[Review] GoldenEye 007

Publisher: Rare Ltd., Xbox Game Studios, Nintendo
Developer: Rare Ltd., Code Mystics
Platform: Xbox Series X, Nintendo Switch
Also on: Xbox Series S, Xbox One
Release date: January 27, 2023
Review date: October 16, 2023

Following its announcement in the September 2022 Nintendo Direct, GoldenEye 007, the flagship console first-person shooter, managed to claw its way out of licensing hell in the dawn of 2023. Thanks to a complicated tug-of-war between rights holders, GoldenEye wouldn’t see a rerelease until over a quarter-century after its initial Nintendo 64 release. Its long absence has created a cultural gap where younger generations of gamers didn’t have an opportunity to appreciate the historical significance of GoldenEye in all of its wonky, 20-FPS-if-you’re-lucky glory, until now.

I really can’t overstate just how important GoldenEye 007 was. It was the third best selling game on the N64, only being outsold by Super Mario 64 and Mario Kart 64. Think about that, more copies of GoldenEye were sold than Ocarina of Time. Ocarina of fucking Time, widely considered one of the greatest games ever made, if not the greatest, and here’s James Bond outpacing it. And for good reason – GoldenEye was a multiplayer sensation, the first truly successful FPS on a console in the burgeoning early years of a genre that, at the time, was primarily relegated to PCs. GoldenEye got the edge by being the first competent multiplayer shooter to plant its flag on the one console of its generation with four built-in controller ports instead of two. It defined the four-player splitscreen shooter experience well in advance of Halo, and gamers of its time, myself included, have fond memories blasting our DK-morphed friends with paintball-loaded Klobbs into the early morning. And to think multiplayer was a late-addition afterthought.

So what happened? Well, as stated earlier, there are many license-holding fingers in the GoldenEye 007 pie. Rare, now owned by Microsoft, developed the game itself but Nintendo, who briefly owned the rights to make Bond games in the 90s, published it. On top of that you have Danjaq and EON, owners of the Bond franchise itself and movie-making rights, and MGM, who produced the GoldenEye film on which the game is based. In the late 2000s, Rare would develop an enhanced remaster of GoldenEye in-house in the hopes that an opportunity to release it on Xbox Live Arcade would materialize, but no such luck, although an unfinished build of the port leaked out in 2021. Many point fingers at Nintendo being the team that wouldn’t play ball all this time, but it’s still unclear and we may never know the full story. All that matters now is the smoke has cleared and GoldenEye 007 is back on current Xbox consoles and Nintendo Switch.

The Switch version was added to the Nintendo 64 Switch Online app and, as expected, it’s the original N64 ROM more or less unchanged. Unfortunately, this means that it uses the controls from the original three-pronged controller mapped arbitrarily to Nintendo’s contemporary controller layouts. If you have the wireless N64 replica controller made specifically for the NSO app, the controls will make more sense, but if you’re using the Pro controller or Joycons, you’re in for a world of confusion. By default, the left analog stick moves you forward and back and turns left and right, which those playing for the first time will likely find jarring. The weapon fire button is the left trigger while manual aiming is done by holding the R button.

It made sense for its time – the keyboard-and-mouse-driven FPS hadn’t been properly translated to the gamepad yet and Rare did what they felt worked for the time and the hardware. When you consider that GoldenEye was initially designed as an on-rails shooter along the lines of Virtua Cop, it makes even more sense how they ended up with the setup they had. Console shooters wouldn’t adopt the Halo-style dual stick layout (which Halo didn’t even invent, by the way) for several years after GoldenEye’s release – the Metroid Prime series, for example, used GoldenEye’s control template for its first two entries. Rare did incorporate a very generous auto-aim to account for having less precision than a mouse (as well as the lousy framerate), and they even had an option that did let you use two sticks... by holding two N64 controllers at the same time. Since this is the original N64 game, it’s amusing knowing it’s possible to play holding two Switch Pro controllers.

And that’s not all – just like on the N64 controller, the A button switches to your next weapon while the B button either activates objects like doors and buttons, or otherwise reloads your weapon. The C buttons are naturally mapped to the right stick, which are used to look up and down and strafe by default. They’re also used for crouching and standing, so if you want to crouch, you need to hold the R button and move the right stick down. You can manually change the button layout in the Switch menu, as well as try switching between the four layouts built into the game itself, but overall it needlessly complicates an already needlessly complicated setup. Sadly, the controls really are the largest hurdle to enjoying GoldenEye, but it’s not all hopeless. My advice to video game history tourists choosing the Switch version to try the game for the first time: Stick with the default control scheme and only worry about the left stick, ZL for firing, the A and B buttons, and occasionally the R button when you need to aim manually. Play through the campaign on Agent difficulty, and let the auto-aim take the wheel. What you’ll get is a mostly straightforward run-and-gun shooter, which I found to still be enjoyable enough to play through the game again this way.

