It’s somewhat difficult to make a case for Goldeneye 007 now. At its release in 1997, it was the most exciting game to hit the market. The first-person shooter was already one of the hottest genres at the time, and Goldeneye 007 threw out a lot of the things we expected from one and built something completely new. Not only that, it layered on extra features in a way we just don’t see today.
However, it has aged like a fine mayonnaise. I don’t think I could, in good conscience sit someone down in front of it and try to convince them that this was the greatest game of 1997. Games like Ocarina of Time and Metal Gear Solid; you can still see what made them exciting, but Goldeneye 007; it’s just a mess. A blurry, stuttery mess.
FOR ENGLAND JAMES?
Goldeneye was the first Bond movie featuring Pierce Brosnan, and it maybe wasn’t the best Bond movie, but I felt that it made up for plot deficiencies with a unique style. It involved the fall of the Soviet Union, their leftover superweapons, and a dude with a grudge against 007. It was also the first one to feature Judy Dench as M, which was fantastic.
First-person shooters at the time largely followed the key hunting formula pioneered by Wolfenstein 3D. You were placed in a level and you needed to scour it for keys to move into new areas and eventually find the exit. There are some outliers to this formula, such as 1994’s System Shock, but the most popular ones like Doom, Duke Nukem 3D, and Quake all followed this routine.
Rare could have just done this. At the time, no one would have questioned why Bond was gunning his way through movie-themed levels, but they went a different route. Rather than just claiming a key atop a pile of bodies, Goldeneye 007 gives you a list of objectives to accomplish in each level, and to make things juicier, the higher the difficulty, the more you’re tasked to do to reach your goal.
Rather than being set up in a campaign or episodic format, Goldeneye 007 presents you with a series of missions. You begin each one with only your pre-arranged armaments and a list of objectives. Many of them you can approach using stealth, but when you’re cover’s blown, you generally have to fight your way through.
Objectives are rather diverse. Sometimes you have to find a certain character or item, destroy something, or gather intel. Some of this recreates scenes from the movie, but most of it is unique to the game.
There are also no cutscenes, which is bizarre to think about for a movie adaptation. Missions are provided through dossiers that bookend the actual level, and there’s very little dialogue. Usually, when you encounter a character with something to say, it’s, like, six sentences at the very maximum.
It was also rather early in the days of polygonal 3D. The PC was still the bastion of the FPS, and 3D accelerators were just slowly catching on at the time. It’s obvious that this excited Rare, because a lot about the game oozes the question, “what is something new we can do with this technology?” The answer the hardware gave was “please dial it back”, but it’s still interesting to see the detail they pumped into it until steam started erupting from the cartridge.
The feature that impresses me to this day is the reactiveness of the enemies. If you shoot them in the hand, they’ll try and shake off the pain. Put a bullet in their knee and they’ll grab at it in pain. For a long time during that period, there wasn’t any of this sort of reactivity. Look at Half-Life 2 years later. Enemies barely flinch as you feed them bullets, then they just suddenly ragdoll. Goldeneye 007 let you shoot the hats off them. When you shoot them square in the butt, they’ll do a little hop. It’s amazing.
Explosions also grow as you feed more grenades into them and smoke lingers in the air. This drags down the framerate. Four-player split-screen drags down the framerate. More than one enemy shooting at you at one time drags down the framerate. Goldeneye 007 is stunningly unstable. At times, it feels like you’re pushing through water. It seems to move in slow motion.
It’s part of what makes Goldeneye 007 feel aged. Not only that, the graphics are insanely blurry. A lot of N64 games suffered from this, but in Goldeneye 007, sometimes it’s hard to tell what you’re looking at. The graphics aren’t bad for its vintage, but it’s like someone smeared coconut oil across the screen.
This is the worst in later, darker stages like the train depot and the jungle. Enemies will start shooting at you out of the murky backgrounds before you can even tell that they’re present. This was the worst back in the ’90s. Once sunlight hit the CRT screen, you might have just been looking at a map of the stars. At certain points, I’d rely on the auto-aim to alert me of an enemy’s presence, since the gun on-screen would point towards them. What else can you do?
