GoldenEye or GoldenEyedol? Has the Classic Shooter Still Got the Juice?
My relationship with GoldenEye for Nintendo 64 has always been complicated – as a game in and of itself, it is unrivalled as one of (maybe THE) most important first person shooters available on a home console, it premiered some of the key elements that became such a mainstay of future shooters, mainly split screen multiplayer but also an emphasis on stealth elements in favour of the mindless shooting of so many other games in the genre.
As a James Bond tie-in however, the argument can be made that it has drowned out any other conversation about what can be done with the licence – everyone just wants another GoldenEye, when some of the other James Bond games that followed show how much variety the licence really offers. And let’s be perfectly honest, when you ask GoldenEyedolisers what is even so special about the game, what usually follows are a checklist of the same stock answers: “Splitscreen multiplayer!” “I stayed up all night in college playing it!” “Proximity mines!” “You could decide if you wanted to be stealthy or go in all guns blazing!”. As a snot-nosed PlayStation ruffian who didn’t own an N64 in the 90s, it has been difficult to decipher what all the fuss is about when the praise feels like it could apply to dozens of games (some of which also star James Bond!).
With the release of GoldenEye for Nintendo Switch and Xbox, now seemed to be the ideal time to decide once and for all if the game truly is a timeless classic or if nostalgia has blinded a generation of millennials.
The first and most important step in this experiment is to remap the controls – while I’ve often attempted to wander back down the lane of other peoples’ memories, the cumbersome N64 controller has proven a harder puzzle to crack than Blofeld’s whereabouts, and much like a career as a Double-O, there are no rewards for bravery. Doing away with the confoundingly strange 1990s tank controls was the first order of the day. To do so, switch the in-built control scheme in the game’s menu to “1.2 Solitaire” and then manually swap the C-stick and the analog stick around in your controller mapping settings – it sounds more complicated than it is, but it makes the experience far more akin to playing a modern console FPS (even if the ability to move the camera up and down is arguably redundant). The only aspect of the control system which is unavoidably dated is the precision-aiming system activated by the shoulder buttons – a tiny, very fiddly little red targeting reticle appears on the screen and rather than staying where you’ve pointed, you have to very carefully hold the analog stick in place with a surgeon’s precision or risk the reticle resetting to its original point.
One of the very first aspects of GoldenEye’s presentation a new player will notice is its stellar sound design – the thundering crack of 007’s PPK (or ‘Silenced PP7’ as it’s so cautiously renamed here) is incredible, as is the old-school “KERRRANNG!” of bullets ricocheting. While the hordes of enemies look like blocky stacks of pixelated potatoes with temporary tattoos for faces, there is something really charming and unique about how the game’s surprisingly impressive ragdoll physics react to specific limbs being shot – it’s clear that a lot of thoughtful consideration went into these animations, as opposed to modern shooters where everything feels like it was pulled from a library. The game’s Grant Kirkthorpe music is so legendary that it convinced people that the reviled score from the film is secretly brilliant – it isn’t. Where Eric Serra’s undercooked experimentation and inconsistent themes frustrate, Kirkthorpe’s lively samplings delight. Kirkthorpe is refreshingly humble in describing his efforts – a recent Twitter interaction had him reveal to a group of stunned fans that the iconic pause music (a sort of lounge café version of Monty Norman’s Bond theme) was something he threw together in 20 minutes.
Further Reading | No Time for GoldenEye: The Best James Bond Games That Aren’t GoldenEye.
The levels in GoldenEye are generally faithful to the film with some acceptable deviations (Robbie Coltrane’s character makes a random cameo appearance from inside a shipping container, instead of the memorable exchange in the film) but therein lies the problem – GoldenEye the film is an often murky, unglamorous, frigid film full of facilities, corridors, control centres and graveyards. The James Bond ‘tone’ can be tricky to get just right and the games had an uncomfortable tendency of Ramboizing a character who only occasionally resorted to firing guns – an easy decision when so much of the Pierce Brosnan era had Bond running into militaristic rooms with automatic weapons blaring. This could have led to a very bland-looking and repetitive shooter.
What prevents GoldenEye 64 from descending into the Schwarzenegger insanity of some of EA and Activision’s Bond games is in its unique approach to some (although not all) of its levels – depending on the player’s level of skill, a primitive form of stealth can be used in lieu of pouring machine gun fire all over the screen. Quiet, precise headshots from Bond’s silenced pistol can be far more powerful and valuable than the roar of an AK-47. The open-world feel of the levels is also unique and something the later, more polished (and ultimately more linear) games struggled with – in several cases there are entire side-missions and elements (such as the parked tank in the ‘Runway’ mission) in GoldenEye that can only be discovered by chance on repeat play. This subtle, organic sprinkling of Easter Egg elements really create an atmosphere of improvisation not unlike you’d get in a Bond film, where later games’ attempts at switching up the gameplay can feel like the developers (or in some cases, literally John Cleese) screaming at you to marvel at what they’ve included. And while stealth in games is hardly unique to GoldenEye, it really hasn’t been done quite as well in the subsequent James Bond games, even the really good ones.
Equally of note is how the limitations of GoldenEye’s hardware may have resulted in a cleaner narrative experience – where later games would have Judi Dench roaring into Bond’s ear for the entire mission, in GoldenEye clear mission objectives are provided prior to the mission, with no additional hand-holding for the duration of the levels. Admittedly, the game’s primitive graphical presentation can make it challenging to decipher what blocky elements of the Duplo-blox environment are even interactive at all, but there is something a bit more satisfying about having to pore through the level with sheer investigative prowess as opposed to tediously following directional markers and icons.
While the PS One Bond games made ample use of both pre-rendered cutscenes and even FMV sequences from the Brosnan era films on which the games were based, every single cutscene in GoldenEye appears to happen using the game’s engine and accompanying text boxes. Again this feels like a consequence of the technology, but in my limited interactions with the game as a child, there was something undeniably more involving seeing the story unfold this way, in the world of the game, as opposed to the interjection of a completely different medium. It made you feel like you were part of something; making the story feel more important overall – this may explain why the film is so beloved in the pantheon of Bond films. The legacy of the game undeniably propelled the film’s popularity with it, introducing the very concept of Bond films to a new generation of fans.
One of the most irritating things you’ll hear GoldenEye fans say when they’re describing the untouched quality of the game is that it’s hard to even describe; that it just feels amazing to play. For a newcomer trying to come to grips with its creaky old controls, this can be a remark worthy of a Roger Moore eyebrow raise, but having finally played it on my own terms I’m beginning to appreciate the sentiment. A combination of the game’s lack of aiming crosshair and the primitive auto-aim results in far more of an illusory movie-like experience where you’re actually shooting bad guys in a James Bond movie as opposed to pointing little red dots at polygons – again it helps that the sound design is so notably strong, that the ragdoll physics are so charming and that the levels are so intricate. All of these elements working together in unison result in an imperceptible alchemy that can win over even the most seasoned Call of Duty enthusiast (or 007 NightFire connoisseur). And while the polish and the pizazz of future Bond games may have exploited the licence more effectively overall, they never quite captured the Rare mechanical charm of this accidental classic. GoldenEye was famously made by a very small group of developers and this affords it the rare fabergé egg of licensed games: a soul. While no game is without flaws, even the game’s odd choices add to its indie charm and replayability. For England James? No, for me.