Impossible Mission was as big as Huey Lewis back in 1984. But just like the "I Want A New Drug" singer, the Epyx platformer vanished without a trace by the end of the decade. Today, you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone outside of old Commodore 64 diehards who would even remember the electrifying action and trademark taunts from evil Elvin such as "Destroy him, my robots!" Now developer System 3 is trying to revive this forgotten great with a revamped new version for the Nintendo DS. Yet as usual with rereleases of these pop-culture museum pieces, you need to have the nostalgia gene to really appreciate a game this old. Anyone who played the original way back in the day will likely get a kick out of all the leaping around and code-breaking, whereas those who aren't old enough to remember the Cold War will wonder what all the fuss was about.
In case you're a member of the younger set, in the original Impossible Mission you played as a secret agent trying to infiltrate the underground lair of mad scientist Elvin Atombender. Your goal was to shut him down before he secured the launch codes to America's nuclear weapons and made everything go ka-boom. And just in case you think that such an escapade sounds too easy, you needed to do this by somersaulting over dozens of electric robots and scrounging up pieces of a secret code before a real-time six-hour deadline expired. The formula was pretty basic. You took elevators to different floors and searched the furniture in 36 rooms for the codes. All you had to help you were your wits, a freakish leaping skill that let you vault deadly robots and sail over yawning holes in the floor, and computer access codes that let you temporarily shut down robot guards and reset room lifts.
Today's game is virtually identical. The only difference is that it now includes three different versions: classic, merged, and new. Classic is the original with a few minor, welcome changes such as manipulating computers and codes with the DS touch screen. It features all of the rough-yet-creepy modulated voice samples from Elvin, such as the classic "Stay awhile...stay forever!" introduction. Merged is exactly like classic but with new graphics that add an industrial-green color and more background details such as gouts of steam in Elvin's subterranean lair. And new simply takes merged and throws in amenities that include a goofy techno soundtrack and the ability to pick between three different agents at the start of the game.
None of the extra features really make much difference to the core of the game. The visual enhancements of merged mode make it the preferred option, given that it's certainly an improvement over the plain walls of the original. But the graphics go too far in spots, with background scenery that mimics searchable furniture like desks and candy machines. Even worse, robots often blend in with the backdrops like chameleons. It's too easy to miss a robot until you run right into it. Most of the added features in new mode are OK enhancements, but still rather unnecessary. Being able to choose between a man, a woman, and a robot agent is a complete waste of time because they're identical save for appearance and death screams. However, the map has been augmented to change the color of rooms that have been fully explored, which is a really helpful touch. And adding two hours to the game clock in this mode is much appreciated. This makes the game a lot more playable for a modern audience, although you have to wonder why the developers didn't go farther by throwing in the option of saving progress, or giving you the ability to add time to the game clock through in-game achievements. Likewise, an in-game tutorial about how to use the code pieces would have been a big help.
Still, gameplay isn't as dated as you might think for a game well past its 20th birthday. The action here is more simple and repetitive than that found in a contemporary 2D platformer; the single jump move seems awfully limited in this day and age. Impossible Mission is pretty unforgiving in comparison to most modern platformers. But this isn't an old-school frustration festival like Ghosts 'n Goblins. The toughness factor here is just about right, and just enough of a presence to keep you focused on what you're doing. Rooms are laid out like devious puzzles, with intricate patterns of lifts and tiny platforms in midair that force you to plan your moves and make what seem to be impossible jumps. The slightest touch of a robot kills you, as does falling through a hole. Many robots zap you with insta-death bolts of electricity, and a black ball that floats through some of the rooms also kills with a single touch. Every death takes 10 minutes off of the clock, too, so don't expect to beat the game on your first try.
As one of the Commodore 64 classics up there with the likes of Beach-Head, Karateka, and Paradroid, Impossible Mission deserves a modern-day update. Its gameplay has held up pretty well despite the passage of more than two decades, so it's a worthy buy if you're an old-timer up for a trip back in time or a kid who wants to get a look at what pop used to play.