what I was expecting, but on the whole I was not impressed with what I played. It wasn’t long before I sold it and moved on. However, if it ended at that I wouldn’t be here talking about it. This was another case where I recalled a game, was disappointed, and flip-flopped on owning it. I later found a copy of the N64 version, and to my chagrin, it was even worse than the PS1 version. Seeing that garnered a new appreciation for the Sony version and I decided to put up the two bucks needed for another copy.

Emulated screenshots (the sharper pictures) from hardcoregaming101.net

Story:

Within the United States government there is a group known as the Impossible Mission Force. This team is designed to handle international crises that the US and its allies could not handle personally.

The IMF’s leader, Jim Phelps, is contacted for another mission. A Russian agent has stolen half of a list of all of the CIA’s non-official cover agents. Two agents have been dispatched to recover the list, but both have failed to report and are presumed captured or dead. The mission: recover the list and, if possible, locate and rescue the missing agents. It isn’t long before the mission goes wrong and the whole team is eliminated.It turns out that the mission was a set up to weed out a mole in the IMF, and the point man of the mission, agent Ethan Hunt, is the only agent to survive and is suspected of being a mole by the CIA. Now Ethan must work to prove his innocence and uncover the true mole.

This game loosely follows the plot of the film. The game does follow Ethan Hunt attempting to prove he is not an enemy spy, however things don’t play out the same as in the film. Probably the most confusing difference is the Embassy mission, the infiltration of the Russian embassy in Prague from the start of the film, wherein the IMF agents are killed off. Unlike the film, this mission goes perfectly. Every IMF agent does his or her part, Ethan recovers the NOC list, and they all escape. The mission is expanded to accommodate more gameplay. There are two CIA agents you have to rescue; Candice Parker, who fills in for Emmanuelle Béart’s character from the movie Claire Phelps, and Robert Barnes, a minor character from the movie who had nothing to do with the embassy mission.

The mission in the movie ends with every member of the IMF being killed one by one leaving Ethan to take the blame. This is the reason the CIA believes him to be the mole, and Ethan has to prove his innocence. In the game, the mission ends with the embassy being evacuated by a fake fire Ethan sets up at the start of the mission. Ethan and Candice escape with the help of another agent. However, the next mission, taking place at the CIA states that Ethan was the only one to survive the embassy mission and he is suspected of being the mole, even though everyone but Barnes got out of the embassy mission just fine. It’s a very confusing series of events.

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The rest of the game is a muddled retelling of the movie. Escaping the CIA includes the famous terminal room heist from the movie followed by the bullet train sequence from the end. The adaptation is very superficial, and even though major characters show up, they have almost no presence and are not developed in any way.

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The final big change is a pair of missions that bookend the parts from the movie. These involve going to a Siberian submarine base to take down a black market arms dealer. Since the game opens with this mission I was actually hopeful that the game would be more than just a straight take on the film, involving a series of independent missions. Unfortunately, that is not the case, and outside of a couple of added levels in the end game, you’re basically replaying the same maps with different objectives.

Gameplay:

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Playing Mission: Impossible is a little challenging. This is not really from any planned difficulty, rather the result of bad controls and poor design. The game tries to be a combination stealth and action game. Some missions allow you to go through enemy territory guns blazing while others require you to be careful not to let enemies see you carry out certain objectives. Every level has a set of goals that you must complete before moving on. Finishing a level without finishing all required tasks results in failure

When in stealth mode, you do not have an equivalent to the Soliton Radar from Metal Gear Solid, a system that shows enemy placement and field of view. You have to rely on spacial awareness and memorization of enemy movements to plan ahead and complete the objective.The most help you get is a radar that shows your objectives relative to you. This style of gameplay works very well when you have to hide in plain sight. It harkens back to the tension of the TV show where characters had to maintain their cover to win the day. However, such missions are few and far between, and the majority of the stealth sections have you running through hallways and bases with no idea where enemies are placed, and when enemies see you, it’s usually instant failure unless you get lucky and can take them out before they so much as touch you.

