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38 Features

History Lesson: GoldenEye 007

By Matthew Castle on Sunday May 11th 2014 at 2:00 AM PDT

GoldenEye, along with Mario Kart, is the reason you probably still have your N64.

It's the reason you take the considerably battered - but still miraculously intact - machine out of the attic every couple of years, blow in the cartridge slot to magically make the game work, and then flick it on for a few hours of multiplayer magic with three friends, none of whom are allowed to play as Oddjob.

It's the reason everyone got very excited about the possibility of a remake, and was ultimately disappointed when it came and could never match up to the memories of the original. GoldenEye nostalgia is more valuable than, well, gold.

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We don't need to tell you why it was so good. You probably already know it was a mystical confluence of forces, from the game's many innovative features to the simple but undeniable pleasure of seeing Sean Bean's Northern head inside a game.

What you might not know, however, is that it was almost an on-rails shooter. And it was initially going to be on the SNES. We'll never know how that 16-bit shooter would have turned out, but it's hard to imagine it being anywhere near as vital as one of the games that defined the N64.

Despite the legacy, however, GoldenEye 007's success was hardly certain at the time: the development team working on it was pretty inexperienced, and it did have that whole movie tie-in aroma to it, a smell rarely associated with worthwhile games.

Rare, known at the time as Rareware, had already proven itself with the Donkey Kong Country series, but no one had made a good James Bond title yet. Hardly an auspicious start.

To make matters potentially worse, the multiplayer mode (widely considered the best part of GoldenEye) was merely an afterthought, the bulk of its development being done by a single man. Steve Ellis took a single-player stealth game and somehow managed to convert it into one of the most enduring deathmatch modes in game history. He deserves a knighthood.

While Ellis was busy, the other guys on the team were embellishing the film's plot, adding extra locations and shoehorning in a totally incongruous Aztec level, seemingly just as an excuse to have Live And Let Die's Baron Samedi in the game.

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And yet none of this liberty-taking with the story, or the one-man-made multiplayer, stopped the game being a critical and commercial hit when it was released in 1997. It earned two BAFTAs the following year: one for the game itself, and another for the talented team behind it.

A follow-up was inevitable, but as Rare had no intention of creating a tie-in for Tomorrow Never Dies (and as EA gobbled up the Bond licence soon after) what choice was the developer left with but to come up with an entirely new franchise?

Perfect Dark was GoldenEye's 'spiritual sequel', words that here mean 'we own the rights to this one, even if we haven't got Bond'. Not only was its stealthy shooting extremely similar, but there were also characters and weapons that directly referenced 007's finest console outing to date.

However, Rare also took the opportunity to make some bold changes to the formula. The protagonist was now a woman - still rare in first-person shooters in 2000 - while the game's sci-fi trappings meant that pixelly blobs with Robbie Coltrane's face on were replaced by secret agents and cranially bulbous aliens. A fair trade-off, in our opinion.

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Although Perfect Dark didn't have quite the same impact as its predecessor, refinements to the engine - and, of course, the limitless power of the N64 Expansion Pak - meant it featured some serious improvements, notably two-player co-op and a greater degree of customisation during multiplayer sessions. It's probably in your attic as well, sandwiched between Blast Corps and Banjo-Kazooie.

Rare's contribution ends there, but the games don't. EA tried, and failed, to capitalise on GoldenEye's success with the unrelated GoldenEye: Rogue Agent, while many former Rare staff went on to create TimeSplitters, which inherited GoldenEye's irreverent spirit and excellent multiplayer.

As for the original, a licensing dispute means it's unlikely to get a digital re-release any time soon, while 2010's GoldenEye on Wii (and its subsequent HE Reloaded version on Xbox 360 and PS3) was too different to be considered a proper remake.

And this, of course, is the real reason you keep that dusty cartridge in your loft: because, for now at least, it's the only way to legally play one of the most important first-person shooters ever made.

Additional reporting: Chris Scullion


The Golden Age

Everyone who played through GoldenEye fondly remembers its 18 single-player stages (or 20, if you were good enough to unlock the bonus ones).

Have a gander through every stage and have a little grin to yourself as the memories come flooding back.

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