I was 17 years old when I first played Perfect Dark. A few months ago, at age 35, I finally finished it. Perfect Dark occupies a strange place in the pantheon of games. Some people swear by its greatness. I could never help but feel mostly disappointed.
Developed by Rare and released for the aging Nintendo 64 in May of 2000, Perfect Dark was a massively hyped game in the years leading up to its completion. I remember following that hype. Rare, a well-regarded U.K. studio, had already made a string of hits on Nintendo's third home console, ranging from quirky 3D platformers to quirky cart racers to a quirky game about demolishing buildings.
Perhaps their greatest N64 hit, however, was GoldenEye 007, a breakthrough first-person shooter (FPS) based on the 1995 James Bond film. It wasn't overly quirky. Lauded not only as one of the few good games from that era based on a film license, GoldenEye marked a huge step forward for the console-based FPS when it arrived in 1997. Here was a game that seemed to have a semi-coherent control scheme—thanks in part to the N64 controller's analog thumb stick—that also offered, quite unexpectedly, a fresh new take on the entire genre.
The Rein of Bond
And while the game (out of necessity) added a number of story beats that departed from the film, it also went out of its way to faithfully replicate other parts of the source material. I remember going back at one point and watching the beginning of the GoldenEye film when it aired on TV and being delighted when I recognized the exact level design from the game's second mission, "Facility," right there within the film's intro sequence.
Despite all of that, however, the game's most lasting legacy was not its single-player campaign (we didn't actually use that term back then) but rather its split-screen multiplayer component. If you didn't grow up in the 1990s and never experienced staying up all night with a group of friends playing GoldenEye on some crappy old-school television set, you missed out on a small piece of video game history. (It's OK if you did. I've missed out on more of these moments than I care to count.) Whereas the game offered a handful of play modes that mixed up the rules and weapon selections, the beauty of the game was its absolute simplicity. You and three of your buddies would run around a level and shoot at anyone else you encountered. The person with the most kills at the end of a round was the winner. The game even awarded each player at the end with range of both flattering and embarrassing titles, like "Most Cowardly" for people who ran away from gunfights or "Most Professional," the latter perhaps for the player with the most accurate shooting.
It's not like GoldenEye was ever a perfect game. Some of the ideas it played with didn't always pan out. There were funky ways to fail a given mission, like accidentally placing an explosive or a gadget on the wrong target. Instead of letting you pick up that object to try again, it was an instant fail for the entire mission. It seemed to me that the single-player game was really only so fun and interesting up to a certain point. As a part of its constant need to mix things up in terms of setting and scenario, some of its ideas just fell a bit flat. I remember a terrible escort mission that saw you trying to prevent an A.I.-controlled non-player character from being killed by a hail of bullets, as well as one mission set at night with a bunch of shipping containers where the enemies were hard to see.
When word got out that Rare was working on a spiritual successor to GoldenEye, it got a lot of people's attention—mine included. While on the one hand it was sad to see the developer abandoning the 007 license for the follow-up game, the prospect of an original IP was exciting in its own right. I think the title of the game was announced from the get go, as was the name and identity of the game's protagonist, Joanna Dark. She was presented as a Bond-like spy character in her own right, but the game was set to take place in more of a futuristic, sci-fi universe. Some of the promotional screenshots hinted at something of a cyberpunk theme. This was enough to get anyone excited.
I don't know all that much about the game's development history, but it was clear the team was aiming high in terms of technical innovation. And the game did push the Nintendo 64 hardware to its limits. In order to play the single-player campaign, players had to get their hands on a Nintendo 64 Expansion Pak, which was used to double the console's memory capacity from 2 MB to 4 MB. It was something that had been previously bundled in one of Rare's prior games, Donkey Kong 64, but it was also sold separately. At one point, there was a planned feature that would have allowed players to scan in their own faces by way of the Game Boy Camera accessory and slap them onto the in-game character models. You'd be able to shoot your friends face's in the game, an intriguing idea that immediately triggered some ethical questions, which may explain that feature's ultimate cancellation.
It's hard to go back in time and remember exactly what I was thinking and feeling at the time of its eventual release. I was a junior in high school, and I think I managed to have my mom pick me up a copy of the game on the day of its release—if not shortly thereafter. In those days I was always on the lookout for something new and amazing that I could play with my friends—something that wasn't GoldenEye 007. As much as I had enjoyed the reign of Bond, what I really wanted was to impress my small group of friends with something even better.
