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Aggressive Bonding: A Journey Into the Tragic History of 007 in Video Games

I got drunk and sort of accidentally bought pretty much every James Bond game I could, to see how they compare to the legendary 'GoldenEye 007'.

Brock Wilbur

Daniel Craig as James Bond in 2010's '007: Blood Stone'

There's a dumb and obvious weak point in dudes that is easily triggered by the mere inflection of a Bond-like aesthetic. If we were video game mini-bosses, the 007 cortex would be a glowing orange orb of obvious vulnerability, whether you consider yourself an old-school bro or a modern, open-minded feminist acolyte. It's a shortcut to the most primordial essence of masculinity – and by extension classism, sexism and a half-dozen other inherent yet obnoxious traits.

Whether it is the literal case for you or just a general archetype that pushes us all, the idea of a secret agent with numbers in place of a name is a kind of hero-worship passed down from your father, older brother, and/or any strong dude around your life. Bond speaks the classy accent-words, cocksmiths on an unparalleled scale, bleeds the line between cleverness and gadgets, and re-spawns as the masculine ideal of the period – thereby guaranteeing an eternity of dude-debates over the pinnacle of testosterone, among a champion's testosterone bracket.

Though the very concept of James Bond stretches back to 1953, even today it would be impossible to usurp the hair-trigger of his synchronicity with "cool". His brand sells cars and watches and even entire exotic destinations. Of course, Bond also sells video games.

And there lies the problem.

In 1997, British developers Rare produced released a game for the Nintendo 64 called GoldenEye 007. (VICE recently published a piece on it.) While it was a first-person shooter on a Nintendo platform, based on a film released two years previous, it did one of those things that only happens once in a generation: it conquered. Every person born in the 1980s with even a tangential relationship to gaming has a story about their first all-nighter spent in a friend's basement blasting other kids in their digital faces. Not only did the multiplayer redefine Mountain Dew parties, but the single-player repurposed a cinematic narrative in interactive form so completely that millennials know every beat of a truly B-minus movie better than any artistic achievement listed on the American Film Institute's top 100. Not only is Rare's cartridge an artistic cheat within the history of the medium, it performed permanent damage in linking games to cinema – and while the game is immeasurably better than the film, it cheapens and limits the scope of games criticism even to this day.

What I'm saying is that, whereas the Atari film licensing of E.T. (in the mythos) almost destroyed video games back in 1982, the '97 release of a spy shooter based on historic-footnote Russian ethnic cleansing would set a high-bar for entertainment that could arguably never be challenged.

What follows is the question of licensing. A Bond game became the killer app for an entire generation, so who would follow that up? Responsibility could've just as easily landed on one of gaming's other much maligned adaptations and icons, from Batman to Superman, X-Men to Mario. Why couldn't interactive art similarly capitalise on names and stories that paired inherently with the escapism of triggers and joysticks? More annoyingly, why couldn't anyone else make a James Bond game that could duplicate even a fraction of GoldenEye's success?

With that frustration in mind, I became obsessed with the inability to force a second lightning strike. To that end, I used eBay to track down as many James Bond games as I could and then – unfortunately – became so intoxicated that I just went ahead and purchased them all in a single night. These are the findings of a journey the hero refused, to discover what the James Bond license teaches us about intent, joy, and desperation in gaming. (And yes, we know that Bond games existed before 1990, but do you have the time to play every game featuring the agent, ever released? Or the appropriate hardware? Exactly.)

A screenshot from 'Operation Stealth'

Operation Stealth (1990)

This was adorably a game I'd already owned from some childhood rut at the Egghead Software store when I'd run out of Space Quest adventures and managed to keep squirreled away in the bottom of my closet. The point-and-click adventure was licensed as a Bond adventure for its US release, but carries over a lot of errors from its copyright non-infringing UK status as a "Mr Glames" takes commands from the CIA to defeat a Latin American military thief with a penchant for evil spider-like logos. Like so many adventure games of the era, it was designed as a pixel-hunt nightmare infused with late game logic puzzles dependent on either reverse-engineered inventory combinations or instruction manual copy-protection sub-commands. It is more delightful to see early Bond archetypical situations like laser-shark interrogation rendered in bit art than to solve a nonsense logic puzzle or survive one of the few embarrassing arcade sequences, such as Surf Bond vs. Rocks. This is, unfortunately, deserving of exorcism from Bond game history, and I truly wish I could get my dad his 60 bucks refunded.

