Today marks the 20th anniversary of Perfect Dark, an all-time favorite N64 game that meant a lot to me during my early teen years.
I got an N64 in 1998 as a birthday present after spending the past year and a half playing games like Mario 64 and Diddy Kong Racing at my friends and neighbor’s. I had also come across a commercial while watching Nickelodeon for a game called Banjo-Kazooie(which I’ve totally NEVER mentioned before on this blog) and decided I needed a Nintendo 64. I finally got the 64-bit console for my birthday and almost immediately went to my neighbor’s and borrowed a few games. I remember borrowing Cruisin’ USA, which had been one of my favorites to play in the mall arcade, and the video game adaptation of the 007 movie, GoldenEye.
GoldenEye remains significant in gaming history as THE game demonstrating first-person shooters’ viability as a console genre. Where FPS titles had been a mainstay for PC gaming since the early 90’s with games like Wolfenstein 3D and Doom, consoles had only known a select few. I remember the very first time I played GoldenEye and not being entirely sure about how to play the game “you can’t even see yourself!”, but it quickly became one of my favorites on the N64, especially when playing split-screen multiplayer with some friends. It feels weird to remember a time when FPS games weren’t the visible genre in gaming.
I remember reading monthly issues of Nintendo Power and being intrigued by the sound of Rare’s successor to GoldenEye’s FPS crown – Perfect Dark. The game looked impressive from magazine screenshots and sounded like it was going to be every bit as good as GoldenEye. Perfect Dark is probably the earliest instance I can remember of getting legitimately HYPED for an upcoming release; I knew I wanted to play the game. The fact the game was being developed by Rare, the studio behind some of my favorites like Donkey Kong Country, GoldenEye and Banjo-Kazooie, made it even easier to buy into the excitement.
Perfect Dark was released in May 2000 and I finally got the game a couple months later when I was able to convince my mom to buy the game for me at our nearest Wal-Mart. I was unsure what my answer would be when I pointed to an M-rated game in the plexiglass game case. I remember finally getting to hold the game and wanting to return home immediately so I could pop the cartridge in my N64 and start playing.
Feeling like I knew more or less what to expect from the game after spending many hours playing GoldenEye, I was still blown away first by the graphics as the opening cutscene shows a lone helicopter flying across the city skyline and landing on the helipad as Joanna Dark emerges on her very first mission to extract Dr. Carroll from the dataDyne headquarters. The glossy visuals were the most impressive I had ever seen as I quickly learned there was a lone guard and security camera at the bottom of the walkway. The sounds of everything from a silenced Falcon 2 pistol to the sound of footsteps on a metal walkway were nice and crisp and the soundtrack, done mostly by Graeme Norgate and Grant Kirkhope is memorable and perfectly captured the cool spy/sci-fi presentation of the game.
The story itself wasn’t revolutionary, but solid enough to progress the game along as it incorporated elements from Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell and The X-Files. I always kind of liked the fact the game begins as rooted more in espionage films as Joanna stealthily infiltrates the dataDyne building with the aid of numerous gadgets(Rare devs have stated their appreciation for the stealth genre-creating Playstation classic, Metal Gear Solid), but soon ventures into straight-up science fiction involving the Maian and Skedar aliens as Joanna is sent to retrieve a Maian named Elvis who has crashed at Area 51(of course…). The X-Files influence is on display here as many episodes of the show begin with more-grounded plotlines before veering into an array of fantastical happenings. This was still during the time where FPS titles were considered purely a “gameplay” game in which a competent story was merely a pleasant addition and not an expectation. A shooter title having creative, fun to use weapons on the other hand, was expected and Perfect Dark delivered in providing unique and memorable weapons like the Falcon 2 pistol, SuperDragon assault rifle, Laptop Gun, and the FarSight XR-20 rail gun. And then there was the multiplayer…
Perfect Dark was praised upon release for its impressive list of multiplayer options and game modes. The range of multiplayer options available in GoldenEye were back, along with a number of new modes like King of the Hill, Hacker Central and Counter-Operative. A number of challenge scenarios and weapons range are also included in the game. In addition to the standard 4 player split-screen deathmatches, Perfect Dark features a number of different A.I. bots and allowing for up to 12 characters(4 human, 8 cpu) to play simultaneously. I fondly recall going through all the different Combat Simulator options and setting up matches for my neighbor, younger brother and I to play against the cpu controlled Turtle Sim or Venge Sims. This made for an unmatched multiplayer experience(on console at least) and surpassed GoldenEye in every way. The variety of game modes and options in Perfect Dark’s Combat Simulator provided a few hundred hours worth of mayhem and I loved every minute of it.