It wasn't an easy task. I had tried to accomplish the same feat two year's earlier with my purchase of Turok 2: Seeds of Evil, a game that—according to the review I read on IGN—was supposed to have dethroned GoldenEye's status as the premiere N64 FPS multiplayer game. We played it once at my friend's house, and everyone else thought it sucked. Back to GoldenEye.
Into The Dark Age
Once again, my friends didn't care. They didn't like it. The characters looked stupid. The opening menu was needlessly cinematic. They didn't understand what the new weapons were about. Setting up a game was too time-consuming, and the overabundance of customization options was actually unappealing—nothing at all like the quick-and-easy Goldeneye setup! It was another non-starter.
Because of that, I would have to enjoy Perfect Dark on my own if I was to enjoy it at all. And for a little while I did have fun replicating the multiplayer experience by playing against the AI bots. But it was kind of an empty thrill. I tried playing through the game's Challenge mode—basically a series of pre-set Combat Simulator scenarios. But I soon got stuck on Challenge 18, which pits the player against a bunch of tiny grey aliens that were too quick and too small (as in you couldn't you couldn't target them in your crosshairs without aiming downward) for me to kill.
All that was left was the single-player campaign (or "Solo Mode" as the game called it), the part of the game that—as far as I'm concerned, both then and now—had the greatest opportunity to shine.
Even by the time Perfect Dark hit store shelves, no one really had much of a clue as to what the game's story was about. This was the pre-YouTube era, when there was no such thing as a "launch trailer" or "Let's Play" video. The N64 was a cartridge-based system, so there were no demo disks for Perfect Dark. If you didn't outright buy or rent the game, you would have probably relied on whatever vague plot summaries you could read from an online or magazine review. It was basically a learn-the-story-as-you-play kind of experience.
To try and explain the plot is probably a waste of time—believe me, I've been typing and deleting a lot of ridiculous paragraphs. Suffice to say, it has to do with an alien conspiracy involving a sinister technology corporation, a kidnapped U.S. president, warring extraterrestrial factions, and the hunt for an underwater superweapon. The story culminates with you assassinating a warmongering religious reptile king on a distant planet.
I don't know if that sounds cool or fun to you, but it's really just a hot mess. None of it really resonates. The animation in cutscenes—while fine for conveying action—is too clumsy for emoting, and the voice acting is amateur at best. The story itself is too ludicrous to be taken seriously but not funny enough to be camp.
That said, the game actually starts out fairly strong. The first mission has you infiltrating the headquarters of what turns out to be an evil technology corporation in order to extract a captive scientist who has sent out a distress signal to your employing organization, the Carrington Institute. After landing on the rooftop of an urban skyscraper, you have to make your way downward through a series of offices and stairwells all the way down to the underground research and development labs—killing lots of guards along the way. The environments are sleek, bright, and it plays like a fairly straightforward James Bond spiritual sequel. After a combination of sneaking and (mostly) blasting your way through the building's security, you eventually reach the room where your target is being held.
In a short cinematic cutscene, the captive scientist is revealed to be an AI construct, embodied in what appears to be a drone-flying laptop computer—a big pair of eyes textured over the display screen. It greets you in a goofy British accent. The game pulls off almost the exact same stunt a few levels later when you rescue a short gray alien (who goes by the name Elvis) inside Area 51, and his voice sounds like Grover from Sesame Street.
Meanwhile, as you can probably ascertain from the above descriptions, the game keeps hightailing it from one tonally distinct sci-fi setting to another. One mission you're running through what looks like a private Mediterranean villa, the next mission you're on the streets of a Blade Runner-inspired downtown Chicago. One mission has you sneaking aboard Air Force One; a couple story beats later you're on a heavily-guarded deep-sea submarine. That's not necessarily a bad thing. The GoldenEye missions followed their own mishmash trajectory, and even the recent Call of Duty games seem to be built around a similar pattern of haphazard, globetrotting missions where the story is constructed to serve the action and not the other way around. The problem, I suppose, is that there's never any clear sense of progression or perceivable direction. Each change of scenery is accompanied by a jarring plot twist that feels as if it had little to nothing to do with anything that came before.
