the artistry and psychology of gaming


The Architecture of GoldenEye 007 and Perfect Dark

The Architecture of GoldenEye 007 and Perfect Dark

Last week was supposed to be the final installment of Nintendovember, my month-long look at Nintendo games that have pioneered or popularized various genres or subgenres. However, I dropped the ball. So instead, the finale of Nintendovember will take place right now, in December. Sorry for the confusion.

Now, when you think of innovative Nintendo titles, it’s likely that series like Mario, Zelda, and Metroid come to mind right away; in fact, those are the games I’ve covered the past three weeks. One game that isn’t immediately obvious is GoldenEye 007. It isn’t typically viewed as a Nintendo game, seeing as it is based on a movie and was not created by the in-house developers of Nintendo EAD. However, the game was exclusive to the Nintendo 64 and was developed by Rare (at the time, Rare was a subsidiary of the Big N), so I have no qualms about calling it a Nintendo game. As for which subgenre it pioneered, continue reading.

Released in 1997, GoldenEye 007 is fondly remembered for several reasons. Many will point out that it was among the first to bring the first-person shooter genre to consoles (and do it well), and many more will wax nostalgic about the hundreds of hours wasted playing the addictive multiplayer mode. Those with a more technical outlook may remember some of the smaller innovations, like the way enemies would react differently depending on where on their body you shot them. It also, along with MDK, was one of the first games to feature a sniper rifle that could zoom in to offer greater accuracy. Regardless of why people loved it, it was until very recently almost universally considered the greatest licensed game of all time (partially due to the fact that it was released two years after the GoldeneEye movie, so it wasn’t as rushed as other movie-based games).

But the reason I’m including it as part of Nintendovember is because it popularized what I like to call the “intelligent first-person shooter.” Before GoldenEye 007, FPS games followed the trail blazed by Wolfenstein 3D. In other words, each level had only three objectives: get to the end, kill everything in sight, and don’t die. However, in GoldenEye, you play as James Bond, the world’s greatest spy, and spies are known for their quick wit, their gadgets, and for focusing on reconnaissance and quiet assassinations rather than conspicuously murdering hundreds of people with the loudest weapons possible. As such, the objectives in any given level have a lot more variety, including sabotaging enemy equipment, stealing critical information, rendezvousing with important contacts, and the classic “minimize scientist casualties.”

There is also an emphasis on stealth. You can sneak up on patrolling guards, and carefully utilizing quiet firearms is encouraged to avoid attracting the attention of other enemies in the level. More relevant to a discussion of level design are the security cameras scattered throughout many of the levels. Being spotted by one will set off an alarm, so a careful player must find a way to destroy them or stay out of their sight. (On higher difficulties, destroying all of the surveillance cameras is actually required.) Of course, all of this doesn’t mean that there won’t be any shootouts at all. Both the GoldenEye movie and this game recognize that a master spy must occasionally mow down a small army of unnamed mooks to complete his or her mission.

“Promise not to bleed on my suit and I’ll kill you quickly.”

Note that while GoldenEye 007 helped lay the groundwork for the intelligent FPS, it was not the very first in the subgenre. Despite being a relatively young medium, video games have a complex history, and it’s incredibly difficult to pinpoint any particular game as the first to do anything. It could be said that GoldenEye merely elaborated on many of the features found in the Bungie game Marathon. (Yes, that’s the same Bungie that would later make the relatively dumbed-down cash cow known as Halo, which really didn’t evolve combat at all.) It’s also possible that there’s an even more obscure game predating Marathon that introduced the intelligent FPS. However, GoldenEye was among the first such games to gain widespread popularity within the gaming community.

Just because something looks like it’s the first to do something, that doesn’t always mean that it is.

GoldenEye is also one of the few games in which changing the difficulty does more than adjust the “Enemy Health” and “Enemy Damage” sliders: selecting a harder difficulty will add objectives, and this can drastically alter the way a level is played. For instance, consider the very first level, the Arkhangelsk Dam. On the easiest difficulty (Agent), the level has only one objective: “Bungee jump from platform.” This entails little more than running to the end of the level, and can be done in less than a minute if you know what you’re doing. Medium difficulty (Secret Agent) adds another objective: “Neutralize all alarms.” This time, you need to go through the level a little more carefully, checking all of the guardhouses for alarm panels to destroy.

The hardest difficulty (00 Agent) adds two more objectives to your checklist: “Install covert modem” and “Intercept data backup.” The first of those two objectives doesn’t require you to stray far from the path you travelled in the other difficulties, but to complete the latter, you’ll have to explore a section of the level inside the dam that you can completely ignore in Agent and Secret Agent modes.

It’s also interesting to observe how the objectives relate to each other. “Bungee jump from platform” is always the last objective you will complete; in fact, taking a dive before completing the rest of your goals will cause you to fail the level. Most missions have an objective like this that doubles as the level exit. Of the two 00 Agent objectives, you need to “install covert modem” before you can “intercept data backup.” But that last mission requirement, “neutralize all alarms,” can be completed before or after the 00 Agent objectives. (A few levels also have passive objectives, such as “minimize scientist casualties” that simply require you to avoid doing something for the duration of the mission.) Unlike linear shooters that force you to complete the objectives in a strict sequential order, GoldeneEye 007 gives you some freedom as to the order in which you complete your goals. In fairly straightforward levels like the Arkhangelsk Dam and the St. Petersburg Train, this doesn’t make much difference, but in more open-ended missions like the Severnaya Surface and the Monte Carlo Frigate, this freedom allows for several different strategies.