As for the Xbox version, I was personally disappointed to find that it isn’t the unreleased remaster Rare had intended to finish in 2008. Instead, Code Mystics ported the original N64 game to Xbox consoles through emulation, only targeting 30 FPS and occasionally struggling to hit even that, though it is still a vast improvement over the chunkiness of the N64 original. It is a higher resolution than the Switch version, but that exposes seams and other graphical oddities. My guess for why Microsoft didn’t use the 15-year-old remaster is because Nintendo wanted as much parity as possible, but that’s just speculation. It’s likely not an oversight that Nintendo and some of its notable personnel at the time are still mentioned in the Xbox version’s credits.

However, the control issues I just spent two paragraphs bitching about are rectified with the Xbox version, as it controls more or less how you would expect a modern console FPS to control, dual sticks and all. You can even manually assign commands to each input – for instance, LB and RB by default are aim and fire respectively by default, but I set them to switch to previous and next weapons. That’s right, previous weapons – the Xbox version has control options not present in the N64 or NSO versions. You can even have separate buttons for reloading and activation, so no more closing doors while you’re trying to reload in a cramped firefight. The R-button free-aim mode with its freely-moving crosshair was replaced with a static, always centered crosshair when holding the left trigger – a welcome improvement for most, but has been proven to mess with the muscle memories of speedrunners. Just like 4J Studios’ excellent Perfect Dark remaster from 2010, the updated control scheme and extra options really help GoldenEye stretch its legs and reach its fullest potential as a game.

With all that said, the Xbox version is the obvious way to go, right? Well, yes, but it’s not totally cut and dry. Both versions have widescreen support, and I don’t mean the Switch has N64 fake widescreen that squishes the image and expects your TV to do the rest, I mean it actually has built-in 16:9 widescreen, something no other N64 NSO game has. The Xbox version has achievements, and while I’m not usually an achievement hunter, I had fun getting the achievements you earn for unlocking cheats. Although GoldenEye is being branded by Microsoft as an addition to Rare Replay, there are no extras like unlockable interviews or state saving, and nothing of the sort was added to Rare Replay either.

Meanwhile, the Switch version does have state saving, and Nintendo advertises their version having online play, but it’s only by virtue of using the same emulator front-end Nintendo uses for all their retro packs on Switch, which, with the exception of Super NES, aren’t particularly great. Regardless, it’s there as an option, unlike the Xbox version. Realistically though, you’re probably going to want to play this in 4-player splitscreen on the same TV anyway, and that experience is retained in both versions so you and your friends you totally have can deathmatch to your heart’s content on either platform. For as classic as GoldenEye’s multiplayer was, there’s not much I can really say about it. It’s rudimentary and barebones by modern standards but can be a ton of dumb fun with the right people.

Which brings me to the all-important question: How well has GoldenEye aged? Of course games don’t literally age, but standards do, and I can easily foresee a lot of people trying out either rerelease and absolutely hating it, especially the NSO version. As James Bond, you go from mission to mission loosely following the story of the film and complete objectives along the way as expected of a world-class super spy. Complete every objective and finish the level to move on to the next one. As unique and influential as this approach was for shooters, it has a few flaws, namely the classic vagueness often present in retro games. Where exactly is the exit? Which computer do I need to use? You’ll often learn the answers to these questions the hard way through tried-and-true trial and error. Though reading the mission briefing is recommended and sheds some light on what you have to do as the player, it’s not always specific enough to be useful.

The AI also leaves a lot to be desired. Enemies are pretty one-dimensional as they can either hunt you down, shoot you from across the map, or be completely oblivious to your presence even with heavy action happening right behind them. Sometimes you’ll see one do a sweet tactical roll, but they rarely do anything that would help them win a firefight besides mindlessly shooting at you. It seems Rare counter-balanced this aspect of the game by having endless waves of enemies in certain missions, making them a real pain in the ass. Natalya, your frequently captured companion who you sometimes have to protect to the end of the mission, doesn’t have much in the way of self-preservation instinct either. Speaking of characters, GoldenEye opts for text dialog in lieu of voice acting. It’s particularly unfitting for a game based on a movie, and it’s not like the N64 couldn’t handle it – just look at Perfect Dark. GoldenEye’s soundtrack, which is full of Bond motifs and put Grant Kirkhope on the map, makes up for the lack of vocal presentation.

I can go into more nitty-gritty detail, but ultimately I think whether or not you enjoy GoldenEye will likely boil down to how you set your expectations and your own ability to appreciate classic games not just for what they are, but what they were and what they accomplished. GoldenEye deserves to be remembered and replayed, so although it’s not in the form of a proper remaster, it is certainly nice to be able to play one of the most important FPS games ever made on a console that isn’t collecting pension. You get the Xbox version for free if you digitally have Rare Replay, otherwise you’ll need Game Pass for it, but easier to recommend than the Switch version.

All screenshots taken on Xbox Series X.