'GoldenEye 007': The Game That Mattered to Everyone

'GoldenEye,' which turns 20 years old this week, is an okay movie. But its legacy is strong, because it led to the most important video game of the '90s.

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Complex Original

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I'm 28 years old, and in the years I spent in my parents' house we had three game consoles. They were, in sequence, a Super Nintendo, an original PlayStation, and an original Xbox. We never had a Nintendo 64, which I guess wasn't hugely unusual as the PlayStation outsold it three to one in their respective lifetimes. Nonetheless, the game I maybe played most in my childhood was an N64 game. GoldenEye 007 was a moment all to itself in the history of video games. It wasn't the top selling game for the N64, and it was hardly the finest example of the still-young first-person shooter genre that we'd seen, but it ended up mattering more than any game on the console.

Actually, at the time GoldenEye 007 was a pretty odd thing to be published by Nintendo, a brand that was and is still mostly associated with the cartoonish mascot characters like Mario and Donkey Kong. In Japan the company's first two consoles, the Nintendo Entertainment System and the Super Nintendo, were known as the Famicom and the Super Famicom—both short for "Family Computer."

A game about shooting guns at digital humans really didn't neatly fit that bit of branding. However, the game’s director, Martin Hollis, insisted to me that there was no real pushback from the overlords on GoldenEye, short of some notes from Nintendo stalwart Shigeru Miyamoto near the end of production that only had a “subtle effect.” One of those notes, amusingly, was the suggestion that at the end of the story Bond might shake hands with his enemies.

GoldenEye was fun. It was really fun. It was a party in a cartridge, and a textbook example of "it's great when you play with your friends"—a common cliche game journalists love to drag out to describe games that are maybe mechanically subpar but really come alive when you gather a posse of bros (in the gender-neutral sense) and have at it. And that's what we—and a lot of other people—did. We invaded the home of the friend who had an N64, and we played four-player split-screen deathmatch with "slappers only" on a 20-inch TV. For hours. And we loved it.

It was never serious business. The greatest stakes we could ever conjure up involved our pride, thanks to some friendly wagers. Yeah, it had a story mode where you could play through the events of the movie, but that wasn’t the part of GoldenEye 007 people remember now. Messing around with your friends in multiplayer was. What was happening outside the screen was just as important as what was on the screen.

“Is it james bond? not really. is it funny? hell yes.”
—martin hollis, 'goldeneye 007' game director

This was a platform for hanging out with people you liked, a reason to get together with pals—a role the game itself embraced. When Hollis, speaking at the GameCity Festival in England in October, described Miyamoto’s idea to have everyone kiss and make up at the end of the game, it launched a thousandsemi-mockingblog posts. (Miyamoto, as the creator of Super Mario Bros., is too beloved a figure in the gaming world to be mocked full-on.)

But, honestly, I’m not sure the "kiss-and-make-up" thing would have been all that out of place in GoldenEye, judging by the outrageously silly elements of the game, like its "DK mode" and "slappers," which served as GoldenEye’s version of hand-to-hand combat. Slappers was exactly what it sounds like, and setting a game of multiplayer to “slappers only” resulted in a beautiful mad dash of, well, you know.

“The animation is perfect, not in a realistic, competent way, but in a flailing camp way,” Hollis told me. “It's more Benny Hill than James Bond, and that makes it glorious.”

Hollis said one of the other developers at Rare, one of the developers behind the game, made a list of weapons to put in the game. The list included hand-to-hand, but it was late in the development process before they tried to implement it, so it really didn’t get the straight treatment. “Now it is part of people's childhood,” Hollis said. The unlockable DK mode (better known as big head mode) is maybe the other most memorable quirk of GoldenEye. And it’s definitely the most memorable thing about the story mode today—probably because it made things so tonally ridiculous and wrong. 

“Is it James Bond? Not really. Is it funny? Hell yes,” Hollis said. “Most FPS games are extremely serious—po-faced really—and don't get mileage from the slapstick that can emerge from running about, spewing bullets and lobbing hand grenades. People like to laugh.”

“In the beginning, GoldenEye wasn't pitched and wasn't held in my mind as an FPS,” Hollis told me. “The first sentence of my design doc said, ‘The game will be similar to Virtua Cop in terms of game-play.’ But then I fudged that in the ‘Control’ section, which said you might move with the controller. For the longest time we did not know what the N64 control pad would be.”

Virtua Cop, for those who don’t recall, was an on-rails light gun shooter of the sort most of us have seen in arcades or, more likely, movie theater lobbies—you know, the ones where you hold a fake plastic gun and blast away as the game controls your movements through it (think Time Crisis, more recently). And what Rare made, for the first year, was something like that. But Hollis wanted more, and so they kept working.

“I don't remember any big arguments or anybody 'saying something' about the decision to allow Bond to move,” he said. “Mainly management gave us financial support and let us make the game we wanted.” It’s not really possible to say why GoldenEye is what it is, but credit where it’s due: its creators had some good ideas that they managed to meld into something fun. Most importantly, the result didn’t impede the entertainment value.

