GoldenEye 20th Anniversary Retrospective

Good news, folks – I replayed GoldenEye, and it’s still great.

But twenty years ago we weren’t expecting anything from GoldenEye. As much as it is now revered as a platinum-coated classic, Rare’s stealth-’em-up appropriately came out of nowhere. Hopes were not high for a movie license, yet Rare and Nintendo’s magic created a game that defined console shooters for a generation.

Be Bond

The genius of GoldenEye was in putting you in James Bond’s tux, handing you a silenced PPK and a range of mini-sandboxes in which to use it. This is a Bond simulator, not a video game straining to be a Bond movie.

Nintendo and Super Mario 64’s open worlds were influential. Each mission in GoldenEye comes with multiple layered objectives, but no “right” way to accomplish these. And you get more objectives as you work up through the difficulty levels. “Agent” remains a breeze. “Secret Agent” starts to test you. Passing your high school exams? Too easy – I’m training to beat the Cradle on “00 Agent”.

It could have been different. Rare was inspired by Virtua Cop, and had envisioned GoldenEye as an on-rails shooter. You can still see some Virtua Cop in GoldenEye’s red crosshairs, taking advantage of the Nintendo 64’s analog stick and used for precision aiming. But everything flows from there.

GoldenEye, unlike its contemporaries Doom or Quake, was not defined by kinetic, fast-paced action. GoldenEye gives the player (some) time to line up all-important lethal headshots, rather than constantly blasting away at bad guys. Silenced shooting and sniping are particular standouts in GoldenEye.

Operation Stealth

GoldenEye was (to my knowledge) the first game to incorporate one-hit kills by targeting enemies’ heads. And it’s clearly not easy for designers to program, if subsequent struggles with collision detection are any indication.

Also tell me if I’m wrong about GoldenEye being the first FPS to build-in stealth as a vital gameplay hook.

How stealth is baked into the level design is another standout. A first-person shooter lives or dies by its level design, and GoldenEye’s eighteen missions, plus two unlockable levels, are superb. Within these twenty missions, GoldenEye mixes up the gameplay. Levels are intricate and varied, ranging from wide-open “surface” levels that have you roaming around Siberia silently picking off distant guards with sniper rifles, to tight espionage sections such as the Facility or Bunker missions, with the player sneaking around winding corridors of secret bases, planting bugs, deactivating computers, and generally messing up the villains’ plans for world domination.

And there are wall-to-wall action set-pieces – see the Archives escape, or the tank chase through St. Petersburg. There are special weapons – remote mines that need to be attached to vats of chemicals and detonated using Bond’s watch. Cameras can be shot out, hostages need rescuing, and a frustrating sidekick can help or hinder you.

GoldenEye challenges you, forces you to adapt: the second Bunker level throws you into a Siberian prison, stripped of your silenced Walther, requiring you to make cautious use of the KF7 Soviet’s single-shot function to pick off guards one-by-one.

My favorite level is the Silo – this has it all. The silenced PP7 is good for knocking out the first few troops; after that it’s an against-the-clock scramble to save scientists, photograph the GoldenEye satellite, plant C4 explosives, and mow down waves of Soviet troops as the base goes nuts.

An admission then: after replaying GoldenEye, I realized the game is less stealth-based than I remembered. Bond’s silenced PP7 is still the weapon of choice, but missions get hectic real quick, with bad guys swarming corridors. Levels follow a pattern: like Bond, the intent is to go in quickly and quietly, but things get messy and you’ll need to draw on a KF7 Soviet to fight your way out.

In an era in which replayability is judged on whether a game has 1,000 useless trophies to vacuum up, GoldenEye has practically infinite replay value. It’s not only good fun to run through the levels again: the twenty varied, layered missions here are amongst some of gaming’s most compelling.

Q Branch

Today’s first-person shooters have no focus, no balance. Games like Destiny feature bewildering RPG-levels of statistics for hundreds of weapons – all ultimately pointless, since you’re often forced to whittle these down to two or three choices.

Balanced weapon sets were another of Rare’s design triumphs. GoldenEye’s guns are based on real-life weapons (albeit with made-up names – the KF7 Soviet in place of an AK-47), with specific uses for each mission. Like Q, Rare focused the player on the tools needed to complete the mission – a sniper rifle, with its zoom function, is invaluable in outdoor levels, while silenced pistols and rifles are crucial in close quarters and hostage rescue missions.

