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15 Year Anniversary Retrospective: GoldenEye 007 (N64, 1997)

Seminal N64 shooter GoldenEye turns fifteen today. This article looks at how its innovations have affected modern gaming culture, and the accomplishments which were lost to time.

GoldenEye 007 N64 box cover

If you want to feel old, consider that today marks GoldenEye 007's fifteenth birthday. The seminal shooter of its time, few games have entrenched themselves so firmly in the memories of a generation: just imagine what teenagers of the late '90s might have achieved had it not been for Slappers Only in Complex, or Proximity Mines in Aztec. How many friendships might still have been going strong were it not for the unfairly diminutive Oddjob providing too great a temptation on the character select screen.

Though many of its players' fondest memories come from hours spent pretending not to look at their rival's quarter of the deathmatch screen, that pioneering multiplayer is only a small part of a legacy rarely acknowledged as fully as it deserves to be. GoldenEye 007 is a landmark achievement in game design, both very much the product of its time and a work whose influence is undeniably the source of the FPS-dominated gaming culture we play in today.

As the oft-told story goes, many of GoldenEye's most influential elements barely made it into the game at all. First conceived as a Super Nintendo side-scrolling platformer, the game was moved on the N64 hardware to take advantage of its 3D graphical capabilities, with the intention of producing an on-rails shooter in the mould of SEGA's Virtua Cop. Later, the possibility of having certain levels play in the manner of an FPS was mooted, before Rare finally decided to take the risk of fully embracing a genre which had rarely, if ever, functioned adequately on consoles before. The multiplayer deathmatch was only added six months before the game was finally due for release, secretly programmed into the game by Steve Ellis, thus making him more directly responsible for one of gaming's major advances than perhaps any other man in the medium's short history.

Pieces of the game's on-rails roots still permeate many aspects of the design, particularly in linear levels such as the Dam, Silo and Train. The AI in these levels functions in a manner similar to that of Virtual Cop, with enemies hopping in and out of cover, requiring expertly timed precision shooting to take down. As in SEGA's game, the action occurs in pockets: the player clears one area, then has a short walk down a corridor or to the next room, where a more intense firefight awaits. It is here where the game's most lasting innovation, the headshot, was formed. For the sake of balance, it should be pointed out that Team Fortress patched headshots into its game a few months ahead of GoldenEye's release, specifically for its sniper rifle. Which game's developers came up with the idea first is unlikely to ever be known for sure, but Martin Hollis, leader of the GoldenEye development team, has cited the different reactions of Virtua Cop's enemies to being shot in the arm or body as the inspiration for his game's location-based damage and animation.

Both Team Fortress and MDK can lay viable claim to having been ahead of the curve when it came to two of GoldenEye's most acclaimed ideas - head shots and the sniper rifle - but Rare's game was the one to bring them together. Headshots were not the only source of location-based damage: enemies would react and take different levels of damage when they were shot in the arm, leg, chest, head, or (most indicatively of Rare's trademark sense of humour) groin. MDK didn't have location damage at all; Team Fortress only had it for its sniper rifle, and then exclusively for opponents' heads. The extra detail made GoldenEye's enemies feel a little more real, and a lot more fun to shoot: the adjustable scope (an innovation all Rare's own) suddenly became not just a tool for long range single-shot executions, but for experimentation in sending enemies to their deaths in the most sadistic way possible: the greatest achievement being a hit to each limb before performing the coup de grâce with a bullet to the groin. The developers were well aware of the cruelty they were allowing players to inflict: shooting the 'innocent' scientists in the arm on higher difficulty levels would result in them pulling out guns, forcing players to either run away or execute them, and in so doing risk failing their mission objective.

If headshots and sniping represent two innovations widely credited to Rare's game (whether correctly or not), the objectives system has almost entirely been forgotten, to the genre's significant detriment. Inspired by Super Mario 64's format of having multiple stars in each world, GoldenEye requires multiple tasks - aka: objectives - be completed within each mission before being allowed to progress to the next one. This was a full upheaval of the FPS' most fundamental rule, where the sole aim was to reach the end of each level in one piece.

The focus of the playing experience was shifted from a completionist's mentality to that of an explorer: completing your objectives required hunting certain objects and using them in a certain way, with only the hints on the intermission briefing pages to assist you. (Other than the visuals, the game has most noticeably aged in its total lack of signposting for even the most obscure task). Every objective was set prior to starting a mission, and it was up to the player to muddle through, often in the manner of their choosing. If the linear levels demonstrate the game's Virtua Cop origins, the non-linear missions, such as Frigate, Surface and Bunker (and their sequels), show the Mario 64 ethos of building worlds rather than levels, and setting players free in them to do as they liked. I've been playing through my Steam backlog recently, and it's hard not to feel a pang of recognition at the debt owed by today's open world games like Just Cause 2 or the Deus Ex sequel, Human Revolution.

