How GoldenEye inspired a video game classic

Pierce Brosnan’s first Bond film began a new era for the franchise, but it was also the launch pad for Nintendo 64’s GoldenEye 007, a revolutionary movie-to-game spin-off. Simon Bland talks to the game’s director Martin Hollis and its writer David Doak

Monday 16 November 2020 16:12 GMT
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‘GoldenEye’ influenced a video game that ‘broke the mould’ by allowing players to run free in the world of James Bond
‘GoldenEye’ influenced a video game that ‘broke the mould’ by allowing players to run free in the world of James Bond (Rex Features)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas

Editor

It was 25 years ago this week when audiences first saw Pierce Brosnan’s now-iconic dam dive during GoldenEye’s action-packed opener; a single shot that plunged James Bond back into the public consciousness. It’d been six long years since Timothy Dalton hung up his tux in 1989’s Licence to Kill and the franchise was in dire need of a boost. With director Martin Campbell’s 1995 series re-invigorator, that’s exactly what it got – with Brosnan delivering a suave swagger that acted as a shot in the arm to England’s most iconic spy. However, despite it being a resounding success, audiences would still have two years to wait before videogame director Martin Hollis – then a developer at Leicestershire games company Rare – would break the long-standing track record of poor movie-to-game adaptations and release Nintendo 64’s pixellated tie-in, forever changing the playing habits of gamers across the globe.

Originally conceived as a SNES side-scroller, Rare’s game broke the mould by removing players from predetermined rails which guided them through levels and instead gave them free rein of Bond’s world. Inside a variety of movie-inspired levels, gamers could shoot, strafe and slap their way through a series of bullet-spewing missions, frantically twiddling the N64’s primitive joystick in a single-player experience that rewarded sneaky espionage tactics and repeat visits. However, it was the game’s very-nearly-ditched split-screen multiplayer that really elevated things. From racing to get the golden gun and edge-of-the-sofa death matches, to heated debates on whether playing as the vertically challenged Oddjob was cheating, GoldenEye 007 arrived during a pre-internet sweet spot where communal gaming was in its innocence, and proceeded to embed itself into the nostalgic psyche of a generation.

“I was fairly new and had only worked on the Killer Instinct coin-op,” says Hollis, recalling how he stumbled onto the project at just 24. “I wasn’t really aware of the prejudice people had about game versions of films. People looked on them as something that couldn’t possibly be good. Thankfully, we saw it as an opportunity to bring something we loved to a different place,” he tells us. “I’d heard a rumour this licence had been offered to Rare and the team who picked up interest had turned it down. I was a big Bond fan, so I went to the managing director and said, ‘How about I do this game?’” Despite going on to sell more than 8 million units worldwide, expectation for what Hollis and his team could actually deliver was low – yet he remained optimistic. “There hadn’t been a Bond film for a good while. The film franchise had fallen fallow, so everybody was in some doubt as to what GoldenEye would be like and whether it’d be a good film. We saw the screenplay and thought it was great. I was willing to bank on that.”

Gathering a team of green-behind-the-ears developers (many of whom had no experience working on a feature game) Hollis began bringing his Bond vision to life. “My initial design document was short and ambiguous about exactly how the controls would work. That was necessary because Nintendo probably hadn’t decided – and certainly hadn’t told Rare – what the controller was going to be,” he reveals, explaining how he planned the game without access to the as-yet-unreleased Nintendo 64 console. “In the initial stages we took a very simple gameplay approach of not having control of your movements, but later ambition took over. What we really wanted was to have it so you could steer Bond around and actually have a choice about which missions and objectives you took on board.”

As Hollis’s goals grew, his final deadline got pushed further and further away. Hitting shelves on August 25 1997, GoldenEye 007 was released closer to Brosnan’s Bond follow-up Tomorrow Never Dies than the movie it was actually based on. “Our ambitions were really what led to the long development time. We missed the launch of the film and were getting towards the launch of the next Bond film,” he laughs, “but luckily it all came good in the end.” The game’s writer David Doak recalls the freedom of working on something they all believed in: “Nobody expected much from us so there wasn’t the pressure to deliver. As long as you were getting somewhere, you were left alone. There was certainly no gatekeeping; we were just trusted. Looking back, it was amazing,” he grins. “That’s where all the fun and surprise is. As games get bigger, people’s ownership and investment goes down. No one would’ve looked at themselves as being the most important contributor – but collectively we were just getting stuff done.”