(Further research says the early digitized voices on this caused the entire game to crash if you attempted to skip a single line of dialogue. Remember when it was acceptable to ship a full priced game with that kind of un-patchable error? Delightful!)

A screenshot from 'Tomorrow Never Dies'

Tomorrow Never Dies (1999)

GoldenEye the game came out in 1997, and so did the follow-up film Tomorrow Never Dies. Keeping pace, two years later the game tie-in arrived, and holy shit was it an embarrassment. TMD is basically a linear shooter wherein Bond consistently triggers an unending series of high-pitched alarms across snow-capped film locations, and inexplicably a few low-res hat-tips to levels from a completely different film. Whereas GoldenEye was a memorable break from gaming history that established an intimate replayability and challenged the controller to contextualize elaborate strategies, this follow-up would've served better as a light-gun arcade quarter-sucker plugged in to the same outlet as Area 51. The fact this appeared as the PlayStation response to Nintendo's better Bond adds a further degree of insult.

The World Is Not Enough (2000)

By the time the third Brosnan film hit, creative types had the distance to understand a silly gun-blasty money-trap with some care behind it had inadvertently tricked a generation into loving a film more than they should – fulfilling the initial promise of what game tie-ins promised shareholders on a scale that should've made marketers rabid, four years earlier. Rare had bailed from the license, but publishers EA tried to copy the GoldenEye formula in a game that would be identical on N64 and Playstation. In a testament to what Rare unleashed, this game from almost five years later looks like a pirated joke. The biggest addition is a grappling hook within the Bond watch that allows the player to reach secret areas with cash bonuses, although why an MI6 agent needs loose change is really a final death-rattle of the level-based score systems of a dead generation bleeding onto what publishers hoped would add replay value. As a modern drunk gamer, it just means scouring incomplete corners of poorly planned levels in hopes of encountering a single creative choice.

A screenshot from '007: Agent Under Fire'

007: Agent Under Fire (2001)

Out of nowhere, the Bond games figured out they could tell a non-movie, non-book based story, and Agent Under Fire reaches for the stars. While it borrows weirdly from the plot of Adam West's Batman movie, this game finally figures out what made GoldenEye work, and applies it across the board. The settings jump wildly from Asia to Europe to Africa to an under-the-sea adventure. Along the way, your performance can be rewarded by sexual pleasure from new Bond girl Zoe Nightshade, who burns her way into this gaming space by becoming the first sexual reward – thereby bridging the intent of the license with its practical application, but at the cost of teenage female gamers who felt no compulsion to detonate Romania in pursuit of a submarine handjob.

A screenshot from '007: Nightfire'

007: Nightfire (2002)

Just the biggest shit-show. Following up on Agent's success, Nightfire has some kind of story about generic Asian stuff, but oh god does it never come together. It's an unplayable mess that occasionally threatens relevance. A real sign of too much being forced out the door simultaneously.

Everything or Nothing (2003)

This multi-platform release made this entire experiment worth it. Willem Dafoe acts as a primary antagonist in a pseudo-sequel to 1985's A View to a Kill, while Brosnan operates cars and aircraft against an encroaching threat, and engages in cover-based small arms exchanges long before Gears of War would perfect this style of gameplay. Of all the Bond nightmares whiskey helped lubricate me through, this is perhaps the only one that sober aficionados should track down. This is also like the fifth entry on the list to feature Judy Dench's voice acting, because she's an international treasure.

Article continues after the video below

A screenshot from 'GoldenEye: Rogue Agent'

GoldenEye: Rogue Agent (2004)

Despite existing as the next in a line of EA contract fulfilment, Rogue Agent attempted to trick consumers with a return to GoldenEye branding, and inadvertently became my favourite Bond Universe game ever. You begin as an MI6 agent coming up in Bond's shadow, but soon find yourself aligned with the trademark baddies of the SPECTRE-verse. Each mission is accompanied by borderline super-hero upgrades that allow the addition of gameplay elements like x-ray vision or force field generation. The solo campaign shows tent-pole element scripting on par with a Call of Duty, but unfortunately the game was embarrassingly short – and that's a genuine crime. While Rogue was borrowing from more en vogue hits, it was also predicting future titles like Titanfall and, much more directly, the clever villainous violence of Bulletstorm.

