British developer Rare was on a major role back in 1999. With Goldeneye (1997) having revolutionised the games industry, the studio had also landed a big batch of subsequent hits like Banjo-Kazooie. But the pressure was from on gamers to deliver an FPS follow-up to the James Bond romp. Rare didn’t keep the license, but an ambitious successor in spirit emerged.
As you can imagine, there was a lot of hype for this project. When Perfect Dark was announced, gamers the world over lost it. But Perfect Dark did need to be bigger, better, and bolder than the era-defining Goldeneye.
And Rare went into full ambition mode. The result was, for the N64’s technology, a bit of a stretch. The finished product largely met with rave reviews, but it’s wasn’t the same universal sweep as with Goldeneye. This time niggling issues held it back – but it was still a fantastic game on release and, frankly, we didn’t notice the major frame rate issues until years down the line.
Freed from the shackles of the Bond license, Rare decided to up the ante on a creative level. The result is you star as Joanna Dark. She’s a secret agent type lady with a posh British accent.
The game is set in 2023 (and that seemed like a long way off when Perfect Dark launched in circa May 2000) to the backdrop of interstellar war between two alien races. On Earth, there’s also a big hoohah between two major rival companies. Dark’s mission is to maintain the peace… by shooting everybody!
Ambitious this project most certainly was. Rare wanted to include every feature imaginable in there, including an option to paste your face onto a character for the multiplayer mode – the Game Boy Camera was supposed to let you do it. But it’s one option Rare had to drop.
By shedding the Bond license, Rare went into full creativity mode. Perfect Dark consequently demonstrates a far wider selection of levels than its predecessor, with later missions taking place across various planets.
The sci-fi theme is furthered by the selection of weapons available. Many of these involve human inventions, plus alien weaponry you pick up. For the stages on Earth, there’s also a well recreated Blade Runner stylisation you can’t ignore.
As great as Perfect Dark was at the time, there’s something slightly odd about playing it today. Namely, the frame rate issues – by pushing the limits of the N64’s graphical grunt, the game was prone to some serious lag. At the time this didn’t ruin the experience, but it’s something Rare fixed in the Xbox 360 remake of the title.
But for us, this stands as one of the Nintendo 64‘s last great hurrahs. What we didn’t know at the time was Perfect Dark’s status as one of Rare’s last major contributions to Nintendo hardware. And it’s a grand way to go out – and typically Rare. Pushing the limits of the console to deliver an overly ambitious, but highly enjoyable FPS.
Since Rare’s heyday circa 2000, it’s since emerged all was not well with the developer during the production of Perfect Dark. Despite its success in becoming a globally recognisable name – and one of daunting creative ability – many key staff members were not at all happy.
Rare was set up by Chris and Tim Stamper in the early 1980s. The developer soon wowed Nintendo with its abilities and revolutionary approach to game design. The Stamper brothers even flew to Japan to demonstrate some of the titles they could offer the NES (previously, on the ZX Spectrum, the company had stunned the industry with games like Knight Lore – below).
Nintendo was so impressed it immediately made Rare a second developer. It even handed Rare the pick of some of the Japanese gaming giant’s lesser franchises. The Stamper brothers chose Donkey Kong, which went on to become Donkey Kong Country.
Great creative exploits followed, but the Stamper brother’s notoriously merciless working hours, and all-out push for perfection, didn’t lend itself well to hardworking staff members. By the Perfect Dark development around 1999, several key members handed in their notice.
Although Rare delivered the project regardless, key moments like defecting staff members (followed by the subsequent buyout from Microsoft in 2002) triggered off its demise towards lesser things.
The Stamper brothers soon left their business with much mystery surrounding that. And so we have what’s left of Rare in Twycross – it did, finally, release a major new IP in March 2018. Although looking like great fun, its mish-mash of average review scores sat alongside criticisms the game was properly finished (an all too common assessment these days for many AAA titles).
So, once again, it’s disappointing to see this once great developer plunge to the depths of releasing unfinished content, charging full price, and then fixing issues with a few patches at a later date. Ho-bloody-hum.