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The Canon – Great Games – GoldenEye

Dave’s Best of the The Best, 1990 edition:

This is an ongoing series of brief, retrospective capsules of the biggest, most hyped, beloved, terrible, wonderful, miserable, and all other types of hyperbolic adjectives that describe the games of the NES era (1984-) of gaming.

Golden-Eye. N64. 1997.

Goldeneye was developed by Rare Studios, which was, at the time, one of the best and more innovative game labs in the world. Rare have made some of the top games off all time (GoldenEye and it’s follow up Perfect Dark,) as well as some of the most ground-breaking (Donkey Kong Country, Blast Corps, Conker’s Bad Fur Day, Banjo-Kazooie). They also are some of the most temperamental and notoriously behind schedule. They started as a second party developer for Nintendo, (in-house but not under the big N) and after birthing a legacy of great gaming, they became almost teenagerish, and split for Microsoft.

The game is, of course, based off the 95 movie of the same name, and was released only months before the next film in the series (Tomorrow Never Knows) came out. It is an act of incredible arrogance to release a film on such a schedule, but as the saying goes, “it ain’t cocky if you can back it up.” All sayings aside, this was worth waiting for.

The film itself is one of the top three Bond films ever made, the other two being Goldfinger and Thunderball (which in adjusted figures made around 850 million at the box office) the ranking is questionable, so too is not including OHMSS or From Russia With Love, but that’s why there are debates.

In an era when Bond films have turned into a corporation (under billionaire tyrants like the Broccoli family) and become as predictable and dumb as Bruckheimer films, Goldeneye (the film) was almost an anomaly. It’s the first of the series to actually question the morals of the protagonist: “Do all of the martini’s you drink help you forget the memories of all those lost.” Quoted by the film’s baddie, 006. The story didn’t center around a S.P.E.C.T.E.R. henchman, but a former Bond associate who could see through all of the lines and BS that Bond always gives. It is, and probably will be, the only film in the collection that is actually postmodern in its world setting and treatment of the idea of “James Bond.”

To boot, the film is a blast to watch. While many of the series are B level action films with an Icon as the lead character, Goldeneye is a thinking man’s action movie, like Die Hard, Hunt for Red October, or The Incredibles. This means that it’s clearly a movie where the lead character kills “bad” people, but there is a measure taken in the filmmaking to actually rationalize the killings, both pulling the viewer in under a specter of rationale… all while making the ass-kicking seem “smart.” The plot has a semi-feasible (not Tom Clancy feasible, but more believable then sending oil drillers into space to blow up an asteroid) idea of a rouge general seizing control of a cold war era weapon, but what gives the film a touch of depth is 006’s connection as a Cossack and his hatred for the racial wars that still scar parts of Eastern Europe.  Maybe it’s the lack of shark-infested pools, rocket packs, or idiocentric, hat throwing / or steel jawed henchman, Goldeneye feels more like an action/spy hybrid instead of a swinging spy action film.

Bond films are famous for their stunts and gadgets, for the action, and the one man against an army plots. Why it took until 1997 to make a game out of the series is beyond me.

To this date, I can’t remember why I bought this game. When I bought it, I heard it was a James Bond game for the 64, and I heard it was going to be OK.

The day I bought it, I also bought the Special Edition VHS set of the Star Wars Trilogy. Maybe why I bring this up is nothing more than memory, but it also seems like something of a kismet. At that time I had never spent as much time on one thing (other than school and other things of actual life) than Star Wars. I bought it because I thought it would be a cool game to play. I had mild expectations (mind you this was before the real boom of the net where everyone was shouting about new things 60/60/24).

So the end of this flashback comes to an end with this last recollection.

My friends and I  been getting together the last weekends of the 97 summer to play Mario Kart 64. We were playing every Friday and Saturday before we went out. That night came and we were going to watch Star Wars, when we decided to play the multiplayer feature of Golden Eye.

We went to bed at 3 am.

We started at 6 pm.

There are few games that will ever cause a hush when you mention the title around people who play videogames. It’s something of a rare air that is like the reaction to art pieces in the canon to literati. They cause an awed silence, and if provoked, the people will give a long, unfocused diatribe about what they feel about the piece. It’s not quite a review, because it’s so gushing. It’s the critical response of having sex for the first time; it’s an experience you have so much joy, love, and sheer unprepared awe that when put into words, the spoken analysis is going to be both gushing and unfamiliar. You can try, but you can’t replicate the experience in words even with hyperbole.

I can think of few games that have done this.