From Russia With Love (2005)

Out of nowhere, we've got a game based on a 1963 film and emulating a young Sean Connery and, for some lunatic reason, incorporating new voice acting from that Scottish Highlander. The GoldenEye formula is applied to develop scenes from the film into full playable levels, but given the age of the movie it's not surprising that the game falls short of hitting the necessary number of magic moments for even an abbreviated Bond adventure, which means that highlights of other Bond outings like Goldfinger and Thunderball are piecemealed into its plot. While fully mining the extent of the franchise's notable back catalogue, it was also a prime example of how famous actors could stir considerable artistic waves in the medium by contributing a few gentle hours of voiceover towards a form of expression still worried it was unrepentantly a fringe concern. Also, you get to make Sean Connery say "whee!" as he flies over an enemy castle in a jetpack – and isn't that what life is all about?

A screenshot from 'Quantum of Solace'

Quantum of Solace (2008)

Ugh. Finally modern gaming catches up and it's just embarrassingly paint-by-numbers. Bond is recapping highlight moments throughout a real character-focused entry in the series, where the mega-failure of an abandoned Casino Royale tie-in is recycled as the entire flashback second act. Few releases in all of modern gaming so proudly wear their economic badge of courage. It's estimated that there was a $100 million loss for Warner Brothers in their inability to spin out a Dark Knight tie-in; Quantum of Solace makes up for it by embarrassingly cramming cancelled work into a different game. If this were a final outing, it would serve as an appropriate tombstone to popular licenses. Unfortunately, there is so much more space to fall into.

GoldenEye (2010) / GoldenEye Reloaded (2011)

Born of a Wii re-issue and eventually spawning an HD re-imagining, (then) new-generation console players were treated to an update of one of gaming's high points, contextualised as a bland modern cover-based shooter with little to offer. The act of replaying this nightmare is akin to watching the American remake of a foreign film that carried great meaning for you – of course there will be shadows that seem vaguely familiar, but it doesn't take long to understand the soul of adventure that once propelled you into infinite hours of discovery is not only absent, but it's been surgically removed. The rebooted game's effort to incorporate modern shooter mechanics into a two-generations-removed complex interface highlights every pitfall of our current industry in such a naked fashion someone should write a full-length book about this high water-mark of fuckery.

Related, on Noisey: That Time BBC Breakfast Mistook Daniel Craig for Craig David

A screenshot from '007: Blood Stone'

007: Blood Stone (2010)

A wholly outsider entry, this original story sees a post-Quantum Bond traveling through Monaco, Siberia, Geneva and Burma in pursuit of some outlandish crime-syndicate conspiracy. For 2010 reasons, Joss Stone is not only the Bond girl in the game, but also sings the super sub-par theme song. The game itself is a force to be reckoned with. Gaming long promised a Bond-based driving game, and while Blood Stone delivers those sequences, it also gives us borderline unplayable third-person stealth monstrosities, bogging down a concept that could've been great if a little more selective.

A screenshot from '007: Legends'

007: Legends (2012)

This most recent entry is the absolute nadir of the series. I'd prefer to slap my name on absolutely any other cash-in that gaming has pushed for the franchise in the last 15 years.

Legends took a bold stance, which was an honest reflection of the modern incarnation of Bond, and recognised that outside of some Mirror's Edge-like parkour (that none of the licensed engines could handle) the new MI6 anchored in reality could never transition to 20-plus shooting gallery levels the way GoldenEye once mastered. So they reinvented the entire Bond franchise by imagining Daniel Craig as the bang-bang gunman, and featured him within six of the films that had never been given a video game extension. This interactive manipulation of highlights within Moonraker, On Her Majesty's Secret Service and even Die Another Day should have opened doors for a fully reimagined adventure. Instead, a grossly budget-limited product was unveiled, surely unfinished, and had the gall to insist upon DLC status for Skyfall's single level.

Eighteen years past the one Bond game that made everyone pay attention, we're somehow exponentially less aware of what makes for a good game featuring the famous secret agent. The biggest names in the industry have pursued the license's potential like some lost fountain of immortality; and while good products have emerged on the rare occasion of inventive backing, the zero-sum game is a collection of mostly forgettable additions to a genre that went full Ouroboros when it could have transcended, and that's such a let down.

@brockwilbur

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