25 years of the N64: Perfect Dark

One of the finest releases on the N64, by anyone, remains a stunningly playable classic over two decades later.

On September 29, 2021, the Nintendo 64 will turn 25 years old in North America. Throughout the month of September, I’ll be covering the console, its games, its innovations, and its legacy. Previous entries in this series can be found through this link.

Perfect Dark’s release date is the primary reason why it’s not a more significant deal. It didn’t come out until late-May in 2000, well into the Nintendo 64’s lifespan, and when gamers were, en masse, moving away from the fifth generation and into the sixth. The N64’s successor, the GameCube, wouldn’t arrive until the fall of the next year, sure, but the Dreamcast was already eight months old by the time Perfect Dark hit shelves, and Sony’s Playstation 2 — which stormed ahead of the early arriving Dreamcast in a hurry and then sold so well for so long that it saw a release of 2011’s iteration of MLB: The Show — was already two months in by the time Perfect Dark arrived.

That’s not to say that everyone with a Nintendo 64 stopped buying games for the system, or that Nintendo and the third parties that supported the 64 stopped trying just because the next-gen had arrived. Banjo-Tooie, Pokémon Stadium 2, Mario Tennis, Excitebike 64, Mario Tennis, Kirby 64, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, Paper Mario, WWF No Mercy, and 007: The World Is Not Enough — the sequel to GoldenEye 007 — would all release in 2000, and would all sell in between 007’s 1.08 million copies and Banjo-Tooie’s three million. At 3.36 million, The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask topped the list of 2000 releases in terms of both sales and quality, nearly cracking the lifetime sales top 10 for the N64 despite its late arrival to that party.

Majora’s Mask is actually a perfect example of what I’m getting at here. Its predecessor, Ocarina of Time (number 33 on the Nintendo top 101), was revolutionary and deserved to sell every one of the 7.6 million copies it managed, but its only real advantage over Majora’s Mask (number four) is its release date. It was first, and it released during the 1998 holiday season, giving it two more years on shelves and more overall relevance to gamers who were always on the lookout for something shinier and newer. For Perfect Dark, the comparison is the game it’s a spiritual successor to: GoldenEye 007. There is nothing about GoldenEye that is better than Perfect Dark, which took all of the lessons learned from developing the 1997 hit, as well as the many Rare games that followed, and then applied them in bigger, better fashions, with bigger and bolder new ideas, to boot… save GoldenEye’s sales, and also its reputation.

GoldenEye had more time to win the hearts and minds of N64 owners, given how early into the system’s lifespan it released, comparatively, and even though Perfect Dark blows it away in every conceivable way, timing, nostalgia, and just the sheer difference in exposure the two games had are difficult forces to overcome. Most of the people I’ve met in my life who have scoffed at me for saying Perfect Dark is better than GoldenEye haven’t actually played Perfect Dark: those who have actually played, which is a considerably smaller number of folks, know the truth of things.

And so, the best game Rareware made on the N64 — the best game Rareware has ever made, be it self-published or a Nintendo or Microsoft joint — had to be content with 2.52 million sales and a legacy that doesn’t come close to that of GoldenEye’s because of the relative smallness of that figure. Perfect Dark would get a second life on the Xbox 360 when a remaster made the Nintendo 64 classic the dual stick shooter it had always tried to be, and its presence on the Rare Replay Collection that upscaled it to 4K for the Xbox One and Series X/S platforms, along with its presence on Game Pass, has given it life yet again. But still, GoldenEye 007 outsold even Ocarina of Time on the N64, finishing behind only Super Mario 64 and Mario Kart 64. Perfect Dark might not catch up to that kind of figure even if Microsoft releases it anew on every console they ever make.

