Game of the Month: June 2017
Perfect Dark - Nintendo 64 / XBLA
Trying to give praise to a games library for a console or computer is a hard task, as an art form, media type or interactive experience anything and everything comes down to opinion. What is considered great by some could be seen as terrible by others because at the end of the day us human beings are complicated creatures. An example of this would be to sit on any internet forum and read the comments in threads that ask gamers what their favourite / best console or game is. Opinions help to form communities through a mixture of similar or differing points of view and whilst it’s wonderful to see people put forward their likes and dislikes it’s also fantastic when you see an overwhelming positive response to a specific video game or piece of hardware.
One games console that almost always universally unites these infinite tastes of gamers is the Nintendo 64. The last home console from a major player to still use cartridges may have failed to compete from a sales point of view with Sony’s mighty Playstation but as most will tell you, it was incredible. One major reason for that of course is the old saying that “you only get Nintendo games on Nintendo consoles” which for this particular system was spot on. With a line-up from Nintendo themselves that was phenomenal, games like Mario 64, Mario Kart, Pokemon Stadium, Zelda - Ocarina Of Time, Starfox 64, F-Zero X, Yoshi’s Story and Wave Race: Nintendo had very few genuine competitors that matched their quality of design and excellence of enjoyment.
Save maybe one…
The Nintendo 64 had an ace up it’s sleeve that not only helped cement it as a must have gaming console but also provided completely exclusive and astounding videogames that were of a quality to rival, and in some cases massively exceed, Nintendo’s own highest level of excellence. That ace of course being a UK developer by the name of Rare. Originally mostly known for it’s numerous critically acclaimed games on the ZX Spectrum under a different company name, Rare also flocked to Nintendo’s banner to deliver games for the 8-Bit Nintendo Entertainment System. Along with other companies such as Acclaim, Rare formed a “dream team” of developers producing exclusive games for this new 64-Bit console that was turning heads in the mid 1990’s.
Many gamers will of course be aware of the numerous masterpieces that rare would go on to release for the N64 console. Games like Banjo-Kazooie, Diddy Kong Racing, Goldeneye, Blast Corps, Jet Force Gemini, Donkey Kong 64, Banjo-Tooie and Conker’s Bad Fur Day are now forever immortalised but one particular title managed to do something truly special. One game managed to not just outdo Nintendo on their own console but also outdo their earlier attempt. In short, Rare managed to out-rare Rare. For the month of June 2017 it is way past time to turn the spotlight onto a truly special game on a truly remarkable console. What’s the name you ask? The names Dark… Perfect Dark!
After doing what very few thought possible and releasing a critically acclaimed game based on a film two years after the film itself had left cinemas, Rare were sitting pretty as the cool kids/darlings of the Nintendo 64 developer community. Goldeneye was a videogame of the highest order. A single and multiplayer game based around moments or scenes from the blockbuster film it was the game that 1-in-4 N64 gamers owned! A first person shooter (FPS for short) it was without a doubt the game most responsible for convincing videogame console owners that the future was running around levels blasting people in the face. Although PC owners were already very familiar with games like Wolfenstein, Doom and Quake, gaming consoles were still very much for platforming adventures, sports games, racing and fighting games.
With a compelling single player campaign that could be configured to allow for more missions based on your difficulty selection it was, and for many always will be, the definitive movie tie-in game. Graphically way ahead of it’s rivals on systems like the PS1 and Sega Saturn it also fitted perfectly into the then hugely popular same room gaming culture that first came to light in the days of the NES and Sega Master System and then was nurtured into mainstream gaming culture thanks to systems like the Mega Drive and Super Nintendo. An evening with Goldeneye, the N64, 4 pads and 3 friends would see hours fly by and not once would anyone ever get bored. It was for the time, put simply, a perfect videogame. Job done then right? End of story… Not if you are Rare!
Selling so well and after failing to win the bid for the next James Bond game “Tomorrow Never Dies” after EA blew them out of the water regarding bid sum, Rare decided to stay in the world of spies and simply create their own unique set of characters, locations and story. With a huge love of Sci-Fi spread around the original development team and with a game engine already good to go from Goldeneye the decision was to take this new project into some very new directions. This new game would be familiar to the fans of the original it would come to be known as the spiritual successor too. In order to stand apart though it would have to be unique, forward thinking and it’s own game in every sense. The world was already used to a male secret agent who travelled the globe, had cool gadgets and saved the world from villains and so the decision was made to merge the Spy and Sci-Fi genres to allow for a setting that no James Bond film could ever get close too…well, maybe Moonraker. A new lead character would stand against hordes of lethal and evil enemies and for once that person would be a woman!