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This ties into the bad combat controls. There are a variety of weapons you will find in the game ranging from pistols and Uzis, to tranquilizer dart guns and Tasers. All of these have limited ammo, making resource management key, and some have certain restrictions. For example, the silenced pistol will take out enemies without alerting others, while the normal handgun with draw a crowd. Tasers will stun enemies but they’ll get back up later, while the dart gun knocks them out entirely.

Fighting with these weapons is laborious. You can only shoot straight in front of yourself, camera control is non-existent, and there is no aiming lock on. The best you can do is use an aiming mode that targets a general area your bullets will go. There is no guarantee you will hit your target and it is very easy to waste all your ammo firing wildly at enemies to no effect.

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If you run out of ammo, or are feeling lucky, you can fight hand to hand. Unfortunately for this to work you have to be right up next to the enemy and the hit detection is very poor. It can also be drastically ineffectual in most stealth levels, since being close to an enemy long enough can cause to you to instantly lose.

The instant death and no win scenarios are a real problem. You can work your way through a difficult mission only to mess up and have to redo the mission entirely. Some of the missions are relatively short, but others can take time to get through. The PlayStation version added a quick save feature that helps to fix this problem, but if you have the N64 version, you must suffer through it.

Presentation:

In terms of the presentation, the two versions of the game differ quite drastically. The N64 version, which was released first in 1998, is one of the worse looking games on the console. The graphics are very poor and almost remind me of the origami characters from the old Alone in the Dark games, also produced by Infogrames. The N64 was not a powerhouse console compared to its competition, but it was capable of more than this.

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The levels are undefined with muddy textures, and a very short draw distance, but there also appears to be some sort of filter in the game that makes things even fuzzier. This could be an attempt to cause a sort of anti-alias effect, like spreading Vaseline on a camera lens. Rather than making the poor textures less noticeable, it only makes things look even less defined and harder to make out. Strangely enough, this effect appears to be present when using an actual N64, but is absent from over emulation. I really don’t know why this is, but the emulated textures are actually rather nice and could have made up for a lot of the visual problems and gameplay hang ups, like the shooting.

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The characters are very misshapen, however their movements are motion captured to give them a more realistic feel. There are just a few visual hiccups that make them look rather grotesque at times.

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Mike Pummell composed the music, and for the most part it is okay. Even though the N64’s sound capabilities were not the best on the market, the game’s score is rather subdued. It fits the game, and even has some stand out tracks like the Embassy theme and the KGB theme, but they are all very quite and don’t stand out very well.

The PlayStation version on the other hand has more going for it. For this version, Infogrames got the help of the group X-Ample Architectures to port the title and they went above and beyond. To start with, the graphics are a marked improvement. Textures are clear (as clear as a PS1 game at least), there are new lighting effects in every level, colors are more vivid, and characters and scenery in the distance even go out of focus in the in-game cutscenes. There are even a few new pre-rendered cutscenes that look pretty good for the time, even if they still use the clunky and oddly shaped character models.

Probably the best contribution is the redone music. The entire soundtrack was redone with very nice, high quality CD audio, which elevates it to one of the better video game soundtracks. It’s all the same tracks from the N64 version, but greatly expanded upon.

On the other end of the spectrum, the worst addition to this version is voice acting. The entire game was given voice acting in multiple languages, which is impressive in scope, but the actors are not that talented. The voices are set by default, but you can mute them and turn on subtitles.

Conclusion:

It’s a shame that stealth games are such a rarity on the N64. Granted they weren’t very common elsewhere either, but the PC and PS1 had classic examples like Thief and Metal Gear Solid. Mission: Impossible had potential, but it was not very well handled and was not a fun experience. The PS1 port is a much better play, but still not that great. There are some impressive effects and it plays much smoother, but on the whole, the game just needed more work and more thought.

Having the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia can make some pretty crummy things look good on a personal level, but they can’t save everything, and even though I can remember being impressed with this game, it simply didn’t hold up.

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