Remembering Perfect Dark
Posted 30 Jun 2020 at 14:30 by Sam C Gittins
When the Nintendo 64 launched in 1997 across Europe, aside from Super Mario 64, it's arguably Goldeneye 007 which ended up being one of the most influential games released early on in its life. Launching mere months after the system, the game, based on the film, was created by UK based developer Rare and put you in the role of James Bond, in a First Person Shooter which not only had an amazing single player campaign, but also a four player split-screen deathmatch multiplayer mode which was almost unheard of in console gaming at the time.
How do you follow up such a phenomenally successful title? If you're Rare, then you take the versatile engine from Goldeneye, enhance it, create an original female protagonist and place her in a futuristic sci-fi spy FPS with a plot which centers around an overarching alien conspiracy. Of course, you also need to outdo the original game in every respect, so creating a comprehensive multiplayer mode which itself is a dedicated Combat Simulator certainly helps.
The year is 2023. You are Joanna Dark - codenamed Perfect Dark - a female secret agent working for the Carrington Institute. Joanna has been assigned to investigate DataDyne, a mysterious Corporation with a hidden agenda. Can Joanna unlock DataDyne Corporation's sinister truths? What are they hiding?
Welcome to the world of Perfect Dark.
Back to the future
Looking back at this game in 2020 is interesting, being that Perfect Dark is set in the year 2023, which is now two and a half years away. Seeing what Rare's vision of the future was like back in 2000 was pretty amazing at the time. A lot of it seems like their take on Blade Runner mixed with elements of The X-Files, at the very least in terms of the setting when combined with the music, particularly the Chicago stage with the rain-soaked city streets, accompanied by the theme which Grant Kirkhope has since confirmed was intended to be a mixture of both of these sources of inspiration.
Flying cars are a staple of anything Sci-Fi, so of course these feature here, in addition to drop-ships which wouldn't seem out of place in any modern film within the same genre. Also notable is the security drone which you need to take out in one of the missions, this is something which could easily exist now, not to mention the A.I. used in the story, which may not seem like anything too surprising now.
It just goes to show that even though a lot of this is in the realm of Science-Fiction, certain aspects aren't really that far fetched now in reality; especially when it comes to huge technology based corporations with hidden agendas, so perhaps in a way, Perfect Dark did its part in shaping the future, to a degree? Even though it's merely another Sci-Fi game, in a now saturated genre and if not, it still made for a compelling story with some truly spectacular settings.
An original, pre-release display box for Perfect Dark. (Front)
The technology involved with creating the game at the time was futuristic as well, because not only was the game really pushing the Nintendo 64 to its limits, which eventually ensured that the previously optional Expansion Pak ended up being necessary if you wanted to full experience the game; but there was technology which would allow for players to put their face into the game. At the time, this seemed like a really cool and inventive feature and while it's not hard to see why it wasn't included in the end, the combination of using an N64 Transfer Pak with a GameBoy Camera to scan your face and put it on a character seemed mind-blowing.
Of course, this feature was used but only by the development team, who then put mostly themselves into the game, which is why a lot of the faces on the guards look so realistic. Indeed, there is one famous guard who appears at the start of one of the missions, none other than Shigeru Miyamoto, which happened as a result of a meeting during an E3 show (remember those?) where they took a picture of the front and side of his head and then made the model based on that data. These days, seeing your face in a game probably isn't that big of a deal, in fact, with how ubiquitous technology containing cameras is today, you're probably more likely to have a harder time not ending up in either a video game or some kind of virtual setting, whether you're aware of it or not.
The pre-release display box, used in the independent store to promote the game. (Reverse)
I think I preferred the notion of using that relatively innocuous GameBoy camera back then for this novelty purpose, over the pervasive level of surveillance we have today. Though yet again, cameras were something which featured rather heavily in the campaign of Perfect Dark, so maybe it was another sign of things to come? However you decide to interpret the content of this game now, there's no denying that it certainly made for a compelling setting and story at the very least and just like people seem to be clamouring for Cyberpunk themed games now in 2020, back then in 2000, it's fair to say that Perfect Dark was just as highly anticipated by myself and many others.
A Perfect storm
The lead up to the release of Perfect Dark is something I remember to this day, there just isn't any other game which I've looked forward to in the same way. Before the days in which internet access was so widespread, information about the game would mostly come from snippets in videogame magazines of the time, such as Nintendo Official Magazine or N64 Magazine.
A month would pass, if you were lucky there would be a feature on the game in the run up to its release but most of the time, it would just be a bit of news, maybe a few new screenshots or some brief impressions from an early build. Half of the fun seemed to be speculation on how the game would turn out, after a while you'd start to build up a picture of what the game might be like, I can still remember seeing an early screenshot from the Chicago stage, which showed Joanna Dark in a trenchcoat, looking around a corner with an enemy guard in her sights.
