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James Bond walks away from an explosion in St. Petersburg in GoldenEye 007

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GoldenEye 007 marked a massive change in the course of game design

From arcade shooters to cinematic adventures

Image: Code Mystics/Rare

In the late summer of 1997, just about a quarter century ago, GoldenEye 007 stuck itself firmly into the cartridge slot and mental landscape of a generation. Pierce Brosnan’s perfectly sculpted hairdo and the 007 logo peeked out from the curved dome of the Nintendo 64’s dark plastic slab, watching over countless hours spent in lo-poly shootouts, plastic trident controllers clutched in sweaty hands during endless split-screen deathmatch rounds.

In the years since, shooters — and video games in general — have changed significantly, and GoldenEye’s reputation has remained. Playing it now, whether in the multiplayer-compromised Xbox version or the control-compromised Switch version, is an exercise in revisiting the past for much of the re-release’s audience. But, wrenched away from the nostalgia of individual memories and seen as one piece of a larger history, GoldenEye becomes something else: an artifact of a genre, medium, and culture in transition.

Stepping out onto the concrete of “Dam,” GoldenEye’s opening level, the modern player will probably be struck, first, by the game’s early 3D look. Soviet soldiers, faces stuck in pixelly grimaces, turn floaty somersaults in an attempt to avoid Bond’s gunfire; the rocky cliffside bordering one side of the dam consists of unnaturally smooth rectangles that jut outward at sharp angles; the recreation of Bond’s bungee jump from the GoldenEye movie’s intro sees a Moai-faced James plummet downward with the lock-limbed clumsiness of a dropped mannequin.

James Bond walks along the Dam in the first level in GoldenEye 007 carrying a KF7 Soviet Image: Code Mystics/Rare

It all looks pretty goofy and dated. Beyond the graphical pimples of 3D video games’ adolescent phase, though, is a clear attempt to offer a minimalist recreation of GoldenEye, the movie. The atmosphere is thick with ‘90s synthesizer opera singers and blasts of tinny horns echoing the Bond movies’ hallmark theme song. Sean Bean, Izabella Scorupco, Robbie Coltrane, and Alan Cumming appear as quivering, funhouse mirror-reflected versions of their cinematic counterparts. Characters deliver blunt lines of dialogue that pepper gunfights with a fragmented retelling of the film’s plot. The mission objectives also complicate the action, reminding players that a spy might need to shoot a padlock off a gate, quietly dispatch patrolling guards, or swipe documents instead of simply blasting through waves of enemies to achieve their goals. Selecting a higher difficulty mode requires players not just to fight harder, but to complete extra objectives, like blowing up ammo caches or stealing data, to reinforce the idea that these levels are actual missions of the kind Bond completes in the movie.

Notably, it does all of this while still providing the immediate appeal of the popular action-first shooters that came before it. Its arsenal of guns, grenades, mines, and karate-chopping bare hands offers the same, broad range of weapon choices that 90s shooters espoused. GoldenEye moves more slowly than many PC shooters that preceded it (Doom, Quake, Blood, Duke Nukem 3D, or Heretic) but, played on the Nintendo 64 controller, it carries many of the same tactical possibilities. Developer Rare understood how to translate the urgency, if not the actual speed, of computer shooters to home consoles. It wouldn’t be surpassed until the first Halo came to Xbox, four years later.

Later first-person shooters would further embrace GoldenEye’s cinematic aspirations. The genre quickly became dominated by the moodiness and story focus of Half-Life, Deus Ex, Thief, and System Shock 2. (A year after GoldenEye, on PlayStation, Metal Gear Solid demonstrated a more literal blend of cinema and spy action, too, albeit from a third-person perspective.) In the early 2000s, the original Call of Duty supplanted Medal of Honor’s efforts to make World War II movies interactive, expending plenty of effort in recreating filmic versions of the war’s battlefields.

James Bond activates explosives on the gas tanks in the Facility mission in GoldenEye 007 Image: Code Mystics/Rare

GoldenEye isn’t as devoted to replicating cinema as later games, but it also doesn’t quite belong to the same sub-genre as the many arcade-y shooters that preceded it, either. It occupies, instead, a middle point between these two dominant schools of shooter design.

This sense of existing in the space between big changes makes sense not just as a coincidence, or determining factor, but also as a reflection of the Bond movie and the larger cultural context that inspired its creation. In the 1995 film, the character was reintroduced after a six-year hiatus following License to Kill. GoldenEye, the first entry in the series to take place after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, finds Bond navigating a new political landscape where the past manifests in the gangster terrorism of a former MI6 agent, believed dead and quietly profiting from the economic chaos of post-Soviet Russia as an avenging revenant from Britain’s past.

Like the game, GoldenEye sees Bond in transition. Brosnan’s first portrayal of the character tones down the rampant goofiness of many of the earlier films, but isn’t nearly as serious as the brutal, introspective agent depicted during the Daniel Craig era. Brosnan’s Bond is not quite a grim military man. He isn’t a hard-nosed killer or a smirking parody of a spy, either. GoldenEye stars a character who’s both out to thwart a world-ending plot that’s arisen from important contemporaneous political issues and an agent of the British empire — one who sees good reason to be optimistic about his future again.

James Bond readies a KF7 Soviet toward an enemy guard in GoldenEye 007 Image: Code Mystics/Rare

From the perspective of capitalist leaders, the mid-90s could feel, at least temporarily, like an era of triumph: a victory for one guiding ideology in the apparent defeat of another. The era is now positioned as something different — an exhale between the end of the Cold War and the beginning of renewed geopolitical instability. 2001 saw the start of an eternal war on terror whose effects have defined the 21st century to date.

Bond reflected these changes with another seismic rethinking: 2006’s Casino Royale, a movie where violence is rendered not in slumped-over gunshot victims and weightless fistfights, but through bloodied knuckles and agonized deaths. A decade after the N64’s GoldenEye release and one year after Casino Royale, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare arrived to usher in the video game equivalent of this reinvention. With its success, the modern military shooter fostered a grimier, less fantastical aesthetic that dominated the genre for a decade, and remains popular today.

James Bond stands next to Natalya in a back alley in GoldenEye 007 Image: Code Mystics/Rare

Nowhere is this change more evident than in the selection and naming of the guns that sway at the bottom of a first-person shooter’s screen. The layer of abstraction that separated GoldenEye’s Klobb, DD44 Dostovei, or D5K Deutsche from the real-world firearms they replicate was swept aside for the fetishistic gun modeling (and real-world rights licensing) that would become expected from each year’s new Call of Duty entry. The insectile whine of ricochets that kept GoldenEye from communicating a tangible sense of violence was replaced with super precise, hi-fi headshots. The culture that produces video games and action movies changes, in ways both big and small.

In 2023, though, shooters — and video games in general — seem to be drifting through a transitory period as filled with future possibilities and backward glances as the era in which GoldenEye released. Retro-style games are common again. Arcade action sits alongside mood-heavy or narrative-focused shooters. Mainstream design trends, in shooters at least, are as concerned with the cinematic as they are with the lizard brain tickling of simply running fast and shooting faster.

In this kind of context, GoldenEye 007’s reflection of a time between great changes feels as vital as ever.