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Mission Imperfection: A Love Letter to ‘GoldenEye 007’

Rare's 1997 Nintendo 64 shooter was a classic of its day, but what exactly is its legacy?

by Ed Smith
Jul 9 2015, 4:33pm

'GoldenEye 007' gameplay screencap (from a modified PC version, for sharpness) via YouTube

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

In lieu of still owning an N64, and because I had a credit note from trading in Battlefield Hardline, I recently bought GoldenEye 007: Reloaded, Eurocom's re-imagining of Rare's classic 1997 first-person shooter. I'm dispirited by the homogeneous, post–Modern Warfare brand of FPS that currently predominates, and my hope when picking up the GoldenEye remake was to perhaps re-experience some of the old magic—the color, the vibrancy, and the naked experimentation that defined gun games during the 1990s. But it was such a bore, the mere skin of GoldenEye pulled taut over lifeless, joyless, humorless design, the kind we've gotten used to over the past decade.

When I think of the original GoldenEye, I think of the bright, garish greens of Facility's corridors. The goofy elevator muzak in Control and Caverns. The absurd comedy of DK Mode. Its contributions to how both single and multiplayer video games are structured have been well documented—you've likely heard how GoldenEye created the objective-based campaign mission, and broke ground with its split-screen competitive mode. But what stands out to me, especially now, several shooting game trends and almost 20 years on, is the character in GoldenEye. Aesthetically, it's instantly recognizable. And its various sounds, best showcased by this compilation, are what I hear in my mind whenever I talk to friends about old video games. I resist referring to "nostalgia" because it's a vaporous, meaningless idea. But GoldenEye, the way it looks and the way it sounds, puts a clear face and a strong voice to a part of my life which is now long over. This is as tangible, I think, as something like nostalgia can be.

Not that nostalgia should be confined only to clean memories, to things, like music and like video game graphics, which are twee. GoldenEye is a landmark in my own gaming history not simply because it's one of the few shooters, especially by today's standards, to possess unique, evocative personality. It's also very violent. I can't be certain, but given it was 1997, and the only games I recall playing before then were Rayman, Tekken, and Destruction Derby, GoldenEye may very well have been the first video game in which I shot somebody. That terrific wet smack noise the bullets make as they impact a target, the loose bloodstains which appear on enemy's clothes. These were the things that brought me into gaming. These were the sounds and sights that marked a change in me, from enjoying games that were made for kids to trying to convince my mom to let me have the first Grand Theft Auto.

Ever since, I've played and been fascinated by games that are violent—games that are filled with guns and that are markedly for people at least over the age of 15. GoldenEye was an N64 game, but it stole me away from the kind of titles for which Nintendo remains best loved: platformers, adventures, and RPGs. From GoldenEye onwards, my interest in video games orbited first-person shooters. And as much as the genre has in recent years suffered from lethargy and malaise, it remains to me the most fascinating.

There is nothing so interesting or so ugly, so exciting, or so grotesque as the first-person shooter. Whether designers intend it or not, killing somebody using a gun is the most politically charged interaction in all of video games—with that single, fleeting press of a button, innumerable questions are posed. Why did I do it? How do I feel? What does it say about me and the character I'm playing as, about my world and his? There's nothing in popular culture that I find as equally beguiling and repulsive as a first-person shooter. It was GoldenEye that sparked my fascination.

GoldenEye is bigger than me. It's more than an artifact of just my experience, so I'm reticent to describe it using personal, masturbatory language. At the same time, discussing it only within the boundaries of detached, unvarnished criticism feels wrong also—it's a thing of beauty, that game, a living, olfactive piece of work that can't be described using simply journalism. So what GoldenEye was, and what it remains today, is best communicated, I think, using a single example from its final level, Egyptian.

The Egyptian level of 'GoldenEye 007'

One of your objectives is to retrieve that most prized of in-game weapons, the one-shot, one-kill Golden Gun. It's contained inside a glass case, in the center of what appears to be a featureless room. But the floor tiles are actually pressure-sensitive—to unlock the box containing the gun, you must walk towards it in a specific pattern. Make a single wrong step, and four sentry turrets will appear from the walls and kill you.

It's an objective to be resolved, a concrete task for the player to visit and complete, and so it's emblematic of the revolution GoldenEye started in regards to how games are linearly structured. Today, whether a person is frustrated or thrilled by the roller coaster design of shooters, they have GoldenEye to thank. That's the game's basic legacy.

The Golden Gun room is also so colorful. It's the crystalline example of GoldenEye's strange, distinctive flavor, its capacity for both novelty and aesthetic flair. Like the paintball cheat, Natalya's AI, or the hilariously rigid karate chop attack, the Golden Gun sequence is a part of this game's incredibly strong but not always purposefully styled identity and character. As much as what was supposed to be there, this game's personality rings out because of its flaws.

Natalya and Bond, screencap via YouTube

There are glitches, errors, and unfathomable moments, but over time—even at the time—they've become central to why I (and a lot of other people) remember GoldenEye fondly. This game is imperfect, but its imperfections are unique and amusing. You adore it not despite of its shortcomings but because of them. And to that extent, perhaps more than any other video game, it feels like a friend.

But finally, the Golden Gun room shows just how much both video games and I have aged. The solution to the floor puzzle isn't hinted at. In fact, the puzzle itself isn't telegraphed at all—it's only through sheer trial and error that you can ever get that glass case to open. Modern games no longer tolerate this kind of opaqueness. Everything today is intelligible, communicated, and fair, and the Golden Gun puzzle comes from an era of game design that for better or worse—probably better—has long since been abandoned. When I look at it, I wonder what we, the players and the game designers, were ever thinking. I wonder whether GoldenEye's legacy will endure just one more hardware generation. And I wonder where the hell my last 18 years have gone.

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