The list:

Super Mario Brother 3: It’s all summed up with someone telling you “Mario can FLY. NOT ONLY THAT, he can become a frog.

Tetris: You can’t stop playing, even though it consists of fitting 6 blocks into a trench.

Grand Theft Auto 3: You can do ANYTHING. And playing it changed your temporary mindset so much that you kind of believed you could steal a car.

These games bring that hush. They evoke the same feeling of falling in love for the first time. You know you will be forever linked to something else.

I had an argument with a guy who designs games for a living. We talked about the best games of all time. We talked about Mario 3 and World, Super Metroid and Castelvainia SOTN, Final Fantasies 6 and 7 (I still love Tactics best of all), Tetris, River City Ransom, Halo, Doom, Tie Fighter, Metal Gear, and so on. But we both agreed, if given a game, on the most modern of all systems, we’d like to have the ability to play Goldeneye for the first time again.Goldeneye was not the first FPS (first person shooter), that title usually goes to Castle Wolfenstien, and was not the first FPS to become a massive hit (that would be Doom), but it was perhaps the first major console FPS that was done well enough to convert PC gamers over to a joystick. PC’s have buttons to spare when it comes to any kind of game, and the movement range provided by a mouse allows a 3-d perspective a single joystick can’t compare to. The limited number of buttons is the biggest drawback for any complex console game, and before the advent of the Playstation’s dual shock controller, all motion and view was limited to one stick and one thumb. Goldeneye was the first game to streamline the gameplay to a controller yet not limit the action by mapping the buttons and d-pads in a natural and effective fashion, allowing players to strafe by using the relatively pointless C-buttons of the 64 controller, and also managed to allow precise aiming from the D-stick by assigning dual use with the R button. It took what was the consoles biggest weakness for FPS games and turned into one of it’s strongest suits, people could learn the controls within minutes.

Goldeneye forever changed the FPS simply by fleshing out the gameplay. Most people saw FPS as 3-d fighting games, they were dumb, relatively mindless, and violent. Levels in the early games like of the genre, merely required finding Key Cards, getting bigger guns, and killing waves of enemies (usually either hell spawn or Nazi’s). Goldeneye featured puzzles that were best solved by stealth and not brute force, and it also created a truly interactive environment, which was effected by the characters action. Random gunfire could cause a radio to explode and end a mission, civilians could no longer be shot at without consequence, and in some missions, keeping a character alive was more important than killing your attackers.

The locations of the film led to very detailed and lush atmospheres to start upon, and some of the levels are 64 bit replicas with minutia to drive the inner geek in people wild. The second level starts in a ventilator shaft and forces the player to come out into a bathroom stall, just as Brosnan did in the film. While the witty banter of the film is sadly removed, this was the one of the first moments that took videogames closer to being a virtual, first person experience that was until such a moment, merely science fiction. The only other games I can think of are:

Shadow of the Empire (N64, 1996), in which the player lived the opening battle on Hoth from Empire Strikes Back. This always gets taken down a few notches, and rightly so, because the game didn’t go anywhere worthwhile after the first level, and has been a mandated level in any Star Wars game since.Sports Games, which until the next gen systems seemed like an updated electronic football game (the boards where the little men spun round and round). When Madden 2001 hit on the PS2, it was a jaw dropping experience, as passersby thought they were was a real game on the TV. The movie adaptation games before and 3 years after Goldeneye: While it’s easy to say that all of them sucked (Total Recall (NES), Goonies I and II (NES), some of the SNES movie licensed games were decent. But then again, E.T. is also the worst game ever made, and if one is so inclined to find proof, look for the landfill in New Mexico where 3 million or so of the cartridges lay to this date, slowly living a non bio-degradable life. (Insert own blowing dust joke here, and if you are witty enough, add a Kansas (the band) joke).Such details are one thing that is always worth including in a video game; they create a new ability to compare the real world to the world that is essentially now yours. But any programmer can copy the floor plan of The Brady Bunch home given enough time and enough motivation, be it chemical or fiduciary. Goldeneye succeeded then, and remains transcendent now because it fills in gaps in the source text with a bravura that Melville would adore.

Playing the game the first time is nothing short of a rush. Until one sees that a new mission is available, and that there are three more levels to play. The addition of alternate (for this game, they were Agent, Secret Agent, and 00 Agent) difficulties was not a new feature to Goldeneye, but it was the first game since The Legend of Zelda to make playing the game a second time as good as the first.

