From its debut in 1997, developer Rare and the terrifying digital avatar of Pierce Brosnan ruled over the console shooter space in the Nintendo 64 tie-in of a then-two-year-old Bond movie, GoldenEye 007. Not only did it justify the genre on consoles while proving that movie games don’t have to suck, it became one of the defining multiplayer experiences of its generation.
Rare and Nintendo eventually seceded the Bond license to EA, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the good folks in Twycross as they were now able to flex their creative muscles without having to worry about fitting a license. Three years later, their new FPS emerged bigger, badder and better than the old king, and that game was Perfect Dark.
Without the restrictions of a license and in the new context of a futuristic sci-fi world where alien technology was within grasp, Rare was able to implement whatever crazy idea they and their vocal fanbase could come up with, exceptionally visible in the arsenal. A laptop that turned into an automatic weapon that could then be mounted anywhere as a sentry gun; a machine gun that could render you invisible for a short while; a one-hit-kill sniper rifle that could track through walls; pinball hand grenades.
The story is part Blade Runner, part Ghost in the Shell with a whole heap of other sci-fi influences. Set in the year 2023, the game opens with Joanna “Perfect” Dark, a promising new agent with the R&D/espionage group Carrington Institute, as she is sent in to the dataDyne Corporation skyscraper to investigate a suspicious signal sent from a company insider named Dr. Carroll. Once inside, Jo discovers that Dr. Carroll is actually a small AI robot with information on a dataDyne conspiracy in cahoots with the reptilian Skedar aliens. Unravelling the conspiracy takes Jo everywhere from the streets of Chicago to the bunkers of Area 51 and aboard Air Force One.
The action is tighter than GoldenEye, the sci-fi theme allows more outlandish environments and architecture that looks much better than Bond's adventure and the weapon set is more imaginative, not to mention that Perfect Dark has more modes and features than Bond could hope for. Rare threw everything and a wheel of cheese into the game, and even ten years on its feature set would be impressive for a new release. In addition to the single player campaign, there is support for two-player co-op as well as the oddly-not-used-very-often-nowadays Counter-Operative mode, which puts one player in control of a random grunt out to foil Jo’s mission. The enemy player is given the same basic weapon set and health as the stage foes, and once killed the player respawns as another enemy until Joanna either completes the mission or dies.
Taking GoldenEye’s multiplayer and running right to the hills with it, Perfect Dark’s Combat Simulator gave players full control over how they wanted to play while adding in 30 Simulant challenges and even a ranking system. Four players can go at it alongside eight Simulants, or if you didn’t have anyone around then you could take them on yourself. There is enough here for a game of its own and it easily puts Turok: Rage Wars, a dedicated multiplayer-only release, to shame. Rare even included three fan-favourite, reworked GoldenEye maps (Temple, Facility and Complex) and a handful of its most memorable weapons.
No matter how great the game was when it first hit, it shows its age pretty clearly nowadays. What stings the most is the framerate; players made due on the N64 because, hey, it was the N64. Putting up with framerates was like blowing on a NES cart — it was all part of owning the console. Now, though, it’s rough going back to a sub-30fps game that sinks further when things get too hectic. It’s something you learn to deal with, but some game types are nigh-unplayable because of it, particularly the co-op and Counter-Ops missions. Loading up on too many bots can drag things down a bit too, turning everything into a real slideshow. Cranking up the visuals to “hi-res” thanks to the required-but-not-really-required Expansion Pak will only further slow things down.
The N64 controller is also something of a sticking point. While the game’s pacing and design were built to accommodate its limited nature, it’s tough to go back to it after spending years with dual analogues and the Wii Remote + Nunchuk setup. There’s a hokey two-controller setup that fakes having two sticks (which was mind-boggling at the time for an N64 gamer), but it’s more novelty than anything. Not counting sniper rifles, being forced to stand still to line up a precision shot is completely foreign to the genre today as well.
And then of course there are the little things like only being able to fall off certain ledges and the absence of a jump button, although the latter has sort of become a series trademark since 2005’s Perfect Dark Zero on the Xbox 360 omitted it as well (although you could roll around like an idiot). Player speed is also a lot faster here than more recent fare, bringing it closer to Doom and Quake than Halo. For some reason we cannot fathom, shooters seem to have done away with fun cheats like big head mode, of which Perfect Dark features a laundry list. The AI isn't much to write home about either, opting to run at you without regard for personal well-being. And, of course, there's the obvious auto aim that helped make the game work with the N64 pad. Console shooters nowadays still use it, but it tends to be more subtle than seeing your gun twitch across the screen.
But then there are the things that make you appreciate just how far ahead of its time Perfect Dark was. Between the plethora of multiplayer modes and weapons, there are things like dynamic lighting, widescreen support (although not anamorphic, so widescreen owners either have to zoom in or put up with more black bars) and Dolby surround sound. Not to forget the little touches like Jo turning her pistol sideways when close to an enemy or the fact that you can run around with Shigeru Miyamoto's face on your multiplayer character. And while it may feel like more of a relic of an underused peripheral than “the future” nowadays, plugging in the Game Boy Color version with the Transfer Pak would unlock some of the harder cheats. If Nintendo's platforms could do something then, so help them, the Perfect Darks would too. Seemingly the only thing it doesn't do is go online, but that's now been taken care of elsewhere.
Perfect Dark was once amazing and as it turns out is still amazing, even though the genre has changed quite a bit since it was originally released in 2000. It's a simpler game, but that isn't to say simplistic, and it'll certainly take some getting used to for those who have not picked up a three-pronged pad in years. It might be tough to step back in time to relive Joanna's best adventure in its original version, but Perfect Dark proves to still have what it takes to be a really fun shooter for solo gamers and especially great with friends. If this isn't in your N64 collection then you're doing it wrong.