Friday, 27 January 2017

Impossible Mission

Chapter One

Impossible Mission

On 19th July 1984, the largest recorded earthquake ever to hit mainland Britain struck. When the 5.4 magnitude quake hit the Llyn peninsula in north-west Wales, tremors were felt as far away as the Isle of Man to the north, Dublin to the west and Manchester to the east. There were many reports of minor damage to chimneys and masonry throughout Wales and England with the biggest concentration of damage in Liverpool, located around 65 miles northeast of the epicentre.  Minor injuries were also reported in the areas closest to the quake, and rockslides occurred at Tremadog in Gwyned. One hundred and twenty miles from Gwyned on Plodder Lane in Farnworth, Bolton a minor disturbance was felt as a few ornaments rattled and my ten-year-old self was woken up a little earlier than expected.

That morning at school the playground was abuzz with earthquake stories. Gavin Greenhalgh said that all the cups fell out of the kitchen cupboards in his house. Collin Brooks swore blind that, in Farnworth town centre, the quake's impact was so violent poor that he was thrown out of bed and all the glasses in The Shakespeare were smashed. Everyone had a story to tell. It was an exciting event. An earthquake in Farnworth. It's not the sort of thing that happens every day.
I wasn't too sure about the accuracy of some of these stories but I didn't say anything. Collin was adamant that he’d been ejected from his eiderdown by an earthquake and I didn't want to upset him, after all Collin was my best friend.

The July earthquake wasn't the only thing to shake the British Isles in 1984. Disturbance, disruption and disorder were everywhere. It was the year of the Miner's strike, Michael Burke's famine report from Ethiopia and the IRA’s attempt to blow up the Conservative cabinet in the Brighton bombing. However, in my ten-year-old world such troubles and turmoil were as distant as if it were happening on Pluto – which back then was still a planet. The land beneath my feet was shifting but to me things appeared much the same as they'd always been. The news was something that came on the telly at six o'clock after Crackerjack. Of course, I knew it was real, but it didn't really affect my day to day life too much.

The issues that really concerned my primary school friends and me were:

What's the best football team?
What bike have you got?
(Raleigh Grifter)
What trainers do you wear?
(Adidas Kick) and
What computer do you own?

By the mid-eighties thousands of kids across the country had been given a computer as a birthday or Christmas present (alongside Rubik’s Cubes and snooker tables they were all the rage). Across Britain, parents were keen for their children to be competent with these new-fangled things of the future and at Highfield CP School in Farnworth things were no different. Gavin Greenhalgh had a BBC Model B, Michael Platt had an Atari 800, Stephen Eccles had a Sinclair ZX Spectrum and I had a Commodore VIC-20.

My best friend Collin owned a Sinclair ZX81 until one day in December 1984 when he traded up big time to a Commodore 64. With this single purchase, Collin leapt from the bottom to the top of the playground computer charts. Col's new machine was the daddy of the 8-bit home micros. Not only did it have a massive 64K memory and an inbuilt synthesiser called the Sound Interface Device (affectionately known as SID), most importantly it could play games that were almost as good as you saw in the arcades. Getting a new computer was a big deal anyway but picking up a Commodore 64 in 1984 was a momentous occasion. Fortunately, not long after he became the proud owner of this supercomputer, he invited me to come over for tea. It was an offer I couldn't refuse.
That school day passed by like thousands before it and thousands more to come. Mrs. Baxter taught us Reading, Writing, Maths and a bit of History and Geography. I can’t remember too much about Mrs. Baxter but I recall that she wore think jam jar glasses, was friendly and patient (unlike the board-duster-lobbing terror that was Mrs. White in Junior 2) and had a huge bosom which, of course, was the source of much amusement amongst ten-year-old boys. Eventually the magic half-past-three arrived, the bell rang and we were free. After a quick visit to the cloakroom (which always smelt of bleach, rubber and urine) Collin and I grabbed our coats and bags, legged it out of the school gates into the cold winter air and headed straight for the pub.

I should point out here that Collin lived in a pub and that we weren’t gasping for a couple of pints in the local hostelry.