GoldenEye’s levels are also known for smaller details. Unlike other shooters of the time, many of the locales were littered with real-world objects, like computers, chairs, and tables. All of which would inexplicably explode if you shot them. (1997 was a simpler time.) And of course, since this was a game released by Rare in their prime, it’s full of Easter Eggs as well.

I am breaking the rules RIGHT NOW.

But now, I’d like to take a moment to discuss one level in which GoldenEye 007 dropped the ball. Specifically, a multiplayer level. It may be tantamount to gamer blasphemy to say this, but Facility is quite possibly the worst FPS multiplayer map that everyone loves. Hell, even I love it, but it’s just poor level design. A great deathmatch level in a first-person shooter should not have any dead ends. At best, this encourages camping, and at worst, it divides the players and completely wrecks the flow of the match. Instead, a deathmatch map should have many interconnected passages, resembling a web of sorts.

Facility is an amazing single-player level, but the things that make it great in single-player make it a crappy multiplayer map. The area around the bathroom is fine, but the other half of the level is just way too linear. Imagine that you were to respawn in the small room with the body armor and the locked door that leads to the end of the level in single-player. If everyone else is fighting in the bathroom, you will have to run across the entire map just to get to where the action is.

As you may know, GoldenEye was not the only first-person shooter developed by Rare and released (until recently) exclusively for the N64. In 2000, they released a spiritual sequel, Perfect Dark. The basic framework of the game was identical to GoldenEye, but the experience was greatly refined, and in my opinion, it is a better game. It featured more in-depth gameplay, more numerous features, more interesting weapons, improved multiplayer, a better story, sharper graphics, improved sound (including full voice acting), a smoother framera– actually… just ignore that last bit.

Perfect Dark also made improvements in level design. All of the things that made GoldenEye’s level design great are still present, with a few interesting additions. Firstly, you are occasionally presented with multiple ways to complete certain objectives. For example, one mission involves sneaking onto Air Force One. After completing the other mission objectives, there are two different ways to get onto the actual plane. You could make your way to the floor of the hangar, navigate a maze of security lasers, and climb up the landing gear. Or you could simply disguise yourself as a flight attendant and walk right in the door.

Depending on which option you choose, you will start the next mission in different locations, which brings me to Perfect Dark’s next improvement. In a handful of levels, you have the option of doing something that has a minor effect on the next mission. The Air Force One level also has another example of this. In the cargo bay (where you start if you climb the landing gear, though you can still get there from the other entrance) is a Jetbike on a platform. You can completely ignore it if you want, but if you hit the button next to it to lower it into the cargo hold, you will be able to use it in the subsequent mission.

However, it is the third little improvement that is my favorite: secret weapons. Almost every level has at least one unique weapon (or double weapon) hidden somewhere in it. Many times you will need to complete some sort of requirement to find it, but a few just require you to find it and pick it up.

For example, if you’ve played the first level on Perfect Agent (hardest) difficulty, you may remember this guy.

"Don't shoot! Don't shoot!"

After eavesdropping on his phone conversation, you’re supposed to lead him at gunpoint to a specific computer terminal, where he will log in so you can download some data. If you get too far away from him, he will run away and escape by locking himself in a closet. However, giving him a long leash can be beneficial. If you catch up to him after he’s opened the closet, but before he’s locked himself inside, you can raid its contents, including the famed Laptop Gun.


Lastly, no discussion of Perfect Dark’s level design would be complete without cheese. That’s right, cheese. Every single level of the single-player mode (including the hub level and the bonus missions) has a small wedge of Swiss cheese hiding in some dark corner. There is no way to “collect” them, and even though the Achievement icons of the Xbox Live rerelease are pictures of cheese, there is no ‘chievo for finding the cheese in each level. For years, gamers tried to deduce the meaning of the cheese. So what is their purpose? Likely, to drive gamers insane trying to figure out why there’s cheese everywhere.

Pictured: Level design!




  1. I feel like digging out my old N64 and playing a few rounds of Perfect Dark. As for the cheese, I read somewhere that they were originally placed as a means to unlock secret codes, but the company nixed the idea and just kept the cheese for the giggles. How else can you justify a piece of cheese in the toilet?

  2. This is one of the best articles I’ve read where someone describes accurately and in great detail why these games were (still are) so awesome.

    Just to nitpick a little, in the airport level, you actually have to disguise yourself as a flight attendant just to enter the base itself, but yes, you still have the option of how to get onto the plane. There are some other great examples of that type of thing though. The next level, where you are on the plane itself, you are supposed to turn the autopilot on after the pilots are killed, but if you go to the cockpit earlier, you can kill the guards and prevent the pilots’ deaths entirely.
    In one of the area 51 levels you are supposed to use a crate with explosives in it to blow a hole in a wall, but a clever player will realize that the gun they have can be also used as a proximity mine. Simply throw the gun near the wall and shoot it! Much more convenient and saves time.

    I’m glad someone else actually agrees with me that PD was the better game, not only in the multiplayer but also the single player part too. I would actually just like to say that I think the story of PD was not only more interesting, detailed, and better presented than GE’s, but also that it was just a straight up great story, even with all the alien stuff. An evil corporation, traitorous government official, feuding alien races, clone of the president all tied together smoothly in a coherent and consistent plot. A lot of the locations were varied and pretty cool too.

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