Thanks for the memory

Inevitably the team’s ambition outstripped their means. From the beginning of the project, they agreed they would not make Perfect Dark so big it required the Expansion Pak, which added 4MB of memory to the N64. But as the game grew, it soon became clear there was no other choice.

“Everything gets a little bit better and before you know it you’re out of memory,” says Hollis. “We ended up pretty much obliged to use the memory pak. Nintendo was fine with that situation. I wasn’t comfortable with the impact it had on the final price of the game, but it still sold amazingly well.”

It helped that the Perfect Dark team were not the only ones having memory problems on the N64. Nintendo itself had opted to make the pak mandatory for players of Zelda: Majora’s Mask (released Christmas 2000, after Perfect Dark) and the fellow Rare developers behind Donkey Kong 64 had ended up bundling the pak in with the game – upping the price by around £10 – the previous Christmas.

We ended up pretty much obliged to use the memory pak. Nintendo was fine with that situation

The issue, Edmonds says, was the N64 developer kits had more memory than the home models, which made it all too easy to add in more features. The challenge of bringing the game’s size down to something that would fit in a single cartridge and run on a standard console became impossible, so he was relieved to see both the Donkey Kong and Zelda teams using the expansion. “It happened to be around the same sort of time we found we didn’t have enough memory either,” he recalls. “So we were lucky because if they weren’t doing that, we would have been stuck.”

Chesluk adds: “We did a load of work trying to get it down, spent a few months on it, but the best we could manage was the version you got without the Expansion Pak, where it’s a bit of multiplayer but it’s more of a taster. There was talk of bundling with the Expansion Pak at one point, but Donkey Kong 64 had already done that – although I’m not sure how much demographic crossover there was between people buying both Donkey Kong and Perfect Dark.”

Without the Expansion Pak, players could only access the Combat Simulator, the basic multiplayer with all its arenas, modes, challenges and the simulants. Even getting this to run properly was a challenge, although Edmonds recalls another stroke of luck in the arrival of Rob Harrison, a programmer who had been working on Donkey Kong Racing, which was later cancelled. Harrison was given the sole purpose of enabling the multiplayer to run within the N64’s normal memory limits so that players without the pak could at least play something.

Perfect Dark was remastered for the Xbox 360 in 2010 by 4J Studios. This port is also included on the Xbox One title Rare Replay
Perfect Dark was remastered for the Xbox 360 in 2010 by 4J Studios. This port is also included on the Xbox One title Rare Replay (Image: Nintendo Life)

Despite the efforts put into the single-player campaign, Edmonds recognises that making multiplayer available in the standard edition made the most sense. For one thing, it was the most popular feature of GoldenEye and offered more replay value to players. “It was also the easiest thing to get into that memory,” he admits.

Other tricks were used to reduce the game's memory footprint. Bury recalls finding ways to flip and tile textures to make them look like different things, rather than creating new ones from scratch, while Chesluk says the effects played over the credits were other textures from the game warped in various ways.

Not everything was cut due to memory constraints, however. Famously, Perfect Dark originally had a function that would allow players to use a Game Boy Camera to take pictures of their face that could then be mapped onto multiplayer characters. This was up and running, but Nintendo wasn’t too comfortable with the idea of allowing players to shoot each other’s real faces – especially during a time of ongoing debates about violence in video games.

There were more accidental casualties, too. Many Nintendo fans may remember that Rare eventually released push button combinations that unlocked all of GoldenEye’s cheats and weapons, and there was speculation as to whether this would be true of Perfect Dark as well.

Chesluk confirms that it was, but adds: “Now’s a good time to apologise. During the time when we had to crush it down from 8MB to 4MB, we were going through code looking for stuff to delete and I found this file from GoldenEye where someone had put in all the button cheats. And I thought, ‘Oh, there’s no button cheats, this must be old.’ So I deleted it. Sorry. I’m very sorry.”

They had to impress upon us the fact that this game did have to ship. The N64 was getting towards the end of its life, so every week that you don’t ship is sales lost

The unintended deletion of the button cheats was symptomatic of the pressure on the team during the final push. Chesluk even recalls the team being “pulled into the office for a bollocking” because development was taken so long – even with an extension. “They had to impress upon us the fact that this game did have to ship,” he says. “The N64 was getting towards the end of its life, so every week that you don’t ship is sales lost.”

Sure enough, the GameCube was announced just a couple of months after Perfect Dark, and a year later it was on shelves in Japan and North America. Chesluk even had a GameCube dev kit on his desk at the time; a permanent reminder of its upcoming arrival.

