Everyone loves a good spy movie. It’s no secret that the James Bond franchise is currently the gold standard. This British Secret Service agent has single-handedly made every man on Earth wish they could use fancy gadgets and always get a gorgeous woman. As expansive and excellent as these movies are though, they’re just the tip of one of the most popular film genres to ever exist. You’ve got your single instant classics like North by Northwest, more recent smashes like Taken, and even briefly lived journeys for children with Spy Kids. There really is almost something for everybody here.
However, if you’re looking for a great series to get into that’s not starring a dapper British man with license to kill, a frequently popular pick is Mission: Impossible. With now five films spanning almost two decades, which were even spun-off from a television series, M:I has made a huge name for itself. Tom Cruise deserves heaps of praise of course. He has lead each movie and apparently only gets better as time goes on. The guy is past 50 and he’s still doing his own crazy stunts, like gripping onto an actual moving plane in the most recent critically loved Rogue Nation. At this rate, with a sixth film already in the works and a likely much bigger future, we could very well watch Ethan Hunt save the world well into his graying years.
Now, normally when studios have major properties like this that are just raking in the money, outside companies usually want to profit off of it somehow. Creating video games is a great way to do that. The amount of games out there dedicated to a film property is staggering, especially when it comes to a big name like “James Bond.” You can easily make the case that M:I is big enough to warrant its own line. They don’t even need to be related to the films either. They just have to have Hunt do the classic spy tricks we very much enjoy on film. Yet despite this, the amount of M:I games out there is absurdly small. The one people readily remember is the 1998 title, aptly called Mission: Impossible, and that’s pretty much it.
There are likely a lot of reasons why a series based on this brand never took off. Some will probably point to how franchises like Metal Gear and Splinter Cell already have a pretty solid hold on the modern spy market. The truth is though, it doesn’t help that, of the few M:I games out there, the one from ‘98 didn’t exactly take audiences by storm. Of course, it had the pedigree of being attached to the very popular first film. People probably picked it up just for that. Critics sadly weren’t very kind to it though. The overall consensus is that it was pretty difficult to play, and that’s not in a good way which makes you come back for more. Video games based on movies are frequently subpar too so this came up to bat at a disadvantage.
Which is a shame because beneath the criticism were some awesome ideas that could have made future M:I games a lot of fun to play. This game was very smart with what it took from the movie, and it put those elements out there to make a different experience. One of the film’s many classic features is Hunt wearing masks that look just like his enemies. In many instances throughout the game, you have to use this exact tool to infiltrate enemy locations. With that comes its own challenges! One of the very early parts has you disguised as a waiter, and then you must do everything you can to not bring attention to yourself. Obviously that meant no killing whatsoever. Most action games back then would promote stealth but it often wasn’t a purely rigid requirement. With this though, it was either stay under cover, or die. Along with the Facemaker you have Hunt’s other classic gadgets like explosive gum, infrared contacts, and many others.
Overall the game was mediocre, and nothing substantial grew beyond that. A follow-up came in 2003 called Mission: Impossible – Operation Surma which developers probably hoped would capitalize off Mission: Impossible II. That makes sense, honestly. A new game with each new movie is exactly what a studio would want. Yet Operation Surma, despite being an improvement, also failed to take off. It was a very middle-of-the-road game that many felt didn’t try enough to stand out. That’s almost a sin when you think about how it’s tied to films best known for being explosive and insane. It pretty much looks like Operation Surma’s failings put the kibosh on a majorily profitable series, more so than the first game. 12 years later and there’s no sign at all of a virtual Ethan Hunt on the horizon.
This will probably surprise nobody but the only M:I game I ever played was the ‘98 adventure. There’s really not a lot to pick from so this was basically a given. My time with it was brief but it really stuck with me. I’ll never forget how amazed I was at the idea of copying someone’s identity and sneaking around a room with explosive gum. The whole concept looked so cool and I found myself frequently trying to reach that same early level of excitement whenever I picked up the game. Yet despite my many attempts, I never got far. I’m right there with the critics in saying that the game was too difficult. I’m sure if I were to try it now I’d do a pretty good job, but I’ll never forget my past failings.
Just like how the films might never end (it’s likely that they’ll continue when Cruise is simply too old to keep performing), the possibility of more Mission: Impossible games can never really die. It’s unlikely now without a good studio to fight off the competition, but there’s always a chance someone talented will look at this and say, “Hey. There’s some money here.” Should that day ever come, it’s comforting to know that the films will still be good enough to keep the public happy. Heck, even if Mission: Impossible stays primarily on film the masses will be satisfied. If reliably good product can’t be delivered, why even bother muddling the prestige?
Luke Kalamar is Pop-Break.com’s television editor. Every Saturday afternoon you can read his retro video game column, Remembering the Classics. He covers Game of Thrones, Saturday Night Live and The Walking Dead (amongst others) every week. As for as his career and literary standing goes — take the best parts of Spider-man, Captain America and Luke Skywalker and you will fully understand his origin story.