There are also some weird flaws, like the fact that you can’t shoot through dying enemies, but their comrades can. So the guy in front is giving his Shakespearian death soliloquy, and everyone behind him is using him as a one-way shield. It becomes aggravating as they pile up.
The escort missions are legendarily bad. My cousins and I used to call Natalia the zombie lady because she lumbers along, completely unaware of her surroundings. She’s tough, but she has no self-preservation, so she just drops after soaking up enough bullets from both you and the enemies.
NATALIA THE ZOMBIE LADY
The level design has a case of osteoporosis, as well. I’ve learned them so well over the years that I don’t remember how confusing they can be because they’re indelibly etched into my mind. They’re somewhat linear, guiding you to your objectives, but only to a point. Sometimes you just have to open every door until you find what you’re looking for or guess at what the game is telling you. Where the heck do you find telemetric data, and are you telling me this thing I’m photographing isn’t a satellite? The harder difficulties don’t just present more of a challenge from the enemies, they’re also a lot more cryptic.
It can get frustrating. Later levels pile enemies onto you, and, once again, unless you’re carrying one of the weapons powerful enough to blast through enemies and doors, a pile-up can lead to situations where you’re overwhelmed. I mean, okay, I was able to get through the hardest difficulties back when I was, like, 10, but I was also a lot more patient then. It takes practice, luck, and memorization, and it’s hard to gather those things with a game that runs like drowned Buick.
ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE
The multi-player is what most people reflect back on, but I kind of don’t. I mean, I remember it, but I played it so much that I had every level memorized for its spawn points and it was unfair. My sister once brought her high school friends home to get wrecked by a grade-schooler. I was like a sideshow, or maybe it was just one of the very few ways my sister was proud of me. Dare I dream?
There’s a tonne of modes, levels, and characters to play as. Personally, I liked the mode “Man with the Golden Gun,” where the titular golden gun is hidden in the level. It kills in one hit, but picking it up puts you on everybody’s radar. So, it was a bit of risk and reward. No one would play it with me, though, because one golden shot means another poor victim has come to a glittering end.
But again, the multi-player is dated, and probably only worthwhile for nostalgia reasons. It can be fun getting some old friends together for slappers only, but I don’t think a new player would stay engaged for long.
I need you to understand, I spend much of my time wading through old games and enjoying them like they just came out; it’s a big deal for me to say a game is dated. I’m chrono-agnostic, so it breaks my heart to say when a game just doesn’t hold up. But that’s Goldeneye 007. It pushed the N64 too far, and while it was worth wading through its murky visuals and sludge-like framerate back in ‘97, it’s difficult to nowadays. If any game would benefit heavily from a remaster, this is the one.
Unfortunately, licensing issues have prevented this from happening. Rare had a near-complete Xbox Live Arcade version, but Nintendo wouldn’t sign off on it. We got something close to a sequel towards the end of the N64’s lifespan, Perfect Dark. It took what Goldeneye 007 did, improved it in a lot of ways, then made the same mistake of pushing the N64 to its limits. Thankfully, that did get an XBLA update and it helped immensely. I should maybe bring up the fact that Activision went another route and fully-remade Goldeneye 007 for Wii (and later PS3 and 360), but it’s really nothing like its N64 predecessor. It was “modernized,” and while it’s not bad, it’s nowhere near as special as the original.
And it is special. It played a part in moving the FPS genre away from its key-hunting roots. Halo would have an arguably bigger impact on the genre in 2001, but it also had an easier formula to replicate. A game like Goldeneye; that takes some real effort, and the closest modern equivalent is the immersive sim genre. Still, I’m hoping that we one day get a true Goldeneye remaster. We just need Microsoft, Nintendo, Amazon, EON, and whoever else to play nice for a minute.
This review was conducted on an N64 with a cartridge copy of the game. The author got it for their birthday a long, long time ago.