“We probably should have left more on the floor,” he admits. “But everyone wanted to make the game that we made. Maybe management should have pushed for an earlier release, but it wouldn’t have been as cool. Multiplayer, for example, had so many options and they all needed their own testing, had their own bugs. The logical management thing to do would be to cut those down to half, but we were like, ‘No, let’s go for it, let’s fix the bugs.’ There was a lot of commitment on the team to fixing the problems rather than giving up.”

Edmonds remembers the final stretch, where every day started with another list of bugs that needed to be resolved. It was like fighting the tide, and Nintendo’s eagerness to start manufacturing the game led to the accidental creation of a separate – and flawed – version of Perfect Dark.

“Right at the very end, there was a really nasty bug,” Edmonds explains. “If you played one of the challenges with three people, it always crashed. There was a random memory overwrite in there. This was on the last day or two of development, so potentially every day’s version could be the one Nintendo would decide to release. There were only three bugs left, and one was this crashing bug. It took us a day to track it down, so we made a fixed version the next day.

“But then we were told Nintendo had used the previous version to start making the cartridges. So I think the first million cartridges had that bug in. Then they used the next version to make the rest. So there are two versions out there. It was just unfortunate – if they’d waited one more day, that bug wouldn’t have been in there.”

Dark Legacy

On May 22nd, 2000, Perfect Dark was released in North America. It would arrive in the UK and Europe just over a month later, and all three releases got entirely different covers (you can find out why here).

The game sold well, shifting well over two million copies, but sadly this didn’t compare to the eight million GoldenEye went on to sell. For Edmonds, there were two crucial factors: the lack of a familiar icon like James Bond, and the requirement for the Expansion Pak. Yet this doesn’t take away from Perfect Dark’s accomplishments. While technologically it may be a little clunky – some members of the team still regret the slow framerate – in many ways Joanna Dark’s debut was ahead of its time.

To this day, publishers and developers still struggle to engage people with asymmetrical multiplayer – a concept Perfect Dark explored with Counter-Op twenty years ago. Few shooters enable the full campaign to be played in co-op, and the extensive multiplayer options available in Combat Simulator still stands as a far more comprehensive offering that GoldenEye’s.

It’s the little touches as well. The ability to shoot weapons out of the enemies’ hands, or shoot out the lights and plunge the level into darkness – there were even plans for a torch, but the N64 wasn’t powerful enough to pull off the effect.

Then there’s the fact that starting the Carrington Villa mission on a higher difficulty placed you in a different starting point (that of the negotiator from the opening cutscene) faced with two guards and no weapons. Or every weapon having a secondary function, some of which included player-controlled homing rockets, wall-mounted sentry guns, and the X-ray vision enabling you to shoot through walls. Or missions that remembered your actions in the previous level, such as moving a hoverbike in Air Force One to make it available in Crash Site.

All these ideas and more were almost unheard of at the time, yet somehow crammed into a cartridge that offered a fraction of the storage available on PlayStation CDs of the same period. Doak attributes this not to a determined desire to push the boundaries of the N64, but to the natural ambition of the team.

Xbox 360 launch title Perfect Dark Zero was one of Rare's biggest releases following its purchase by Microsoft, but it failed to live up to the standards of the original
Xbox 360 launch title Perfect Dark Zero was one of Rare's biggest releases following its purchase by Microsoft, but it failed to live up to the standards of the original (Image: Rare)

“We certainly didn’t have a big design document of all the revolutionary things we were going to attempt to do,” he says. “Because of the size of the team, and because we got on well... It was a different era in terms of implementing things. In some ways, it was harder because you had to build all the technology, but in other ways, it was easier because you could do stuff without having to talk to dozens of people and also ask permission for stuff. That’s where all the bland comes from.”

Novakovic says that, like GoldenEye, Perfect Dark was a “major milestone” for Rare, adding: “The fact that we’re still talking about it twenty years on shows how groundbreaking it was at the time. I can’t take any credit for that but I’m delighted to have had the opportunity to play a part in such an important game.”

It was bumping up against what the console could do, but then I don’t think that’s unusual. We had a lot of ideas, and lots of clever people working out how to do them

Botwood says: “It was bumping up against what the console could do, but then I don’t think that’s unusual. We had a lot of ideas, and lots of clever people working out how to do them. We had what I think was an amazing game. It suffered from the memory limitations – we didn’t pay enough attention to those during development and we had to use the expansion pak, which was sad. If we could only have done a bit more on that, maybe more people would have experienced the single-player and all that good stuff. That may have been why the audience wasn’t big enough for some of those things.