As the enemies get more aggressive, more powerful guns like the ZMG (Uzi) and D5K Deutsche come into play. And that KF7 Soviet remains one of the most versatile weapons in video gaming – a single-shot can be fired using the aim mode and a light squeeze of the trigger, or you can hold the button down for a loud and satisfying round of automatic fire.

There’s a hefty feel to the weapons – handguns such as 007’s Walther pack a punch, as does the aforementioned KF7, with its rattling, kicking effect. Even the scenery feels like a integral part of the experience – crates can be blown up, glass shatters, shots whine and leave behind smoking bullet holes, and the world shudders convincingly when an explosion goes off. GoldenEye has a visceral feel.

Four Your Eyes Only

Still easy to pick-up and play, you can get to grips with GoldenEye using only the stick to move and Z-trigger to shoot.

Controls were a major factor in the multiplayer mode’s accessibility. Until Metroid Prime came along, GoldenEye was the right way to control a shoot-’em-up. Later console FPS games would rely on dual-stick movement and aiming, which has always felt unwieldy to me, requiring constant grappling with the joypad.

A console is not set-up to emulate WASD keyboard-and-mouse movement. GoldenEye’s single analog stick to move and turn feels more natural. (Admittedly looking up and down remains clunky). And that Z button is perfectly positioned for your trigger finger.

GoldenEye was the gateway multiplayer game for high school and college kids of this era. Countless childhood friendships came close to destruction because of this game.

And it’s unbelievable to think that multiplayer was an afterthought, according to designer Martin Hollis – thrown into the final game within the last six weeks of coding! That GoldenEye maintained decent frame rates in four-player split-screen mode was an amazing technical feat by Rare.

As with the deliberate pace of the single-player mode, GoldenEye deathmatches were not twitchy run-and-gun battles. Contests relied on your ability to remain calm under pressure, to aim for headshots, and to think and move tactically – with everyone crowded around one screen, there was nowhere to hide (or camp).

Rare ensured the multiplayer options were as finely balanced as the single player. Weapon sets featured a range of guns, but nothing that would tip matches too far in favor of one player. Arenas were open and gave players room to breathe: you never seemed to respawn too near your friends-turned-enemies.

The array of options also enabled players to mix and match weapons, teams, and settings. Our personal favorite was the test of nerve: License to Kill (one hit kills), Basement, Pistols, with auto aim disabled.

Today you get either a single player campaign with multiplayer tacked on, or a predominantly online multiplayer game with a token campaign option. GoldenEye excelled at both.

Pay attention, 007

Rare had a 007 fan’s eye for details. Even the mission select screen was designed for you to see the world through Bond’s eyes, reviewing confidential mission dossiers marked “OHMSS”. Reading the briefings keeps you in character – a preferred design choice over cut-scenes that might have featured a voice actor badly impersonating Pierce Brosnan’s brogue.

Rare’s care for the source material is clear. GoldenEye sticks closely to the plot of the movie, and fills out the game with missions that we didn’t see on-screen. Rare worked closely with the production team to ensure GoldenEye’s design lined up with the film. When we’re introduced to Pierce Brosnan in the opening scenes, there’s a shot where he descends stairs from a bathroom that is clearly identical to the layout of the Facility level. It’s a little thing, but shows how much eye for detail went into the game.

And everything in-game immerses the player in the world of 007. The famous searchlight/gun barrel sequence launches the game – also referenced when blood flows down the screen after dying in single or multiplayer modes.

There’s the top secret briefings with your mission details. Bond’s classic Omega watch turns up, acting as a pause screen and inventory (and detonator for remote mines), while the movie’s other gadgets, including timed mines and watch laser, also make appearances.

Motion feels real. There is a subtle head wave, a bob in your movement, that makes the game feel lifelike. That’s magnified with the sway of your sniper rifle, making lining up that critical headshot all the more tense. These are little motions that other first-person shooters neglect.

The visuals, after twenty years, don’t hold up as well. Character models are a bit blocky up-close. But GoldenEye’s animation remains impressive. Bad guys move realistically, providing visual cues to take cover as they raise their weapons to take aim. But they retain the capacity to surprise you, evading bullets with little ducks and rolls.