Going against the ‘then’ universally and overwhelmingly male dominated lead character choice was both refreshing and a masterstroke. More and more female game players were entering the scene and strong female lead’s were thin on the ground. This new heroine would be everything James Bond was in a game setting that would also gain praise for having a woman as one of the games main foes. The 1990’s was a fantastic decade for industry change and there’s no denying that many games developed now have this Goldeneye follow-up to point to and name as an influence. With a 3 year development cycle that has a deep and complex story all of it’s own that actually ended up in several changes of direction and multiple key staff leavings, the game was released in North America on 22nd May 2000 and then in June of the same year in PAL territories.
Set in the year 2023 Perfect Dark is a superb nod to sci-fi works like Blade Runner, Ghost In The Shell and Elektra and sees the lead character, Joanna Dark at the centre of an interstellar war between two factions, the Maians and the Skedar as well as a rivalry between two super corporations on Earth, The Carrington Institute and DataDyne. The good guys, the Carrington institute, are a research and development corporation owned by a wealthy benefactor who work with the Maians for the good of humanity. This group stand against the evil reptilian looking Skedar who have a deal in place with the boss lady of DataDyne in order to retrieve and access a sunken spaceship located on Earth. The Skedar will provide technological advancements to DataDyne if they help procure this seemingly important ship. It’s a superb nod to both the notion of a dystopian future often portrayed in comic books, novels, films and TV shows and provides a superb arena for covert spies, cloak and dagger operations and of course world domination plans, classic James Bond type stuff.
Joanna Dark is the best of the agents in the service of the Carrington Institute and it’s goals, codenamed “Perfect” because of her scores in the corporations agent tests she is in a field of her own. An expert in weapons, tactics, espionage and infiltration it’s up to her, and ultimately you as the gamer, to put a stop to this interfering Alien menace and stop Cassandra De Vries, the boss at DataDyne.
The central plot revolves around an artificially created intelligence, A.I. for short that DataDyne have developed for the Skedar in order to access and crack open this mysterious crashed and buried spaceship located on one of the Earth’s ocean floors. After deciding that the actions of the Skedar are wrong it decides to defect and you must infiltrate the headquarters of Datadyne to retrieve it and help stop the events set in motion. Played out via a series of cut sequences the story itself is superb and as such I will not touch on this aspect further to allow those not familiar to really experience it for themselves.
Gameplay is very much similar to that of Goldeneye, primarily because Perfect Dark uses roughly 30% of that game’s core architecture and engine. You play Joanna Dark as she travels between 17 locations visiting some truly superb locations in order to combat the plans of DataDyne and the Skedar. Set in a first person style this allows for a true sense of immersion in the game world that is superbly summed up in how you access missions or training areas / challenges from a mini hub world that doubles as the headquarters for the Carrington institute. Most games created prior to this and still far too many developed now rely on simply pressing a button on a single screen to advance. Perfect Dark makes you feel like you are a real agent, in a real headquarters with real choices.
Taking influences from Goldeneye and turning the volume dial up to 11 is a great way, although not completely accurate, description of Perfect Dark. Without doubt it’s a clear sequel of sorts however in every single possible way it’s more ambitious, technically astounding and deeper as a gaming experience. It’s just as hard to make a videogame sequel as it is to make a sequel to a blockbuster movie but Perfect Dark nails it… completely! The level design and sizes are bigger… much bigger, the graphical detail is miles ahead, the secondary uses for guns and multi-weapon wielding was incredible and what’s included is quite literally an almost ridiculous amount of gameplay experiences.
Whilst the main game campaign is modelled around the mission based structure of Goldeneye, which allows you to do more in a level based on the difficulty level you select, Perfect Dark introduces a co-op element making it instantly a game changer. A friend can join you for the adventure or if one isn’t around then the games A.I. can give you up to 3 buddies to help you tackle the level. When this occurs the game switches to split screen or into 4 separate game windows depending on how you choose to play. For those wanting a challenge your human buddy can also take the role of one of the level’s bad guys in the “Counter Operative” mode. For the time this was mind blowing and superbly merged multiplayer death match type gameplay into a story setting. Genius!
