This review originally went live in 2011, and we're updating and republishing it to mark the game's arrival in Switch's N64 library via the Nintendo Switch Online Expansion Pack.
Highly revered by countless N64 owners, GoldenEye 007 is often credited with kick-starting the first-person shooter craze on consoles. It not only showed that a good first-person shooter could be crafted for a machine other than a high-spec PC, but arguably also created the multiplayer FPS phenomenon on consoles. In fact, if it weren't for GoldenEye, it's quite feasible that franchises such as Halo and Call of Duty might never have experienced the intense popularity that propelled them into the gaming lexicon.
However, the games industry evolves and moves along faster than that of perhaps any other entertainment medium and gamers, likewise, are more often than not a fickle bunch. Aside from certain titles that somehow manage to retain a freshness and vitality beyond their age, a game that would have been cutting-edge in 1997 might not necessarily cut the mustard when placed side-by-side with today's games. So, after all these years, should you still be excited for GoldenEye?
Visually, Rare's magnum opus of the 20th century is difficult to pigeonhole, perched precariously between impressively 'realistic' for the era and polygonally past its prime. Naturally, its production values are primitive in this day and age: blurry textures and characters with permanently clenched cube-shaped fists were fine in 1997 on a CRT television, but they're an acquired taste today.
An appreciation for the low-poly aesthetic has blossomed in recent years, though, and if you can look past the obvious limitations, it's a clean-looking game with a subdued palette that complements the realism of the environments, the enemies, and their excellent animations. Sonically, it still delivers, with the classic Bond theme reworked in a variety of ways that feels true not only to the series, but also GoldenEye the movie. There's no speech of course, save for the odd grunt or groan, but the sound effects and score here belie the audio limitations of the original platform's cartridge format. GoldenEye still sounds great.
The game, luckily, always had more to offer than flashy graphics and Hollywood flair. Over the years, the FPS genre may have degraded into linear shooting galleries in which players were spoon-fed objectives that were never off the beaten track anyway, so playing GoldenEye with its more open-ended, realistic-feeling levels will be quite a shock to many younger gamers. Rare constructed a brilliantly balanced difficulty system, too, that not only affected the amount of damage that the player and the AI enemies inflict, but also added extra mandatory objectives throughout each of those levels depending on the set difficulty.
Thus, whether you're an FPS novice, veteran, or something in between, GoldenEye has a difficulty setting to suit you. This formula encourages you to improve your skills and gives you an incentive to run through the game multiple times, kicking things up a notch each playthrough. Indeed, you could go through GoldenEye's campaign three times and each playthrough would yield a sizeably different experience from the last. Rare continued to use this refreshing approach to difficulty in Perfect Dark and Perfect Dark Zero, but the system went largely unused by other developers until the Wii 'reimagining' of GoldenEye 007 in 2010.
While this is indeed a shame, GoldenEye nonetheless clings onto other, less favourable old-school gameplay mechanics. Holding the shoulder button for more precise aiming at the cost of having zero manoeuvrability (save for a sidestep) — while an innovative addition that pre-dates "iron sights" aiming — feels slightly too archaic now. It could be argued that GoldenEye is designed to be played at a more methodical pace than other shooters, with many missions requiring the player to remain completely undetected. But doing so is a lot more laborious than it should be with this stop/start aiming system feeling somewhat counter-intuitive if you've been living for decades now on a diet of dual-stick first-person games.
Of course, for many, the above criticisms will consist almost entirely of moot points, because for many GoldenEye is most fondly remembered for its immensely enjoyable split-screen multiplayer suite. Those aged visuals and the less-than-convenient aiming all fall by the wayside once you get three friends involved. GoldenEye multiplayer doesn't quite boast the dizzying array of options of modern deathmatch shooters, but its five distinct modes and their team-based variations each bring with them a unique gameplay mechanic to keep things fresh for a long time.
'Normal' is your standard deathmatch, while 'You Only Live Twice' and 'Licence to Kill' shake things up slightly; the former sees players only possessing — yes — only two lives before they're out of the game, while in the latter mode a single shot from any weapon is enough to kill you (or a karate-style chop if you're caught without a firearm, or playing the weaponless 'Slappers Only' mode. 'The Living Daylights' has players scrambling to hold a flag for the longest time, but it's 'The Man With The Golden Gun' that's by far the most interesting and frantic mode in the game.
Only one Golden Gun — a weapon that kills with one shot — is available in a match, and once a player grabs it the only way for his/her opponents to gain possession of the fabled firearm is to kill them for it. This leads to some frenetic action in which fragile alliances might be forged in order to take down the holder of the Golden Gun, at which point all cooperation is thrown out the window as a three-way struggle for the gun ensues. Wielding it successfully requires precision and skill, but when that single shot hits its target, you really feel like you're Bond in the opening gun barrel sequence as blood runs down your opponent's screen.
When paired with a generous helping of arenas, a plethora of weaponry, and a deep roster of characters from the Bond universe, GoldenEye's inspired variations on the standard idea of four people all trying to shoot each other in the face go a long way to keeping its multiplayer modes tremendously entertaining even now. It's very basic compared to modern offerings, but the core is strong — a sentiment that neatly summarises the entire game, really.
Some will adore GoldenEye, now as the day it launched. Others may appreciate its achievements on a more intellectual level, or find fuel enough in familiarity, nostalgia, and great memories to overlook aspects which nowadays feel a bit rough-and-ready. Many others, however, will struggle to click with it at all so many years later. It is, much like the classic character himself, a product of its time with a dodgy joint or two, but it is also a game which had a profound influence on the entire video game industry and one which evokes treasured memories for legions of fans, us included. GoldenEye deserves our respect, if not our love, and still has the power to impress given the proper context.
As a history lesson in how things used to be done, and as a split-screen multiplayer game, GoldenEye 007 still delivers the goods where it counts, although certain aspects haven't aged as gracefully as you would hope. Its precision aiming mechanic is fiddly and ever so slightly impractical on any controller that isn't the original (and divisive) N64 pad, and — as with most 64-bit titles, to be fair — an old-style CRT is much more flattering on its visuals than today's HD displays. However, play for a while and you'll quickly find evidence of the subtly profound design that made this such a game-changer back in 1997. GoldenEye represents an instance of genuine innovation in the first-person shooter genre, and its brilliant local multiplayer reminds us that there's still nothing quite like gloating and showboating with three friends all crowded around a single screen.