GoldenEye 007: Broken Legacy
In 1997, Nintendo released a movie tie-in video game two years late. It was a first-person shooter, which was then a genre dominated by gorey, adult titles like Doom and Duke Nukem, released on the family-friendly Nintendo 64. And consoles were the wrong platform to begin with – major FPS’s debuted almost exclusively on PC, the savage den of the teenage and early-20s male demographic who had carried the genre to prominence. This popularity was in no small part owed to the PC multiplayer LAN function, which allowed gamers to blast away their friends. But online functionality was still years away from becoming a mainstream function of consoles. In short, everything about this title was wrong, and there was no reason for it to succeed beyond the name recognition the James Bond name promised, save one: it was developed by Rare.
Today, GoldenEye 007 is fondly remembered as one of the greatest video games of all time. More than 15 years after its release, Jimmy Fallon played a round with GoldenEye film star Pierce Brosnan. It was the third best-selling Nintendo 64 game of the console’s run. In 1997, in terms of sales, it stood shoulder-to-shoulder with such earth-shattering franchise-starters as Metal Gear Solid, Tomb Raider, and Gran Turismo. All of which are still around today, begging the question: what happened to the GoldenEye 007 franchise?
The dramatic fracturing of the elements that had come together to create GoldenEye 007 is a story that could have come from a Game of Thrones episode. And, much like the Stark clan, the different parties all saw their bold plans cut tragically short.
With the incredible success of GoldenEye, that giant Sauron-eye of gaming, Electronic Arts, turned its fiery gaze onto the James Bond video game license. Before 1997, the Bond name had been unremarkable in the video game world. Since the first Bond game in 1983 (simply titled James Bond 007), the brand that was such a giant in popular film and literature had a spattering of forgettable game titles. But with GoldenEye 007 Nintendo had found a coin block that rang over 8 million times, and suddenly EA had its own not-so-secret mission: acquire the hell out of that cash cow.
EA easily outbid GoldenEye 007 developer Rare for the rights to the adaptation to the next Bond movie and in late 1999, released 007: Tomorrow Never Dies. Like GoldenEye 007, it tailed the movie it was modeled on by two years and featured James Bond as the main character, and the similarities end there. EA chose to drop the FPS aspect GoldenEye was famous for, as well as the multiplayer mode everyone adored, and would have dropped the plot the game was supposed to be based on if focus groups hadn’t changed their minds. What was left was an underwhelming third-person action game which, although it sold decently enough at the time, was spurned by critics. It currently sits at 62% on the aggregate review site GameRankings. But hey, at least the plot matched the movie’s.
EA quickly reversed course, and with their next release, 007: The World Is Not Enough, they made a frantic return to FPS. Still, the game was wanting. The PlayStation version was received only slightly less bitterly than its predecessor, and the N64 game (which was developed in parallel) today hangs on to a B grade by its fingernails.
At this point EA gave up on trying to follow the movies altogether and started producing Bond games with original stories, giving their developers more freedom to try new things with the Bond franchise. But the phantom of GoldenEye still lingered, and near what would be the end of their time with the Bond game license EA got very frank about what they wanted from a Bond: GoldenEye 2. The game would be released in 2004 as GoldenEye: Rogue Agent, and would draw heavily on the Bond lore. Though not quite the last EA Bond game, it was the most forward in its goal in recreating the classic GoldenEye feel. So perhaps it stung more than others when it garnered reviews hovering around 60%. In any case, EA finally decided it was time to live and let die and dropped the Bond license soon after.
The Game Developer Who Loved Me
Rare had been founded by “the most experienced arcade video game design team in Britain,” brothers Tim and Chris Stamper, in 1985. Over the years they’d created large quantity of games with no real standouts save the fondly-remembered Battletoads beat-em-up series. In 1994, after years of working with Rare, Nintendo bought a commanding stake in the company. This lead to the Donkey Kong Country series which revitalized the Donkey Kong character (who, with the exception of a Game Boy title mirroring the original arcade gameplay released earlier that year, had been in retirement for a decade). It’s pretty impressive to have spawned not just one, but three popular gaming franchises. But after the success of GoldenEye 007, Rare had a problem. They no longer had access to the James Bond license, having been handily outbid by Electronic Arts. For a game development company of this caliber, there was only one solution: a fourth major gaming franchise.
It was an ambitious idea. Rare would take all the gameplay elements which had made GoldenEye 007 such an incredible experience, improve them, and create an all-new setting (and intellectual property) for the game to take place in. The result was Perfect Dark, the truest sequel GoldenEye 007 ever had. Gameplay was expanded, bots were added to multiplayer, and the game had an assortment of improvements to presentation – including voice acting and improved graphics. The game may have been a bastard son, not carrying the name of its predecessor, but it was a worthy heir to 007 in quality if not in title. Although the story retained nothing specific from the Bond universe, many aspects were similar: a secret agent with an itchy trigger finger, a well-funded and shadowy organization backing them, and a villainous plot crying out to be thwarted. With Perfect Dark‘s success, the main character, Joanna Dark, seemed poised to become the biggest heroine in gaming since Lara Croft.
With development costs for games rising, Rare was looking for a large company to buy them outright. But longtime partner Nintendo showed no interest. Enter Microsoft and a check for $375 million, and in 2002 Rare made the move few saw coming: hot off the success of its last Nintendo console game Star Fox Adventures, Rare ended a ten-year partnership with Nintendo and jumped ship to Microsoft.