As with all kids, we had the shortest route home down to an exact art. This involved coming out of Highfield School’s main gates then crossing Marsh Lane and heading down Central Avenue until the bit where you got to a small scruffy patch of grass where no ball games were allowed. Here we took a detour down a back street that led to Laburnum Road and Dixon Green Park (the world’s shitest park). Then it was across the park, onto Glynne Street at The Canary pub and down to the bottom of the street to The Shakespeare public house. The journey took us about twelve minutes and I’ve just checked it on Google maps – that’s still the quickest route on foot.

The Shakespeare was a quasi-gothic public house set opposite Farnworth Park. It was built in 1926 as a drinking house aimed at the local middle class clientele. No doubt its literary name and attractive park side setting was intended to appeal to Farnworth’s finest but by the mid-eighties local middle class drinkers were thin on the ground. This mattered not though as I remember that the place was always busy with the buzz of conversation punctuated by burst of laughter.

I loved The Shakespeare for three reasons:
1. It was exotic because it was a pub not a house.
2. It had a pool table and a sit down cocktail cabinet Galaxian video game.
3. My best friend lived there.

We arrived to find the usual mix of locals in the snug and Collin's stepdad David behind the bar. David was from Birmingham but inexplicably sounded Australian and was known by everyone as ‘Australian Dave’. I can't remember the exact dialogue but it probably went something like this:

Oz Dave: G'Day lads!!
(Okay, maybe he wasn't that Australian)
Collin: Hiyah
Me: Hello
Oz Dave: Good day at school?
Collin: Alright.
Oz Dave: What did you do today?
Collin: (starting to walk to the staircase) Nothing much.
Oz Dave: You alright Martin?
Me: Yes, thanks.
Oz Dave: You here for tea?
Me: Yes. Thanks.
Oz Dave: BONZA!
Collin (ascending the stairs to me) Come on.

Upstairs was the living quarters where Collin lived with his mum, brother Andrew, Australian Dave and an Alsatian Border Collie cross known as Sam  - who was the first obstacle to overcome. At the top of the stairs was a stairgate. This existed for two reasons – firstly, to stop Sam from escaping downstairs and trying to either bite or hump the locals, and secondly, to stop the drinkers from doing pretty much the same upstairs. Today, as usual, behind the stairgate was Sam. Sam was lovely but also a little bit scary. However today he was sleeping contentedly and a gentle pat on the head brought a contented groan and a good stretch.

I always enjoyed spending time with Collin's family. His mum, Lynne, is a kind and lovely woman, Dave is a funny fella with a deadpan sense of humour and his brother Andy is an all-round top bloke. Col lives in New Zealand now with his girlfriend Susie and I see him maybe once every few years when he comes back to England. We email and WhatsApp each other now and again and swap mixtapes on Spotify. He’s a good guy - I miss him.

Back in the eighties his mum and David had a couple of pubs including The Pikes View in Bolton on Derby Street (which doesn’t go anywhere near Derby) and The Man and Scythe in Kearsley (a town once name checked by the KLF in ‘It’s Grim up North’). Neither pub exist now. The Pikes View is an Asian grocery store and the Man and Scythe was hacked down to make way for a block of flats.

Anyway, back at the Shakey – as it was it was affectionately known – Col led me to the bedroom he shared with Andrew where the mighty Commodore 64 dwelt. It sat atop a set of MFI drawers in front of a great big 21-inch Ferguson telly.
"Collin!" came a distant voice.
It was his mum.
"Won't be a minute."

He disappeared in the direction of the kitchen and I plonked myself down on his bed.
I looked over at the C64. It didn't look much different to my VIC-20. A darker beige case but the same brown keys with funny symbols on the front and the same four function keys. It looked pretty much the same. I regarded my blurred reflection in the convex TV screen and waited for him to come back.

A minute later he returned with a plate full of hot toast covered in proper butter and strawberry jam.
"Here we are."
"Skill!" I replied and, as we tucked in, Col switched on the computer.
After a few seconds (the telly took a while to warm up) a blue screen appeared. A royal blue centre, a pale blue border and pale blue text. It was a bit fuzzy looking.

