Friday, June 20, 2014

Impossible Mission - The Incomplete Puzzle
Was it really "impossible," or was I just a complete idiot?

The Commodore 64's massive library, or what I had seen of it, was filled with so many arcane and experimental games that merely basking in its presence left me feeling a combination of intimidated, confused and bewildered, particularly during my early interactions with the platform. I don't mean to at all insinuate that this was a bad thing, since my lasting memories of the C64 include any of those days whose afternoons I spent excitedly, if not somewhat timidly, exploring its bizarre new world. That was the nature of my relationship with the C64, which seemed capable of teleporting me away to a land of wonder and mystery; no future platform would ever again evoke from me those types of feelings.

No game encapsulated the range of my emotional connection to the Commodore 64 more than the impenetrable Impossible Mission, which for me was the quintessential C64 game. 

Really, there was nothing about its plain, unspectacular title screen that suggested I would soon be in over my head. No--on the surface, it looked to be a standard action game, the starting scene reminiscent of what I'd seen in the easily understood Elevator Action. Though, it wouldn't be long before Impossible Mission would begin boasting a measure of complexity I would long define as "inexplicable." Without the help of a manual, I never stood a chance.

I was immediately impressed with its digitized graphics and how they rendered a smooth-moving protagonist whose animations were as close to real life as anything I'd ever  seen in a game, 8-bit or otherwise. His wonderfully drawn, fluid running and flip-jumping animations had me glued to the opening elevator-shaft scene, where I scampered about, mesmerized as I observed the complexity of his every movement. I was also in awe of the game's synthesized speech samples, none of which was more memorable than the main villain's callous greeting that sounded more like a sly movie-villain's distorted PR announcement: "Ano-thah vee-see-tor? Stay a while. Staaaay forevaaaaaah!" 

Also highly regarded was the menacing order occasionally relayed by the unseen antagonist whenever I'd enter a random room: "Destroooooy him, my ro-bawts!" The robots were deemed to do as much anyway, but that extra tinge of ill-intent always seemed to heighten their threat. It was a fun phrase to imitate and became part of our playful banter, my brother and I apt to repeat it to each other anytime one of us would enter a room already occupied by the other. Conversely, I was rather disturbed the first time I heard the hero's gap-plunging death-scream, which lasted about five seconds and long enough to leave me in a state of stunned contemplation; it was an expression of helplessness and pain that was too realistic compared to other game-hero deaths, which usually had them nonsensically dematerializing, comically collapsing, or silently falling off the screen. It certainly gave me something to think about following my play-session.

For however enthralled I was with its aesthetics, they were merely a sugar coating on a cake made with unknown ingredients. That is, the game's seeming open-endedness combined with what I perceived as a lack of direction left me feeling highly perplexed by the whole experience. I understood that I was evading killer robots and searching furniture for what looked like puzzle pieces, but I had no idea what to do with them. I'd stand in an elevator shaft and try to place any four of the many pieces together as if forming an intelligible picture, but nothing ever seemed to register, nor was I afforded what would have been helpful discouragement (Big Bird: "That's not a thing, stupid!). I'd flip them, invert them, change their colors, match them up according to any logic I could invent on the spot--nothing would happen. I had no clue what the symbols on the adjacent number pad meant, either, nor was it clear why I was doing any of this.

I would have shied away from Impossible Mission had I not been impressed with how it looked and sounded. It had a certain vibe to it that made me want to search every corner of its interconnected corridors even if I had no clue what I was doing. I enjoyed immersing myself in its cold, mechanical world and soaking up that sense of unease generated by the aural divergence between its two separate parts; the elevator shafts' lack of music was jarring and eerie, but it made for an appopriate contrast to the whirring, tinny ambiance of the tensely navigated robot-filled rooms.

I liked how the hero executed his movements, as mentioned, but the controls in practice were kind of loose and imprecise, and I never felt comfortable making long jumps or flipping over the robots even when they were stationary. The hero had fixed jumping range in a game that tended to have scattered level design; most of the challenge was deciding from where to launch myself if I wanted to, say, land on a tiny platform hovering one step above another such platform whose wonky sprite-detection threatened to cancel out the animation and send me plunging. I could never tell which platforms I could fall through or jump over. Most infuriating were any of those sequences that involved gaps you had to walk over, if you could figure out that such a mechanic even existed; even then, there was no guarantee it would actually work, since you had to know where on a platform's edge to place the hero as well as the exact frame of animation that needed to elapse during the attempt.

