The Long-Forgotten Mission: Impossible Video Games
The Mission: Impossible franchise is one of the most successful in film history. Over the past two decades and five films, the action-packed tales of Ethan Hunt and Co. have done big numbers at the box office, with the series grossing over $2.7 billion to date. With films that successful, it would only make sense for developers and publishers to try and bring the franchise into the medium of video games. Since the dawn of the franchise in 1996, there have been three Mission: Impossible games released, each with various states of tie-in to the films. And the one that started it all is…
Mission: Impossible (1998) - Nintendo 64, PlayStation
The first Mission: Impossible video game was originally intended to be released around the time of the first movie in 1996, but development issues led to it not being released until two years later. It’s originally-intended release date should give you a good idea about the game’s relation to the film. While certain elements and characters are changed, the basic premise of the game matches that of the film: Ethan Hunt being framed as a mole and having to go on the run and attempt to prove his innocence. The rest of the game’s story goes in its own direction, however.
Gameplay-wise, Mission: Impossible succeeds in some areas but fails in others. One of those failures is the trial-and-error style of gameplay. On the game’s minimap, you are shown the locations of your objectives, but it’s not always clear how those different objectives link together. Due to the unclear nature of some of those objectives, it can be quite easy to mess up at one of the steps needed to complete an objective. In some cases, this can make the rest of the mission unreachable, thus necessitating a restart because the game does not always give you an automatic game over when you lock the rest of the mission and also because there are no mid-mission checkpoints to reset to.
Ironically, the failure of the trial-and-error gameplay leads into a major success of the game, that being the immense satisfaction that comes from finally figuring out how the puzzle pieces fit together and completing your mission. In that sense, Mission: Impossible is, like many stealth games, a pseudo-puzzle game where success comes from solving problems or figuring out how to work around them. However, unlike most stealth games, Mission: Impossible doesn’t have much of an open-ended nature to it. There aren’t any alternate pathways or moments of emergent gameplay; every level has a specific, predetermined way to complete it and veering from that way often does more harm than good.
In terms of control, Mission: Impossible is very much a product of the Nintendo 64 era. Movement with the analog stick is very sensitive and imprecise. Aiming your weapons is a matter of simply turning your body in the general direction of your enemy and hitting the fire button; alternatively, you can go into a first-person mode that allows for more precision at the cost of movement. The camera moves with your character, with the C-buttons being reserved for navigating the item menu. While this can sometimes be clunky when trying to look around corners or simply center the camera on your character after making a turn, you quickly learn how to adapt to it. The graphics are passable by Nintendo 64 standards. They don’t stack up against games like Banjo-Kazooie or fellow shooter Goldeneye, but there’s a certain charm to them that many games from the late 90s/early 2000s possess. The music, including a MIDI version of the theme song, is entertaining at first, but it quickly starts to wear when there’s only one looping piece of music playing on the level that you’ve attempted twelve other times.
Overall, the first Mission: Impossible video game is not bad at all. Out of the three discussed in this article, it’s arguably the best, which you’ll realize is an easy title to claim by the time I’m done.
Mission: Impossible (2000) - Game Boy Color
Out of the three games featured here, this one gives me the least to talk about. Being on the Game Boy Color, there’s obviously a limit to what can be done, but this Mission: Impossible game still manages to disappoint even when taking that fact under consideration.
Unlike the last game, this game, despite bearing the name of the film, has nothing to do with the film aside from the player character being Ethan Hunt. The plot of the game is totally new, and told in ten levels that can all be played in less than ten minutes due to their small size and corresponding simplicity. The trial-and-error from the first game isn’t gone, it’s just less egregious simply because there’s less trial that can possibly be done. Most missions simply boil down to go here, then go there, then go there, then leave. That rapid pacing keeps the game from getting too frustrating because dying and having to restart only ever loses you a minute or two of your time and progress. Even the unforgiving nature with which you are treated by the AI is more forgivable due to this.
