Twenty-six years after its debut, on the Nintendo 64, GoldenEye is back.
You can’t buy it, and you can’t hold it in your hands like you could back in 1997, when it arrived in a box of crushable card bearing Pierce Brosnan’s perfect face, as well as Izabella Scorupco, a helicopter, a satellite dish, two fighter jets, and a generous billowing of fire along the bottom. You can, however, rent it. Hamstrung by licence issues (a torment intimately familiar to Timothy Dalton), the game is available on Xbox Game Pass and Nintendo Switch Online – provided you’ve paid extra for the Expansion Pack. It is also available as part of the Rare Replay collection, but only if you own it digitally. This is not the coveted high-definition remaster, which was handled by the original developer, Rare; intended for release on Xbox Live Arcade, back in 2008; and leaked onto the internet in 2021. That version will likely keep its status as a spectre, haunting the Bond-hungry for years to come.
So, what do we have? Well, for a start it’s worth taking stock of the title: not “GoldenEye” but “GoldenEye 007,” as if to remind us of the character who, like a luxury car, is being loaned out to us for a joyride. For years, I had cultivated the opinion that, while GoldenEye was a landmark for console first-person shooters, and for multiplayer, it wasn’t a great Bond game. Playing it again these last few days, I found my stance softening. The close-fitting campaign follows the film GoldenEye, from 1995, recreating many of its key scenes and also surrounding them with bits of extra Bondage.
This means that we get not just the elasticated free fall of the movie’s opening, where Bond bungee jumps from a Siberian Dam, but also a number of surplus scenes. Did you know, for instance, that, if we are to take the word of the developers at Rare, Bond had actually already been to the satellite control centre in Severnaya, four years before the events of the film? Not only that, but he did so while clad in a snow-white winter coat, like the one sported by Roger Moore in the early minutes of A View to a Kill, replete with a fur-trimmed hood. The reason that such apocrypha should prove so compelling is that it deepens the legend of Brosnan’s turn in the role, granting us glimpses of his other assignments – along with welcome excursions into the frostier reaches of his wardrobe.
Mechanically, too, we get a salvo of Bondian flourishes. Note, at the close of the first level, the way that we aren’t told exactly how to bungee jump from the final ledge. There is no safety harness in our inventory, nestled in next to the “covert modem,” no stretchy cord to equip; we simply have to have faith – in Rare, in Bond, in those wonks back at Q Branch – and leap. It’s a wondrous moment, supplying a genuine jolt of risk. You don’t know if you’re doing it right, or if you might fail at the very last gasp, and it’s a curse that we now all live with covert modems in our pockets, and can peek at Google for the answer.
Praise must also go to Bond’s watch. Not for its capacity to fire a beam of corrosive laser, the better to eat through locks, nor for its ability to tell time: rather, for its power to give us time. I’ve taken to relying on it, in fraught situations, to switch weapons, to browse my objectives, and to bask in Grant Kirkhope’s exquisite “Watch Theme,” which he supposedly wrote in a mere twenty minutes. That’s the secret of Bond’s watches: we laugh as they spout metal ticker tape or spirit him away from harm with a built-in grapple hook, but really we love that they hint at Bond’s knack for living on his own time – for giving himself pause to consider his next move amid the frenzy. Hence Moneypenny’s reminder, in one of the dossiers that slide across Bond’s desk for the opening mission: “Grace under pressure, as always, James.”
This, of course, is easier said than done. Of the many qualities in which GoldenEye 007 is rich, grace ranks rather low on the list. Those who opt for the Xbox will get a remapped control scheme (done in the Call of Duty style), as well as the use of both analogue sticks. Switch players, meanwhile, experience the game like a good vodka – sharp, frozen, and neat. It has an upscaled resolution, a 16:9 aspect ratio, and a smoother frame rate, but is otherwise unadorned. Having played through twice, once on each platform, I prefer the Switch version. It boasts the save-anywhere function of the Nintendo Switch Online service, for one thing (great for combing back those bungled attempts at proper mine placement); it allows for online split-screen multiplayer, a baffling omission from the Xbox version; and its controls reek of authenticity. It takes only a minute’s wrangling (go for the “Solitaire” setup, swap your left and right analogue sticks), and the result has equal measures of mustiness and snap: straight up, with a twist.
