In 1995, the James Bond franchise was reeling. The producers hadn't made a movie in almost seven years, the biggest gap between any two Bond films. Their previous two entries — "License to Kill" and "The Living Daylights" — featuring Timothy Dalton as 007 had underwhelmed audiences and box offices alike. Furthermore, the Soviet Union had broken up, removing the villainous stakes of many of the movies.
MGM Studios reset the table. They hired Pierce Brosnan to replace Dalton as Bond and inserted Dame Judi Dench as the first female M, head of the M16 intelligence service. These changes were meant to reflect a more modern Bond and to provide commentary on how the character would evolve.
Additionally, MGM licensed the Bond rights for a videogame tie-in in hopes of boosting hype around the film. Japanese-based gaming giant, Nintendo, landed the rights and tasked one of their premiere game studios, Rare, to create it for their as yet unreleased console, the N64.
"(Rare) wanted to turn down Nintendo's offer to give them the game and to develop it. They were afraid that it wouldn't go very well because games made in response to movies or games that followed the plot of movies tended to be notoriously bad, and so they just didn't want to bother with it," Alyce Knorr said.
Knorr is the author of the Boss Fight Books entry "GoldenEye 007," which outlines the shaky start, unlikely success and ultimate legacy of one of N64's greatest videogames.
She told Wiconsin Public Radio's "BETA" that Rare thought so little of the opportunity, they turned the game creation over to a group of unseasoned developers.
"They were underdogs, and nobody really expected much out of them. They were just sort of giving them a project to cut their teeth on, and it ended up being one of the greatest first-person shooters of all time," Knorr said.
First-person shooter games or FPS had taken the PC gaming world by storm with games like Doom, but they were scarce on console gaming units like Nintendo, Sega and upstart Sony Playstation.
For project lead Martin Hollis, creating as real as a James Bond experience as possible for the player was priority number one.
"The game was sort of designed backwards in the sense that the team developed spaces and levels before they had developed objectives for the player to complete in those levels," said Knorr. "So, what you had was a bunch of random hallways and rooms and certain levels that you didn't really need to go down to get anything or do anything in the mission. But they were there just because it made the space feel more realistic."
To achieve this, Hollis and his team were granted access to the movie set while it was shooting. They took hundreds of digital photos and scanned them into their software.
"They went as a team into the film studio. They walked around the sets," said Knorr. "They sort of gawked at Pierce Brosnan walking through the canteen. So, they all got a kick out of that. And while they were on that trip to the studio, they took photos on a very early, very enormous digital camera, took those back to their studio campus at Rare and scanned them in. So, a lot of the textures in the game, like on the walls or the floor of the different level spaces, are literally photos from the film set."
A bubbling worry during the development was the N64 console itself was behind schedule. The team didn't actually know how it would function.
"When the team started developing the game, there was no N64 yet. So, for a lot of development, they had no idea what they were working toward in terms of the N64 hardware capabilities. They didn't know what the controller would look like. They didn't know how fast the graphics would run or how much storage space they would have for graphics. They were sort of just keeping getting updates from Nintendo on what aspirationally they were going to come up with, and then they adapted as they went," Knorr said.
When Rare finally received the specs of the N64 and its capabilities, they were blown away by one certain concept, the new controller. Knorr said that this new controller — the first to feature an analog stick — would help the team reinvent console gaming.
"The control stick where you can move your character around completely in three-dimensional space was really revolutionary at the time when games like Super Mario 64 or Mario Kart 64 came out," said Knorr.
"The GoldenEye development team was playing those games and saying, 'Wow, this is amazing. We should make a fully three-dimensional game,'" Knorr continued. "They had originally intended for the game to be on the rails where you're kind of directed through the game automatically. You don't get to move around freely. But once they saw what the N64 was capable of and how fun it was to move a character through 3D space, they were inspired to take the game off the rails and allow players to move the character all around the level and explore and get lost and sneak up on people and all of those fun things we love about the game."
Due to the many delays, GoldenEye 007 was released nearly two years behind schedule, just before the follow-up film to "GoldenEye," "Tomorrow Never Dies." Knorr said that at first, it was a "slow burn" in terms of public reaction given that Bond fandom had turned its attention to the new movie. She said a crafty marketing move with Blockbuster offering full refunds for unsatisfied customers helped people find GoldenEye 007's secret sauce — its multiplayer mode.
"It had one of the highest rental rates of a game at the time. So, people were renting it, falling in love with it, seeing how fun it was, the multiplayer especially, and then going out and buying it," Knorr said.
"So, it sold slowly and steadily and then it kind of caught on as a cult phenomenon. Everyone was playing at each other's houses. It was a real social game... It really became a cult classic for playing on your couch with your buddies, with the pizza and just kind of having a hilarious good time."
The irony of the game is that it became more popular than the movie. While Pierce Brosnan's Bond got the franchise back on track, GoldenEye 007 made more money and has the longer legacy in pop culture, according to Knorr.
"If you talk to a lot of gamers from this era, they'll tell you that they played the game before they ever saw the movie," she said. "The legacy of the Goldeneye game is that it brought first-person shooter gaming to an entire generation of gamers who were playing games only on consoles at the time. And for that reason, I see Goldeneye as the direct ancestor of Call of Duty, Halo, Fortnite, all these first-person shooters today. I think they owe Goldeneye their popularity and their success in some way."