When you develop a first-person shooter for a console that isn't expected to sell many copies but then becomes a colossal hit and redefines how the genre is treated on consoles, what do you do for an encore? That's the question asked of Rare's developers in the late 1990s after the company's GoldenEye 007 for the Nintendo 64 became one of the best games on the console and one that is still remembered and revered today for its multiplayer mode. The easy answer is to follow it up with a direct sequel and make Tomorrow Never Dies, but the better answer is to drop the James Bond license to create something original, refine the ideas that came about too late in the process to benefit GoldenEye, and push the limits of the console so hard that a hardware upgrade is required to make the most of the experience. Over at Nintendo Life, James Batchelor has the story behind Rare's Perfect Dark on the occasion of its twentieth anniversary.
The team didn’t want to abandon everything it had accomplished with GoldenEye 007, of course. For most of them, the James Bond shooter was the first game they had ever made. They had developed a brand new engine, so it made sense to build upon that and create a new title in the same vein, with similar gameplay and the same “weapon centricity,” as Hollis put it.
From the very beginning, Perfect Dark was planned as a spiritual successor to GoldenEye, with the aim to have the game finished within just one year. In theory, the main effort would go into building new levels that ran on the previous game’s tech. But the team’s ambition expanded throughout the course of the project, and many of GoldenEye’s systems were improved and overhauled.
“Perfect Dark was like the semi-sequel to GoldenEye, and it’s always difficult making a sequel,” recalls Mark Edmonds, who led development by the end. “Can you make it better than the first one? That should be easy, but generally, it isn’t. So everyone was in the mindset of ‘What can we do to make this better than GoldenEye?’ There were a lot of ideas for new features and everyone had thoughts about what could have gone into that game but didn’t.”
There's lots to unpack here including the creation of the game's protagonist, Joanna Dark, and how she fits into the storyline that aimed to surprise players with AI briefcases and an alien invasion. All of the action required the N64 Expansion Pak add-on to play anything besides the basic multiplayer mode. N64 development kits were equipped with more memory than retail N64 console, so it was very easy for the development team to pack in too many things that worked fine on the development kit but wouldn't work on a home console. The Expansion Pak solved that problem.
The issue, Edmonds says, was the N64 developer kits had more memory than the home models, which made it all too easy to add in more features. The challenge of bringing the game’s size down to something that would fit in a single cartridge and run on a standard console became impossible, so he was relieved to see both the Donkey Kong and Zelda teams using the expansion. “It happened to be around the same sort of time we found we didn’t have enough memory either,” he recalls. “So we were lucky because if they weren’t doing that, we would have been stuck.”
Chesluk adds: “We did a load of work trying to get it down, spent a few months on it, but the best we could manage was the version you got without the Expansion Pak, where it’s a bit of multiplayer but it’s more of a taster. There was talk of bundling with the Expansion Pak at one point, but Donkey Kong 64 had already done that – although I’m not sure how much demographic crossover there was between people buying both Donkey Kong and Perfect Dark.”
I was a GoldenEye fan, although I'd only rented it a few times throughout my high school years, and by 2000 I was in college and was drifting away from video games for a while. I had Donkey Kong 64 which came packed with the Expansion Pak, so I had everything I needed to play the game, and although I rented it a time or two, I never felt the need to buy it. GoldenEye felt revolutionary in 1997, but Perfect Dark in 2000 felt outdated even with that Expansion Pak boost. I figured I'd pass on this first installment and try again with the inevitable GameCube sequel, and we all know how that went instead. I should revisit Perfect Dark sometime and give it a fair shake on its own merits. It's one of those games that I may not have liked, but I definitely respect.