Perfect Dark: The Swan Song of the Nintendo 64

In the beginning, there was Goldeneye 007, and it was good. The year was 1997, and console shooters were formless and empty. Thus Rare said “Let there be objectives.” And so it was. And Rare blessed the players with free will, so that they may try to beat the game with stealth, or fail their objectives should they fall into the clutches of temptation. And ye, up to four players could rock each other’s asses off in intense multiplayer. And so they did, destroying many college grades and sleep schedules in their wake.

Then in 2001, there was Halo: Combat Evolved, and it was also good. For Bungie had given form to a new world, a vast playground teeming with green valleys and icy canyons. And they filled these wondrous spaces with many exotic vehicles, like the Pelicans that flew through the sky, and the Warthogs that wandered the earth. And Bungie fashioned a friend for the player to game with, and he was named “Player 2”, and they endured many frustrating levels of Legendary mode together. And when their friends came over to play with them, they enjoyed many sleepless nights of the best multiplayer gaming had ever seen.

The rest, as they say, is history. However, snuggled between the releases of these two goliath masterpieces was Perfect Dark, the much-beloved spiritual successor to Goldeneye. Back in 2000, this cult classic title glided in on the dying breath of the Nintendo 64’s lifecycle. Though technically superior to its iconic predecessor in almost every way, its late release guaranteed it would soon be overshadowed. It had barely a year to make an in impact before the launch of the next generation of consoles, and with them the cataclysmic arrival of Halo.

Nevertheless, Perfect Dark has its special place in FPS history. In fact, like both Goldeneye and Halo it still draws its share of adoring fans who fondly remember its days as the holy grail of console shooters. And like both games, it was also met with critical and commercial success. Scores of reviews at Metacritic proclaim it the best shooter on the console and perhaps the best game on the system. For many at the time it was gaming nirvana, and a perfect send off to the console that had served them well for many years.

Stylistically, Perfect Dark is very similar to Goldeneye 007. I won’t bore you with the details – take Bond, give it a female protagonist and a cyberpunk-inspired storyline and voilà– you have yourself Perfect Dark. That’s not giving it the credit it deserves, however. For a Nintendo 64 game, it is absolutely packed with content – from its richly detailed solo missions to its highly customizable multiplayer. In fact, with its multiplayer bots, combat simulator, full voice acting, and cinematic cut scenes, it was the prelude to the modern shooter we all know and love today.

Now, I am a huge fan of Goldeneye 007. It is perhaps my favorite game of all time, both because of its impact and its sentimental value. I expected much out of Perfect Dark. At first there was lots to be impressed about – the voice acting, the cool characters, the interesting new storyline. But having moved on from Nintendo 64 games a long time ago, I actually found the game disappointing to replay. 

Let’s start with the obvious – Perfect Dark has a lot of trouble keeping up with its graphics. I’ve heard people complain about Goldeneye‘s “vaseline” camera lens, but Perfect Dark takes it to a new level. When you’re not busy dealing with the low resolution, you’ll probably be dealing with the low framerate. It’s bad – very bad. And this of course detracts terribly from the game. Even with the N64’s expansion pack, I felt like I was playing a slideshow. Of course, it’s the natural consequence of putting new graphics on aging technology – I noticed the same exact thing on Star Fox when it was first trying out 3D graphics on a 2D system. However, the graphical slowdown feels incredibly noticeable at all times, so much that it feels practically unplayable at its worst.

Let’s also talk about game play. To me, Perfect Dark‘s biggest change came in its depth of missions. Perfect Dark‘s objectives were much more nuanced than in Goldeneye. For example, one level requires you to don a disguise and subvert the security of an airport. Whereas stealth was merely a feature before, Perfect Dark contains mandatory stealth segments that result in failure if you don’t follow the rules.

This gives the game a lot more structure than Goldeneye. Though Bond gave us a sense of direction with achievable objectives, it still had its roots in arcade shooters (after all, the game was based heavily on Virtua Cop). The levels were still primarily open arenas with objectives hidden within them. Part of the fun was finding out where those objectives were and how to complete them.

Perfect Dark takes that concept and twists the dial further towards the objectives. This means there’s a lot less shooting first and much more asking questions later. It actually feels a bit like a prelude to the cinematic experiences we’ve come to expect from modern game design. Some of the levels are noticeably shorter as a whole, but the real challenge comes from merely figuring out how to do your objectives. In fact, the majority of your time will be spent doing just that.

This depth and variety of game play comes at a price, however. More detailed objectived means more ways to fail them. The first time through any level, you are almost guaranteed to botch one objective or another. There’s a briefing available for every mission, but not a lot of instructions on where to go or what to do. Success, especially on the “stealth” levels, is often achieved through trial and error.

A good example of this is when I had to defeat an enemy gunship on the third stage. The first time around I had no idea how to confront it – I simply stood there and wept as it turned me into Swiss cheese. The second time I tried shooting it with a shotgun, with the exact same results. The third time I tried ignoring it and ran straight to the roof, only to be gunned down there as well. It wasn’t until my fourth try that I discovered a rocket launcher I had been bypassing the entire time, though there was no indication that this was ever how the game intended me to take down the gunship. I fire… and it misses. They only gave me one rocket, and I blew it.

This type of failure is fairly routine in Perfect Dark, and it can be especially frustrating on the hard difficulties, where “pause, abort, and restart” will become your most constant companion. This style of game play clashes heavily with its very old school arcade-ish combat. If you thought 00-Agent in Goldeneye was tough, prepare yourself for a firm ass-whooping in Perfect Dark. Even if you do manage to jump through the right hoops, there’s no guarantee you’ll survive the onslaught of guards, turrets, and robots they’ll throw at you.

As I stated before, Perfect Dark does has its place in gaming history. Ultimately, it added a lot of improvements to the Goldeneye formula and proved to everyone what the Nintendo 64 was truly capable of. In fact, Perfect Dark feels almost too ahead of its time. The bots, the precise objectives, the intriguing dialogue – the game is most assuredly a prototype of the modern shooter.

But as a result, it feels like a game without an era. Too late for the arcade shooters but too early for the post-Halo modern age. Thus, I found the game to be more tedious than its glamorous reputation had set my expectations for. However, if I know Nintendo 64 fans (and Rare fans in particular), I know that there are still gamers everywhere who will always love this unique game – warts and all.

Final Verdict: Frustrating objectives and sluggish frame rates make this cult-classic game feel outdated for non-established fans.

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2 Responses to Perfect Dark: The Swan Song of the Nintendo 64

  1. Spence says:

    There’s a great port of it on the Xbox 360’s Live Arcade. It’s an ideal port with updated models, textures and a perfect 1080p60 resolution/framerate. You may find the game is much more enjoyable in that mode.

    • neutybooty says:

      I’ve heard from others as well that the port is much better thanks to the smoother graphics. My room mate is already planning on going through it eventually, so I’ll definitely jump on co-op with him when he does. Design-wise the game is so far ahead of its time, but the graphics make it so hard to play.

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