Is it really 20 years since Perfect Dark released?! Man, I might as well start working on my tombstone now!
How has so much time passed!? It feels like I was just enjoying multiplayer a couple years back. Someone please figure out how to slow down time! Next thing you know, I'll be writing about the game's 30th anniversary! As always, thanks for reading.
The late 90s brought about a ton of innovation for the game industry. Things changed at such a rapid pace and in such huge ways that we may never see anything like it again. Games officially made the jump from 2D to 3D as a standard, controllers were getting another level of complicated, and genres were being turned on their head. The hardware at the time allowed developers to run wild with their imaginations, and also completely rethink how classic genres could be represented.
While the late 90s were littered with industry-defining moments, there are a few that stand head-and-shoulders above the others. Mario's jump into the 3D realm is definitely one of the standout achievements, but the gang at RARE left a major mark as well. Behind the scenes, RARE was looking to continue their string of amazing Nintendo exclusives with something very different from their previous releases. RARE was moving away from fighters like Killer Instinct and platformers like Donkey Kong Country to dip their toes into the console side of first-person shooters.
GoldenEye 007 is, without a doubt, one of the most important releases in gaming history. The first person genre might not have been new at the time, but it was certainly fresh for the console side of things. Save for a very small handful of Genesis/SNES games that used pseudo-3D effects to create rudimentary FPS titles, console gaming was largely a side-scrolling, top-down, or isometric affair. Developers were still trying to figure out how FPS' would work on consoles when the N64 came about, and RARE managed to create something that knocked the competition's socks off.
RARE's work on GoldenEye 007 was absolutely a high-water mark for FPS experiences on consoles. The things they achieved with that title are unbelievable, and continue to influence the genre to this day. While previous FPS efforts on consoles showed that there might be something to the idea, GoldenEye 007 was THE game to show how the genre could be fully realized on consoles. It remains a stunning achievement for a dev team, showing how the marriage of new tech, talented devs, and forward-thinking can make for an unforgettable experience. ...so how on earth do you follow that up?
GoldenEye 007 was a hit beyond RARE and Nintendo's wildest dreams. It was a go-to game for the N64, becoming the focus of local multiplayer tournaments and so much more. It was one of the must-have titles on the platform, alongside other huge names like Mario Kart 64, Super Mario 64, and more. With that sort of success, it was no surprise to see that both Nintendo and RARE were eager to follow-up with another experience in the same genre. That's where the path to Perfect Dark began.
While every developer out there wishes for a mega-hit with consumers, getting one can be a curse as well. GoldenEye was a top-tier N64 game and a genre-definer on consoles. It was the go-to example of how first person games could work outside of the PC scene. While that success was well warranted and certainly celebrated by RARE, you'd have to imagine that the weight on the company's shoulders for a follow-up was immense. You've created a game that's being hailed as the first great FPS on consoles. How can you possibly create something that tops that?
For hardcore Nintendo fans, GoldenEye 007 had a lot going for it. They knew Nintendo was publishing and RARE was developing, which is a dream duo that usually lead to fantastic experiences. For the casual N64 owner, GoldenEye 007 had brand power. This was back in a time when movie-to-game adaptations were still big movers, despite so many missteps from other devs and pubs. Gamers were hungry for film adaptations, and the James Bond franchise brought with it tons of recognition. If you saw a game on the shelf based on the film GoldenEye and it featured Pierce Brosnan on it, it was going to capture your attention.
With Perfect Dark, RARE wanted to move away from the licensed approach and create something all their own. The success they found with GoldenEye 007 was hugely important, but working with that franchise again would be both expensive and cumbersome. Rather than jump through all the legal hoops and pay huge fees, a smart decision was made to move into an original direction. RARE wanted to create a first person title where they owned the rights to everything. No more legal red tape to cut through or top-down orders from the license holders. Perfect Dark was going to be a RARE creation through and through.
That's not to say that Perfect Dark would completely escape its GoldenEye roots, though. Outside of the obvious gameplay similarities, RARE also stuck with some thematic elements from the world of James Bond. Perfect Dark follows the story of Joanna Dark, an agent of the Carrington Institute. While Joanna's story would put in the middle of an interstellar war, her skills were at least somewhat similar to James Bond. Joanna would take on covert rescue missions, reconnaissance, and all sorts of spy-style adventures. RARE saw what worked in GoldenEye 007, and they wanted to make sure fans of that game would at least tangentially link the two games.
As for the gameplay of Perfect Dark, RARE did what most developers do when they create a sequel or follow-up. You take what worked and dial it up to 11. Perfect Dark was going to offer everything GoldenEye 007 had, but in a bigger, bolder way. Perfect Dark was going to feature more impressive visuals, better storytelling, more varied enemies, improved level design, reworked enemy AI, enhanced multiplayer, and everything else. The only possible way Perfect Dark could stand a chance at taking down the mighty GoldenEye 007 was to outclass it every step of the way.
RARE would even take advantage of Nintendo's "Expansion Pak" for the N64. This would ensure that Perfect Dark would have a leg up on GoldenEye 007 visually. Perfect Dark flat-out required the Expansion Pak for single player, co-operative and counter-operative campaigns, and most multiplayer aspects. The Expansion Pak would also enable a high-res mode for the game. Back in the day, nothing impressed players like the next leap in visuals, and RARE wanted to make sure Perfect Dark could do that.
