#44: Goldeneye 007
Designed for: Nintendo 64
Developed by: Rare
Published by: Nintendo
Genre: First-Person Shooter
Year Released: 1997
Teenage gamer in the late ’90s? I’m guessing you’ve heard of this one, then. Like me, you probably know it better as “Bond”, and I’ll bet that you don’t exactly need me to tell you how awesome it is. After all, it was pretty much the Halo or Modern Warfare of its time, wasn’t it? Although, unlike those games, it managed to be a smash-hit multiplayer shooter without:
a) an enormous budget
b) being a sequel to an established, best-selling game franchise
c) teams of unscrupulous corporate marketers
d) the dull and impersonal experience of playing multiplayer online exclusively
e) being completely devoid of creativity and humanity
Goldeneye 007 is a great success story, and actually a pretty odd game to be a killer app on a Nintendo system, when you think about it. Stacked up next to the other best-selling N64 titles–Super Mario 64, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Mario Kart 64, and Super Smash Bros.–it seems a tad out of place. A second-party made, licensed, console FPS? Published by family-friendly Nintendo? Sounds like an unlikely hit.
…but, believe it or not, it used to be the case that a game could succeed not because of its marketing budget or hype or paid-for review scores, but because it was well-made. Imagine that.
As we all know, licensed games are trash. To grossly simplify the issue, it’s usually because the holders of the original property don’t care nearly as much about the quality of the game as they do whether or not it comes out on time, ideally to accompany whatever movie/show/whatever they’re releasing. On top of that, they’re usually very protective of the brand, which means that the developers don’t have a lot of freedom to make the game, you know, good.
In recent years, there have been more and more solid titles that challenge this convention, of course, but back when Goldeneye came out–right in the heart of the N64/PSX era–licensed games were just about at their worst. In the 16-bit days, you’d usually just get some lame side-scrolling platformer with dodgy mechanics and the franchise characters pasted in, but in the brave new age of polygons, these sorts of games quickly became downright unplayable. (Superman 64, anyone?) Evidently, it takes a lot more skill to knock off Mario 64 than Mario 3. Go figure.
But somehow, despite appearing at virtually the worst time for games of its kind, Goldeneye managed to be excellent, not in spite of the Bond license, but largely because it was a great adaptation.
I was a fan of the film Goldeneye before the game came out, and I was very pleasantly surprised with how faithful to the story the game turned out to be while managing to tastefully expand upon it to fill out the playtime. Story scenes featured a mix of direct quotes from the movie’s script as well as original writing that fits in just fine. Likewise, all of the major set pieces and stunts from the film are represented pretty well, alongside new ones that aren’t too ridiculous or out of place–no surprise flying cars or laser guns or anything like that. This was especially important, given that Goldeneye was one of the more realistic and mature Bond movie made before Casino Royale.
Rare managed to do justice to more than just the tone of the film, as well. All of the great staples of a Bond adventure were present and accounted for in the gameplay–huge gunfights, driving sequences, rescuing a damsel in distress, utilizing Q’s famous gadgets, etc. Varying mission objectives tasked you taking covert photographs, stealing important documents and planting tracking devices–you know, ACTUAL secret agent stuff. Pretty refreshing when other licensed games would’ve been happy just setting you loose to gun down armies of soldiers no matter what the characters or plot called for.
As you can probably tell, I tend to value adherence to the source material over all else when it comes to adaptations. Movies like Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining annoy me–it’s a great film, obviously, but it’s a pretty shitty adaptation if you’re familiar with the book. I feel like you owe it to the original creators to do their work justice, and if you’ve got your own ideas or your own messages to get across, that’s great, but maybe make up your own story and put it in there, you know?
That said, I can understand the desire to screw around in someone else’s mythology when you get the chance, especially in Rare’s case. After all, they were handed a twenty-movie history and one of the most iconic characters in all of fiction to work, but it seems like their first and foremost concern was doing Goldeneye justice, and I appreciate that.
Not wanting to miss out on the fun though (for us or them), they very tastefully included some awesome what-if scenarios and anachronistic guest villain appearance tomfoolery in extra missions unlocked after beating the main game. Not only were “Aztec” and “Egyptian” a cool showcase of some of Bond’s best locations, villains and weapons, but they were frickin’ HARD, and provided a welcome challenge after you’d whooped the main game. Aztec was an especially epic beast. Very loosely based on Moonraker (generally considered the cheesiest Bond movie), it featured a space shuttle launch, laser guns, automated turrets and hilarious star-soldier guards in bright yellow uniforms. Oh, and a certain towering, terrifying miniboss.
