When the Nintendo 64 was released it blew people away with the groundbreaking Super Mario 64 and the graphically impressive Pilotwings 64. Unfortunately that was the ENTIRE launch lineup; two games. Back in those early days of the Nintendo 64 it seemed like console owners were constantly waiting for the next release while enduring one delay after another. Although the machine was greeted with a lot of hype and enthusiasm, interest began to wane as there were huge gaps between titles shipping and entire genres were ignored while the Sony PlayStation quenched gamers collective thirst for new experiences.
In August of 1997 fortunes changed for the Nintendo 64 as GoldenEye 007 was quietly released without hype or fanfare. It did not take long for it’s reputation as a fantastic game to spread by word of mouth. Console owners were thirsty for another AAA game and GoldenEye delivered in spades. Before long retailers were scrambling to restock copies and shortages were prevalent.
Before it’s release, there was not much interest in the game by the media or gamers. Movie based games have historically been some of the worst offerings available on any console and because of several delays this game would not be shipped until nearly two years after Pierce Brosnan made his Bond debut in theaters. Second party developer Rare was also not a known commodity at this point and early conceptions for the game were of an on-rails shooter similar to Virtua Cop.
Next Generation Magazine in May of 1997 described the game briefly as follows: “From second party developers, Rare comes Goldeneye 007 an over the shoulder game based on the James Bond series. The game promises to be a blend of action and puzzle solving and is another of the original Ultra 64 games suffering from persistent delays.” That’s it. The blurb certainly didn’t do anything to build anticipation for the game.
As I described in my write up of Wave Race 64 I hadn’t even heard of the game until the Autumn of 1997. I will never forget the experience however. A friend of mine invited me and several other people over to his house to stay for the weekend. One of his pals brought over his N64 and compliment of games. The game I was most eager to see in action was Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire as I was a fan of the franchise and wanted to see if the game was worth the purchase. Apparently I wasn’t alone as most of the other kids were excited to see Shadows as well and we played for several hours to begin the day. Man those kids sucked at games too. I vividly recall their incompetence as they got lost in Gall Spaceport and couldn’t finish the Sewers of Imperial City. Losers.
Then someone suggested we play a multiplayer game and popped in GoldenEye. Nobody seemed very interested at first. James Bond wasn’t a key player for my generation yet to be honest. In a way, this game increased interest in the franchise more than any movie could have. Several of us had seen GoldenEye but it was just a movie. That changed rather quickly. As a group the experience blew our collective socks off. The four player death matches we had that evening were some of the most fun I’ve ever had as a gamer. By the next morning every kid at that house knew they needed to have GoldenEye and I was certainly no exception.
I asked my mom if we could stop at a Target on the way home so I could pick up the game. Unfortunately it was out of stock and would be for the next half year or so. For months I actively searched for the game to no avail as it’s spot on the store shelves was routinely empty. In the interim I purchased several other games that were a poor substitute for Goldeneye, all of which I unfairly have an unfavorable opinion of as a result. It wasn’t until the spring of 1998 that I would finally get my hands on a copy of GoldenEye and promptly play it every afternoon for weeks. In spite of all that time I never did finish the game on Secret Agent or 00 Agent. Those later levels where you have to protect Natalya from gun fire were my demise. At least I wasn’t alone. Natalya was the bane of gamers worldwide in the late 90’s, stupidly walking directly into gunfire and getting hung up on walls.
Although I never put in the time to master the game to it’s full completion, everyone knew that kid who had dedicated all of their spare time to playing and could navigate all of the corridors with their eyes closed. I had a pal at school that was able to beat all but one level on 00 Agent without any kind of cheats or aids. His only hang up was in the Egyptian Temple where he could not figure out the path to take to retrieve the golden gun. For those unaware, in that final level in the game the player must successfully step onto specific tiles ala Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade to retrieve the golden gun. Failure to take the correct path results in the gun becoming inaccessible and four automatic machine guns emerging to obliterate the player. For his birthday in late spring of 1998 he asked for a single present: the official GoldenEye 007 Strategy Guide. In those pre-mainstream internet days what else was a gamer to do? In essence a $20 book was purchased to solve a single element of a single level. Man I miss those days sometimes.
