Perfect Dark, a Twenty Year Reunion
I still remember as if it were yesterday. It was my seventh birthday and one of the gifts I gotten from my parents was this brand new Nintendo 64 game that had just been released. It was a sequel to the juggernaut hit GoldenEye, but instead of being another James Bond game, it was a brand new IP set in a cyberpunk depiction of the then-distant year of 2023, starring a female spy named after a French war hero, Joanna Dark. That game was Perfect Dark, a game that, despite far from flawless, quickly became my favorite game of all time, which is now twenty years old. Time sure flies.
It’s hard to even figure out where to start when talking about a game as important as Perfect Dark. It was, for a brief period of time, the single most technically advanced game ever released. It was a game that pushed boundaries in terms of graphics, lighting effects, gameplay, and most impressively, the amount of content included in a mere 32MB of data. A game that pushed the N64’s hardware to such ludicrous levels that it forced people to own the RAM expansion pak in order to run properly. Let’s take a closer look at this masterpiece, but for the purposes of gathering screenshots in an easier manner, I’ll be using footage from the 2010 remaster released for the Xbox 360.
This retrospective contains spoilers for this twenty year-old game. You’ve been warned. Off we go!
Perfect Dark was one of those games that wanted to impress you even before it started. That iconic intro cinematic featuring the Nintendo 64 logo slowly turning into the game’s logo, accompanied by a then-revolutionary surround sound effect, was the single most impressive thing you could find on Nintendo’s console back in the day. That was just a small sample of what Rare had in stock.
The first mission, DataDyne Central: Defection, was much more detailed and layered than any other mission featured in GoldenEye. A huge commercial skyscraper in which you were free to explore its top four floors, as well as the ground level, was full of easy objectives to complete, soldiers to get rid of, and one annoying Cassandra De Vries to punch in order to acquire a key card. It was the perfect introductory level, a safe place that allowed you to freely explore its corridors, but not complicated enough that would make you get lost.
The second mission would make you explore a hidden underground lab in order to rescue Dr. Carroll, who was actually a sentient flying laptop, while the third mission was set in the same environment as the first one, with you being forced to go to the top floor of the DataDyne building during a security blackout. This was the first mission that taught you how to deal with the game’s impressive lighting effects, as you had to use night vision goggles in order to see what was in front of you. You also had to protect and escort an NPC throughout the entire level, which was a lot less annoying than having to deal with Natalya back in GoldenEye.
The fourth level, Carrington Villa, is the game’s highlight. Without a doubt, one of the best-designed levels in FPS history. After either rescuing a negotiator by sniping down a couple of soldiers or taking care of them with your bare fists, depending on the difficulty, you basically had an open level at your disposal. Taking care of objectives, such as killing the snipers on the rooftops, or getting rid of the DataDyne hackers, is a lot less linear than any other Perfect Dark level. After dealing with those problems on the ground level, you would then go to the mansion’s basement in order to rescue your boss, Daniel Carrington, this game’s equivalent to 007’s M. Fun fact: he was modeled after notorious Nintendo fanboy Robin Williams on the Nintendo 64 version of the game.
The next couple of missions were set in Chicago and they weren’t exactly the best Perfect Dark had to offer. Although visually impressive, even going as far as to feature fully rendered neon signs and rain effects, the first Chicago level featured annoying objectives, an invincible patrolling bot, and security triggers that could easily result in an automatic objective failure. The following level, the G5 building, featured one of the most generic layouts in the whole game. It was a bunch of yellow-ish corridors filled to the brim with grunts wielding SMGs. Next!
The following three levels were set in Area 51 and that’s where Perfect Dark stopped being a simple semi-futuristic espionage game and started being a full-fledged sci-fi story. The Area 51 chapter introduced us to Elvis, a stereotypical grey alien who loves Earth and everything related to it, to the point he even starts wearing a suit with a US flag design later on.
The plot becomes a lot more convoluted from this point on. We find out that DataDyne wants to kidnap the President of United States in order to put a cloned decoy in his place. Said decoy would allow DataDyne to use the Navy’s state-of-the-art submarine in order to reach an ancient alien ship located at the bottom of the ocean. DataDyne is interested in said ship on the behest of yet another alien race, the reptilian Skedar, who are interested in a world devastating weapon located inside of it, unbeknownst to anyone at DataDyne.