As RARE toiled away on their GoldenEye 007 follow-up, rumblings of their project started to circulate. Magazines had features on RARE diving back into the FPS genre once again, rumors popped up about what the game would be, and we eventually got previews of what Perfect Dark would become. Gaming magazines were filled to the brim with Perfect Dark coverage, causing gamers to foam at the mouth. You'd often read headlines talking about the "next big thing" for RARE, or the "GoldenEye killer" coming to N64. All this coverage...all this hype only caused that much more pressure on RARE to deliver big.
Finally, on May 22nd, 2000, Perfect Dark was unleashed upon the public. It had been three years since GoldenEye came to the N64, and it was still the go-to multiplayer game for millions of fans. With GoldenEye's popularity holding strong, would RARE and Nintendo be able to sway players over to Perfect Dark? Both companies were obviously hoping so, and the marketing efforts to spread the word were there. There was no doubt the game would become a million seller, but would it be able to take the crown away from Perfect Dark?
No matter what RARE did with Perfect Dark, it would always be compared to GoldenEye 007. Those comparisons came out fast and furious as Perfect Dark hit the shelves. While the game was highly praised by a majority of publications, it seemed clear that many found GoldenEye to be the better game. Perfect Dark looked better, but it unfortunately seemed to run worse in some areas. Perfect Dark had a completely original cast and plot, but it was hard for it to measure up with the almighty Bond license. Perfect Dark was completely new through-and-through, but some found it to follow GoldenEye's formula a bit too closely. The game wasn't lambasted by any means, but at the time, most agreed that GoldenEye 007 was still the king.
Players did indeed flock to Perfect Dark, but not anywhere near the amount that GoldenEye 007 received. Final sales figures for GoldenEye put the game at somewhere around 8 million units sold, while Perfect Dark would amass roughly 3.2 million when all was said and done. Despite RARE's best efforts, their GoldenEye 007 follow-up wasn't going to be able to woo more players than James Bond could. Again, not a failure by any stretch of the imagination, but certainly unable to reach the lofty heights of GoldenEye.
There are all sorts of reasons why Perfect Dark didn't hit the same sales success as GoldenEye, and they have nothing to do with the game's quality. Again, it's just extremely hard for a new IP to get the same recognition and attention as a beloved pop culture icon, and that's exactly what James Bond was. Timing for the game didn't do it any favors either, as Perfect Dark showed up rather late in the N64's life. Players were ready to move onto other hardware, if they hadn't done so already through the competition. By the time Perfect Dark released, the PS2 was less than half a year away, and gamers were already getting a glimpse of what next-gen games could look like.
A victim of numerous circumstances, but arguably it was the crazy success of GoldenEye that lead to the toughest hurdle. Perfect Dark took the "more is more" approach, and some people really enjoyed that. Others found GoldenEye 007 to be the better game, even though its scope and scale was smaller. GoldenEye did a few different things extremely well, while Perfect Dark did way more with mixed results. GoldenEye was a showcase for what the N64 could do, while Perfect Dark ended up being a game to show the limitations of an aging platform.
Truth be told, there's just no way Perfect Dark could have lived up the GoldenEye, no matter how bad some people wanted it to. GoldenEye 007 was an undeniable revolution for the game industry and first-person gaming, while Perfect Dark was a modest evolution. GoldenEye 007 may have had some excitement behind its release, but Perfect Dark was a part of the insane hype machine from day one. Expectations were pushed to astronomical limits, and there would never be any way Joanna could hit the highs gamers wanted.
While Perfect Dark may not be held in the same regard as GoldenEye 007, it's still a fantastic experience. Its technical limitations and hiccups were noticeable at the time, but the game still managed to amass quite a following. There were indeed millions who were more than happy to move on from GoldenEye 007 to make their go-to deathmatch game Perfect Dark. Countless hours were spent with buddies hunting each other down in multiplayer, throwing out Laptop Guns as a sentry to get a sneaky kill, or taking out alien bots lurking around the next corner. Make no mistake, Perfect Dark definitely deserves its place in the pantheon of N64 all-time greats.
Twenty years removed from Perfect Dark, yet we're still talking about it. That goes to show the impact the game made. Almost all discussions of the best N64 games will include Perfect Dark, and rightfully so. The comparisons to GoldenEye 007 were always going to be there, but Perfect Dark can certainly stand on its own. It shows us the strengths of the N64 as a local multiplayer platform, reminds us of the days when RARE/Nintendo were the best of buds, and gave us a brand new universe to explore. A universe that fans still appreciate to this day, and would love to see return.
It's impossible to talk about Perfect Dark without mentioning GoldenEye 007. The two will forever be linked in gaming history. That said, we celebrate Perfect Dark all these years later because it did indeed manage to escape the shadow of GoldenEye. It might not have done so at the time, and it didn't mange to do so sales-wise, but now it stands out as a hallmark of a different era. Perfect Dark deserves all the praise that comes these twenty years later, and shows that time and reflection can lead to a whole new appreciation. Mission accomplished, Joanna.