Throwback Thursday: Going undercover in the Mission Impossible video game

With all the hype surrounding the upcoming blockbuster Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, which is the fifth entry in the long-running Mission: Impossible film series starring Tom Cruise, it’s easy to forget the series is now almost a decade old, with the original Mission: Impossible film releasing way back in 1996. Something that more casual fans of the series also may not know is that the first film in the series is the only Mission: Impossible movie to have received a video game tie-in. The 1998 game titled Mission: Impossible, which was developed by Ocean Software and released for the Nintendo 64 and later the original PlayStation, allowed players to play through a sequence of missions that both followed and expanded upon the plot of the movie. Having seen the movie shortly before playing the game (yes, my parents let 10-year-old me watch movies like Mission: Impossible), I found it to be a unique experience playing through a story of which I already knew the major plot points.

A Thinking Man’s Spy Game

I initially found Mission: Impossible a little hard to get into, mainly because my only prior experience playing a spy-themed game was the classic James Bond FPS Goldeneye. Unlike Goldeneye, M:I wasn’t about rushing through levels and mowing down hordes of enemy henchmen with an AK-47. M:I took a slower, more methodical approach that focused on environmental puzzles and deceiving enemies instead of simply killing them. There were a few combat encounters as well with protagonist Ethan Hunt able to utilize hand-to-hand skills and a variety of firearms and/or explosives when the situation called for it but, for the most part, outright violence was the last resort.

Players could however utilize some fun gadgets such as the movie’s iconic exploding gum and facemaker in order to bypass certain obstacles. Many of the game’s objectives and puzzles usually required simply using the right gadget in the right place but it was still cool getting to assume the identities of other characters in order to access restricted areas or gain necessary information. It was unsurprisingly a bit much for my young 10-year-old mind to comprehend (much like virtually everything that happens in the movie), but I still had a lot of fun once I learned how to approach each situation in the game.

Doing the Movie Justice (Or Not)

The game’s plot spanned 20 different levels spread across five different “missions” (chapters) which roughly followed the plot of the movie. However, because it was a game aimed for younger audiences and because of the technical limitations of the Nintendo 64, some liberties had to be taken. In the movie, CIA Agent Ethan Hunt is framed for the murder of his fellow agents and accused of being a mole after he fails to recover a list of agent names called the NOC list in Prague. In the game, Hunt is still trying to recover the NOC list but he is also in Prague to rescue a female agent named Candice Parker (Ocean felt that, unlike in the movie, the video game version of Hunt should have a love interest). The whole part about Hunt’s fellow agents being murdered was also taken out of the game and an entirely separate sub-plot involving nukes in Siberia was implemented, taking the form of the game’s very first level and its final level.

Aside from the characters of Ethan, Jim Phelps, Max, Luther Stickell, and Franz Krieger (the last two of whom the player never actually sees but instead gets to play as in a level where they have to protect Ethan using sniper rifles), none of the movie’s other characters appear in the game. Despite the game’s simplification and streamlining of the movie’s plot, it still managed to fit in some iconic sequences. These include Ethan’s rappelling down into the secure CIA server room (this time with lasers Ethan has to avoid), getting to explore the embassy in Prague (both in the course of the game’s plot and also in a bizarre endgame credits sequence where the player can chat with in-game avatars of the game’s development team), and the thrilling final (though, in the game’s case, not-so-final) encounter on top of a high-speed train.

Ahead of its Time

Considering how much Ocean tried to push the limits of M:I’s gameplay, it’s a shame they had to deal with the less-powerful (at least by today’s standards) technology of the Nintendo 64. If a developer were to try and make a game based off the first Mission: Impossible movie now, I imagine it would have the same level of innovative gameplay without the dated graphics, rudimentary stealth mechanics, and simplified story that plagued the original version. However, back in 1998, such issues hardly mattered to my younger self and I remember having a lot of fun making my way through the interactive version of Ethan Hunt’s first adventure. I never did get to play the one other Mission Impossible game that was released (2003’s Mission Impossible: Operation Surma which actually served as a sort of interlude between the second and third movies) but if a new Mission: Impossible game were to be made now, I’d hope that it would push the envelope much as the first game did.