Speaking of Multi-Player, Perfect Dark’s ability to give you more “same room multiplayer” than anyone else on home console was a revelation. Standard Deathmatches were of course available allowing up to 4 humans to chase each other around numerous arenas but this N64 masterpiece went one stage further by also introducing “bots” for extra added mayhem. A mixture of both human and A.I. controlled combatants allowed for a more manic and panic inducting match. Each of the computer controlled bots could also be completely individually configured to allow for multiple reactions and difficulty levels. With a plethora of game modes including standard Death Match, Team Death Match, King Of The Hill, Capture The Flag and the insanely addictive Hold The Briefcase mode Perfect Dark took same room console gaming in a FPS style to new heights.
Now it would be wrong to talk about the game without mentioning it’s flaws, which of course it has, however it’s important to note that almost all the negative things about this game can be addressed in two ways. The first to not compare games made 17 years ago with what we have now and the second would be to play it again on the Xbox 360 console or Xbox One. Perfect Dark was beyond ambitious, so much so that at one point the developers realised they simply couldn’t fit the game into the N64 consoles memory. This resulted in the majority of the game being locked behind the need to purchase the 4MB Expansion memory Cartridge. With such high resolution graphics, widescreen TV support (way ahead of its time) and so many objects on screen the single player game was completely locked behind this. The bottom line is that Perfect Dark on it’s release was expensive. It also had frame rate issues and suffered from inconsistent lag or speed drops at times which was slightly irksome however completely understandable for the time.
Gaining huge universal critical acclaim Perfect Dark went on to sell over 3 million copies on the Nintendo 64 console, which for a system that was very much at the end of it’s commercial lifespan in 2000 with both the Dreamcast and PS2 either out or looming was phenomenal. Gaming magazines heaped praise on it’s technical achievements and also just how much bigger it was than the game that influenced it. Whilst it never achieved either the sales or legacy of Goldeneye, which of course it never could for numerous reasons, Rare had delivered a game that is without doubt one of the finest, most comprehensive and technically astounding games on the N64, of the era and in it’s genre. Whilst some people prefer Banjo-Kazooie to Mario 64 and others enjoy Diddy Kong Racing over Mario Kart 64 it was something very strange indeed to see Rare effectively compete with themselves, thank the maker that they did.
With Rare eventually leaving the embrace of Nintendo and joining Microsoft the planned direct sequel to Perfect Dark never materialised for the N64 or GameCube and instead Joanna Dark’s next outing was at the launch of the Xbox 360 console. Perfect Dark Zero was a fair attempt at recapturing that magic but in all truth it won’t ever appear as a Game Of the Month on any website. In 2010 a remastered version of the original Perfect Dark was released exclusively on the Xbox Live Arcade service. Containing most of what made the N64 game so great with a nice fresh coat of paint allowed it’s original fans to sample it all over again and new gamers to see what all the fuss was about. In many ways it’s this version, which was recently included in the Xbox One game compilation: Rare Replay, that is the best way to experience it now.
At the start of this I mentioned how hard it is to accurately sum up a game machines software library. With so many games to choose from and with everyone liking different things it’s hard to ever truly get a definitive winner or best game. Some games that were once superb age terribly, others do the complete opposite and gain more followers given the passing of the years. Try to work it all out and you may just go slightly mad. When you have a system like the Nintendo 64 with a large amount of truly breathtaking games how on earth can you ever really put them in order, should you even try? Maybe for too long gamers have needed or desired to rank games and in doing so we are each doing a great disservice to those who are new to it all and just want suggestions for things to try.
On one hand Perfect Dark may just seem like a Goldeneye clone with bells and whistles and you know what, that’s exactly what it is from one perspective, but there’s nothing wrong with that at all. On the other hand Perfect Dark is the result of a team of exceptionally talented games designers who followed up an 8 million copies selling game with no license and no existing properties to rely on from a character or story perspective.
A brand new character in completely new settings and a refreshing and much needed break from the hugely over saturated male dominated lead role. A fusion of comic book, novel and sci-fi blockbusters where a still emerging game genre on a system that massively lost out to it’s main rival using a cartridge media most saw as obsolete was given a quality boost across all it’s components. Very few developers could do something like this back then, even less now. Perfect Dark is a testament to the notion that a good idea, executed well by those with passion will reach an audience with open arms. Joanna Dark was a superb lead character, the single player campaign was exceptional, the multiplayer was a game changer, now replace the word “was” with “is” and all that’s still true.
You only get Nintendo games on Nintendo consoles, mostly that statement is still true today but sometimes you also get Rare games and there was a time when people were more happy with that. Perfect Dark was absolutely one of those times.
Joanna Dark… Licensed to thrill!