Impossible Mission was rough and unforgiving, requiring a high level of skill and patience beyond what I was prepared to grant it. But I couldn't stay away--though unreasonable in some respects, it seemed too thoughtfully made for me to not put in the effort to figure it out its secrets.

It was one of those games, like Solomon's Key, where the extent of my progress would be determined by whatever it was that I could figure out on my own. I learned by simply paying attention to details that the two types of "disks" I was collecting (one with the illustration of a sleeping robot and the other with a platform-arrow composite) allowed me to reset a room's platforms or temporarily disable all robots within. I also "knew" ("falsely identified") what was going on in those rooms with the checker-board-displaying monitors; I was certain that I was  playing and performing quite well at Impossible Mission's in-game version of Simon Says, which I interpreted as the game's way of giving me a quick breather from all that robot-dodging action--a brief distraction from my fumbling around. Yet I wasn't doing anything of the sort, instead earning the rooms' prizes by accident. As far as I knew, though: "I did it!"

Way to go

Since I was of course oblivious, I didn't even notice until months later that the elevator's map structure was randomly generated, making for a unique trek through the game each time; the rooms, themselves, never changed, but the means of progression was altered by the shuffled branching of the elevator shafts. The more-challenging rooms still always seemed to be grouped together on the map's right side, keeping some sense of a curve in difficulty even if it was just intended to be cosmetic; though an easily missed detail, it was another element of Impossible Mission that made it seem somehow otherworldly to me--another example of a game that I perceived to be rich with depth well beyond my understanding.

Even if I was unsure of the ultimate goal or felt hopelessly inept, I continued to return to Impossible Mission once every few months to put in a vain attempt at discovering the true nature of its puzzle-solving mechanic. I'd give up after my repeated or newly planned processes resulted in the same big, fat nothing, and I'd simply resort to milking some fun out of the game any way I could. I got over whatever hangup I had about the hero's death-cry and had some good times mindlessly tossing him into bottomless pits while hurting my throat trying to mimic the length and pitch of his screams. I wasn't sure why the game allowed me to fall to my death so many times before it would actually end, so I just termed it as typical of the opaque nature of the C64 and its games.

Well, it was still a better use of time than recording myself singing wrestler themes in my parents' bathroom while muffling my voice in the hope that no one would actually hear me. Let's be honest, though--even if subdued, you know you've gotta have some Honky Love, baby.

Impossible Mission would always stick in my mind as another of those "advanced" games (like The Goonies, Zorro and Cliff Hanger) that a younger me wasn't meant to finish. That was my enduring image of it. For that reason, it was part of a special class of games that managed to retain an aura of wonder and mystery even if I was intimately familiar with its world and there probably wasn't that much left beyond what I'd seen. It was almost as if going back to one day finish them would ruin their place in my memory. 

Curious as to what I had been missing, though, I looked up some videos of it back in the early 2000s (pre-Youtube, in the Wild West days when you had to search the web for poor-quality AVI files and hope that dangerous ads didn't kill your computer). It turns out that the hero's mission was to collect 36 puzzle pieces and overlap them in sets of four to create nine completed tiles (overlapping them so that no space is left unoccupied), which revealed the nine-lettered password to the main villain's control room and the game's ending. The "Simon Says distraction" was actually a sound-based challenge where you had to replay the notes in order of pitch; successfully doing so earned you extra terminal-access commands. 

I also saw the ending, which I once imagined held nothing short but the secrets of life. It kind of killed a bit of the game's mystique to find that our antagonist--whose voice projected to me that he was a cool, debonair comic-book villain--was just your typical bald mad scientist hiding in a small computer room. His largely unmoved, goofy response to his capture ("No. No. Noooooo") made for a flat, if slightly comical, ending sequence, which probably wasn't the creators' intent. If I had built up in my mind that something astonishing had to be the reward for the completion of my long-"impossible" mission, seeing what it actually was convinced me that the whole thing was better left to my imagination.

Until I began putting together this piece, I had never actually beaten Impossible Mission. I admit that I resorted to abusing save-states, but I did so more in the interest of acquiring screenshots. So let's say that I've yet to achieve a legitimate victory and still desire to do so even if the thought of such still recalls that same sense of intimidation that has been residual ever since those early years. It's a tough mental hurdle to overcome, but I'll do it one day.

Until then, I'm still just another visitor.

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