Returning to Perfect Dark after all these years I feel the game has held up reasonably well, the biggest hurdle for most will likely rest upon using the often-mocked N64 controller. Nintendo’s three-pronged controller was revolutionary at the time in being the first to utilize an analog joystick to allow the greater freedom of movement that was showcased in the first generation of entirely 3D games. Going back to using just one control stick to manuever your way through a shooter game worked well enough at the time, but now seems archaic as we’ve become accustomed to the dual stick orientation allowing players control of both X and Y axes. The four C Buttons on the N64 controller acted as the second control stick and were utitlized to allow you to adjust your aim vertically by pressing the Up/Down buttons as well as the Left/Right buttons making it so you can strafe. The game also featured a pretty generous aim-assist to compensate for any lack of maneuverability; of course you could press the Z or R buttons for a more precise aim, but this would prevent any lateral movement as you could only move the crosshairs. Nearly any FPS player can tell you that having to come to a complete stop to freely aim at a particular target isn’t ideal, but those were the limitations of the time.
Along with the single joystick orientation, the biggest drawback to playing Perfect Dark after 20 years is the inconsistent frame rate. The biggest criticisms of the game after its release were usually directed at the frame rate which would take a severe hit when too many things started happening onscreen. Members of the development team at Rare have stated in the past that GoldenEye nearly pushed the N64 to its limits in 1997, so the fact they were able to manage to fit a bigger, more polished game like Perfect Dark on a 32mb cartridge is impressive. The game also required the N64 Expansion Pak which added a whopping 4mb of extra RAM to the console, without it over two-thirds of the game were unaccessible. Despite the added memory of the Expansion Pak, playing Perfect Dark would still subject players to the occasional moments of frame rates dropping, the worst instances would typically occur in multiplayer matches. I remember plenty of multiplayer matches where my younger brother and I would play against more than two or so CPU bots and once the bullets started flying, the frame rate would quite noticeably drop. Issues that were prevalent in the game in 2000 seem magnified even greater after all these years. The HD remaster of the game for Xbox Live in 2010 corrected most of the frame rate issues and offers the smoothest playing experience of the game. Unrelated thought: I’d LOVE to see Rare make a return to Nintendo consoles with the Rare Replay collection getting a Switch release…
Rare was on top of the world by the time that Perfect Dark was released, the studio had seen massive commercial and critical success with games such as:
- Killer Instinct
- Donkey Kong Country
- Diddy Kong Racing
- Jet Force Gemini
- Donkey Kong 64
- Perfect Dark
- Conker’s Bad Fur Day
Perfect Dark saw a prequel – Perfect Dark Zero released as a launch title for the Xbox 360 in 2005 after Rare was purchased by Microsoft. The game was pretty solid, but didn’t seem to capture the same magic as the previous game(I do want to return to the game as I’ve always felt I likely never gave it enough of a chance). Another game series that plays as a spiritual successor to GoldenEye and Perfect Dark is the TimeSplitters series which was created by members of the team that worked on the aforementioned games before leaving to create a new studio – Free Radical Design. TimeSplitters 2 is another vastly underrated shooter that released in 2002 and I can’t help but think the game could have been even bigger if it had not been released prior to online gaming becoming the giant presence it is now.
Rare’s two N64 FPS releases will be forever compared by gamers as they discuss which is better; I’d argue that GoldenEye stands as the more significant in gaming history for the path it paved for shooters on console ahead of later games like Perfect Dark or Halo, but Perfect Dark took everything that made GoldenEye a must-play classic on the N64 and expanded it further and proving to be the superior game. The first generation of full-3D games are difficult for some to return to after the significant advancements of the past few generations of games as many games of the later 90’s and early 2000’s haven’t all aged as gracefully as their 16-bit predecessors. Despite showing its age, I still love Perfect Dark and its futuristic sci-fi setting(3 years from now in 2023). Some of my most vivid memories playing the game are things like environmental/lighting effects – being able to quietly take out a light with a silenced pistol providing more shadows to stay covered; glass panels shattering after a couple bullets or even the fact that bullet holes as well as blood stains remained on the walls after dispatching armed guards. I still remember laughing at the responses of the dataDyne guards, some personal favorites being: “there’s someone over here!” or “ugh…I’m dying!” before clumsily combat rolling out into the open. It’s definitely worth at least checking out Perfect Dark for anyone that has never played the game, if for no other reason than an interest in its significance on the N64 and its place in the progression of FPS games on console going from GoldenEye<>Perfect Dark<>Halo<>CoD 4: Modern Warfare and beyond. There has been rumors surfacing recently of another Perfect Dark game being developed for the Xbox Series X…hmm <cue suspensful music, dimming lights>