‘GoldenEye 007’: James Bond’s Golden Game Turns 25

When cameras first rolled on Pierce Brosnan’s James Bond film debut GoldenEye on 16 January 1995, little did people imagine that this film would save the franchise at a time when many doubted Ian Fleming’s spy would survive the 1990s. But they were even less aware that, at that precise moment, the foundation stone was cast for a video game that would revolutionize the industry in unexpected ways.
Twenty-five years after its release, GoldenEye 007 is still regarded not only as the best Bond video game of them all but as one of the best video games ever made. This was a huge compensation considering that the game was made by a group of people who had barely worked in the video game industry (some had no experience at all) and that subsequent delays resulted in a release nearly two years ahead of the premiere of the film on which the game was based.  
Development of this product began as early as the film started production, in January 1995. No big deal was made at the time; a deal was signed between the Japanese video game company Nintendo and Danjaq, the holding company representing the rights of the big screen version of 007, to produce an interactive adventure based on the next Bond film.
Throughout the 1990s, video game adaptations of hit films were just another marketing strategy and most of them did not have a good reception, given all the limitations of dealing with a licence. This GoldenEye game would be just another product, like the Corgi die-cast replicas of the BMW Z3 or the plastic Walther PPKs firing caps. Little did they know this would be the most celebrated piece of merchandise attached to the secret agent in the next quarter of a century.
Developers working at Rare, the Twycross-based game company in charge of the project directed by Martin Hollis, visited the many sets of the film designed by Peter Lamont inside the vast abandoned airfield that would soon become Leavesden Studios. They were given access to the blueprints of each set, they took reference photos of the costumes worn by each character and artist B Jones used production stills of actors Pierce Brosnan, Sean Bean, Izabella Scorupco and Famke Janssen to create their polygonal 3D models. Limitations of hardware prevented the use of voice recordings, so the dialogues were presented on a black box on top of the screen.
While initially the product was meant as a driving game for the short-lived Virtual Boy console and a 2D version for the Super Nintendo system was planned, the project was then delayed to become one of the launch titles of the Nintendo 64 console in June 1996. This way, the game evolved into a 3D “on-rails” shooter in the style of Sega’s popular Virtua Cop arcade: a camera would zoom into enemies trying to get a shot at the player and take you to different areas to accomplish several objectives.
Even at this stage, innovative ideas were proposed: guards taking cover and triggering alarms, different kinds of weapons, Oscar-worthy death animation for enemies and bullet holes remaining in the walls. Sound also played an important role, as this time the loudness of weapons mattered: shooting a couple of enemies with a silenced PP7 (an in-game variant of the Walther PPK) would allow the player to move stealthily through an environment, but using a more powerful weapon like the KF7 Soviet (the fictional version of the AK-47) would attract reinforcements and complicate the progress of the player.
Ken Lobb, a Nintendo of America representative joining the team, suggested the team should drop the on-rails style in favour of a first-person shooter. This genre offered every level seen from the viewpoint of the protagonist (in this case, Bond) and allowed freedom of movement: the player could move forward, backward, to the sides and explore the level freely without having to follow a determinate route. Hollis was sceptical at first since first-person shooters back in the day were more popular for PC than consoles. However, when the first footage of the game was shown at the Shoshinkai exhibition in Japan on 24 November 1995 (just as GoldenEye went on general release in the United Kingdom), attendants saw the game as a first-person shooter. And so, the project director was convinced that they should take this kind of approach as risky as it may look. This change would lead to one of the best-remembered aspects of the title.
Unlike most video games of the time, GoldenEye 007 would have areas and paths that took the player to nowhere but allowed him to explore the maps designed by Karl Hilton and Duncan Botwood. Naturally, there was a route to the goal, and the key to that locked door was either on a desk of an office or held by a guard, who dropped it after dying in a confrontation. Instead of moving to a point to another shooting everything coming across to you, GoldenEye 007 required the player to complete a list of objectives before reaching the goal if you wanted to move on to the next mission: destroying the wrong computer, killing the wrong person, forgetting to photograph evidence would have grave consequences for the player. This idea was taken from Nintendo 64’s launch title, Super Mario 64. Unfortunately, all these additions caused yet another delay of the title and Rare missed the chance to tie the game’s release to the home video launch of GoldenEye in May 1996.
