Way back, twenty years ago, this 13-year-old (already a huge GoldenEye fan, that was one of the first Bond movies I ever saw, and totally didn't realize at the time how hilarious it was) played her very first Console FPS. I had followed GoldenEye's development somewhat through issues of Nintendo Power and Electronic Gaming Monthly, and, as an N64-only kid (previously an SNES and NES-only owner), I was mighty excited to get a game about shooting (in glorious 3D!), using gadgets, and basically, doing cool spy shit.
I had no PC until I was older, so I barely even knew what Doom and Duke Nukem and Quake were. I saw screenshots—and had quick turns with Hexen 64 and Turok: Dinosaur Hunter on friends' machines, but GoldenEye was the very first shooter that I could actually write my name on the cartridge in sharpie.
I remember being enthralled by the Dam and Facility levels, stages where I had to take cover, shoot dudes, and use gadgets in order to make my way through. I had to actually think like a spy and act fast to save hostages on the Frigate, and was legitimately amazed by the atmosphere of the Surface and Jungle stages, 3D spaces that weren't cartoony (like my beloved platformers), but not exactly "realistic" either. They felt like hyper-real places, Hollywood places, spaces where action-movie antics made sense.
But there were quiet moments in between the action, especially in Severnaya. In the first mission there, the sky is blue and pink, the snow is white, and the tracks between huts in the wilderness feel positively lonely. The second Surface level is at night, with a red tinge to the sky. It's dark and feels dangerous, as do the Caverns late in the game. The music is spooky and evocative as hell, and I still listen to the soundtrack sometimes, when I want to remember hours spent running missions over and over, seeing how I could best surprise the guards.
Of course, multiplayer is what everyone remembers most about GoldenEye, and my junior high buddies and I played it endlessly. It's probably still the FPS I've played most in any sort of competitive fashion, and probably by a pretty huge margin. I was never good, exactly, but I could hold my own in a room full of my male friends, which, increasingly, meant something the further I advanced through my teenaged years.
GoldenEye feels pretty sluggish today, like an FPS played underwater. The controller feels a little weird to go back to, and I'm pretty sure the framerate chops in the single digits if you start busting out the grenade launchers. But It's still worth revisiting from time to time, to remember the first FPS that really evolved the formula, and felt right on a joypad.