In fact, the animation in GoldenEye remains so strong that it embarrasses the last two decades of ragdoll physics – technically more sophisticated, yet flimsy and unconvincing. The way that Bond baddies react to where they’ve been shot has rarely been matched in video gaming.

Shaken and Stirred

GoldenEye’s music was as much a highlight as the graphics. To understand Rare’s challenge in pulling together a coherent score for the game, you have to understand Eric Serra’s unconventional score for the movie.

When James Bond returned after a few years in limbo, Eric Serra attempted something different for his score. And if you thought George Lazenby was the odd one out, then Serra’s soundtrack is even odder. GoldenEye the movie is all weird synth-infused thumping drums and electronic echoes and ambient noises:

While entertaining in places, Serra’s music fits 007 about as well as Sir Roger Moore’s banana yellow jumpsuit from The Spy Who Loved Me.

And yet Rare were able to take the basic elements from Eric Serra’s arrangement – including that distinctive echoing “pow” sound – and improve upon it. Graeme Norgate and the Rare designers made greater use of the Monty Norman James Bond theme, weaving the famous notes throughout the game:

The Eric Serra electronica is still there, but now wrapped around the James Bond theme. Rare also struck the right balance in not relying too much on that famous riff. The result is a spy soundtrack that is a perfect complement to the game and movie – ambient and eerie for that feeling of espionage, and pacy and dramatic without being intrusive.

And with the Omega watch pause screen music Rare even paid tribute to the fan favorite Parodi and Fair GoldenEye trailer:

There’s no shame in saying you’ve lost a step.

Nostalgia can’t disguise GoldenEye’s problems though. The controls are creaking now, having been surpassed by Metroid Prime and others. The limitations of the N64 joypad are clear – another analog stick would have been helpful, as those tiny yellow C-buttons do not lend themselves to looking and strafing. Rare seemed to recognize this, compensating the player with a forgiving auto aim function, your gun drifting towards the nearest enemy roughly in line of sight.

Frame rates take a hit: Rare pushed the Nintendo 64 too far, though not as far Perfect Dark! Graphics are a bit blocky, and the N64’s infamous muddy textures are in evidence.

And for me, a constant irritation with stealth: how much noise can you get away with? This is especially true in the tight quarters of the Bunker or Archives, where timing makes the difference – one headshot here or there goes unnoticed, but a few bullets in quick succession seem to bring the entire Soviet army in on top of you.

Double-Oh Heaven

Trevelyan: Half of everything is luck.

Bond: … and the other half?

Trevelyan: Fate.

Things came together in 1997: a talented British developer that took on the massive challenge of creating a good licensed video game, guided by the gameplay-focused Nintendo, and taking advantage of a powerful new console and analog controller. GoldenEye was a massive change in the gaming world.

Why was GoldenEye so groundbreaking?

I think part of this is the obvious thing, the thing we take for granted – a first-person shooter that took design inspiration from the famously non-violent Nintendo and created a flawless split-screen mode. GoldenEye in four-player stands up to any online shooter today as an intense multiplayer experience. And multiplayer made this the go-to N64 game. Perfect Dark dislodged GoldenEye for a while, but we always went back. Rare crafted a template for an entire generation of multiplayer titles.

The other part was the sheer depth of the single player missions. I can’t think of many console FPS titles that have been as ambitious. Levels combined quick bouts of action, long-range exploring and sniping, and careful spying and stealthing. There is a freeing, free-roaming approach to the design that pairs well with brilliantly realized, weighty weapons.

All this is packaged in cinematic James Bond ambience, putting you in character as the famous spy, surrounding you with a soundtrack inspired by the GoldenEye movie as well as the old John Barry scores. And while the graphics may be showing their age, the realistic movement and animation remain impressive.

GoldenEye was, and still is, a high concept video game that asks: what would it be like to be James Bond? Rare and Nintendo answered that question brilliantly – nobody, as Carly Simon sang, does it better.

6 responses to “GoldenEye 20th Anniversary Retrospective

  1. I was late to the party when it came to GoldenEye but once I started playing I couldn’t stop. It amazed me at the time that such a fully featured shooter could even work on a console. And it was fun too. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I could never get in to this game. I’m really terrible at first person shooters and I was so bad it was never fun to play. But everyone else loved it so I always tried to force it and fake it. It didn’t work!


  3. Pingback: Responding to My Sunshine Blogger Award Nomination | Extra Life·

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