Our following missions take place inside a US air base in Alaska and the Air Force One, in which Joanna tries to rescue the President before it’s too late. She manages to stop DataDyne from kidnapping him, but the Skedar decide to shoot the plane down as retaliation. The next mission is set in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness, in which you’re tasked to kill yet another cloned decoy and rescue the real President. Despite succeeding, DataDyne manages to get its hands on the prototype submarine, so it’s time for you to invade the ancient alien ship and stop their plans.
Before moving on, I need to talk about Perfect Dark‘s hub/tutorial area, the Carrington Institute. At any given moment, you could freely explore this game’s equivalent of the MI6 building, complete with training rooms, databases, and a shooting range that rewarded you with the same weapons from GoldenEye if you managed to acquire some gold medals. The game wanted you to get attached to the Institute, because you’d be thrown into a mission set inside of it after foiling the Skedar’s plans. They invaded the Institute and it was up to you and your knowledge of the place’s layout, to save hostages and kill the invading army before it was too late. Sadly, Joanna would be captured at the end of the mission, no matter what.
You wake up inside a Skedar warship, in a cell alongside the former DataDyne CEO, the same woman you punched in the beginning of the game. In a weird act of redemption, she acts as a distraction to let you kill a Skedar guard and get its gun. Elvis arrives shortly after with a bunch of alien buddies and you’re then tasked with basically storming the place and taking control of its bridge. You then find the hidden home world of the Skedar and decide to storm the planet in order to finally end the intergalactic war between those alien races. Remember when you thought this game was just going to be a cyberpunk James Bond?
Here we are. The final mission, that is if you don’t count the underwhelming secret missions unlocked after completing the game in certain difficulty settings. It’s time to put an end to the Skedar threat by storming their holiest site and killing their leader. After enduring a linear path full of tough enemies wielding the game’s most ridiculous weapons (more on that later), you’ll eventually reach the Skedar Leader’s chamber, and the game’s only boss battle ensues. Instead of attacking the leader directly, you need to carefully shoot at a statue located behind it, destroying each of its pieces, from the smallest to the biggest. If you do that correctly, the largest bit of the statute will fall straight onto the Skedar Leader, impaling it.
And with that we’ve reached the end of Perfect Dark, but we haven’t scratched the surface of what the game has to offer.
Besides the main solo campaign, you can actually play any of the previously unlocked missions with a friend. That’s right, Perfect Dark can be played cooperatively in its entirety, even way back in 2000. That alone would have been a fantastic inclusion to the game’s already gigantic assortment of modes and features, but the real star of the show is the polar opposite of the Co-Op mode: Counter-Operative. In this mode, one player is Joanna, while the other will take control of a random grunt located somewhere inside the level. If Joanna kills the second player, he’ll respawn in the body of another grunt, The Matrix-style.
Speaking of players killing other players, I obviously need to talk about Perfect Dark‘s pride and joy, its multiplayer mode: the Combat Simulator. At the time, it was the deepest and most customizable multiplayer mode ever featured in a first-person shooter, beating the likes of Counter-Strike, Quake III, GoldenEye, and Unreal Tournament with ease. To this day, it’s still an impressive achievement in terms of how much freedom is given to you. You can not only choose a stage and mode, but customize which weapons will be featured in it, how many bots will show up, their difficulty level, their behavioral pattern, their looks, their teams, the score limit, time limit, and background music. This was in the year 2000, may I remind you. Not even Call of Duty gives you that much freedom in 2020.
The weapons are a sight for sore eyes. There are almost twice as many guns in here as there were in GoldenEye, considering the fact that half of GoldenEye‘s arsenal is actually included in here as secret unlockables. To top things off, every single weapon in the game featured a primary and secondary function. You’ve got your standard assortment of pistols, assault rifles, magnum revolvers, grenade launchers, SMGs, mines, knives, and rocket launchers.
Besides the standard military weapons featured in any generic shooter out there, there was also an alien pistol that fired explosive rounds, an assault rifle that could be used as a proximity mine, an alien machine gun that could still be used as a chainsaw after running out of bullets, a wrist-mounted laser sword, a rail gun featuring an x-ray visor, a remote-controlled alien rocket launcher, nitrogen grenades, an SMG that featured a cloaking device, and the cream of the crop, the Laptop Gun, a weapon that could be deployed as an automatic turret, one of the greatest weapons in FPS history alongside Turok 2‘s Cerebral Bore and Doom‘s BFG-9000.
