by Dave Giarrusso
'Ja ever see Star Wars? You know the scene where General Dodonna is briefing the Rebel Pilots about the best way to attack the Death Star, and he mentions that they have to hit a thermal exhaust port, and that said port is about two meters wide? About then, one of the wimpier pilots pipes up, "That's impossible, even for a computer." Luke responds by informing this yutz that, "it's not impossible, I used to bullseye womprats in my T-16 back home, they're not much bigger than two meters." While you may have felt that Luke was merely trying to boost Wimpy's confidence prior to a suicide mission, he also managed to slip in the fact that he's a not such a bad pilot himself, and that he recklessly killed Womprats for sport. And you thought Luke was one of the good guys.
When the subject of this issue, impossible games, was put on the table, that's the first thing I thought of. Then I thought of some nice chicken parmigiana. I was hungry. The next thing I thought of was the Epyx game, Impossible Mission. Of course, since I only played that game for about three seconds a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I figured a discussion of that game was best left to someone else. Then, I really started thinking about all of the games that really challenged me over the years.
What I realized is that no matter what the time or place, some game, somewhere, had my number. Ironically, that game was never Odyssey 2's "I've Got Your Number."
Which brings me to a point, or at least, something I discovered while accessing the ol' long term memory in preparation for this issue. There are roughly three types of impossible games:
1) Impossible games that you love to play, and in fact, beg for continued ass-kicking from. Sinistar clearly falls into this category, as do a lot of the older Williams games. I've never gotten beyond the fifth level of Sinistar without employing the old "255 lives" maneuver. It's a tough as nails contest, but you love it. You’re pushed to keep on going no matter what the cost is because you have to meet the absurd challenge in order to see what the game has to offer.
2) Impossible games that you not only don't want to play, but that you give up on after fourteen seconds because they are not only uninteresting, but are overly frustrating, often due to control problems that shouldn't exist. 2600 Double Dragon falls into this category.
3) Impossible games that you could take or leave. They don't inspire you to continue exploring them until every subtle nuance is uncovered, but you aren't prompted to set them aflame with a blow-torch either. They’re good for a few go-rounds, but even if you sit through an entire game in order to see the end, you’d probably quit playing it after that. I'd place the Swordquest series here, along with a lot of others.
The impossible-journey began way back when I was a nearly carefree youngster constantly playing the Atari 2600. A friend of my brother lent him the Raiders of the Lost Ark cart, and we sat in front of the “blue screen with the rock” and the “screen with the marketplace” utterly dumbfounded, for three days. We discovered many ways to kill Indy, but after the joy of murdering everyone's favorite archaeologist wore off, we gave up on the cart. The game was just too tough. Or so we thought until a few days later when the same friend loaned the solution (or a variation thereof) to us and we finally dredged up the Ark of the Covenant… and killed Indy a few thousand more times. The point here is that, for us, this game was downright tough, nay, impossible, until we were handed the solution. I may also add that even with the solution securely in front of us, it's still a tough game.
After the Raiders debacle, other 2600 games turned out to be "impossible." After Swordquest: Earthworld was marked down, I picked it up. I read through the instructions, read the "comic", searched the comic for clues (and found all of those cleverly hidden words, like in "Highlights" magazine, where you have to find the rhino so cleverly concealed in the girl's hair, unless some unruly brat spoiled it for everyone in the dentist's waiting room by circling all the hidden objects with purple crayon...) but all of my effort was for naught. I couldn't figure out the game. It was impossible. To this day it remains impossible, although I did use a “walkthrough” in order to solve it. I couldn't do it again, and frankly, the hows and whys of where the objects go still makes no sense to me, so therefore, this game (and the other two Swordquest games) are still, to me, impossible. Even 2600 E.T., while difficult, at least makes sense in a "get this object, go there, do that" kind of way, even if its production and licensing fees did not. What will the future Indiana Joneses of the world think when they unearth all those copies of 2600 E.T. in Mexico? Probably, "ouch."
Late in the 2600's career, after the NES boom was practically in full swing, Activision attempted to bring Double Dragon to the VCS. They did not succeed. They brought a cart with a Double Dragon label to the VCS, and they brought an impossible game to the VCS. Double Dragon it was not. (Was this shoddy effort a preview of later Activision bombs like the 2600 and Intellivision Playstation CDs that they carelessly and shamefully crapped out in an effort to make us vomit? Come on Activision, what gives? Do it properly or don’t do it at all.) I've said it before, but it bears repeating: the Double Dragon coin-op is a fun, while very easy (read, easily "won" on one quarter), butt-kicking romp for revenge. The VCS version is truly one of the most difficult games I've ever seen. One can barely move through the first screen width of the city before being reduced to a blubbering mass of jelly. Oh, and your on-screen alter ego winds up getting killed as well. Furthermore, it's so tough and so poorly done that you have to really fight the Darwinian urge to yank the cart out of the console, fire it at the wall, jam it in the toaster, throw it into traffic, etc.
