Listen, I loved GoldenEye just as much as everyone else when it arrived on N64 some 15 years ago. In truth, I played the hell out of it, especially the multiplayer. But it’s like this: I have a problem completely getting behind any licensed game. There’s something about playing a pre-established character, one whose personality and history has already played out on the silver screen, that doesn’t jive with me. Hence, stepping into the shoes of James Bond was never my thing, regardless of how much I enjoyed the gameplay of the famed GoldenEye. Taking all of this into consideration then, one might suspect when developer Rare announced Perfect Dark, I was on top of the world. A completely new and original setting, story, and cast of characters that would utilize the foundational elements put down in GoldenEye, the game’s spiritual predecessor, was just what my doctor ordered.
There was something magical about Perfect Dark. Maybe it was the unique heroine whose back story was complex and grippingly human. Maybe it was the gun-play that felt so spot-on it couldn’t be rivaled by any other game at the time. Or maybe it was that little Expansion Pak I was plugging into the front of my 64 that I had never used before, but was totally intrigued by. Apart from my captivation, Perfect Dark was unique even though it followed some of the most conventional design mechanics you could find. That’s what makes it so special, though– I’m always impressed when a developer can take a game, that has basically been done a hundred times before, and make the experience feel wholly fresh and exciting again. That’s what Rare did with Perfect Dark.
During those days, games, especially first person shooters, weren’t the most elegant pieces of narrative exposition you could find. Perfect Dark broke the mold in this regard as the story, woven through its wonderful web of extraterrestrial mystery and clandestine espionage, was haunting and original, made all the more pungent by its main protagonist, Joanna. Joanna is a fascinating character in that her tale is one of heartbreak as well as redemption. Distinctly similar to agent Scully from X-Files, Joanna feels equal parts enigmatic and empathetic. While these concepts aren’t entirely unique in games, specifically while standing on their own, they feel exceptionally pertinent here when juxtaposed by so many other resonant components. Aside from Joanna’s damaged history, there’s a real telling of science fiction in an applicable, socially relevant way. The sheer fact that all of these plot nuances made it into a game such as this, and managed to do so under the pretext that shooters can have good stories too, is astounding, especially for the game’s time.
Notwithstanding this well paced and well told story, the gameplay in Perfect Dark feels like a refinement of GoldenEye’s pitch perfect aspects. Visible reload animations, a new HUD, and slew of exhilarating new weapons are just a few of the notable differences between the two titles. Adding even more to this enhanced gameplay are the wonderful graphics, which are made all the better by use of the aforementioned Expansion Pak. Though, this graphical upgrade did cause a few frame rate issues, Perfect Dark is a beautiful game that looks leagues better than its James Bond counterpart, which used the same engine. It’s also one of few games that offered Dolby Surround Sound, a fully-voiced cast of characters, and a 16×9 widescreen option.
Where this all shined, however, was in the multiplayer mode entitled, “The Combat Simulator.” The Combat Simulator was effectively a robust and overhauled version of GoldenEye’s coveted masterpiece. Whether you’re a competitive or cooperative gamer, PD had it all: deathmatch, team deathmatch, capture the flag, king of the hill, VIP, weapon load-out and character customization, bot-support, player profiles to track performance statistics, and the ability to rank up. I mean, Perfect Dark was doing Call of Duty stuff before Call of Duty was doing Call of Duty stuff.
In the end, this gem was the culmination of console FPS games. Based off the lodestone of all console first person shooters, GoldenEye, it was destined for success. But little knew just how much success it would go on to see. The game felt like the epitome of Nintendo philosophy. It was inventive while still maintaining classic conventions. It was new, yet familiar. Above all else, it was memorable for all the right reasons. Plot-wise and mechanically speaking, it’s a triumph. Perfect Dark can grace my Nintendo system any time it pleases; I just hope we get a true sequel someday, and not that abysmal thing they called a follow-up back in 2006. Perfect Dark deserves the best, because it personifies what it takes to be the best.