Perfect Dark – N64

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People remember the N64 very fondly.  Almost excessively so.  If you lived through that era with a decent enough memory, you may remember the burgeoning Sony, best known at the time for making VCRs and portable cassette and CD players, blossoming onto the console scene with a 32-bit system and a library of games such as Final Fantasy VII, Parasite Eve, Resident Evil, and more. I didn’t notice right away.  I bought the 64 because I had always owned Nintendo’s consoles.  And as I soon found out, the 64 sported a library of games that rivalled the great Library of Alexandria’s…collection of video games. Seriously, when I think of how difficult a time I had finding good games for that system, vultures will actually leave carcasses bleaching in the desert to come and circle over my head.  However, through a magnificent gift of fortune, a sign of massive favor from the gods, and the store selling out of Star Fox before I arrived to buy the system, I managed to pick up the undoubtedly shiniest gem of the 64-era: GoldenEye.

I, for one, really find it obnoxious that Mario shows up in the most random of games.

I, for one, really find it obnoxious that Mario shows up in the most random of games.

I have played few games as extensively as I did that one.  My cartridge currently has four 007 save slots.  I explored every level, experimented with every cheat, and shot every enemy in every extremity with every weapon just to see what would happen.  I became one with the multi-player mode like some kind of nerdy guru, and to this day, I have only ever lost a round on the day I first bought the game. I even tested this out about three or four years back, as a friend-of-a-friend wound up in my apartment, noticed I had the game, and needed with all his soul to break out this classic.

“Let’s do a deathmatch!” he said.  “I want to customize the weapons.”
“Actually,” I responded, “you have to choose from pre-determined sets.”
“Well, fine.  As long as we can make the bots difficult.”
“Actually, this game doesn’t have simulated players.”
“What? Eh. Whatever. Let’s just start. How do I jump?”
“Actually…”

As much as I love the game, I got bored with it, and it didn’t age well.  Fortunately, Rare developed Perfect Dark as a spiritual successor to the Bond classic.  Unfortunately, the N64 decided to experiment with accessorizing like the ditzy teenage daughter of the super-rich Nintendo.  Rumble packs, needless memory cards, disk drives, voice recognition, transfer packs: all of which worked for less than a handful of games, simultaneously draining your wallet and filling the plastic bin by the TV with more video game hardware that would eventually collect enough dust to make you feel guilty about owning it in the first place.  So while you may hear about Goldeneye outperforming Perfect Dark in sales, keep in mind that I didn’t feel like one game (Majora’s mask came out on the game cube and I never had any interest in Donkey Kong Country) justified buying the expansion pack until a few weeks ago.

Yes. He loves his new planet that much.

Yes. He loves his new planet that much.

Perfect Dark, though.  I should talk about it, at least before the halfway point of my article.  While James Bond games and movies have always courted science-fiction like a Republican congressman who picks up drag queens in truck stop restrooms, Perfect Dark openly embraces the genre, strutting about the sci-fi stage looking fabulous.  As such, the game can explore territories that traditional spy fiction, much like the aforementioned congressman, wouldn’t dare traverse openly.  Agent Joanna Dark infiltrates a corporation and picks up information about an alien war about to spill over onto earth.  She picks up a sassy alien sidekick named “Elvis” after rescuing him from Area 51, and with his help, she brings down the evil alien race, saving all of humanity.  Not exactly Pulitzer material, but simple, interesting, and it retains the noir tone of spy fiction while seasoning it with some inter-genre ideas and garnishing it with a sense of humor that, let’s face it, James Bond simply wouldn’t understand.

image10Agent Joanna Dark, (named after Joan of Arc (Jeanne D’arc) in a massive fit of historical amnesia, forgetting that other than breaking the siege of Orleans, she lost every battle she led) provides an excellent protagonist, on par with Samus Aran.  The hegemony of spy fiction dictates that the characters ooze sexuality.  Men charm, while women slink around and act sultry.  Dark however, shows us a competent professional who unlike Bond, doesn’t do her best work on her back.  Short hair, strong face, and average figure, she comes off as attractive, but based on character traits, not an exaggerated physique.  Until, of course, Microsoft got their hands on her and redesigned her in the image of Christina Hendricks. But even Samus’s developers shamed her into a tight blue bodysuit in later games.