Perfect Dark also has the unfortunate tendency of saving its most unappealing levels and environments to its latter half. Again, the idea is always better than the execution, such as with the game's penultimate level that begins with Joanna Dark being taken captive by the bad alien faction and stolen aboard a giant space cruiser. Fighting your way from jail cell to command bridge of said space cruiser may sound great on paper, but with the limited capabilities of the Nintendo 64 hardware, the resulting experience was less than stellar. The spaceship itself was a maze of bland corridors and a few open arenas, all of them plastered over with dark green, muddy surface textures—a real eyesore.
My point in all of this isn't to needlessly lambast an 18-year-old game for its 18-year-old graphics, nor is it to measure Perfect Dark against a set of 2018 standards. But these were all part and parcel of the things that disappointed my 17-year-old self at the time of its release as well.
But it was neither the graphics nor the lame story that prevented me from finishing the game. It was also just really, really hard—at least on the most difficult "Perfect Agent" setting. One botched gunfight encounter on a mission run can wreck the entire attempt. Maybe you slightly miss your target, but your target doesn't miss you. You're suddenly knocked down from full health to a measly 25 percent, barely enough to sustain even a few errant gunshots for the rest of the level. Oh yeah, there's no way to regain your lost health mid-level, and also no mid-level saves or checkpoints. Some levels are just tough as nails, and all you can do is try again and again and again until you basically memorize a path that best gets you through the level geometry and the scripted (and sometimes slightly randomized) enemy encounters while completing the necessary objectives. But even when you figure out a path that seems to work, you still have to get lucky or skilled enough to make it through without dying at any number of challenging choke points.
The good news is that you can still play the game on either of the two lower difficulty settings. The bad news is that it ends up being a lesser experience overall, because you don't get to take part in all of the mission objectives—all those little things that give the game its high-tech spy thriller flavor. The easiest difficulty is frankly too easy, little more than a bland, breezy shoot 'em up with just the most basic objectives or occasional requirement to go fetch something within the level or press some button to activate a door. You don't get to, say, shoot down an attack hover-copter in the third mission with a rocket launcher.
Try as I might, back in the day I could never get past the fifth or sixth mission, which was an Area 51 infiltration level. There was always a point near the very end where—if I was even lucky enough to have made it that far—I would open some kind of elevator door and immediately die by the hands of a suiciding enemy soldier who would immediately use his machine gun as a proximity mine. At least that's what seemed to be the cause of death. It was always so sudden and confusing.
I did breeze my way through the majority of the easy mode, but it was so dull and nonsensical that by the time I hit a roadblock and couldn’t figure out how to complete the main objectives in one of the final levels, I didn't even bother to look up the solution. I didn't care. And so it lingered in my personal catalog of games that were started but never finished.
Seeing as my Xbox One came bundled with Rare Replay when I purchased the new console a few years ago, I was soon burdened with the nagging feeling that I should give Perfect Dark another try. So I did. And it was even harder than I remembered. In my mind, I knew I had to finish the game on "Perfect Agent" or not at all. The first mission, it turns out, wasn't too bad. The second mission was a pain in the butt, not so much because the moment-to-moment shooting was overly difficult but because it took so long to manage all of the confusing objectives, which if you went about them wrong could result in instant failure. And one failed attempt for that particular mission could be more than 15 or 20 minutes in the making.
It was the third mission, however, that really made me question my ability to see the game through. While it takes place in the same space as the first level, the one where you have to infiltrate a corporate building from the top-floor downward, this time you must escape from the basement up—only everywhere you go there are barricades and security guards who are already alert to your presence. In addition to all of the regular gunfight challenges, the mission contains a couple of heightened challenges toward the end of the mission. The first challenge comes in the form of the aforementioned hover-copter that flies in a strafing pattern around the building and shoots a stream of bullets whenever you happen to be in its line of sight. While the copter's individual gunfire hits don't necessarily cause a lot of damage in their own right, it's just one other thing that contributes to the steady attrition of health that makes the final confrontation so much harder to survive. The only way to successfully complete the level is to destroy the flying vehicle, and the most logical way to do that is to use a rocket launcher set up on one of the top floors and take it out with one direct hit. I don't know how many times I had a good run going, only to botch and miss the rocket shot, but it might easily have tallied higher than the number of digits I have on both hands.