Most of the 18 levels of the game were straightly adapted from moments seen in the 1995 film: the first mission had Bond walking through the dam and bungee-jumping and it all ended with a shootout between 007 and 006 on the radio transmitter cradle in Cuba. Some situations were expanded to offer a more complete experience: the player had to evade guards and perform a series of activities before taking that breathtaking leap off the dam, contact a double agent disguised as a scientist to get to a room to meet 006 in the Arkhangel facility and rescue some hostages as Xenia Onatopp tries to steal the Tiger helicopter (renamed “Pirate” in this version). Other levels were more original: at one point, Bond had to blow up a missile silo in Kirghizstan which served as a cover to launch the GoldenEye satellite; or he had to escape from a cell inside the Severnaya installation using a variant of Live And Let Die’s magnetic watch, meeting and rescuing Natalya Simonova in the process.
Two bonus levels were rewarded to the player whenever he completed the game in the two biggest difficulties, named Aztec and Egyptian. As most of the members of the team were Bond fans, these missions were based on older 007 adventures: Aztec placed Bond on a shuttle launch platform inside the ruins of Teotihuacán, and he had to reprogram one of Drax’s shuttles battling those yellow-attired guards with laser weapons and the (almost) indestructible Jaws; in Egyptian, Baron Samedi challenged Bond to recover Francisco Scaramanga’s Golden Gun, guarded by him in an ancient temple in the fictional region of el-Saghira.
The team’s love for the classic Bond was the cause of many references to the series, such as a sniper rifle that looks very much like the Walther WA2000 used by Timothy Dalton in The Living Daylights and a camera with a “007” engraved reminiscent of the one Bond uses in Moonraker. But the biggest homage came in the Multiplayer mode, where players could pick Jaws, Baron Samedi, Oddjob and May Day for a “deathmatch” confrontation.
The game’s successful multiplayer mode, which was created only weeks before the launch of the game, had an even bigger homage to the pre-Brosnan days: Sean Connery, Roger Moore and Timothy Dalton were modelled as characters and could be chosen for authentic “Battle of the Bonds”. Huge detail was infused into this aspect as well, with the actors’ faces again scanned from publicity photos and screen captures, and the tuxedoes adapted from their distinguished fashion styles: Connery wore the ivory dinner jacket and red carnation, Moore wore a black double-breasted tuxedo and Dalton had his tuxedo unbuttoned. Regrettably, this idea came as the developers thought they had free access to the entire Bond universe and ignored the individual rights of the actors involved, so this “All Bonds” option was disabled in the final product.
GoldenEye 007 was released in North America on August 25, 1997, and it was an instant hit, praised by critics and gamers alike with top marks. With each passing year, the title sold more and more copies and it became the third best-selling Nintendo 64 game, totalling around eight million copies sold when the console was discontinued in 2002. Its impact was so huge that game studios felt more confident in releasing first-person shooters for consoles and based on real-life situations after most of them generally put the player in a fantasy context with monsters or aliens. The game was an introduction for many to the world of James Bond and its impact not only prompted new fans to rent or buy the 1995 film but to explore the earlier chapters of the franchise and get interested in the following Pierce Brosnan adventures as they hit cinemas.

Not everyone, however, was too pleased with the outcome: it is understood that after EON Productions and Danjaq knew of GoldenEye 007’s popularity and discovered the amount of violence and blood the game had, they established bigger restrictions for the Bond titles then released by Electronic Arts and Activision, film adaptations or original stories such as 007 Nightfire, 007 Everything or Nothing and Blood Stone.