Whether intentional or not, Rare actually figured out what people like in game sequels–more of the same, but improving things barely enough to notice.  Based on the GoldenEye engine, Perfect Dark feels exactly like playing through new levels of the same game.  However, they’ve added small features here an there: reloading animations, smoother polygon rendering, secondary functions for each weapon, and for the multiplayer, customizable weapons and sim-opponents.  But still no jump.  No addition to game play, however, deserves more note than the voice-acting.  While GoldenEye offered a handful of out-of-context paraphrased subtitles from the movie, Perfect Dark plays out like its own film with cut scenes and actors who don’t always always beg for their lives like a J-Pop rapper (that particular character even sways from side-to-side as though dancing while you hold the gun to his head).

Perfect Agent, yes, but in just a minute she'll get stuck trying to go around the barrier to pick up their ammo.

Perfect Agent, yes, but in just a minute she’ll get stuck trying to go around the barrier to pick up their ammo.

Still, the voice acting has a down side.  Anyone who’s played Final Fantasy Tactics knows the intense feeling of guilt when you dismiss a character from your roster, and they leave with a line about how sad they feel that they have to part ways with you.  Well, bring on the guilt and multiply it by ten, as each enemy you shoot feels perfectly fine letting you know what a horrible crime you’ve committed with such snappy comebacks as “Why me?” “You bitch!” and “I don’t wanna die!”  In an early stage, I even barged in on two guys lounging around in a break room.  Do security guards have to stop intruders if they’ve punched out for lunch?  Does their company require them to lay down their lives while on break?  It seems almost unfair to kill them when they just wanted to sit and scarf down a sandwich for a half hour.

I do enjoy the game.  Despite losing an interest in first-person shooters, I found the combination of a new game with the nostalgia of an old one invigorating, and the difficulty at the perfect level to keep me interested (at least until I decided to move on to another game) in the same way I loved GoldenEye.  But do you know what I hated about GoldenEye? Natalya.  My mother ran a daycare–out of our house–for 25 years.  I had a playpen in my bedroom until ninth grade.  Let me tell you, having witnessed babysitting that close, I can say with complete confidence that the job has never had any redeeming, let alone interesting, qualities to it.  Never.  At least in Resident Evil 4, you had the option of telling Ashley, “Wait here,” and “Follow me,” (even if she didn’t have the sense to move when a monster showed up to carry her off) but Natalya just stood there and let Sean Bean’s soldiers pump assault rifle rounds into her head.

This guy! Arrgh! I actually loaded a mission once because I just wanted to shoot him myself.

This guy! Arrgh! I actually loaded a mission once because I just wanted to shoot him myself.

So Rare asked themselves, “How can we improve this?”
“I know!” Someone said.  “How about they have to babysit inanimate objects!”
“Great! We’ll give them an explosive box to carry around to protect, even though they could easily use grenades to blow open the wall in that level! What else you got?”
“A flying laptop computer!”
“Not annoying enough.”
“Well, it deliberately flies into the crossfire as a helicopter shoots you relentlessly.”
“Getting there, but not quite.”
“You can’t tell it to stay behind, and when you push him out of the elevator, he insults you for forcing him not follow.”
“Genius! Let’s go!”

While they experimented with more complex mission objectives than “go here, don’t die, shoot this, don’t die, press the action button here, shoot this person, and don’t die,” some of their ideas end up a little infuriating, such as the flying computer guy, or mission briefing that only sort of hints at how you need to accomplish your tasks, or simply wandering around in labyrinthine maps where every area looks the same.  If explained more clearly, the rest of the game offers the perfect (and adjustable) levels of difficulty, not too easy, but also allowing you to finish the game (mostly) without forcing you through the impossibly difficult setting.  Still, wandering around in tunnels for a half hour while trying to figure out that apparently an X-ray scanner that you may or may not have noticed you had will tell you which four of eight switches you need to shutdown an outer defense…well, you get the picture. Boredom does not equal challenge.  Furthermore, the menu system does not play well with others.  There.  I said it.  It spreads out the games options and doesn’t explain them well.  You did much better in GoldenEye, Rare.

To emphasize the connection with Goldeneye, look at this bathroom.

To emphasize the connection with Goldeneye, look at this bathroom.

But after you finish the game once, the replay value goes into overdrive.  You can revisit each stage on higher difficulty levels and practice them, trying to earn the cheat codes, you can play through with the cheat codes, and of course the multiplayer option, which now no longer requires multiple players, offers a nice chance just to run around and shoot people.

Like I said, I’ve lost interest in most eff-pee-esses these days, but I’d still stamp this game with my seal of approval.

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