And of course, after conquering the main game and extra levels, there was always infinite fun to be had in multiplayer. Goldeneye’s 4-player Deathmatch is such an institution that it’s almost redundant to talk much about it. It was almost certainly the first console FPS to do it right, with a good range of options and modes to try out with your friends. It wasn’t the prettiest, and it was choppy as hell at times, but man was it fun.
Running around in circles trying to karate chop your opponent, setting up incredibly elaborate remote mine configurations (probably in the Facility bathrooms), fleeing in terror from The Man With The Golden Gun…everyone has got their favorite stories and game set-ups. It was pretty much impossible to get bored playing this game with friends. There were even cheats that could be applied to multiplayer (invisibility, no radar, etc.) to make things even crazier.
And speaking of cheats, Goldeneye is absolutely lousy with them. There are button codes, unlockable cheats, hidden multiplayer characters and undocumented secrets all over the place in this game. In fact, the last batch of codes was only discovered many years after the game’s release–Rare never mentioned them publicly. People had to just figure them out. Pretty old school.
The official ones were fun to get too. Each of the twenty-plus levels had an unlockable cheat that you could earn when you beat it under a certain time on a certain difficulty. Not terribly inventive, but these time limits were often very, very challenging to clock in under. I’m sorry, Facility on 00 Agent in 2:05?! Seemingly impossible. But, this only made it feel like a bigger deal when you finally got ’em. Not only were you unlocking some fun or useful code (Invincibility, in the case of Facility), but you felt like a Golden God and probably had some legendary story to go along with it. Everybody remembers the time they blasted through Stack in under 1:20. And if you managed to fill in the Cheats menu completely, you were truly an idol among your friends.
At this point, I’m 1,000 words in and I’ve said very little about how the game actually plays. One might be tempted to write it off as a given that Goldeneye is a technically solid FPS–it is an all-time classic for a reason, after all. But being that–again–it came out in ’97 on the Nintendo 64, of all things, I’d say it’s pretty notable.
For the core of the game, Rare whipped up a tight FPS engine with really satisfying mechanics. The guns are loud and powerful and have a lot of ‘personality’, if you will. Bullets make a heavy THWACK sound upon impact with an enemy and each hit paints a muddy bloodstain on the model where they got shot–something I can’t recall seeing in any FPS up to that point. It’s not Soldier of Fortune or anything, but hey, it was the N64.
But we all know that even the most technically sound FPS can be boring (Quake, for instance), and thankfully Rare went out of their way to populate the gameworld and the core mechanics themselves with fun little details that made the experience exciting and fresh. Missions can be approached (and failed) in interesting non-standard ways, and easter eggs were tucked away around every corner of the map. Even the enemies and other characters were full of surprises–everything ranging from the usually pacifistic NPCs pulling a gun if you piss them off too much, to being able to harmlessly shoot off a soldier’s hat while he stands guard. It didn’t approach the interactivity of, say, Duke Nukem 3D, but as Penny Arcade has recently reminded us, neither has any other game in the last fifteen years, so you can’t really hold that against it.
It’s also worth mentioning that Rare managed to wrestle the perplexing N64 controller into not one, but eight usable FPS button schemes, each amusingly named after a Bond girl and with four of them being designed for two controllers simultaneously! History has proven beyond all doubt that two joysticks offer the best shooter controls possible on consoles, but bless their hearts, they managed to make do with one of the more unorthodox pads out there in a time when the other guys were barely even trying.
It may be legendary now, but when Goldeneye was released in ’97, its success was not ensured. It came out in a time when hype didn’t necessarily translate into a good Metacritic score, and a good Metacritic score didn’t necessarily translate into a million-plus sales. No, it became incredibly popular because it was considered a solid, fun, entertaining game. It might be hard to believe now, given the of cutthroat, calculating state of the industry and the appallingly unprofessional state of games journalism, but it’s true.
IF THEY MADE THIS GAME TODAY: It would be a rigidly linear “Modern” (Warfare) shooter with a bunch of stupid QTE sections and an updated plot replacing Brosnan with Daniel Craig. Oh, wait.