Over the holiday season we’ll be republishing a series of Nintendo Life articles, interviews and other features from the previous twelve months that we consider to be our Best of 2020. Hopefully, this will give you a chance to catch up on pieces you missed, or simply enjoy looking back on a year which did have some highlights — honest!
This Soapbox feature was originally published in August 2020.
These days, I’m very much living the Nintendo life, but rewind thirty years and I was a SEGA Mega Drive kid. I enjoyed Super Mario Bros. 3, Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers, Duck Hunt and of course the seminal Rareware classic, Battletoads & Double Dragon on my brother’s NES, but given the choice between Mario or Sonic back then, it wasn’t much of a contest. One too many mistimed jumps and foolish deaths at the feet of Goombas left me with a preference for an automatic spin jump that took out enemies without Mario’s need for pixel precision.
In those original Sonic games I could hit a heightened flow state running through his twisting loop-filled Zones; when I tried the same in a Mario game, I inevitably clipped a Koopa Troopa or the penultimate step of a staircase and came grinding to a halt. They’re different styles of platformer, of course, but I preferred the SEGA flavour.
It would be a long time before I graduated beyond 16-bit, and the fifth generation was in full swing by the time I upgraded. PlayStation had been on the scene for a while and trying games like Twisted Metal, Die Hard Trilogy and Tekken 3 at a friend’s house certainly made it tempting. I wasn’t a big fan of the load times, even then, but it was an undeniably slick bit of kit next to my ageing Mega Drive.
The Nintendo 64 didn’t arrive in the UK until 1997, and despite the noise people were making about Super Mario 64, I wasn’t immediately onboard. No, it was another game that set me squarely on the Nintendo path. Wandering around Comet (the now-defunct UK retailer) on a family trip to buy a toaster or some such long-forgotten appliance, I caught glimpse of an N64 demo station through the rows of tall fridge freezers. It was running a game with lots of drab-looking grey on the screen. Darting away from my parents with an “I’m just going to look at something…”, I made a beeline for the terminal and found a small child looking up at the screen while poking at the console’s odd three-pronged controller.
The game was GoldenEye 007, and the kid was exploring the opening ‘Dam’ level, not that I knew it at the time – I wouldn’t even see the dam itself that day. An attentive guardian watched as lil’ Timmy pushed at the grey analogue stick and bumbled around the 3D space. He faced the wall, rotated left a bit, shuffled up against the concrete as his pistol bobbed, rotated right a bit, shuffled some more… and so on.
This went on for several minutes, with the black PP7 disappearing and reappearing as the kid pushed random buttons trying to find the trigger; Bond spent a good deal of time examining the floor and the sky that day. I waited patiently, throwing polite glances at the adult and trying to embarrass them into ‘letting this other boy have a go’. Eventually, my rival was ushered away and I got my hands on that strange controller for the first time ever.
I’d like to say I took to the game instantly, but the reality was that I wasn’t much better than ol’ Timmy No-Trigger. I managed to find the ‘Z’ button at least, but in the 90 seconds before I too was pulled away I don’t recall seeing a single guard. I never made it past the very opening area, but I knew one thing: I had to have this game.
it promised a Bond experience that captured not just the action and explosions but another important facet of the character: sophistication
GoldenEye (the movie) had been out for well over a year at that point, and I remember being quite taken with it. Nothing I’d seen or played on that demo station felt much like the film–Pierce Brosnan doesn’t spend half the movie craning his neck at the sky while strafing against a concrete wall–but from those very opening moments it promised a Bond experience that captured not just the action and explosions but another important facet of the character: sophistication.
Movement in GoldenEye felt elegant and precise. Holding ‘R’ to pull up the crosshair, carefully target guards and see them recoil realistically from shots felt incredibly considered and sophisticated, especially compared to the FPS I’d spent most time with to that point: DOOM. Movement there was also fluid, but aiming consisted of facing an enemy and smashing ‘Ctrl’. DOOM was undeniably fun but it was a blunt instrument; GoldenEye immediately felt like an elegant weapon, for a more civilised age. Even blundering around beneath that initial guard tower for the first time, I could sense this game’s potential.
Eventually, I did get an N64 with Lylat Wars (Star Fox 64) and a chunky Rumble Pak. I soon caught up with Super Mario 64, and I spent Christmas morning ’98 exploring the magical Kokiri Forest. Other unexpected delights followed alongside the big obvious games which confirmed I’d definitely made the right choice: games like Banjo-Kazooie, ISS 64, Snowboard Kids, Rogue Squadron, F-Zero X, 1080º Snowboarding, all classics I stumbled on in the late ’90s, and games I’d have likely missed completely were it not for a chance encounter in a Comet.
A tangle of rights and licensing issues prevent the game getting an official re-release, although it’s come close at least once. Unfortunately, the impressive (and unofficial) GoldenEye 25 project to remaster the game on modern hardware was closed down by Bond rights owners MGM/Danjaq earlier today, and while the team plans to channel its work into another project, Rare’s game looks set to remain in licencing purgatory for the foreseeable future. That a game as monumentally successful and influential as GoldenEye hasn’t been re-released in nearly 23 years is practically unheard of.
Arguably (and perhaps appropriately), it feels like many an old Bond movie: a dinosaur, a relic from the console wars
Perhaps that’s as it should be, though. GoldenEye makes most sense on original hardware, with that controller, with that spindly analogue stick. Arguably (and perhaps appropriately), it feels like many an old Bond movie: a dinosaur, a relic from the console wars; debonair in its day with an attitude and finesse that works in that context, but it’s not a good fit for the modern world. Its outmoded conduct would likely raise eyebrows or cause outright embarrassment these days. The problem is that, despite several efforts from veteran GoldenEye devs, there’s never been anything else that hits the spot quite like Rare’s original cocktail.
Timesplitters was great, but it wasn’t Bond. Perfect Dark, Rare’s spiritual follow-up, was certainly impressive but it never worked for me on the same gut level. Intellectually, I appreciated everything it added, but much like Banjo-Tooie versus its predecessor, the game pushed the hardware to breaking point and felt a bit too ambitious for its own good. The multiplayer had so many more options–and bots!–but despite technical wizardry, GoldenEye felt trim and purposeful where Perfect Dark was bloated and broad. Years of navigating menus (ah, those filing sounds!) at lightning speeds meant I could set up a round of You Only Live Twice>Bunker>Power Weapons or Licence to Kill>Facility>Pistols faster than you could say Sight ON Auto-Aim OFF (always). I honestly can’t remember playing PD’s multiplayer more than a handful of times.
No doubt GoldenEye’s timing was key. The tie-in game might have missed the launch of the film, but it arrived at the perfect point for me, as did the N64 itself. After years of Mega Drive gaming, I was ready for a big jump forward and GoldenEye provided just that. The seismic shift to 3D is a generational leap that subsequent new consoles can never hope to rival. These days we tend to temper expectations and often rely on the excellent work of tech experts like Digital Foundry to highlight the granular, subtle enhancements offered by gaming’s latest and greatest. Even impressive advancements can be hard to spot in fast trailers over low-quality streams viewed on sub-4K displays and phones.
The N64 sometimes gets a bad rap as the console that first marked Nintendo’s decline following the halcyon 16-bit era, but as my first (home) Nintendo console it occupies a special spot in my gaming memories. In fact, I’d take it over the SNES any day, and it’s all down to one game. Mario and Zelda might have defined genres on N64, but so did GoldenEye, and it was Bond that brought me in from the cold.