As with Mario, the game controls very simply - the player could realistically get through the game using only two buttons plus the analogue stick - but with considerable depth hidden beneath the surface. If the objective system threw out the recognised rules governing how to progress in an FPS, the stealth system did the same for the rules on how to play an FPS. In Doom, Quake, Turok or any other entry in the genre prior to August 25th 1997, the genre was played with one finger held firmly on the 'fire' button whenever an enemy was on-screen. GoldenEye offered the mind-blowing notions that not only were there were times when it might be advantageous to not shoot a visible enemy, but the most powerful gun might not always be the best choice. The game is unquestionably focused on action, but its free-roaming missions and stealth mechanics gave it a deep tactical edge completely alien to the genre at the time - and for the most part, even now.

The stealth system works on several levels. The first is that silenced weapons don't attract enemy attention, whereas loud ones do. By the time players reached Bunker II, a masterpiece of game design crippled by a bug wherein enemies couldn't fire through door windows but the player could (leading to a comprehensive advantage), success depended on the realisation that a gun's 'noise' actually stacked: fire a silenced weapon too quickly, and it would attract attention. Hold down an assault rifle's trigger and every guard would come running, but fire in single shots and it was possible to remain unnoticed.

In an inspired twist, the game's stealthiest level equipped players with one of the loudest guns from the outset, holding back silenced weapons until the most complex objective had been completed. With limited ammo available, players (at least those who hadn't worked out the window bug) were forced to preserve shots, by which the game subtly instructed them in one of its most advanced mechanics. Not only that, but enemy gunfire would attract attention too: players were encouraged to to take their time, but be decisive when it came to the kill. Then there were alarms, which could be triggered as easily by certain enemies being left alive too long as the player stumbling in full view of a security camera. Just as the Dam is a near-flawless example of a tutorial disguised as a real mission, Bunker II shows how a player can be taught through circumstance and considered design choices, rather than patronising on-screen instruction.

The cheats system - hardly innovative for the late '90s, but much missed today - brought out further depths to this system. The time-based demands of unlocking a level's cheat meant a return to the completionist ethos of GoldenEye's FPS predecessors, with focus placed entirely on completing objectives at maximum speed. With this change came the revelation that creating noise could now be enormously beneficial: attracting attention would sometimes bring enemies rushing through locked doors, creating a shortcut or giving early access to a crucial item. Make a din too early, and enemies would flood the passageways ahead, demanding valuable seconds be wasted in taking them down. Get the timing right, though, and a door could be opened and rushed through before they would have a chance to congregate. Achieving the Facility's Invincibility cheat or Archives' Invisibility demanded this technique be put to carefully planned use, as charting a traditional course from start to finish would mean being at least a minute over the target time.

If you're wondering why this article has barely mentioned the legendary multiplayer outside the opening paragraphs, it's because that part of the game's legacy is already clear for all to see in the foundations of every game of Halo or Call Of Duty. It is also one area of the game which has been extensively recognised and improved upon over the years: playing a match today remains fun, but predominantly for nostalgic value. The playing modes and weapon choices felt enormous at the time, but barebones compared to the myriad variations presented by modern shooters. Within its own generational cycle, GoldenEye's multiplayer was surpassed by Perfect Dark's combat simulator, arguably the pinnacle of split-screen FPS gaming.

Outside the deathmatch arena, however, many of GoldenEye's greatest accomplishments remain not only unsurpassed, but largely undiscussed: the 2010 Wii remake showed how ill-equipped modern game designers are at giving players mechanics of such depth to play with, and the freedom to experiment with them. Nine of the original GoldenEye's ten team members (yes, ten) had never been involved with game development before, and that naïvety resulted in a playground where the only limit on how far the play could go depended entirely on the player. Perfect Dark may have expanded the multiplayer, but modern expectations of linearity and surface-level mechanics were already sneaking into the disappointing single-player mode, where the stealth system was severely redacted and only a handful of missions gave the player any genuine sense of freedom.

In the 50th anniversary year of the cinematic Bond, it's also worth noting what a rare (pun intended) appreciation of the character's world it shows, not least in perfectly capturing the voices of M, Q and Moneypenny in the mission briefings. ("Grabbed by the Spetsnaz, James? Sounds painful!" remains one of my favourite jokes from any game). Another couple of paragraphs could be devoted to how faithfully locations from the movie are recreated and actors' faces mapped - as far as the hardware could manage - onto character models, a level of detail no previous movie-to-game adaptation had ever considered or attempted. The iconic score by Graeme Norgate, Grant Kirkhope and Robin Beanland deserves a mention too, for transforming Eric Serra's compositions for the movie into a classic set of gaming tunes. What about the huge variety of set-pieces, from rescuing hostages on the Frigate, to escaping the Silo in time, protecting Natalya in Control, or eliminating Alec on the Cradle, a precursor to Modern Warfare's event-driven gameplay but formed around a far more flexible set of rules. Let's not forget those wonderful weapons: proximity mines, rocket launchers, watch lasers, twin RCP-90s...

There will be plenty who dismiss this article as taking an idealised view of the past, but while playing GoldenEye these days presents no shortage of archaic anachronisms, it would be foolish to ignore its many accomplishments lost as gaming made its tunnel-visioned push towards increasingly complex graphical showcases without evolving play mechanics at the same rate. It is difficult to imagine any game as brave and innovative as this being created in today's risk-averse development environment. After fifteen years and three console generations, there are still areas where nobody has done gaming better than GoldenEye.

If you enjoyed this article, check out others like it at my game, television and movie review blog:

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