GoldenEye's legacy doesn't really lie in being an accomplished shooter game. It wasn't that great of a game or that great of a shooter, at least not in a critical vacuum. There was a reason there weren't many first-person shooters outside of PC gaming in the '90s—the consoles' controllers didn't really have what it took to do the format justice. Doom was released on PlayStation in 1995, well before Sony dropped the DualShock controller—with its twin sticks—on us, and that control scheme was a nightmare. The N64 pad was an improvement, because it at least had a joystick, but it was far from ideal. Playing an FPS (first-person shooter) on those early-gen consoles was like if you played Grand Theft Auto on a touchscreen today—tolerable, I guess, but it never feels right.

GoldenEye didn’t feel right, either. It was, however, accessible—you didn’t need great stick skills to enjoy hanging out with your friends on a Friday night. The only real obstacle that ever arose was when your one friend was really, really bad. GoldenEye was a facilitator—it was good enough as a shooter to make fun happen. Really, it was the first “good enough” shooter on any game console.

In the '90s—pre-GoldenEye—the first-person shooter was held in the gaming ghetto of the PC world. On the PC you could aim your gun with your mouse, which was an easy idea to grasp. Some of the most popular FPS games would be released on consoles as well, but to significantly less enthusiasm. Though not the first FPS, Doom was the breakout for the genre. It was put out on several different consoles, including the Super Nintendo, which wasn't a well-liked port, and the PlayStation, which was decently regarded despite its control issues. FPS games clearly had a long way to go though: neither of those console versions of Doom even allowed split-screen multiplayer, though, which was also the case with the game's sequel, Doom 64.

Doom 64 actually predated GoldenEye by several months in 1997, but its impact was insignificant. The PC was still the ruler of the first-person shooter, a fact further solidified when the creators of Doom, id Software, released Quake in '96. Everybody was happy to dump their Doom clones, like Star Wars: Dark Forces and Duke Nukem 3D, on some home consoles, but we all knew the score. Deep down these were PC games—the console versions were afterthoughts.

GoldenEye though, was not a PC game. It did have split-screen multiplayer. And it did handle well enough that people were able to enjoy playing it. It was good enough to serve as the breakout first-person shooter that consoles needed, the game that brought gaming’s most visible genre into the mainstream.

In 2015, first-person and third-person shooters are everywhere. Most of the biggest games this fall fit that bill: Call of Duty: Black Ops 3, Halo 5, Rise of the Tomb Raider, Star Wars: Battlefront, and even genre hybrids like Metal Gear Solid 5 and Fallout 4. All of them are consoles games. Halo 5 and Tomb Raider are Xbox One exclusives, even, and all of the the others will sell most of their copies on the consoles they patronize.

You can trace the pervasiveness of the console shooter pretty much directly back to 1997 and GoldenEye. That communal fun of the game's split-screen madness helped more normal folks (e.g. not just the hardcore gamers of the day) realize this kind of game could be a good time. The effect was heightened a few years later with Halo: Combat Evolved on the Xbox, which found a nearly identical kind of success with its local split-screen play (Xbox Live didn’t yet exist when Halo came out).

Gaming is a niche space, but the biggest games transcend the demographic of “gamers” to reach other people. Call of Duty did that, Halo did that, and GoldenEye did that before everyone else. 

Once the seventh generation of game consoles (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii) kicked off in 2005, it was off to the races. Call of Duty took over the gaming universe soon after, and the big game publishers have been chasing that pinnacle ever since. Similarly, other Bond games have been chasing GoldenEye for nearly two decades, with little real success. There's been more than a dozen games in that time, including a modern reimagining of GoldenEye in 2010 that has largely been forgotten. The origin of that one is telling as to why GoldenEye is an outlier for the brand. The rights to the franchise have hopped from Nintendo to Electronic Arts to Activision, where it remains, and Rare, the company that actually made GoldenEye, is now owned by Microsoft. What everyone really wanted was to rerelease the original GoldenEye, but the several large corporations involved in trying to figure out how to make that happen couldn't come to an accord. 

That's the story of James Bond in games and the story of games in general. Something has enormous, unexpected success, and nobody can quite figure out how to replicate it. It probably didn't help that, in typical video game development fashion, what GoldenEye came to represent was not really by design. When the team of ten responsible for making it began doing so, they did not have, well, this in mind. So there isn’t even a “formula” that others could follow.

The construction of a video game is rarely a neat process. It’s most often a jumbled sequence of making this and then making that and then realizing those things don’t work well together and cannibalizing them both to figure out something better (or worse). Developers feel their way through it until it’s over and it becomes time to start on a new one. Sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t. It’s a coin flip. GoldenEye was one of the few that came up heads.

In the gaming scene there's a common mantra that the most important thing for a video game to be is fun. Though that certainly may be a creatively limiting way to think of a medium, it's easy to see where that comes from. Our fondest memories of GoldenEye have nothing to do with skill challenges or emotional storytelling or anything that we might today consider real substance. We were just having fun in the moment, and GoldenEye let it happen. That moment has long since passed, but we'll always treasure in our hearts those nights spent slapping the shit out of our friends' pixelated avatars.

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