My main complaint with this game is the sound. Much like the N64 game, each level has one piece of (short) music that plays on a constant loop. When you die and restart, the music seamlessly restarts from the beginning, which creates a really awkward effect. The alarms that sound when you kill an enemy - as well as the higher notes in the crushed MIDI tracks that are the game’s soundtrack - sound piercing and shrill, penetrating deeply into your eardrums. If you play this game, you’re better off playing on mute. There isn’t any audio information, so you won’t miss much.
This Mission is a disappointing one. There just isn’t really anything here, aside from a game that can be beat in less than an hour. Actually, wait a minute. This game has a calculator on it. And it works! I take it back. This game is a masterpiece.
Mission: Impossible - Operation Surma (2003) - Gamecube, Game Boy Advance, PlayStation 2, Xbox
Here we are, at the end of this very short road. Operation Surma is, to date, the most recent Mission: Impossible game we’ve gotten, and it was released on consoles with more capabilities than what the franchise was working with before. It was also released in a time when many successful stealth action games had been released, giving developers a frame of reference for future titles. So with all of that being said, is Operation Surma any good?
No. Not really.
Let me drop the biggest bombshell first: this game has only five levels. No, that’s not a typo. Only five. Five levels would’ve been more acceptable back on the more limited consoles of generations past, but the expectations for content on sixth generation consoles are much higher. I’ll give a bit of credit and concede that the levels are decently long, but five levels is still a laughably low number. But Darian, I can hear you say, quantity doesn’t always matter. If the levels are good, it shouldn’t matter how many there are! And you’d be right in saying that, if only the levels were good.
The gameplay and level design in Operation Surma isn’t totally irredeemable. The game feels and plays a lot like an early Splinter Cell game, just with more clunk. Certain important actions - like taking cover against a wall, for example - are done using two buttons (at least as far as the Gamecube version is concerned). Entering “aim mode” to use your weapons and gadgets uses one of the face buttons, rather than the more natural-feeling trigger. Unfortunately, the left trigger that would normally be used to aim is instead assigned to crouching.
The levels have a decent sense of variety to them. There are many areas which are draped in deep shadows, useful for cover and hiding bodies. The presence of climbable pipes and ropes provide some verticality. Unfortunately, it all feels moot because the game suffers from the same crushing linearity as the N64 game. While the areas around the required pathway are larger than the N64 game, they are still ultimately meaningless because there is only one specific way to complete objectives. The gameplay consists of sneaking — or just flat out running, there aren’t really that many NPCs in this game to catch you — along that path, taking out any cameras or unlucky guards in your way. Even when the game offers you something like the aforementioned pipes, they only serve as a means to an end rather than an engaging gameplay feature.
Like the two games before it, this game features Ethan Hunt as the player character, who, unlike the other two games, is voice acted. Not by Tom Cruise, though, but by Steve Blum, who doesn’t even attempt to emulate Cruise, making this game’s Ethan Hunt sound deep and gravelly. Fortunately, Luther Stickell is voiced by Ving Rhames, so fans of either should have something to enjoy in this game.
Overall, this Mission is one you shouldn’t choose to accept.
So there you have it: all three Mission: Impossible video games, which got progressively worse. In the title of this article, I called these games “long-forgotten,” and I stand by that, but I do think they were forgotten for a reason. Not only are they not usually anything to write home about, but they were overshadowed by similar games that were better received. The first game was sandwiched by Goldeneye in 1997, one of the most acclaimed shooters of all time, and the release of Metal Gear Solid in 1998, a pioneering title for the stealth genre. Metal Gear: Ghost Babel came out on the Game Boy Color in 2000, making two Mission: Impossible games that were overshadowed by Metal Gear Solid. By the time of Operation Surma’s release, the world had been graced with Splinter Cell, which provided an easy point of comparison for consumers who could quickly see Operation Surma’s inferiorities.
While Mission: Impossible has had far more success in films than it has in gaming, it’s clear to see the potential for the franchise to cross over. The series’ combination of action, espionage, and high-tech gadgets could do well in a video game. I do think that if a talented developer were to attempt a Mission: Impossible game today it could be something enjoyable. But for now, all we have are these Missions that never quite succeeded.