Originally released in mid-2000, Perfect Dark arrived as I was staggering forth from my freshman year of college. I picked it up because, back in high school, we played GoldenEye until the sun came up. I never grew to worship Perfect Dark as I had Rare's acclaimed Bond shooter, but my memory recalls it as a "slightly superior" game (if not as personally beloved). As one of the more prominent entries on my "I woulda, coulda, shoulda played it more" list, I've been looking forward to this reunion -- a chance to get to know Perfect Dark better.
Nearing a decade after its original release, Perfect Dark shows its age, and anyone lacking at least some understanding of its place among the contemporaries of its day (check out Wikipedia for a quick take) -- let alone anyone lacking a nostalgic connection to the game -- might demo the XBLA release and promptly delete it. I'll admit that, as determined as I was to "learn" from this re-release, I was close to giving up within a few minutes -- tempered only by a grin-inducing multiplayer match on the included GoldenEye Complex map with "classic" pistols.
With an open mind and some patience, there's a lot to enjoy about the Perfect Dark remaster. For one, it's just that: "enjoyable," which isn't necessarily the case for the original game today, even if you've got the hardware packed away. For comparison, I dug out the Perfect Dark game cartridge and my N64, with Expansion Pak (thankfully) still slotted, from a bin in the attic and hooked it up to my high-def TV. It was nauseating.
4J's XBLA port so vividly "re-images" Perfect Dark exactly how you might imagine it -- in un-stuttering 60 frames per second, I should add. Our memory has its way of up-ressing our past experiences, and 4J's project exploits our willingness to remember Perfect Dark perhaps not so clearly as it was. In its new incarnation, however, Perfect Dark still sticks out among modern games. It's a landmark, remember? And though remodeled, the architecture is distinctly turn-of-the-century.
For one, there's a playfulness about the game that presents itself in stark contrast to the seriousness inherent in the big-budget bravado epics that rule today's market (as corny as those games sometimes turn out). While any "alien" conspiracy story exposes itself to bouts of comedy, Perfect Dark is rife with quips and giggles, recalling a time when games weren't so bogged down in the pressure to qualify as high art.
You see, Perfect Dark is artful without having to take itself too seriously. By design, it's a humbling perfection of "golden age" gameplay, forcing trial-and-error–forged mastery, quick reflexes and a high score element in its built-in speed run support (which quite easily transitions to online leaderboards in the XBLA version). The "open" levels stand against the linear designs of DOOM-era FPSs, but today, without a blinking arrow navigating you to your next objective, the gameplay can feel aimless. There are many traps -- those "oops! wrong door" shootouts -- and each level has an "invisible" path carved through it, which must be mentally mapped, memorized and sprinted through in order to clear certain time challenges.
The game controls are better suited to the Xbox 360 gamepad, I found, as compared to an N64 controller and its single analog-stick (sure, back then, you could use two controllers) -- plus there are button layouts in the new version that mimic Call of Duty and Halo controls (but, remember, there's no jumping). With auto-aim off, face-shots are still challenging, but ever so darkly delightful when executed. Enemies are slightly more lifelike with high-res faces (can you spot Peter Molyneux?), but the comically exaggerated animations and spectacular death cries help to maintain the childlike expression of violence.
Perfect Dark also reminds us why Microsoft spent all that money on its acquisition of Rare (even if the game's "spirit" transferred more fully into the TimeSplitters series, developed by Rare defectors). Perfect Dark is perhaps the best evidence to suggest that Rare didn't "fall off," but rather games, and specifically shooters, have steadily moved toward "mature" themes in the past decade, while Rare has remained dedicated to playfulness; now focused on outright kids games. Gameplay difficulty aside, it's hard to see a game as innocent as Perfect Dark truly deserving of its M-rating.
Perhaps, then, it's fitting to conclude by touching on Perfect Dark's multiplayer, which, as the successor to GoldenEye, inspired a generation of console designers and gamers to continue to evolve and compete in the adult-like "sport" of multiplayer gaming. You'll no doubt need a few Simulant-populated rounds of local practice, but, Perfect Dark multiplayer, which includes 3 GoldenEye maps and its weapons, is for the first time available to a thriving online community. Ten bucks says I'll own you in the Complex.
Editor's note: This review is based on access to the Xbox Live Arcade version of Perfect Dark provided by Microsoft. Online gameplay modes were not player-populated enough to be thoroughly evaluated.