The first level on of the game on Agent was simple. Kill people, open a few doors, and then get to the spot to launch the bond jumping off a dam. Play it on 00 agent, and the level goes from a 2 minute intro to the game into a full fledged espionage thriller where a player has to set up bombs, take out security, and kill many more people (all three are a total gas).

Playing the game without playing on 00 agent is like a one night stand. It’s memorable, but there isn’t too much depth. When one is able to go through the game on the most difficult level, it’s doesn’t just force the player to be more aware, it introduces a new game, with a very steep learning curve.

Traversing through the game a second time is a gaming and learning experience, as the game was designed to remove the blast em all strategy that dominated the still young genre. Playing through the game a second or third time didn’t just take you deeper, it actually forced you to become a better player. There was a marked difference between the players who owned the game and those who just played at their friends house. So much so that people bought the system just to keep up.It’s no doubt that the system was successful because of this ONE game. In the same way the Playstation was big because of Resident Evil, the X-box because of Halo, (and systems like the Saturn, Dreamcast, GameCube, and the 360 are seen as less big) the 64 will always be tied to Goldeneye. It was the one game that was enough for people to buy the system. The 64 was one of my favorite systems, and has three of my top 10 games (Goldeneye, Mario 64, and Zelda (Majora’s and Ocarina) and arguably had a higher great to lousy game ratio than any system since or before it, but it was at best a mild success because it lacked the kind of games that bring in outside, casual gamers, while it’s rival, Playstation was full of games like Madden, Gameday, Twisted Metal, and Tekken. 

While the 64 was a system built with four controller outputs, it didn’t have many games that utilized it, and as shown with the GameCube’s reluctance to go online in favor of utilizing GBA hookups and focusing on single player and party type games, they continue to lose the ever aging base which grew up on the brand. Part of it saddens me, because Nintendo has stronger roots in both game design and loyalty than any other company out there, but as they continue to aim for the kids and the kid in all of us, they keep missing the mainstream. Nintendo is planning to include the ability to download the classics of past systems on the Wii, but it only serves to prove that the house which Mario built is still trying to recreate the past instead of adapting like they used to.

1997 was a revolutionary year for videogames. Two systems (PS and N64) just beginning to hit their strides, a year when ownership of systems in households hit an (then) all time high, and a year with an arsenal of games that pushed the barrier and finally started to challenge the view that videogames were “just for kids.” The other major game of 1997 was Final Fantasy VII. A lush 50+ hour adventure that introduced GCI cut scenes that were nothing short of awe-inspiring at the time, and like Resident Evil before it, a game that felt less like a game than it did a cinematic experience. Final Fantasy VII is an RPG (role playing game, which means it is a videogame extension of Dungeons and Dragons), and regardless of quality, it would be labeled a “nerd” game. Gaming would have undoubtedly evolved along the technology curve to a point where it is now. But to understand the impact of a game like Goldeneye is like looking at an alternate universe. Console games would likely be of only four genres:

1. Platform/adventures games (Mario Brothers)

2. Fighting Games (Street Fighter, wrestling games)

3. Jock games (Sim-sports, including racing)

4. RPG’s.

And I have talked about it a little, but Goldeneye was one of the most influential and successful games ever because of its own killer feature.

Multiplayer mode.

Goldeneye was so huge in terms of sales it started a shift to what gaming would become, and this was helped by the emergence of online play as well, as games were being made with more than one player in mind. Games since have integrated multiplayer modes, from co-op modes in games like Halo, to something as trivial as the Multiplayer modes in GTA: San Andreas, designers realized that the market was not just for single players, but people liked playing with friends just as much as they did by themselves.

For better or worse, the top sellers in the industry are multi player.

The follow-up game was Perfect Dark, a game that was in many ways better than Goldeneye. It had better level design, a deeper multiplayer mode that allowed for computer controlled players, and a slew of mini-games which added to the playing experience. But it lacks one thing, James Bond.

Kismet it was, as the success of the game was due to the ease to picking it up, the huge world which laid in it for the single player and his friends as well, but it still owes so much to the lore of Bond. The game did right by the legacy, perfectly translating the cinematic to the digital and honoring the legacy by including films like Moonraker and the Man with the Golden Gun in bonus levels.

But it goes back to Bond, because Goldeneye delivers on the Bond, James Bond experience and does so with a game that puts the player there. Games like Halo improved on the idea of the FPS, but all things being equal, I’d rather play Goldeneye. Part of it is nostalgia, but most of it is due to the game itself, as it provides the very essence of what videogames are about, transportation to virtual interactive dreamscapes where one gets to be everything they want to—because in the real world they could never–be.  

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