"Hang on," he said and fiddled around with the back of the telly. "This telly's crap."
I laughed. ‘Crap!’ One of my new favourite words.
"What games have a you got?" I asked.
"These," said Col pulling out a drawer and fishing out three cases. Two were housed in small single cassette cases and one was in a black cardboard box. "You pick."

I can remember the games perfectly. They were Bugaboo the Flea by Quicksilva, Jet Set Willy by Software Projects and Impossible Mission by Epyx - that was the one in the mysterious black box.

I picked up Impossible Mission.
"Is this any good?"
"I'll show you."
He slid the tape into the C2N cassette player, held down SHIFT and pressed RUNSTOP. The Commodore responded with:


So he did.

In Britain in 1984, unless you were wealthy enough to own one of Commodore's new shiny 1541 disk drives, the games you had came on cassette. This wasn't the case in the US where almost all C64 owners had a disk drive and tapes were a rarity but over here the 1541 was so expensive (it cost as much as the C64 itself) that most of us made do with tapes. Tapes had advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side they were cheap. You could buy plenty of games from as little as £1.99 by publishers such as Mastertronic and even the biggest releases rarely cost more than £9.99. In contrast disk games were twice the price with around £12 to £15 the norm. So you could buy tape games with your pocket money and even the more expensive ones you could save for within a few weeks. However, the disadvantages were plenty. Tapes were tricky customers. A poor quality tape could easily unravel in your C2N. If you didn't catch it quickly it would be stretched, twisted, snapped and ruined for good. Tapes were often stubborn and could test your patience. While one tape loaded perfectly another may not because of the alignment of the magnetic heads in the C2N. This meant that you needed a tiny screwdriver and an ocean of patience while you fiddled around trying to find the perfect alignment to load the game. When it finally worked you'd often discover that this alignment only worked for this particular game and that for the next one you wanted to play you had to bugger about with it all over again. Grrrr.

The final problem with tapes was the loading time. It's hard for kids to believe now that we often had to wait 15 minutes for a game to load. This is as shocking to my children as the fact that we only had 4 TV channels to pick from, and that they went off for a bit during the day. In time, with the introduction of fast-loaders, games loaded on tape in about three minutes but in the early days it was a long wait with often nothing better to look at than a pale blue screen.

So, what did we do while we waited for games to load? Wrestle! Many a loading time was passed wrestling with my school friends on sofas, beds and carpets. In time loading screens, loading music and even games helped to break the boredom and pass the time but for two prepubescent boys with energy to burn a good old wrestle was a great way to kill 15 minutes. If not each other.

Although waiting for games to load on tape was boring it did add a sense of anticipation to proceedings. When you bought a new game, got home and loaded it up the loading screen was the first indicator of what it was going to be like. A good loading screen with some great music often indicated that a decent game was on its way. If today you look up top C64 loading screens you’ll find that most them belong to top games. I guess that if the game developer went to the trouble of adding details such as a top quality graphic and piece of music then the chances are that the same amount of attention to detail would be evident in the game. However, this was not always the case. Cobra, Miami Vice and Howard the Duck all had fantastic loading screens but the games themselves were absolute shite.

The CBS version of Impossible Mission didn’t have a loading screen. Just a pale blue screen that every so often was interrupted by messages which read:


After each FOUND message the tape stopped and Collin pressed the space bar to continue the loading process. It was a very drawn out affair and it took the best part of 20 minutes for the game to load.

As games took so long to loaf back then, there was plenty of time to give the box art and manual the once over. Just as you would read through the sleeve notes on a new record as you listened to it, this was the time to read the game’s instructions and find out what it was all about. Impossible Mission was a very polished and professionally presented game. Inside the matt black cardboard box sat a red labelled cassette (resting on a bed of protective foam) and a document labelled ‘TOP SECRET’. To submerse you in the role of Special Agent 4125, Impossible Mission came with a ‘MISSION BREIFING’ document entitled ‘OPERATION: Atombender’. Opening the document revealed the mission details and a delightfully tongue in cheek dossier about your target – the dastedly Elvin Atombender.