It probably did not help that Perfect Dark seemed like it was only a multiplayer arena shooter if you didn’t have the Memory Expansion Pak. The box even told you that only 33 percent of the game would be available were you to play without the Expansion. Granted, it was easy enough — and cheap enough — to acquire what was needed to access 100 percent of Perfect Dark’s modes and gameplay, but that doesn’t mean everyone did. If they did have the Expansion Pak, however, what they saw was an incredibly deep single-player experience that built on the objectives-based gameplay of GoldenEye to make you feel like a secret agent that also had to shoot people in your way. You had guns, sure, but you also had gadgets and guns that were gadgets, you had sci-fi elements like a flying laptop with an AI in it, there were shady terrorist organizations backed by corporate interests and aliens disguised as humans and a trip to space and… you could say that Perfect Dark had an identity crisis and a lack of focus in its campaign, but the focus was there. It just happened to be batshit. “What if this escalated quickly, and did not stop escalating?”, to the point that the game begins with an infiltration to save a rogue scientist from a research building who then turns out to be said AI-infused flying laptop, and ends with you saving an entire alien race and also Earth by killing a cult-leader galactic imperialist alien that would have been at home in Turok. Let’s see James Bond pull that shit off.

A British secret agent saved the President of the United States with the help of an alien who realized he was naked and also that sneakers are comfortable shortly into his time on Earth. Also his name is Elvis. Image credit: Rare

The reason that the game did not fit on the standard N64 cartridge is because of the sheer vastness of the game. At its most basic, Perfect Dark is a campaign-based first-person spy shooter, with three difficulty levels that significantly change the way the game is played and what there is to play, depending on which one you choose. Agent is either “Easy” or “Normal,” with the game’s AI purposely reacting a bit slower and more surprised to your presence, and fewer objectives to complete in each stage.

Take the very first level for example: on Agent, your objective for the stage is “Gain entrance to laboratory.” It’s on the bottom floor of this research building, which you start on the rooftop of and sneak your way down. You can either avoid as many patrolling guards as possible, or come in (silenced) guns blazing and clear out three floors of this building before taking an elevator dozens of floors down to the bottom. On Perfect Agent, the toughest difficulty, “Gain entrance to the laboratory” is your fifth and final objective. Before that, you must disable the internal security hub by finding it and deploying a communications jammer in your inventory onto it, then obtain a keycode necklace from the head of this research facility without killing them, as it’s linked to them biometrically, download secret project files using your Data Uplink by first finding someone to access the password-protected computer for you (and without letting that researcher turn on any alarms in the process), disable the external communications hub so the building can’t call for backup, and then, finally, enter the laboratory.

There are no checkpoints in Perfect Dark, and no map that tells you where all of these objectives or persons of interest can be found: you either succeed or you fail the missions, and if you don’t check your mission logs for pertinent information before diving in, you will fail on the tougher levels, easy. The more objectives you add on, and the more intelligent you make the game’s AI in the process, the tougher it is to pull these missions off. You essentially need to play on Agent in order to learn the layout of the levels and gain familiarity with the various weapons, gadgets, and specific character beats and counterattacks that will make your life hell on Special Agent and Perfect Agent.

Perfect Dark would have been great if this campaign with its continually added complexity was all there was to it, but that’s just the start of things. There is a cooperative mode even though it makes absolutely no sense from a narrative point of view, because Rare understood that doing all of these missions with a friend next to you on the couch would be its own kind of awesome, especially on tougher difficulties where there are enough tasks to complete that you could split them up. Finding the President of the United States and his clone after Air Force One crash lands in the snowy mountains is a lot easier when you can go in two directions at once, you know. The single-player mode that should have received far more attention in its day and should have influenced future games from other developers far more than it did, though, is the Counter-Operative mode. In this single-player mode, one player is the lead character, Joanna Dark, while the other takes on the role of various enemies scattered throughout a level, attempting to stop Joanna from succeeding in her mission. You can play the entire game like this! When Joanna kills the baddie your counter-op pal is controlling, you simply took control of another. You can poison the character you’re controlling to kill them and basically teleport into another closer to Joanna if necessary, or break from the kind of programmed behaviors that the enemies would usually be performing in order to hunt Joanna rather than wait for her. It rules.