But what truly caps off a frustrating mission is the final gunfight that immediately follows the taking down of the gun copter. As you make your way up the final stairwell to the building rooftop, you're thrust into a partial cutscene that shows you ambushed by one of the game's primary villains and her entourage of shotgun-toting bodyguards. Again, I can't tell you how many times I got to this point only to fail miserably and near instantaneously. The only thing that seemed to give me anything more than a Hail Mary's chance of surviving involved taking advantage of a quirky secret whereby you have to kill all of the level's first 10 guards in night-vision mode before the building lights come back on. Doing so, which takes a little bit of skill in itself, spawns a later guard who drops a keycard that gives you access to a special locked office that has a single grenade on a desk. That grenade, in turn, would buy me a little extra space and time during the final ambush.
Unfortunately, the missions only got harder, and I still had a bit of work to do just to get back to the same spot where I'd gotten stuck almost 18 years earlier on my Nintendo 64. It was only when I managed to beat that infamous Area 51 level that I even let myself believe it was possible to make it all the way through, but I still had much tougher obstacles to overcome.
The hardest level, for my money, is a mission called "Carrington Institute: Defense." It's the third to the last of the non-bonus missions, and it takes place in the headquarters of the organization that Joanna Dark works for. It's a relatively brief mission, but that's only because you essentially have to speed-run the entire darn thing, particularly the first minute. If you don't immediately rush down to the basement of the level and activate a series of gun sentry turrets, you'll immediately lose the mission when the invading enemies start spawning and kill off one of the essential non-player characters. In order to get around quickly enough, however, you can't even rely on the normal method of movement. Normal movement is too slow. You actually have to learn how to move your character in a slightly skewed, diagonally-facing orientation, which is just ridiculous, but it does get you around faster. And maybe you don't "have to" do it this way, but because there is almost zero margin of error I found it practically essential for completing the first objective and avoiding as many enemy encounters as humanly possible. Avoiding encounters is important, because the enemies in this mission are among the deadliest in the game, protected as they are by energy shields that require almost a full clip of ammo to pierce through. And they carry guns that can easily kill you with just a few rapid-fire hits. There are plenty of difficult games that still get made these days, but rarely is a game difficult in the same way as this—such that it feels like it was never properly playtested on an outside audience.
The Carrington Institute mission on Perfect Agent difficulty is very much a thread-the-needle type of challenge, much like I described in my previous post—only in this case I can't really say it was all that pleasurable. It was a chore, a real test of patience and endurance, and that goes for much of the game. I'm happy it's over.
In the end, there's actually a lot to admire about Perfect Dark. It still boasts some of the finest reactive animations you'll ever see. Far from being mere bullet sponges who unflinching soak up your ammunition until they die, enemies behave more like actual human beings. Shoot an enemy in his gun-toting hand and he's likely to drop the weapon and grab the wound with his other while crying out in pain. It's fairly convincing, both in 2000 and today.
Whereas most modern shooters are fairly homogenous experiences from beginning to end, I appreciate Perfect Dark for its variety and experimentation. Different levels emphasize different challenges, such as killing a multitude of guards before they can set off nearby alarms in the submarine level or dealing with cloaked enemies in another. Some levels take on a puzzle-like quality as you learn to devise the most efficient and practical order of operations in how you tackle the different objectives.
To this day, it feels like an aberration, a first-person shooter that forged its own path in a promising direction that other games (aside from a 2005 sequel that I'm not going to get into here) never followed.
A Tale of Two Shooters
Less than two years after Perfect Dark, Bungie set the new standard for console-based first-person shooters with Halo: Combat Evolved, a game that weaved a more tightly-focused sci-fi tale against the backdrop of a captivating alien world that was—at times—as open and expansive as it was easy on the eyes. It was essentially an on-rails, down-the-corridor experience, but it hid that linearity with its careful placement of tense, scripted firefights.
This, however, is one of the most interesting timeline details, at least as it relates to my own gaming history: Perfect Dark hit North American store shelves on May 22, 2000. Less than four weeks later, on June 17, Deus Ex from developer Ion Storm released for the PC. That game would—by strange chance—quickly become one of my favorite games of all time and forever change my perception of the medium and its possibilities.
To be fair, Deus Ex is a much different beast than Perfect Dark. Perfect Dark is essentially an arcade, action adventure with a real emphasis on speed and efficiency. Each level ends with a screen that displays, among other things, your time of completion, number of kills, and shooting accuracy percentage. Deus Ex isn't about any of that. It has just as much dialogue as it does combat, and it can technically be completed without the player killing anyone whatsoever. Many to this day consider Deus Ex to be more role-playing game than standard first-person shooter, and I agree.