The most intriguing advantage of the Switch version, for my money, is that it retains from the original Bond’s ability to peep while fine-tuning his aim. He pokes left and right, with a nudge of the analogue stick, pops off a few shots, and is yanked back to centre frame when you let go. (So he did have that bungee rope belted around his waist, after all!) What’s great about this mechanic is that its jerky roughness belies a smooth and carefree blooming of complexity. Suddenly, it strikes you that Rare hasn’t just delivered a seminal first-person shooter but has, almost as a blissful by-product, implemented a nifty cover system – less elegant than that of, say, Operation Winback, but with a buzz and urgency denied to that forward-thinking game. Pressure over grace, as always.
As GoldenEye 007 has cast its long shadow over the landscape, time, and ranks of other games, have done much to illuminate it afresh. With its rosters of side objectives and its capacious environments, through which you can freely roam, it has more than a touch of Dishonored and Deathloop at its edges. It would be fanciful to call it an immersive sim, but there is something about the spaces in Rare’s game, and the hard physical fact of Bond’s presence within them, as he probes their corners for nuance and detail, that recalls those adventures. (Deathloop, in particular, is in thrall to the glow of 1960s Bond, with its gurgling guitars and toasted colours.) The fact is, few shooters now are as unhurried, as unafraid not to pander to us, as good-mannered enough to forget us.
Barbara Broccoli is reputed to have described Bond’s video game legacy as “violence for the sake of violence.” But, while one can hardly argue that GoldenEye 007 grants its hero room for martinis, or permits him to pave his appetites with caviar, it does allow us the leeway for a little finesse. I was struck, this time round, by the way that Rare makes no grand show of the game’s stealth; rather, it seeps through organically, as a part of the role-play. We are deposited into almost every mission with a suppressed PP7 (a facsimile of the Walther PPK from the films, buffed to an oil-black sheen), and it is up to our own instincts to snuff out the cameras and avoid raising the alarms. Or not, as your mood dictates. Hence the promise, made by one trailer back in 1997, that this is “The first Bond adventure where you direct the action, shot . . . by shot . . . by shot.”
It’s a nice thought, but, in truth, GoldenEye 007 doesn’t have the feel of a movie. This has less to do with its papery graphics (behold the likenesses that stymied its release all these years: a few crumpled faces, as though someone had scissored them from a magazine and pasted them into place), and nothing at all to do with the lack of voice acting. It has to do with the exhilaration of its action. Broccoli’s judgement isn’t wholly wide of the mark; these games are steeped in blood. The one part of the movies that they capture without fault is the gun-barrel sequence that kicks them all off. This is why GoldenEye 007 soars when emulating Bond’s indifference to ordinary life – those moments that see him clambering above the lunar sweep of a satellite dish, or crunching through Saint Petersburg traffic in a tank – but sinks back at the suggestion of down time.
The virtue of the game (as of the man at its core) is that, in its relentless pursuit of thrills, the life leaks through. To go back to it now is to be immersed in a particular kind of mood. Having recently replayed From Russia With Love (to which Sean Connery lent his voice), I was touched to discover that GoldenEye 007 now seems just as firmly a period piece. Look at the hard blocks of Soviet grey, in the prologue, and the stone-carved prow of Trevelyan’s locomotive, as though he had stuck an Easter Island statue to the front. The game, like the film, is crowded with the trappings of the past, but it possesses none of the movie’s inquiry into Bond’s nature and his purpose; the M whose words we read in the briefings here is not the same person who called Bond “a relic of the Cold War.” Rare knew the nature and the purpose of its leading man, and it is an irony to be relished that GoldenEye 007 didn’t so much save the world as dominate it. There was nothing on the PlayStation to match it, and shooters were never the same again. But this is so much more than a relic of the Console War. It’s a chance to relive one of the best chapters in the saga, to dive into the role of a lifetime just for the sheer hell of it. It’s Bond for the sake of Bond.