Nintendo 64’s popular video game GoldenEye 007 was separated from its source film by almost two years. The film, released in November 1995 and putting a rotund end to the rumours that assured James Bond didn’t have a chance in a post-Cold War setting, instantly established Pierce Brosnan as the Bond of the new millennium and generated a new era of Bondmania almost comparable to the days of Goldfinger and Thunderball in the mid-1960s. The video game missed the chance to take advantage of both the theatrical release date and the home video launch in May 1996, coming to stores in North America on August 25, 1997, not much time before Tomorrow Never Dies, Brosnan’s second Bond outing.
The game had many delays due to improvements made by Rare, the developers. Improvements that proved to be among the most appreciated aspects of this product such as the ability to move Bond through the whole map opposing the original “on-rails shooter” idea a la Virtua Cop and the famous Multiplayer which had kids glued to their tube TV screens and N64 consoles. It is important to note that Nintendo’s 64-bit console wasn’t released when the Rare team began to work on the project, as early as January 1995 when GoldenEye the film started shooting at Leavesden Studios – a place they visited to get blueprints of the sets and reference shots of the costumes to make the digitalization as faithful as possible. The game was originally intended for Nintendo’s Virtual Boy console and then as a Super Nintendo game in 2D before the team decided to raise the bet and make GoldenEye 007 a 3D title for Nintendo’s sixth generation console, first known as Ultra 64.
For many, the game has overshadowed the legacy of the film: its innovative playability and features that are now the standard of the first-person shooter genre have cast the source material aside. Former MGM/UA Vice-president even admitted that the popularity of the game helped to boost the success of the Pierce Brosnan films and it’s no secret that many people became Bond fans thanks to this product: not only GoldenEye 007 followed the film’s story quite closely, but the bonus levels Aztec and Egyptian were inspired by Moonraker and Live And Let Die as the player had to face Jaws and Baron Samedi in familiar surroundings. Oddjob from Goldfinger and May Day from A View To A Kill were unlockable characters in the multiplayer mode and Francisco Scaramanga’s Golden Gun was available in one of the levels as well. Those who were curious about these details went to a video store and ended up discovering not only that GoldenEye was a film, but that it also belonged to a series of films dating from 1962 and novels written by a Royal Navy officer and journalist named Ian Fleming some ten years earlier than that.
In an attempt to avoid making a straight copy of the film’s script, the team led by Martin Hollis added some original levels that would have been good to see in the film assuming it wouldn’t have affected its sharp pacing and 130-minute runtime. Some of these levels take place in Severnaya, a desolated city in the North East of Russia where a Space Weapons Control Centre is located. In the film, the leading lady Natalya Simonova (Izabella Scorupco) works there along with her friend Boris Grishenko (Alan Cumming). Everything changes when Boris makes a deal with General Ourumov (Gottfried John) and Xenia Onatopp (Famke Janssen), Red Army officers in league with the Janus Syndicate run by Bond’s former friend Alec Trevelyan (Sean Bean). Ourumov uses his authority to enter the installation and request the GoldenEye key that activates a dangerous satellite. As a duty officer surrenders the key, Xenia opens fire and kills everyone, minus Boris (who conveniently went out for a cigarette) and Natalya, who managed to hide somewhere in the kitchen. Believing everyone is dead and the jet patrols won’t make it on time, the General and her accomplice set the GoldenEye to fire over the installation and they fly away on a stolen EMP-hardened helicopter. Avoiding all kinds of exploding artefacts, Natalya manages to escape from the burning place and her quest for survival will lead her straight to 007 later in the story, joining forces with him to put a stop to Janus’ plans.
For the game, the developers placed James Bond in Severnaya in two missions taking place in 1991, where he is first assigned to sneak around the snowy plateau stealing maps and disconnecting the communications link to the installation’s interior (the “bunker”) before infiltrating the place. In the level following this one, the player controlling Bond must do a series of activities that involve creating a copy of the GoldenEye key and downloading data from a mainframe, for which he has to hold Boris Grishenko at gunpoint to enter a password (“KNOCKERS”, as we’ve seen in the film for another use). As this happens, an alarm will wail and Bond will have to escape avoiding heavily armoured guards. These two missions, Surface and Bunker, will be repeated later and take place in the story’s present day, 1995. Under the red sky of night, Bond destroys the communications link to the bunker and a Spetsnaz helicopter, only to be captured as he enters the compound. The second part of Bunker proposes an interesting scenario as the secret agent is locked in a cell next to Natalya. After a quick exchange and knowing she’s locked in because she has seen too much, the ace of spies uses his magnetic watch (Live And Let Die, anyone?) to get the key to his cell and free the girl after incapacitating the jailer. Things don’t end there: the place is crawling with guards and there are no silenced weapons in the place except for two handguns inside a safe and a throwing knife. Unfortunately for Bond, he’ll have to perform many activities there such as destroying all the CCTV cameras in the compound and getting a videotape along with some documents. The passing of time is made strongly evident because we see security has been tightened in the compound, which has now been expanded and with automatic machine guns attached to the roof. If the player manages to do all that, Natalya will inform him that Ourumov set the GoldenEye to fire at the installation and both will have to escape.
Another of these original missions occurs on a Soviet missile silo in Kirghizstan. It is 1993 and MI6 suspects the place is a cover for the launch of the aforementioned GoldenEye satellite. Bond has to destroy the place and take shots of the satellite besides picking up circuit boards and DAT tapes. As the countdown for the destruction of the place runs down and 007 goes through the claustrophobic corridors avoiding hitting scientists and getting in firefights with guards, Ourumov will ambush him near the end.