The pages that followed included an intelligence report with information about Elvin’s stronghold, info about Elvin’s security system and a surreal and disturbing report from the last agent who tried to crack Elvin’s stronghold.

The dossier impresses the importance of the mission with ‘You have to stop him, or the world is going to be terminally late for dinner tonight’ before signing off with the far from comforting ‘Well, that’s all you’ll get out of me. The rest is up to you. After all, saving the world isn’t supposed to be easy.’

This was all new to me. On the VIC-20 most games were copies of early arcade machines such as VIC Avenger (Space Invaders) Jelly Monsters (Pac-Man) and Menagerie (Frogger). These unassuming arcade clones were time killers which didn’t require a backstory, characters or themes. They were the Angry Birds and Candy Crush or their day. Easy to pick up and play, they were games that whiled away the boredom when there was nothing else to do. Impossible Mission, however, was clearly a very different kind of game with far greater depth and sophistication.

The MISSION BRIEFING document was not only amusing but also very effective. When the game finally loaded, you couldn’t wait to get started. After 20 minutes of blue screen nothingness, the game had finally loaded and the title screen appeared.

“I’ll go first?” said Col. This was at once a statement and a question.
“Fine,” I said. I was happy for Col to show me the ropes.

He plugged his Quickshot joystick into port 2 and hit the fire button with his thumb.

The first thing that caused my jaw to drop quicker than the post-Brexit pound was the celebrated speech that opens the game. In the hammiest of English accents, the James Bond villain inspired Elvin Atombender welcomes you to his lair with the mocking line “Another Visitor. Stay a while. STAY FOREVER!” It’s Elvin’s equivalent of ‘Mr Bond, we’ve been expecting you’ and it’s a brilliant way to open the game. He’s letting you know, right from the off, that your mission is not only as impossible as the title suggests, but also that you will die in the process. Speech had been used in computer games before but here it wasn’t just a ‘Let’s Play Gorf!’ type attract gimmick. The speech in Impossible Mission was an important piece of the game’s universe. It created atmosphere and tension and made you sit up a little in your chair. Evil Elvin was talking directly to you – and you’d better listen. In fact, he was taking the piss out of you. He thought you didn’t have a chance and you knew that he’d laugh manically when you came to your inevitable sticky end.

Yet it wasn’t just the awesome audio that made Impossible Mission remarkable. Like the speech, the game’s animation was streets ahead of anything I’d seen on a computer before. Following Elvin’s greeting, Special Agent 4125 would appear in the elevator ready to plumb the depths of Mr A’s secret chamber and thwart his evil plans.  Pulling down on the joystick moved the lift downwards and as soon as the lift reached a floor, Agent 4125 exited the elevator and ran across the screen. And my goodness how beautifully he ran! The running man animation was so fluid and majestic that my jaw dropped yet again whilst, simultaneously my white towelling socks were well and truly knocked off.  It’s hard to appreciate now how stunning it was the first time you watched old 4125 run and somersault across the screen.  It was like seeing Toy Story in 1995 and gasping at the animation, the likes of which you’d never seen on the silver screen before.

As the animation of Special Agent 4125 was so special it’s really no surprise that it was the first element of the game to be created. In an interview with Retro Gamer magazine, coder and designer Dennis Caswell confessed that he nicked the imagery from a library book about athletics. "I animated the somersault before I had any clear idea how it would be used. I included it because the animations were there for the taking."

With such stunning visuals and audio you might think that Impossible Mission was a case of style over substance but you’d be very wrong.  It was a terrific game with a depth of gameplay that kept you coming back again and again. Its inspiration was extremely eclectic with Caswell citing a diverse range of cultural influences. The 1980 Unix-based dungeon crawling videogame Rogue inspired the randomised room layouts. The movie War Games gave Caswell the idea of the player infiltrating a computer-controlled complex. The influence of the 70s electronic game Simon is apparent in the musical checkerboard puzzles, whilst the 1960s TV show The Prisoner inspired the games’ black hovering orbs. The other obvious influence was the American TV show Mission: Impossible in which secret agents performed covert missions against dictators and evil organisations that threatened global security.