Like I said before, I blame Perfect Dark’s release date for a lot, including this not being a standard part of shooters from this game onward. Can you imagine how much more fun, say, cover shooter Gears of War would have been — and it was already tons of fun — if controlling the Locust wasn’t just relegated to multiplayer arena modes, and instead had this kind of counter-operative mode, too? If this was Twitter I’d post that utopian future city meme next to this thought exercise, but we’re here and I want you to instead imagine how much it would rule to Torque Bow humans from cover to keep them from progressing in the campaign.

Then there is the Combat Simulator, which is either a single player or a multiplayer experience, depending on how you want to use it. You can play through the Challenges, which are scored depending on how well you do in them, and range from the simple (defeat enemies using standard weaponry) to the specific (King of the Hill against standard simulants using a specific rifle) to the more complex (Capture the flag-style multiplayer against expert simulants equipped with a variety of close- and long-range instant kill weaponry).

Capcom couldn’t be bothered to give Claire Redfield some kind of jacket or warmer shirt when she was literally in Antartica in Resident Evil: Code Veronica, but Rare managed to make a new outfit for Joanna Dark in basically every level, suited to the environment she was in. Image credit: Nintendo Life

The more Challenges you complete, the more unlocks in the more freeform multiplayer area of the game, like additional maps. Here, you can setup a straight combat multiplayer scenario, or Hold the Briefcase, Hacker Central, Pop a Cap, King of the Hill, or Capture the Case. Hold the Briefcase has you (or one of the enemies) running around holding a briefcase, simply attempting to stay alive. Live long enough, and you score a point, then the clock resets and you try to score another, and so on. Die, and the briefcase switches hands. Hacker Central has you risking it all by putting down your gun to use your Data Uplink to hack a laptop in the arena, with the hope being you succeed in doing so before someone else finds you in that compromising, defenseless position. Pop a Cap has the game randomly pick a victim, and everyone must attempt to kill that player in order to score points, while the chosen victim simply needs to stay alive to score. Capture the Case is a capture the flag variant, and King of the Hill is self-explanatory. They’re all wonderful, too, and since you can organize the entire thing to be played with simulants — bots — you don’t actually need to have friends over in order to experience these multiplayer modes.

These bots are themselves highly customizable. There are standard bots with standard abilities, as well as easier and tougher versions, but as you complete more challenges and see your rank increase in multiplayer, you’ll also unlock bots that were designed specifically to be able to move and react faster than is humanly possible. And yet, with enough practice, you can defeat them, too, by finding ways to trap or trick them, or simply by sneaking up on them or correctly guessing when their head is about to enter your crosshairs before they realize you’re there. This is a game about a secret agent, after all.

There are also bots imbued with personalities, that will play a specific way. The JudgeSim, for instance, will target whomever is in the lead in order to even the playing field. The PreySim will hunt down players with a worse weapon and low health. The VengeSim targets whichever player last killed it. TurtleSims are inherently shielded, and the shield is more powerful than the one you can pick up in multiplayer: the shield also restricts its movement, however. KazeSims will move in close to kill you even if it kills them in the process, which means, even if they’re going to blow themselves up to off you. PeaceSims will pick up whatever weapons are lying around the map to keep other players from having them, which also makes them a walking arsenal for you if you happen to kill one that has loaded up. SpeedSims, FistSims, RocketSims, ShieldSims, CowardSims, FeudSims… there are more personality-based bots than there are slots to deploy them, so pick your favorites and adjust their difficulty levels as you see fit, too.

Multiplayer can involve eight bots, and you can set teams basically however you’d like. The teams are color-coded, with the characters being that color on screen and on your radar, so you can hunt down the team that’s in the lead or shy away from a particular team if they’re close to victory and you don’t want to be another step on that path. Feel free to ally yourself with some tough sims, or to see if you can be a team of one against a large array of sims, or make two teams of four and put yourself alone and see if you can best them all by your lonesome.