This would mean that the player would be encouraged to take a stealthier path than shooting his gun around, and being detected would mean the immediate failure of the mission in many cases. Ironically, the impact of the Nintendo 64’s golden cartridge was so overwhelming that GoldenEye 007 is the product every new Bond game was compared to, particularly those who were first-person shooters and the aforementioned changes by the holders of the licence, who favour a tighter approach instead of the “free world” style of the 1997 title, weren’t well appreciated by the community.
Another proof of GoldenEye 007’s success is that both Electronic Arts and Activision tried to take a shot at the game’s popularity in the past 25 years: in 2004, EA released GoldenEye: Rogue Agent, a spin-off story where the player would not be Bond but a brutal recruit dismissed by MI6 and joining Auric Goldfinger’s in a gang-battle the man who loves only gold is having with Dr Julius No, all set in a pseudo-futuristic world. Despite having Christopher Lee giving his voice for Scaramanga, Judi Dench providing the voice for M and Ken Adam recreating much of his classic sets, the title was instantly seen as a way to cash in with the name of GoldenEye while providing a radically different style of game, turning out to be a critical and commercial failure.
Much more successful was Activision’s 2010 reimagining of GoldenEye 007 for Nintendo Wii, starring Daniel Craig as James Bond. Bruce Feirstein readapted the script of the 1995 film, setting it in the current times and thus eliminating all references to World War II and the Soviet Union and making “the bankers and their bonuses” Janus’ revenge motivation. This game sold well and many critics praised it, but many agreed that this product could not even reach the heels of the Nintendo 64 game. The playability was exaggeratedly similar to the Call of Duty franchise, and the new versions of well-remembered characters like Alec Trevelyan, Xenia Onatopp and General Ourumov only reminded us why Sean Bean, Famke Janssen and Gottfried John could never be replaced in any form.
The ever-lasting legacy of the original GoldenEye 007 and the frustration of fans on the way each new Bond game was handled took them to try to make freeware adaptations of the 1997 game using new technologies, improving some of the limitations of the original and giving a better look to the cardboard-looking maps of the N64 title. Some of these fan attempts were asked to “cease and desist” by the Bond copyright holders, others could release them by changing characters' names and all references to the 1995 film staying with assets not involving the Bond licence. GoldenEye: Source, a conversion of the popular Half-Life 2 shooter for PC into the multiplayer mode of the N64 game, remains active since its general release in 2010.
In February 2021, when a high-definition version of the Nintendo 64 game for the Xbox Live Arcade system set to be released in 2007 was leaked into the internet, that was a great day for a generation. This “port” -the way a video game is called when is adapted from one console to another- was originally planned for a 2007 release, and cancelled when negotiations between the involved corporations fell. The game file, leaked by an individual known as “Fyodorovna” (Natalya’s middle name in the film), still had a couple of bugs and things that needed to be fixed, but it was still fully playable and millions of gamers and Bond fans could relive the beloved icon in better image quality. Needless to say, many experts in 3D modelling have already found ways to fix all those bugs, offering an almost-perfect version of this title around the web.
In September 2022, rumours regarding a new release of the game were confirmed as Nintendo and Rare announced the return of GoldenEye 007 for Nintendo Switch and Xbox Game Pass set for 2023. The Switch version offers online multiplayer, while the Xbox variant will keep the traditional split-screen multiplayer only but the game will have high-definition graphics. Will the world be enough for this generation growing up with GoldenEye? Probably not, since many gamers have already pointed out that this new official version –unlike the leaked XBLA port– does little to improve the experience of what we can enjoy with an N64 emulator. Still, for those who grew up with this game, its source film or Pierce Brosnan’s James Bond, it’s always a pleasure to see the hype and appreciation for this gem renewed in some form.
-Nicolás Suszczyk
Nicolás Suszczyk is a freelance writer born and living in Argentina who became a James Bond fan aged 7, shortly after watching GoldenEye on its cable TV premiere in early 1998. His most recent book, The Golden Games of Bond: A Total Summary and Analysis of the GoldenEye Legacy is now available on Amazon.  


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