To this day, GoldenEye continues to be a contentious game in many respects: As one of the first major console-exclusive FPS games, it codified many design elements that would define the console FPS, from slower-paced gameplay to generous auto-aiming. However, those very same qualities that made GoldenEye stand out are what earns it scorn from dedicated PC players, who are more used to the demanding, fast-paced action of Doom and Quake. In spite of that, GoldenEye’s unique design decisions amount to a surprisingly intelligent game, whether those decisions came from smart design or serendipity, which makes it still worth looking at today.
To be sure, GoldenEye was by no means the first major FPS to appear on consoles: Wolfenstein 3D and Doom enjoyed fairly decent Super Nintendo ports, and they did quite well for themselves. On the other hand, GoldenEye was in fact one of the first FPS games to be developed exclusively for a console alongside Turok, and carries itself differently compared to its PC-based run-and-gun peers. Compare GoldenEye to the N64 port of Quake for instance, which is just as fast and frantic as the PC original, but suffers from slippery, loose controls. Comparatively, GoldenEye slows things way, way down to account for the loss of precision when using an analog stick, and features generous auto-aiming to make things even easier. Some of that slowness is likely unintentional: GoldenEye’s framerate is iffy at best, and downright sluggish at worst, especially in larger levels. Playing GoldenEye at full speed on an emulator is almost astounding, as the game runs at turbo speed compared to the original hardware.
These are all reasons why hardcore PC gamers scoff at GoldenEye, both then and now. Compared to the blazing fast action of Doom and Quake, GoldenEye is a slog. The N64’s analog sticks and buttons are nowhere near as precise as a keyboard and mouse, and mod support and online play were both absent on consoles. With its lower skill floor and ceiling, GoldenEye is definitely more casual-oriented than its PC counterparts, for better or for worse.
Surprisingly, GoldenEye was never actually intended to compete with Doom or Quake directly: Its closest inspiration was Virtua Cop, from which GoldenEye borrows the zoom-in aim function, for instance. GoldenEye’s development was famously kind of a mess, as this was the team’s first ever project at Rare. Still, the idiosyncrasies of their development methods actually lend the game a lot of its charm. GoldenEye continues the trend of simulationist 90s level design seen in games like Thief and Duke Nukem 3D, based around creating realistic spaces and only then occupying them with game elements. These were then strung together into levels that loosely follow the plot of the movie, letting you experience first-hand what it might be like to be James Bond. When put together, GoldenEye’s realistic environments, slower pace and objective-oriented gameplay all work in concert to make the game feel like Bond – after all, you wouldn’t expect James Bond to be darting around a hundred miles a minute, would you?
Of course, in some respects GoldenEye has aged quite poorly. The soupy N64 visuals and sluggish framerate make it hard to distinguish items from the environment sometimes, and the controls may take some getting used to. But underneath that is a perfect time capsule of a shooter that relishes in non-linear gameplay, certainly a lot smarter and more introspective than its peers. Not to mention the cheats, which are unlocked through timed challenges that encourage replaying levels to unlock them, and allow for bizarre new gameplay modes that let you have the kind of free-wheeling fun that console shooters have all but forgotten. And that’s not even getting into the local multiplayer, which is chaotic but satisfying deathmatch fun at its best.
GoldenEye is not perfect, but in many ways it is a shot of everything that made video games so great in the nineties, straight to the heart.
Screenshot from MobyGames user SilverfishScreenshot provided by MobyGames user Cor 13.