Today marks the 23rd anniversary of the release of one of the most important console first person shooters of all time. It’s hard to express exactly how much of an impact Rare’s N64-exclusive movie tie-in had at the time of its release; perhaps it’s even more remarkable due to its status as a licensed title that was released two years after its source material was on the big screen.
GoldenEye the film was notable for being the first post-Timothy Dalton Bond film; the series had been AWOL since 1989’s License to Kill, only Timothy Dalton’s second shot at Bond, thanks to legal issues concerning the Bond movie rights. The delay led to Dalton’s contract expiring; in negotiations to appear in a third, further delays – as well as the insistence that he appear in more than just the next Bond movie – caused Dalton to walk away and Pierce Brosnan to be announced as the new incarnation of the M16 agent in mid-1994. Much was made of the modernising of the franchise, especially Judy Dench’s M referring to Bond as a “sexist, misogynist dinosaur” and “a relic of the Cold War” – but in my opinion, this acknowledgement of a more problematic aspect of Bond is generally relegated to that single throwaway reference (it seems a bit odd to acknowledge Bond’s misogyny in a film with a villain named ‘Onatopp’, who kills men with her powerful thighs, but that could equally be seen as empowering – ridiculous name aside of course). Much more interesting were the updating of the post-Soviet Union politics of the era, with the political landscape transforming dramatically between License to Kill and GoldenEye’s release.
The game was, almost unbelievably, conceived first as a 2D platformer for the SNES, then a Virtua Cop-style on-rails shooter – before it morphed into the familiar FPS that was its final form. Though far from the first console FPS, it marked a real milestone in terms of its control scheme (helped in no uncertain terms by the analogue control afforded by the N64’s controller), setting and gameplay. It was a far cry from the more relentlessly action oriented FPS games that we were used to at the time, as well as being set in more realistic, if simplistic, environments. The level objectives – which scaled depending on the difficulty selected – with fewer, simpler objectives required for completion of lower difficulty levels – were a work of genius and the system of brilliant unlockable items and modifiers was similarly well implemented. Stealth-based approaches to the stages felt incredibly fresh and rewarding, with the excellent health/body armour system also being a winning design choice. The notion of controller rumble, enabled on the N64 via a Rumble Pak add-on, was something that added immeasurably to the experience in a way many of us hadn’t experienced before outside of arcade on-rails shooters. We even forgave it for the horrendous ‘Defend Natalya’ mission, didn’t we?
Then there’s the legendary split screen multiplayer. Four players could either play in teams or free for all matches with a number of options to vary the gameplay – and it was stunningly well done. The array of options, weapons and gadgets provided seemingly endless variations for causing havoc and having hilariously chaotic gaming sessions. For months on end, myself and a few friends would play GoldenEye every single weekend without fail after a night out at the pub; it remains one of the absolute highlights of a lifetime of gaming experience.
Yet time hasn’t been kind to GoldenEye. The visuals have aged particularly badly, as is the case for almost all of the N64’s library. At the time, I recall some gamers preferring the blurry-textured look to the clear pixels of Sony’s PlayStation or Sega’s Saturn; you’ll find few people, if any, arguing the same these days. The blur-o-vision visuals aren’t the only thing you’ll notice if you’re either checking the game out for the first time or revisiting it again though – the frame rate is absolutely atrocious. Clearly, it didn’t bother us at the time – but it’s all too obvious in 2020. The control scheme – which once felt revolutionary – just feels incredibly awkward and frustratingly demanding of precision now. Levels that once felt somewhat realistic in terms of their layout and presentation now feel empty and confusingly designed.
All that said, GoldenEye still feels like a special game to those of us who were there at the time. Back in 1997, this really felt like a quantum leap (not of solace – sorry) forward for games – and it really paved the way for more ambitious FPS design on consoles. Though Perfect Dark, its immediate successor – at least in a spiritual sense – managed to introduce some wonderful improvements on the formula (especially as it could let loose with the gadgets and settings a bit more, being a secret agent romp set in a more cyberpunk-esque future), it still didn’t have the thrill of discovering the joys of the unlikely Bond movie tie-in that arrived two years late. Happy Birthday, GoldenEye 007.
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