25 years of GoldenEye 007, the turning point for FPS on consoles
Hectic, turbulent and above all revolutionary. GoldenEye 007 isn’t just one of the great N64 classics, it’s one of the most influential video games of all time. Without a doubt. The third best-selling cartridge for Nintendo’s legendary 64-bit console (Eye, via Ocarina of Time, Banjo-Kazooie or Super Smash Bros.) and one of the pillars of modern FPS. And although it is based on the Bond universe in terms of content, its development was a truly impossible mission.
Because we can expect almost everything from the Big N. Virtually everything today on the eve of a Nintendo Direct. But then an FPS based on a James Bond movie was beyond the limits. Not just because it’s an adaptation of a Hollywood movie, which usually doesn’t bode well, but because mid-’90s first-person shooters that were designed to be played via console controllers were – usually – an absolute were disasters. Very decaf replacement for the phenomenon that had exploded on PC.
GoldenEye 007 not only broke with stereotypes, but also set new standards in terms of certain aspects such as a spectacular multiplayer, a more interesting game development in which there was even a lot of room for stealth (it’s a spy saga after all) or an avant-garde gunplay. There was a knock on the table.
And yet, as Martin Hollis himself, one of the project’s top executives, admitted in 2004, GoldenEye 007 initially aroused little confidence or interest prior to its release. And it’s not for nothing, since, as already mentioned, it’s an FPS for consoles based on a movie that was pulled from cinemas years ago. Worst of all? The N64 game would arrive a few months before the release of Tomorrow Never Dies, the new James Bond adventure on the big screen.
Problems and prejudices widespread among gamers and Bond fans, of which both Nintendo and Rare, the creators of GoldenEye 007, were fully aware when embarking on the project. Which gives double value to his victory. More specifically, the credit for this masterpiece didn’t go to the geniuses behind Donkey Kong Country, but to a small group of developers with too short a career in the industry but who were determined to do great things. And boy, did they succeed.
The challenge of creating the definitive James Bond video game
Development on GoldenEye 007 was almost technically blind and, as mentioned, most of the team had little experience as to the nature of the game and the caliber of the project they were tackling. But as is often the case with our favorite double zero agent, the creative freedom in overcoming extreme challenges made all the difference.
According to Dave Doak or the aforementioned Martin Hollis, when Nintendo and Rare sat down to consider how to approach the very juicy license of the then-new Jame Bond film, the idea they both came up with was an action one and side-scrolling shooting game for SNES . A very recurring formula in the beast’s brain when it comes to film adaptation that could make a difference in the hands of the creators of Donkey Kong Country. But even on that premise, the English weren’t all that motivated by the idea either.
Their advantage was obvious: James Bond was and remains a universal icon beyond the screen. Who knows the character best and who least, so there was no need to introduce them to the player, and that meant a strong claim on the shelves, too. The downside: none of the previous Agent 007 games had aroused the slightest interest. What would this project do differently? This is where Hollis comes in.
The story of GoldenEye begins in November 1994. He has only been working for Rare for a year. We had just finished work on the Killer Instinct arcade where I was the second programmer. It was about a 1 year project for 10 people. I’ve been researching Ultra 64’s new graphics capabilities and wondering what I would do next. Rumor has it that Nintendo had approached Rare about developing a game for a new Bond film. But nobody was really excited [en la idea]. Tim Stamper, the general manager, and a few other people from the Donkey Kong Country team went to the promotional event and met the cast of the film, but the project fell through after that. I boldly suggested to Tim that he lead a new team to make the game and that Rare take over the project. I vaguely suggested it would be a 3D shooter.
What motivated Martin Hollis wasn’t just the opportunity to make a new video game, he really was a James Bond fan. From the character, from his universe and his worldwide spy plans, from the iconology behind the myth and of course from this hilarious knick knack he used to carry tucked away in his tuxedo. Something that is perfectly reflected in GoldenEye 007.
However, having a small and inexperienced team was a factor to consider. Some of the developers involved in the game had never done anything in 3D and learned as they went, while for others it was literally the first video game they worked on professionally.
I have to mention that the whole team was very green. Eight of us had never worked on a game. Andy Smith had worked on a few rare titles. I worked on one at Rare and wrote countless prequel games as a hobbyist, but those games made by one person don’t really count, do they? But overall the team was very talented and very committed. When casting people, I looked for three things: talent in their field (obviously), a passion for the Bond universe, and a deep understanding of gaming. Six of the project participants could easily be assigned the role of game designer. That’s a ridiculously high ratio, and it explains a lot. A person can’t design an original game, it’s just not humanly possible. Six have ways, with the right coordination.
With more enthusiasm than experience to work with, and after the rights formalities were formalized, the new team dived into the game’s development, using as reference a reference document first written by Hollys for the project in March 1995 that revolutionized FPS were written on only nine pages. For reference, the film of the same name will be released in November of the same year and it would still be years before the Nintendo 64 was launched. Which leads to two additional inconveniences.
- There was absolutely no way the game could get out in time for the film’s release, so anything related to the film’s success (or failure) would not benefit from its promotion.
- On the other hand, and this is even trickier, at Rare they had no idea what the inside of the N64 would look like and so could only speculate on how this game would work. They knew that three dimensional graphics were the big advantage of the new console and they had some very expensive development stations to design the project, but they were blind.
It’s a responsibility to have more enthusiasm than experience and to manage a license of such great caliber. Perhaps the general public didn’t have very high expectations for the project, but the team’s willingness to make the final James Bond game led to some very productive brainstorming and the reassurance of not being tied to specific dates like the film’s premiere his or the console release, it wasn’t a production against the clock.
Seen from a certain perspective, GoldenEye 007 is the diametrically opposite case of Ataris ET in every way. And so were the results in sales and reception.
License to kill, not die
The Rare development team went into the project with vague ideas about how their vision of GoldenEye 007 would be played, but they were very aware that Nintendo wasn’t going to bring it to PC, so they played with a number of prejudices , which are very much against and quite deserved: As we have already mentioned, in the first half of the 90s, console FPS were disappointing, both in terms of gaming experience and control level. Well, the original vision of how Bond should wield his pistol wasn’t so much geared towards the DOOM Slayer or the villain Duke Nukem, but more towards the protagonists of Virtua Cop.
Born in arcades, rail shooters offered (and still offer) a very unique arcade-like gaming experience: the player saw the game unfold more or less automatically on the screen, and was limited to interacting with evildoers based around the screen cleaned on bullets. One of the greatest exponents of this premise was SEGA’s Virtua Cop, although there were many other references. And while they weren’t quite sure what the N64 controller would look like, they knew that this type of game would be available on the new…
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