There are also loads of spy gadgets to use, ranging from your typical hacking devices and disguises to completely ludicrous equipment like x-ray goggles and EMP mines that could disable an entire building’s security system. You also had access to the CamSpy and the DrugSpy, small remote-controlled drones that could either be used to take pictures of secret meetings or knock down enemies with tranquilizing shots without being noticed. Rare sure had a ton of fun designing the nonsensical arsenal of weapons and gadgets at your disposal.
Perfect Dark was one of the first console shooters that allowed players to include bots in multiplayer matches, and not only could you customize their difficulty setting, but also their behavior. If you set a bot as a TurtleSim, it would move slowly, but it would feature a very strong shield. A VengeSim holds a grudge and would viciously hunt down the last player that killed it. A PeaceSim would run around the field disarming players. A JudgeSim will always try to kill the winning player in order to even up the score. These are just some of the options included in here. You could add up to eight bots, resulting in a total of twelve players in a single N64. Sure, the framerate would sink down to single digits, but we didn’t care that much back in the day. It was fun as hell, and it still is.
The Combat Simulator also featured a wide assortment of challenge missions that could be tackled by yourself or with a friend. The first few challenges were stupidly easy pushovers, but they would quickly become more and more challenging, with the last few ones being way more difficult than any other solo mission in the game. Back in the Nintendo 64 days, the challenges were the only way you could unlock additional multiplayer arenas, including a few returning maps from GoldenEye: the Temple, the Complex, and the Facility.
Given how amazing Perfect Dark‘s multiplayer was, why isn’t it as well-remembered as GoldenEye‘s multiplayer mode? I have a couple of theories, the first one being the fact that GoldenEye was released earlier on in the N64’s life cycle, back when there wasn’t competition from other titles on the Dreamcast, PS2, and PC. The game was released in 2000, a time in which the Nintendo 64 wasn’t as popular as it had once been. The fact it required an Expansion Pak might also have scared potential consumers away. Finally, I think that the main reason Perfect Dark‘s multiplayer isn’t as well-remembered is the fact that, just a year later, a little title called Halo: Combat Evolved was released in the wild, making everyone forget about the existence of any other first person shooter released before it.
I’ve been praising Perfect Dark non-stop in this article, but even though this is my favorite game of all time, it is not the best game I have ever played. I do acknowledge that, as ambitious and technically advanced as it was back in the day, it featured some glaring issues. The first one is the obvious fact that you basically need an Expansion Pak in order to access any other mode besides the Combat Simulator. That wasn’t an issue back in the day, as most of us had purchased Donkey Kong 64 the year before, but I can only imagine that a lot of kids ended up feeling disappointed with how little they could access of the game’s contents due to them not owning the RAM-expanding accessory.
The other main issue was a lot more glaring: the performance. Perfect Dark pushed the Nintendo 64’s hardware to its absolute limits, featuring the best character models, lighting effects, and textures featured in any game released for the console. It even featured fully animated reload sequences, something unheard of at the time. That doesn’t mean that it was well-optimized. The framerate was really inconsistent.
In some levels, such as any set within closed spaces, the game would perform fairly well, but levels like the one set in the Alaskan wilderness, or playing the Combat Simulator with four players and additional bots, would tank the framerate to nearly unplayable levels. We didn’t care that much when we were kids, but it’s extremely noticeable when revisiting the game nowadays. Thankfully, the Xbox 360 remaster runs at a constant 60fps, no matter the situation. If you ever decide to tackle Perfect Dark, that’s the way to go.
Perfect Dark is, to this day, Rare’s magnum opus. This is a game that, when it comes to the sheer amount of content included from the get-go, makes a lot of modern games look barren in comparison. A masterpiece in visuals, gameplay, artificial intelligence, and multiplayer customization, this is a title that stands next to classics like Half-Life, Halo, Super Mario 64, Ocarina of Time, Metal Gear Solid 3, and Chrono Trigger, as one of the greatest games ever created. Even though it was released twenty years ago, it is still unbelievably entertaining to this day, and I must recommend it to anyone with access to a Nintendo 64, an Xbox 360 or an Xbox One. You should play it at least once. I know I’ll be playing this gem for the next twenty years, or even more.
Oh yeah, a sequel did come out five years later. But we don’t talk about that thing. I’ve been trying to forget about its existence ever since…