Although the Stamper brothers have had only (blandly) nice things to say about Microsoft from then until today, the downturn in the quality of output at Rare was immediate. Its first XBox title, Grabbed by the Ghoulies, was a flop. And although Rare had always maintained a respectable output of competent lesser titles as well as more revolutionary games, now they struggled to produce the stellar titles they had become known for. Conker: Live and Reloaded and Xbox 360 launch title Kameo: Elements of Power both had middling sales and mostly unimpressed reviews (although Conker definitely had his fans).
Not even a grandchild of GoldenEye 007 could turn things around. When the Perfect Dark sequel was released as an Xbox 360 launch title, it garnered mainly about the same kind of barely above-average reviews as that other GoldenEye grandchild, EA’s 007: The World Is Not Enough. Especially when paired with an immense marketing effort from Microsoft, the game was a huge letdown for fans of the original. GameTrailers even listed the title as one of their “Top 10 Disappointments of the Decade.”The Perfect Dark franchise, but for the odd official novel, has laid dormant ever since.
The Man With The Golden Keyboard
The development of the original Perfect Dark had been a stressful period for many of Rare’s staff. By 1999, halfway through Perfect Dark‘s development, many key members of the original GoldenEye 007 development team had exited. But despite having left the fold at Rare, one man was not yet ready to give up on his own ideas of a proper GoldenEye successor. He would found his own game developer, Free Radical Design, and its first game would be one that would build on GoldenEye‘s famous split-screen competitive multiplayer. His name was David Doak, and if that last name sounds familiar, it should be.
(Source: Giant Bomb)
Free Radical Design’s first game, TimeSplitters, was released in 2000 for the PlayStation 2. Doak and his team sought to recreate the fun living room multiplayer of GoldenEye 007. It succeeded – to an extent. Although reviews praised the multiplayer with its map editor and Multitap functionality, the game’s scores suffered on account of its insubstantial single player mode. Unlike the engaging sci-fi thriller plot of Perfect Dark, the narrative of TimeSplitters was Goldenbooks-level sparse. You got the thing and then you went to the place; evil time monsters would try to kill you along the way. Only by its diverse settings (the game featured levels based throughout time, from 1935 through to the near future) did the game likely avoid more negative reviews.
But Free Radical Design corrected the game’s story deficiencies and two years later released a sequel, TimeSplitters 2. The game featured a stronger plot with an even beefier multiplayer, and became the high water mark of the short-lived TimeSplitters series. In fact, it is second only to Perfect Dark in terms of critical response, hovering around a 90% aggregated score for all its console iterations.
Unfortunately, Doak’s effort to continue GoldenEye‘s strong local multiplayer had already reached their nadir, just a few short years after the founding of Free Radical. The third TimeSplitters entry, TimeSplitters: Future Perfect, while slipping only slightly in reviews, was a very poor seller. When LucasArts pulled the plug on Star Wars Battlefront III in 2008, flushing two years of work on Free Radical’s part down the drain, the company went into administration (the UK’s term for bankruptcy in the case of a company). The TimeSplitters property has languished ever since.
They Only Live Twice
So the disparate lineages of GoldenEye may have frayed and ended, but what of the people who worked on those games, the connected companies and corporations? Where are they now?
After Electronic Arts dropped the James Bond license, it was Activision who picked it up. But they never bothered to run it very far. The Bond games under Activision were marked by a surprising lack of ambition. Activision jumped from developer to developer, pushing uninspired product such as a straightforward movie tie-in game for Quantum of Solace and a couple (!) remakes of GoldenEye. Seeing little return for their insubstantial investment, Activision announced in 2013 they would be moving away from licensed properties.
The James Bond video game license currently appears to be in limbo.
In 2007, five years after Rare’s sale to Microsoft, Tim and Chris Stamper left the company they founded. Since then they’ve lived a life outside of the public eye, retired from the industry they contributed so much to. In 2013, Tim and his son Joe founded a new company, FortuneFish, reputedly aiming to break into the mobile game market.
Rare, with the exception of the innovative Viva Piñata, continues to struggle in mediocrity. Several former employees have come out and blamed Microsoft’s corporate structure for the change in quality, while others have defended the corporation as being supportive. There have been no new Perfect Dark games since Perfect Dark Zero ten years ago, and neither company has announced any concrete plans to create another installment.
After Free Radical Design went into administration in 2008, it was purchased early the next year by German game developer Crytek and rechristened Crytek UK. For a time, the company continued to do what it had been set up to do – work on FPS multiplayer, specifically for Crytek’s Crysis series. But by 2014 Crytek was in financial crisis and had stopped paying wages. Crytek UK’s project, a sequel to Homefront, was sold to German games publisher Deep Silver, and the Crytek UK employees themselves transferred and remade into Dambuster Studios under the new publisher to continue work on the game. While still under the Crytek UK name, the group handed over various TimeSplitters software assets over to a hardcore modding group interested in putting together a pseudo-sequel, TimeSplitters Rewind. However, as all the work is being done by volunteers, progress has been slow. Nearly four years after the beginning of the project, there is still no stated release date for the game.
David Doak left Free Radical Design around the time of its purchase by Crytek. He again set up his own studio, Zinkyzonk, this time with the humbler goal of producing games for Facebook. Though the studio released a game titled Gangsta Zombies in 2010 which was backed by a GameStop promotion, it has apparently not been a success – Zinkyzonk closed its doors in 2013.