Other levels were considerably expanded from the original film: in the Arkhangel dam, Bond shoots a couple of guards patrolling the compound and installs covert modems and extracts information before taking that 640 feet bungee jump as we’ve seen in the film. One of the film’s scripts, however, also extended this opening moment as 007 terminated two guards playing chess with expansive Glaser bullets as we know from John Gardner’s GoldenEye novelization. An interesting twist is given in the Frigate level, taking place in Port Hercule at Monte Carlo: while in the movie Bond simply makes an ill-fated attempt to prevent Xenia to steal the Tiger helicopter, in the game the vessel has been assaulted by Janus’ special forces who have taken crewmembers as hostages and placed two bombs, on the bridge and the engine room. It will be the player’s duty as 007 to disable those bombs as he rescues the hostages and plants a tracker on the helicopter, renamed Pirate in this version. The jungle showdown with Xenia Onatopp was also expanded in the video game, as both Bond and Natalya have to avoid Janus’ troops and automatic drone guns before fighting Onatopp who is armed with a grenade launcher and a sub-machine gun.
These are some of the things GoldenEye 007 has that might have enriched the experience of the film for adrenaline addicts, but there are also many things the film has that the game can’t compete with, and that has to do with the literary aspect of the product. The race between the Aston Martin DB5 and the Ferrari 355 through the mountain roads of the Alpes Maritimes is completely omitted in the game and was one of GoldenEye’s most celebrated moments. Then there is the casino scene, where Bond and Xenia play baccarat and he immediately follows her lead. The possibility of a casino level with a card game wasn’t even given a thought, as it might have lowered the potential of a first-person shooter or what players expected of it. Fortunately, this idea came to fruition in the 2000 title The World Is Not Enough, published by Electronic Arts, where reuniting a sum of money by playing blackjack is a requirement to pass to the following level in the PlayStation version.
Despite this happening for obvious reasons, something we have to regret is the fact that Xenia Onatopp’s role in the game has been considerably reduced to just another boss level. All the interactions with James Bond and the sexual tension between the two are limited to a “cameo” appearance on the train level and a shootout in the jungle where the phrase “This time, Mr Bond, the pleasure will be all mine” feels out of place precisely because of the omission of this sub-plot. General Ourumov is another character that barely resonates in the game outside its short appearances in Facility, Silo and Train (by heading to the goal after all of your objectives have been completed before the alarm sounds, he won’t appear at all in Facility). On the bright side, players who are enthusiastic about the film will take a crack at the dialogues with Valentin Zukovsky and the idiocy of Boris Grishenko, which has been perfectly adapted into the game: “Please, don’t kill me. Trevelyan asked me to do it!”, he will say after he threatens the player with a gun in the Control level and the gun slips from his hand. Of course, the player might not resist the temptation, but that will cause Natalya to get mad at Bond and the mission will fail.
Looking at the big picture, the success of both variations of GoldenEye is complementary. It was indeed the game that heightened the film’s popularity, it is even reasonable to point out that many levels from the game would have been a delight to see on the big screen, let’s say if we hoped for an action-packed three-hour film and to give the developers some thought for these original ideas to keep the gamers hooked. However, there is still a lot beyond the playability and the technical specs that made GoldenEye 007 a commercial success and this is where the source material can’t be cast aside: the rivalry between 007 and 006 steams directly from Michael France’s story, eventually reworked by Jeffrey Caine and Bruce Feirstein; the locations are inherently Bondian, the fact that you are driving a tank through the streets of St Petersburg or sneaking through a warship harboured in Monaco is owed to the movie. In the recently released documentary GoldenEra, an interviewee comments that most first-person shooters were set in fantasy worlds where the player had to fight monsters and demons or zombies. GoldenEye 007 changed this by making players enjoy a real-world experience, interacting with men and women as we walked through maps that were based in places that could exist in our reality. And thus, games like Medal of Honor took the player to fight Nazis in World War II. The point is that this change is initially attributed to the game, but this “real life” feeling was given by the film and, to a larger extent, to the world of James Bond. Opposed to franchises like Star Wars or Mortal Kombat, to mention products that were exploited as films and games in the past decades, the Bond series is based on a reality that is always five seconds into the future – things don’t happen in a galaxy far and away, there aren’t Outworlds or Netherrealms, and all of the places Bond goes are places we can gain access depending of what our profession or clearance is. Other than the slight supernatural ambience of Live And Let Die, also replicated on the Egyptian mission of GoldenEye 007, Bond is a man of our times and our world.
Phil Méheux’s cinematography is another of the beautiful things from the film the video game can’t capture: how he evokes the contrast between what is claustrophobic, cold and depressing (the chemical plant, the interrogation room) and what is rich, sunny and exotic (the beaches of Puerto Rico, the skyline of Monaco). This is somehow perceived in the game: Facility is clearly different to Streets as Jungle is to Silo, but never with the finesse and depth of Méheux’s style.
But this happens only for an obvious reason: a film is a film, and a game is a game. They just can’t compete. It would be unfair to expect in a Nintendo 64 game to get a seductive render of Famke Janssen and Izabella Scorupco or a quaint landscape of a beach in the Caribbean, just like maybe the film doesn’t have those “how we never thought of this before” moments of Bond escaping the bunker and blowing the Silo to bits.
In short, both were wonderful in their way and that’s why GoldenEye was the most lucrative James Bond film in 16 years by the end of 1995 and why GoldenEye 007 became the third most sold Nintendo 64 cartridge by 2002 when the console was discontinued.