On its UK release Impossible Mission was loved immediately by critics and gamers alike.  Just as Ultimate’s Knightlore had set the standard for Spectrum gaming in 1984, Impossible Mission did the same for the C64. Home Computing Weekly gave it 5/5, Personal Computer Games scored it 10/10 and in Zzap!64 it was voted the C64s number one game in the magazine’s first ever readers’ poll.
Impossible Mission set the bar incredibly high. Polished presentation, amazing speech, incredible animation and absorbing gameplay placed it head and shoulders above the competition. To put it into context, Jet Set Willy, Sabre Wulf and Daley Thompson’s Decathlon were the biggest selling games of 1984. These were decent games but none of them came close to the high standard set by Impossible Mission.

Not only did Impossible Mission blow the competition out of the water, it also revealed the potential of the C64. It showcased the computer’s power and capabilities and gave us a glimpse of what the machine was capable of (the C64 had only been available in the UK for just over a year at this point). Just as the Playstation rewrote the rules with the introduction of 3D in the 90s, the Commodore 64’s capabilities would set the standard for 8-bit gaming for years to come.

With such a massive success under his belt you would expect Dennis Caswell to have produced a raft of awesome C64 games but unfortunately it didn’t happen. Caswell worked on the Epyx split screen racer Pitstop 2 but that was about it. Shortly after Pitstop 2 he left Epyx and moved from the C64 to coding the Apple II, Apple Macintosh and later the IBM PC. It’s a real shame that Dennis didn’t make another C64 game (the 1988 sequel Impossible Mission 2 was outsourced to a Hungarian development team). Who knows what wonderful game he would’ve come up with? Yet I guess we shouldn’t be too upset. Caswell may have given C64 gamers only one game but my goodness it was a beauty.

After tea Collin and I played a couple of other games which included the aforementioned BoogaBoo the Flea - in which you had to help the titular flea escape from a deep cavern by avoiding a dragon and jumping to freedom - and Jet Set Willy a zany platform game which was a big hit on the Spectrum but disappointingly looked exactly the same on the C64. These games were more simple affairs than Impossible Mission and both were fun to play but they lacked the slickness and wow factor of the Epyx title.

After a while it was time to put down the Quickshot, say goodbye to Col, Andy, David, Lynne and Sam and head home. It was a school night after all. Mum would be expecting me home by half eight which was the same time that dad left for his night shift at the post office.

As I walked home that crisp December evening my mind was racing. It had been a head-spinning day in what was a tumultuous year. 1984 had had ominous connotations since George Orwell used it as the setting for his dystopian novel 35 years earlier. And although we weren't living in a totalitarian state under the all seeing eye of Big Brother (not just yet) it was certainly a time of fear and paranoia as the Cold War intensified and tensions between the USA and the USSR increased. I may have been too young to fully comprehend the issues that faced the world in 1984 but I certainly felt its uneasiness.  My seventeen-year-old sister had kindly informed me that the world was going to end in 1984 and her constant playing of Frankie Goes to Hollywood's Two Tribes seemed to support her theory. It was the year that the BBC broadcasted 'Threads', a drama set in the North of England during the outbreak of nuclear war. Threads scared the living daylights out of everyone that saw it and added to the very real sense that global nuclear war could erupt at any moment. It was as if the earthquake that made the country shudder back in July was still rumbling on. Unrest, unhappiness and antagonism were everywhere and, as we lurched towards 1985, there was no sign of any of it stopping.

As I made my way up Plodder Lane my immediate concern was to get home safely and quickly. I needed to get a move on as I didn’t want to be late and start the aforementioned World War Three from our front room. I had a pretty strict 8.30 curfew and it was fast approaching as I reached the block of terraced houses where we lived.  If I missed it, I might get grounded and that would be a nightmare. It would mean no more after school visits to The Shakespeare and, of course, that would mean no more Col and no more Commodore 64. A prospect too terrible to even contemplate.

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