There are default weapon packages focused on handguns, automatics, explosives, heavy weapons, and so on, or you can customize or randomize the loadout. You have six slots to work with, and can disable as many of those slots as you’d like. You can either play it straight and balanced, with a variety of handguns and rifles and maybe explosives of some kind, or you can decide to go all-out weird and do things like play with only the various kinds of mines (remote, timed, proximity), or restrict yourself to combat knives and tranquilizers, both of which have iffy ranged attacks but are lethal up close. There are so many weapons in the game to choose from, and each has a secondary mode, too, so there are hundreds of hours of fun to be found simply in switching up the loadout and messing around with the kinds and difficulty of bots you’re facing, with or without friends next to you.

The weapons of Perfect Dark are really something. Realism was not the goal here, so much as fun. The laptop gun looks like a laptop, making it perfect for a secret agent in the campaign, but in multiplayer, it’s a real beauty since its secondary mode is as a portable turret. Get a laptop gun, fill up its ammo, then leave it in a blind spot where it will fire at anything in range until it runs out of bullets. The Dragon is an assault rifle with a secondary mode that makes it into a proximity mine, so you can leave a Dragon near some boxes of bullets in the hopes an unwitting bot or human stumbles upon it, thinking they’ve had a powerful new weapon. They have, just not in the way they think.

The Super Dragon is also a grenade launcher. The K7 Avenger is also a threat detector that can point out things like mines and soon-to-be-exploding rifles. One assault rifle has a massive magazine that you can burn through in order to cloak rather than shoot, letting you sneak up on opponents while remaining heavily armed. There are rocket launchers with remote-controlled rockets, a sniper rifle that can see and shoot through walls but is intentionally difficult to maneuver and see with so you’ll pay for using it too long, grenades that basically concuss whoever they hit, making it difficult for them to see for a while thanks to the wonders of blurred vision and headaches, pistols that let you charge shots and unload a huge chunk of their clip, machine guns with bullets that will follow whatever opponents you’ve found in your crosshairs, cloaking devices, shields… this game has pretty much everything, including a whole bunch of weapons (and maps!) from GoldenEye, as well.

This game was designed to be played for years and years, and, well I still play it. Previously on my original N64 cartridge, then on the Xbox 360 after the remaster came out, and now on my Series X, on a TV much larger than anything I ever imagined back when I was playing on a little CRT in my bedroom. I wish my original memory card with my first however many hours and awards and kills in Perfect Dark hadn’t died years and years ago, but as is, the numbers that have been put up since are still staggering to consider, with literal days’ worth of time logged just in the multiplayer modes — and that save file was started well after the lifecycle of the N64, in the small window between the death of my old memory card and the Xbox 360 remaster release. I’ve played some Perfect Dark, is what I’m saying, and that’s what Rare intended to happen.

Perfect Dark had some minor issues. The frame rate was atrocious at times, as it would dip so horribly in multiplayer sometimes that it actually became a strategic move to cause the kinds of explosions that could be to the advantage of the person causing them. The thing is, though, that a horrid frame rate is the kind of thing that can sink a bad game, but in a great one? You just learn to push through it, or, in the case of those explosions, even make it part of the experience, to your benefit. You can experience Perfect Dark without the technical limitations of the N64 version thanks to the remastered and now upscaled Xbox version of the game, but even if you just have it on the N64, the slowdown is just kind of a thing that exists, and can certainly be more feature than bug if you’ve got a sense of humor about things.

GoldenEye 007 helped show that consoles had a claim to the first-person shooter space, just like PCs did. Sure, the mouse and keyboard wasn’t an option, but developers could design around controllers in a way that made for a hell of an experience, regardless. Perfect Dark took that idea and refined it further, creating a smooth, console-shooter experience that might seem a little off today to people who grew up on further refinements and twin sticks, but this classic shooter is a lot closer to the first-person experiences of today than it is to its peers. That it was designed to essentially mimic the kind of twin-stick action first-person shooters would be built around, before twin-stick shooters were the norm, is a large part of that, but it’s also because the game managed to control so well and so intuitively in an age before that was the norm for console shooters helps, too. If I go back and play Turok, for instance, it takes my brain some time to remember how single-stick FPS games worked in that game’s day. Perfect Dark, though, feels like the prototype for the more modern shooter, and is thus a whole lot easier to go back to. And adapted well to its now twin-stick nature on the Xbox family of consoles, too.