GoldenEye was the culmination of the perfect storm. Most of it’s development staff had never worked on a video game before which meant they had no experience; but conversely they had no preconceived notions about how a game should be created. Originally the game was supposed to be a platformer for the SNES but since the 16 bit platform was on it’s last legs by that point a decision was made to move development over to the Ultra 64 and make it a shooter. Beginning as an on rails shooter the team decided instead to change the format over to a first person free roaming game which retained elements of the on rails style. Penalties for shooting civilians, the concept of reloading your weapon, and an alternate aiming system by holding the R button were leftovers from the on rails concept. Yes, before GoldenEye FPS games typically did not require the player to reload their weapon but simply to collect enough ammo as possible and fire until the entire cache was empty. In fact, originally the method for the player to reload the gun was to physically remove the rumble pak from the controller and click it back into place; a concept that was fortunately dropped. The idea to have multiple objectives within the same level was lifted from Super Mario 64. Level design itself was done “backwards” so to speak. Each stage was designed first to mimic sets from the movie with “off screen” areas created by the developers to make it more lifelike. Then a beginning and an end for each stage were selected. Finally, objectives were created and dropped into each level as well as items that could be used to achieve those goals. Developing the stage in this manner meant that they would be very non-linear and would have special areas and paths which had no bearing on completion.
Other FPS games of the day were pure slaughter fests where the player would navigate through a variety of corridors, accumulate a few keys, and make their way to the end of the stage while obliterating everyone in sight. What made Goldeneye different was it’s reliance on stealth and it’s varied level objectives. Rather than running around a maze searching for keys the player was tasked with planting modem’s, snapping photos, placing explosives for later detonation etc. Although one could play by taking everyone out, shots and explosions alert other enemies throughout the level while a tripped alarm will result in infinitely spawning opposition. A skilled gamer is far better off trying to slip through areas unnoticed or with minimal force. Shot placement also became an important aspect of the game as head shots would result in an instant fatality whereas body or limb shots wouldn’t neutralize an enemy. It was always fun to shoot unsuspecting soldiers in different spots and watch their various reactions. Hands and feet were good, but many an adolescent laugh was had blasting a guard in the ass with a well placed round.
Although the game would still have been excellent with just the single player mode, multi-player is what really set this game apart from the crowd as an instant classic. Ironically, the multi-player death matches were thrown in as an afterthought near the end of development. When the game was in it’s final stages of completion most of the multiplayer levels and concepts were added by a single person working alone. In a way he single handedly revolutionized console multi-player gaming as the effects of GoldenEye can still be felt today in the Halo franchise, Call of Duty, and other FPS franchises.
Rare was given unprecedented access to the James Bond franchise for this game as well which allowed for the inclusion of characters like Oddjob, Jaws, and Baron Samedi in multi-player mode. Movie based games were usually garbage and MGM didn’t have much faith in this effort. After GoldenEye became a blockbuster, the studio began to guard it’s license much more carefully only allowing the developer to use elements from the individual movie being licensed with the rest of the Bond backlog only available by paying for the license to those films as well. Rare did attempt to put the previous four Bond actors into the multi-player mode however apparently their individual likenesses weren’t available for inclusion and the idea wasn’t finalized (although their textures still remain in the game’s ROM).
I was the first of my group of friends to pick up the game and as a result had an advantage over my pals in the vaunted multiplayer mode. I used to take great pleasure in crushing their spirits and making them look like newbz long before it was trendy to use that term or stupidly substitute an “s” with a “z”. Unfortunately my showboating and general assholery backfired a few months later when a friend of mine dedicated the summer of 1998 to honing his multiplayer craft. He came over and completely destroyed me in GoldenEye from that point forward thus forcing me to “retire” from the game. Yeah I was one of those guys. Head to head, he became unbeatable.
Fortunately things would balance out when more people would enter the fray, and there was one specific scenario in which I couldn’t be defeated. In the complex with proximity mines I had a foolproof strategy that used to enrage my companions as I constantly mopped the floor with them. To this day I still recall the strategy as well as the key locales used to implement it such as “Hobo’s Balcony” and “Curly’s Balcony” which was named after the Stooge of the same name. Even when my opponents decided to combine their efforts and work as a team to try and overthrow me I’d still embarrass them in this single scenario. Too bad the rest of my multiplayer game sucks.
The success of this game created a retroactive resurgence in the popularity of the Goldeneye film and also boosted the popularity of the James Bond franchise with the younger crowd. Those that missed out on the original run of Bond films and hadn’t really been exposed to the property became fans through this game. Console gamers that hadn’t been exposed to Doom, Wolfenstein, and other PC FPS games became fans of the genre after playing Goldeneye. The Nintendo 64’s popularity which was slumping badly due to a drought of great titles after Super Mario 64 rose sharply as this single title began selling consoles worldwide.
The game played such a pivotal role in people’s lives that today, 18 years after it’s release, there are still active players that dedicate tremendous amounts of time to refining their skills in an attempt to set a “world record”. Don’t believe me? They are all over at a website called “The Elite“. There are several games that develop a cult following over time but few communities are as dedicated as that group. These guys put in countless hours in an attempt to shave a second off of their time. Obviously a game that sold so many copies would be a dirt cheap common on the secondary market right? Wrong. Gamers getting back into the N64 can expect to pay a healthy price for Goldeneye as it is one of the must own titles on the console.