A display box, with final artwork for the game, differing slightly from the retail box. (Front)
At the time, it made me wonder if this was a third-person section but now anyone who has played it will tell you, this is how that mission starts, as it's part of the in-game cutscene, right before a metal fence is scaled and the mission begins in earnest. Then there was the early footage of the Carrington Institute which serves as the training area for the game, in place of the glass elevators, there were two sets of sloping steps which lead down to the main plaza instead; it was a surprise playing the game for the first time and seeing just how much this one area had changed.
Before the game came out, I'd talk about the game at almost any opportunity with anyone who would listen, usually with my younger brothers as they were quite enthusiastic about the game at the time, although my excitement for the game perhaps reached an overzealous level when I'd start exaggerating at just how realistic the game would be. I'd say that I read somewhere in a magazine that Perfect Dark is so realistic that you could dismember the enemies with the weaponry, something which now probably doesn't seem like a big deal due to how excessive certain FPS games can be, but at the time, I'm not sure why I thought the game would be that violent as I know that it wouldn't add that much to the game. It's impressive enough that you can shoot the weapons out of enemy hands, something which I haven't seen in hardly any FPS since.
This box would have been used in larger chain stores at the time of release, to sell the game. (Reverse)
Then after days, weeks, months... however long it had been, I went down to my local independent videogame store during my lunch break from school and there it was on the shelf, a brand new sealed copy of Perfect Dark priced at £49.99 for sale on June 29th, a day before the official release date (shush!) and it happened to be my birthday. So when I got home, I told my parents about it, they knew that I really wanted this game, plus because of its age rating, I wouldn't have been able to buy it anyway. Luckily, they bought it for me, something I'm very grateful for to this day and I was able to play Perfect Dark a few hours before its official release, or at least 35% of it.
You see, because the game became so large by the end of development, it was only possible to play just over a third of the game without the Expansion Pak installed in the N64. This extra 4MB of RAM might not seem like anything today, but it was truly amazing just how much it could add to certain titles and Perfect Dark was one such example which required it.
The original receipt for my pre-launch day copy, from an independent local retail store at the time.
The next day, I scraped together all the money I had, went to an Electronics Boutique store (remember those?) and bought a third-party Expansion Pak so that myself and my brothers could play the game to its fullest potential. And play it we most certainly did, I have a lot of fond memories going through the main story mode, many times over and then trying out all of the other modes the game had to offer, including Co-Operative campaign, Counter-Operative and of course, split-screen multiplayer; which we played on a large, wooden cabinet CRT TV, over RF signal at probably around less than 20fps and at the time, it was perfect.
The End is the Beginning
It would be hard to recommend playing the original version of Perfect Dark today for various reasons, unless you remember playing it back in the day, as there have been so many advancements in the genre since then. Most notably, almost all FPS titles have dual-analogue support, enabling you to move with one stick and aim with the other. On the N64, there was only a single control stick, so you would either mostly rely on the auto-aim with some weapons, or hold down the shoulder button while stationary to fine-tune your shots, using the C-buttons to change your view when needed. Not exactly the most intuitive setup, unless you're familiar with it.
Fortunately, there is a more modern version of the original Perfect Dark available. Even this newer version is over a decade old now, but the game got a port on the Xbox Live Arcade thanks to 4J Studios back in 2010. Obviously it isn't playable on a Nintendo platform, as Rare have been owned by Microsoft for some time now, but you can play this newer version of the classic on either an Xbox 360, Xbox One or even an Xbox One X as it has been further enhanced since its initial release.
As much as I love the original game, this is the best way to experience it as all of the textures have been completely overhauled, the game now runs at a smooth 60fps and not only do you have all of the original content in addition to overhauled controls; there is also one other major difference. The multiplayer has online capability, which is more than enough of a reason to justify purchase of the game, if you only buy it for this reason alone. What's more, is that if you own a copy of Rare Replay, then you already own this game and at least twenty-nine other classic Rare games, including the not so fondly remembered prequel that is Perfect Dark Zero, even that game has its few moments of brilliance.
Joanna Dark figure from Totaku, released in 2020, plus a couple of familiar faces.
In this year of the twentieth anniversary of the classic series, which has so far spawned an N64 game, GBC demake and an Xbox exclusive prequel plus the updated version, it is uncertain whether or not we will ever see another game like Perfect Dark. There have long been rumours of a sequel, if these turn out to be true then we will likely see that happen on the next Xbox console, though I wouldn't rule out seeing Joanna Dark appear on a Nintendo console again just yet, as I have a feeling that Rare Replay could make its way to the Switch in one form or another; but that is pure, wild speculation.
All I can say is, if you haven't played Perfect Dark yet and if you own any of the platforms which can play it, then please enjoy it in any form possible, as it is almost certainly worth your time if you give it a chance. Some of the games design choices might seem odd by today's standards, though it is still in many ways, very much ahead of its time even now. Even if it's only to try out the single player and have a quick blast on the multiplayer, I am certain that any gamer can find something to love about this game, it might not be Perfect but any future without this game in it, would be very Dark indeed.