“We were fortunate to have done that project at Rare and to have had the backup and resources that studio gave it. It wasn’t as big a hit as GoldenEye, but it was certainly just as much fun to make by the end of it. It was good to be able to flex some muscle and get some ideas down that would not have fit in GoldenEye or that we couldn’t make at the time. It was much more fun to work on Perfect Dark in design terms, because we had more freedom to do what we wanted.”

Doak pays particular respect to Botwood, Edmonds and Jones. “We dropped them in it by leaving, and they delivered. I got to work on the easy part of the game where everyone was making up things, but then you actually have to make them, which is really hard. The game knocked it out of the park.”

Future Perfect

While it may not have sold as well as GoldenEye, it certainly performed well enough to warrant a sequel. Shortly after the game was completed, the team began work on a new Perfect Dark for GameCube – a project that would eventually become the Xbox 360 prequel Perfect Dark Zero. That game’s development is a troubled story for another time, but it’s intriguing to think what it could have become had Rare not been purchased by Microsoft just two years after Perfect Dark launched.

“There were missteps on Perfect Dark Zero,” Bury admits. “It didn’t help that it jumped from console to console. We had a GameCube version of that and it was brilliant, it played really well. I preferred the style and the look of it, and the controls were great. Then it jumped to the Xbox and then Xbox 360, and each time it seemed to just lose something.”

Botwood notes that the teams on GoldenEye and Perfect Dark were smaller, making it easier for the developers to bounce ideas off each other. By the time Zero was in the works for the Xbox 360, development had changed: teams were larger, and so was the scope for games like Rare’s shooter.

“For GameCube, it had a particular style which I quite liked and thought would be more in keeping with that trajectory,” Botwood recalls. “But because Rare was sold and it went through so many technology iterations, that tends to slow down video game development. At times like that, people tend to iterate on the core of the project, which is natural but it can be disruptive. I think that’s what happened with Zero. It’s not that the project itself couldn’t stand alone at the end of it, but it suffered from an overly long development cycle, as we’ve seen with other games. But it dragged on for reasons out of the team’s control.”

That team had a real magic about them. GoldenEye was revolutionary, but I think Perfect Dark is equally revolutionary. It had a real specialness about it

For Kirkhope, none of Zero’s failings take away from the legacy of the first Perfect Dark. “That team had a real magic about them. GoldenEye was revolutionary, but I think Perfect Dark is equally revolutionary. It had a real specialness about it. Perfect Dark Zero didn’t quite do as well, so it still feels like the original is the Perfect Dark. I think it needs a reboot, or another one.”

On that topic, rumours persist that a Perfect Dark reboot is indeed in the works – and not at Rare. 10 years after the N64 original was remastered for Xbox Live Arcade (you can get that very same version on Rare Replay), it’s been suggested that new Xbox studio The Initiative is developing a brand new Perfect Dark for Xbox Series X – something that particularly intrigues Kirkhope. “If there were making a reboot, I’d love to have another crack at it,” he says.

Other members of the team are less enthusiastic, although just as interested to see how a new Perfect Dark might turn out. Botwood points to the success Xbox had by passing another Rare IP, Killer Instinct, over to a different studio, so a non-Rare Perfect Dark team could still do justice to the 2000 original.

“I wish them every success, genuinely, because I do like that world,” he says. “I had a part in creating it, but I probably would not want to work on it because that would mean going backwards. I’m at Ubisoft now and playing in their worlds, which is great. I would look forward to seeing it, although I do not envy their job of updating it.”

Perfect Dark© Nintendo Life

Bury notes that any new Perfect Dark will likely have a much larger team that the N64 title and therefore, like Zero, might lack that special spark. “If they’re expanding on the original, they’ve got a better chance of matching it rather than coming up with their own ideas and having a massive studio to do it,” he says. “The way I work now, it’s the same thing – you’re not involved in everything, you just can’t be because there are too many people.”

Hollis, meanwhile, likens it to game adaptations of films. So much has happened in the last twenty years that the two projects will be incomparable. But the good adaptations – like GoldenEye, perhaps – “very faithfully capture a small kernel of the original’s core.”

“It’s hard to say what that essence is, but they manage to capture and they manage to transfer it,” he says. “They might change everything around it beyond recognition, but as long as they have that central core and they’re faithful to that core, they can get away with it. Most films of books, games of films, and most game sequels suffer this same problem – they don’t manage to capture the essence of the original. It isn’t even written down in a document. If it is anywhere in this world, it’s in the minds of a few people who worked on that original project.”

With those few people who worked on Perfect Dark scattered across the games industry and beyond, it’s unlikely that magic will ever truly be recaptured. But with the N64 shooter still standing proud after twenty years, perhaps it’s time for Joanna Dark to have one more chance at being perfect.