So why compare the two games at all? Only because, to me, they represented two radically different trajectories in the FPS timeline that nevertheless shared some interesting points of commonality in terms of story and setting, not to mention their close proximity in age. Both games take place in a dystopian, vaguely cyberpunk future and revolve around aliens, A.I., and classic conspiracy theories. They both have levels that take place in Area 51.
But whereas the story in Perfect Dark was largely forgettable, Deus Ex felt deeply clever and entangling. This dichotomy was most clearly felt while replaying the Chicago level of Perfect Dark, and all the pangs of disappointment I had felt as an 11th grader 18 years prior came flooding back like an emotional déjà vu. The level, which starts out in a grimy alley and features civilian non-player characters who walk around and greet the player, gives off a very enticing first impression. It's the kind of place you want to quietly explore and take in. Being another stealth mission, you get the idea that you're supposed to be keeping a low profile. But that's not the case at all. Mere seconds into the level, the moment you turn a narrow corner and onto one of the main streets, one of the non-player characters immediately recognizes you as a threat and attacks. And for the rest of the mission you're more or less just slaughtering waves of street cops who shoot on sight. From a world-building perspective, it's almost completely immersion breaking. It feels like just another brainless arcade experience.
By the time I got my hands on Deus Ex just a few weeks after the release of Perfect Dark, it was … well, perfect timing. Up to that point I'd always been a console gamer, with some occasional diversions into the world of adventure games on our family's (usually out-of-date) Macintosh computers. That summer, as I turned 18 and entered my final year of high school, I was ready for something more sophisticated and mature. It just so happened that my dad purchased a PC computer, an event that opened up for me a whole new catalog of games just in time for summer. Deus Ex was one of the first new games I got my hands on, and I couldn't have picked a better title (finally a glowing IGN review that didn't disappoint). It was a gripping cyberpunk adventure built entirely around the kind of concept I had only imagined from the first promising seconds of that Chicago mission in Perfect Dark, one that relied on story and exploration punctuated by sequences of combat rather than the other way around. Perfect Dark was the game I had long waited for only to quickly put aside. Deus Ex was the game that came out of nowhere and stuck with me. It's also the one that made a more lasting impact on the video game landscape.
But what would a modern-day Perfect Dark game even look like? Would it keep to the same three-tier-difficulty formula dating back to GoldenEye 007 or scrap it for something more akin to other shooters? Would it aim for a more grounded story? Would today's Rare even have the resources and expertise needed to develop a blockbuster FPS, or would it need the support of a more experienced development team?
These and many other questions would undoubtedly surface in the wake of such a hypothetical announcement, but as we all know now, there is no such announcement—at least not this year. Instead, there's the promised resurgence of a different Rare property; a new Battletoads game is in the works. And honestly, that makes a lot more sense. It's probably a much cheaper undertaking to make an old-school beat 'em up game than a first-person shooter. I don't expect the new game to be anything more than a kind of basic side-scrolling nostalgia fest. It'll probably be difficult but nothing like the Nintendo original.
I've always had a hard time getting over unfinished experiences, whether they're books, games, or songs on the car stereo that you have to pause midway through when you arrive at your destination. For a long time, Perfect Dark was near the top of my list of regretful unfinished games. Rare's Banjo Kazooie was another one, despite being only a one-time rental back in early high school and not a game I actually owned. So I'm very happy that Rare Replay and 4J Studio's excellent remastered versions of both games gave me a chance to revisit both without having to dig my old Nintendo 64 out of storage.
But I'm even more grateful for the chance to look back and realize how far the medium has progressed. Where once it was commonplace for developers like Rare to push the available technology to its outer limits—dreaming and building at a scale and pace that the existing hardware couldn't really support—it seems today's problems are of a different sort. With powerful PCs—and consoles not too far behind—it's as if developers have arrived in an age where anything is technically achievable. It's more the massive quantities of time, budget, and human resources required to make those grand ideas a functional reality that limit a triple-A game's potential these days.
Clearly, some things don't change. The industry is still driven largely by hype and constant heightened expectations for the next big thing. This year's E3 will probably go down as the year we all started to get really excited for Cyberpunk 2077. But if you want to go back and see what the next big thing looked like almost two decades ago, go ahead and revisit Perfect Dark. Turns out they really don't make 'em like they used to.