The fact Perfect Dark released at all is still something of a miracle, considering its path. First imagined as a sequel to GoldenEye, Rare had to change directions when Electronic Arts won the licensing rights in a bidding war: Perfect Dark was the result of this shift in direction, and with nothing from Bond save the secret agent retained, it went in a far more sci-fi direction, with influences pulled from television like the X-Files, movies like Blade Runner and The Matrix (the entire Counter-Operative section was built from the idea of the movie’s Agents switching between bodies as necessary to hinder the protagonists), and, of course, the decision to switch from your typical male lead to a woman, Joanna Dark. Martin Hollis, still at Rare at this point before his move to Nintendo itself, believed there should be more women in games, so, Rare created one.

Hollis would not still be at Rare by the time Perfect Dark was completed. Much of the game’s original team, in fact, would not be there. Hollis simply left when his contract was up and signed on with Nintendo, leaving overtly violent video games like those he was known for at that point behind in the process, but others who worked on the game up and left Rare to form their own studio, Free Radical Design, which would eventually create the TimeSplitters series of first-person shooters. Like with Perfect Dark, those games emphasized weirdness, speed, and depth. Rare would stop making games like that — it’s best you don’t try to compare Perfect Dark Zero with the game it is a prequel to or the shooters designed by former Perfect Dark team members — but for a time, at least, that style of shooter lived on elsewhere.

As Nintendo Life explained in an oral history published last May to celebrate Perfect Dark’s 20th anniversary (which you should read in full: the first of four pages is here), the exit of these designers ended up being a blessing, even if it was a problem at first. Basically, the soon-to-be members of Free Radical Design felt slighted by Rare, in terms of recognition of what they did and how much work they had to put in. Rare was certainly not known for being a crunch-free studio back in the day — had Nintendo bought the entire company instead of just enough to make them second-party, maybe that would have changed as it did for Retro Studios post-Metroid Prime when all the crunch-enforcing leadership were replaced, but alas, we’ll never know for sure — and this understandably wore on these developers. So, while leaving was good for them, in the sense they would form their own studio and games, it also ended up being good for Perfect Dark, since new developers with new ideas who were not also burdened by dreams of picking up and leaving were able to join up.

At this point in development, the game was in alpha: much of the groundwork of designing what it was going to be was done, but actually doing those things was still very much a work-in-progress. More and more emphasis ended up being added to the multiplayer side of things over time, and the inability or refusal to cut more content than what had already been cut resulted in a game that could not ship whole without consumers having an Expansion Pak in their console. So, a game that was meant to be single-player focused at first ended up being only a multiplayer game for those without the Expansion Pak. Whoops? But also, the fact you couldn’t squeeze all of Perfect Dark onto an N64 cartridge without some help is what makes this game as special as it is, as feature-loaded as it is. And hell, the Expansion Pak cost less than whatever season pass you’d have to pay for in order to get all of these additional modes digitally today: we didn’t realize how good we had it back in May of 2020.

Rare has made a number of tremendous games over its many decades of existence, whether they were fully independent or second-party or first-party, but none of them is better than Perfect Dark. It is the apex of their shooters, despite not having the legacy of GoldenEye or the technological advantages of an Xbox 360 game. It is a love letter to sci-fi and conspiracies and secret agents, a single-player experience of incredible depth that houses an absurdly customizable and pliable multiplayer that, 21 years later, is still highly enjoyable, alone or with friends. This game was basically a miracle, in a number of ways, and never got the respect it truly deserved in large part thanks to when it finally saw the light of day. That’s all a shame, of course, but nothing is stopping you from experiencing it today, unless you’re a Sony-only kind of gamer. And I’m not sure those people kinds of people even exist, this far from the days of the Console Wars. Pick up a copy on the N64. Download it on your Xbox 360. Grab the Rare Replay Collection for your Xbox One or Series X/S, or simply download it on Game Pass and play for free. If you’ve never played it, it’s time you do. If you have played it, why not see if you’ve still got it?

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