Could we adequately discuss the topic of impossible games without mentioning the NES favorite, Ninja Gaiden? I'd definitely call this one an "impossible/don't wanna see it anymore" game. I recall the game being extraordinarily difficult, but, when prompted to by that video game fanatic deep down inside all of us, I could get to the end of it. The end of this game is the reason I'll always refer to it as impossible. If, through some miracle, you actually got to the end, and if you began attacking the final guy (who, I really may not, in theory, have seen if he pulled one of those stunts like in the original Castlevania) and if you were killed by him and actually had more lives left...you still had to go BACK to a much earlier point in the game in order to try, try again to kill him. I was almost pressed into taking the game up again when a friend of mine challenged me by saying he could win it. I asked him if he ever had won it to which he responded, "no, but..." Subsequently, one night, he was on his way to the end of the game, which he had been playing non-stop for hours, and invited me to watch him complete the Gaiden mission and deflate my gaming ego. Needless to say, after several thousand attempts, he conceded defeat and we never spoke of Ninja Gaiden again. Until now. To anyone who has beaten this game without the assistance of any sort of cheating: you have the resolve of Rocky and the patience of Mother Theresa. Good job.
Somewhere around this time, I became hopelessly addicted to the almost-Stargate-sequel, N.A.R.C. (Well, in both games, you have tons of buttons to contend with, both have lots of enemies attacking from the left and right, both include radar screens, in the same section of the screen I might add, to see what you're dealing with...) N.A.R.C. is an insanely difficult game, and is nearly impossible to get through without "continuing." In an effort to get the most bang for my buck, I always started the game over from the beginning instead of continuing - Adam Smith would be proud - for two reasons: One, the difficulty ramping is very high, so continuing a game halfway through lead to a three-second game, followed by another, followed by another, and, two: those three second games weren't as fun as starting fresh and ridding the streets of scum all over again. Somehow, as a result of this process, I wound up getting to the point where I could ace the whole game on a single quarter, but make no mistake: the final few rounds of this game are indeed impossible. When you're facing hundreds of well dressed, gun toting psychopaths, (HQ Posse) and then an evil Ironside, (Mr. Big) and then a giant head on an animatronic platform, and finally a big skull, it's kill or be killed, and the odds of success are a million to one. The trick is to take full advantage of the early stages. N.A.R.C. is the rarer impossible game that really kicks you when you're down, but you keep crawling back to it because it plays so well. It encourages you to play perfectly, and in the process, see and hear a TON of cool stuff.
Other impossible games I've played? How about Ghouls N Ghosts for the Genesis? A difficult game with great graphics and sound, and the one that made me rush out to the store and buy the 16 bit Sega console. This game was one of the carts just MADE for staying up all night in your friend's basement with plenty of Doritos and Mountain Dew. At about three thirty in the morning, after you had re-played the sequence leading up to the final boss for the umpteenth time, something magical happened - you beat the game. You may never be able to do it again, and you may only try the very next day and give up forever even if you succeed, but for that one shining moment, you had done the impossible and beaten the game. It's "impossible" because it would still take as much effort to beat again if I plugged it in today, but I would have the tendency to give up on it sooner because in the back of my mind, I know I've already seen it all.
Of the newer games I've played, the most vivid example of an "impossible" game is Hasbro's Frogger. This game is impossibly frustrating and as such, no fun at all. Through no fault of the player, Frogger leaps into obstacles that cannot be seen, and suffers a fate worse than death as a result. The camera doesn't keep up with the action, and the control is terrible. This game lasted a full five minutes in my PSX before finding its current employment as a coaster for my ice-cold Coke while I'm playing anything else. Except 2600 Double Dragon, which is under the short leg of the table that supports my soda/coaster combo.
I suppose that none of these games, even the revamped Frogger, are truly impossible by a Webster's definition of the word, and maybe there's something hidden in that fact. Maybe, like Luke points out to Wimpy at the end of Star Wars, these impossible games are only impossible because I think they are. Then again, maybe they aren't. Maybe no one has gotten to the end of NES Ninja Gaiden. Or PSX Frogger. Or 2600 Double Dragon. Or maybe they have. Except for 2600 Double Dragon, which nearly everyone used for skeet shooting practice.
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Last updated: Tuesday, February 13, 2007 04:09 PM