Nintendo made the game’s creators ‘change’ gun names featured in the film series
Nintendo made the game’s creators ‘change’ gun names featured in the film series (Nintendo/Rare)

In addition to visiting GoldenEye’s Leavesden set (“We ended up going six or seven times to make sure we had a clear idea of set details,” remembers Hollis), the Bond licence they had to work with allowed them to bring Bond to life like never before. “We were incredibly lucky with the licence Nintendo signed. They didn’t stint and paid for everything you could possibly wish for,” admits Hollis. “At one point, Howard Lincoln visited Rare and said, ‘You won’t believe how much we had to pay to get the music, so make sure you really use the theme tune’ – we really banged that out,” he chuckles, recalling a visit from the US lawyer responsible for brokering the deal. “We were told we should use anything: any character or piece of hardware from any of the films. It was a dream licence and we didn’t really realise that at the time.” Doak was similarly surprised: “I think the breadth of the licence is indicative of how much expectation they had,” he laughs. “It was a Bond universe licence instead of a GoldenEye licence. We were all massive Bond fans, so we cherry-picked all the things we wanted to put in.”

Despite having a licence to thrill, one thing was sadly off-limits. “A no-brainer was to have all the Bonds – or four Bonds,” says Doak, discussing the team’s original plan to feature Sean Connery, Roger Moore and Timothy Dalton as playable characters alongside Brosnan in the game’s much-loved multiplayer mode. “We rebuilt the levels and added them all into the multiplayer. You could find out who’s the best Bond and play with your friends.” Sadly, a visit from the company’s lawyers confirmed that it wasn’t meant to be: “They saw the Bond stuff and weren’t so effusive about it,” remembers Doak. “We were asked to take out the four Bond mode with Sean Connery,” says Hollis glumly. “I think they were worried about him getting litigious.”

Pierce Brosnan as Bond in 1995’s ‘GoldenEye’
Pierce Brosnan as Bond in 1995’s ‘GoldenEye’ (Rex Features)

Gun names also had to be tweaked: “James Bond films famously mention the Walther PPK so obviously we mentioned all the gun names – and they were real guns. Unfortunately, for legal reasons, Nintendo insisted we change them,” continues Hollis, before detailing the fun work-around they concocted for re-naming Bond’s extensive array of weaponry. “We basically went around the team asking people: ‘OK, you can have one gun with your name. What gun would you like it to be?’ People’s initials made their way into the names of guns. Ken Lobb who was our Nintendo producer got most of his full name in as the Klobb,” he chuckles. “It’s a great sounding name for a gun.”

While Nintendo was generally receptive to the game’s creative choices, they did have a few notes when it came to the nitty gritty of Bond’s missions. “They got upset when they realised it was a reasonably violent game – which somehow came as a surprise to them,” says Doak with a grin. “The game was two things,” adds Hollis. “It was James Bond – and that involves violence – and at the same time it was a Nintendo game, and that implies a certain amount of family friendliness. We realised we couldn’t be as violent as the Bond films. We did have animations of gore – things like blood and exploding brains – but it was easy for us to edit that out. It wasn’t very James Bond.”

The game’s multiplayer mode was a favourite among players
The game’s multiplayer mode was a favourite among players (Nintendo/Rare)

While gore was out, silly cheat codes were added in, with new playing styles like paintball and big head modes further adding to the game’s playability. “I thought of other games that I’d really enjoyed that had little bells and whistles that gave me a great deal of satisfaction and brought me back again and again,” reveals Hollis. “We had it so the game would reward you with these cute little bits and pieces. The Bond franchise has two parts: a seriousness and a kind of kitsch sensibility,” he reasons. “The cheats brought the game more to that side of things and said to players that the silliness was OK. It’s OK just to have a laugh and a good time.”

Guns, cheats and extra Bonds aside, it was GoldenEye 007’s revolutionary multiplayer mode that perhaps had the biggest impact on player’s lives. A last-minute addition, its highly addictive gameplay birthed friendships, forged deep-rooted grudges, helped settle bets and ruined school grades due to excessive late-night death-match marathons. “For me, it was really selfishness and something I wanted to be in there,” says Hollis on the decision to add it in at the eleventh hour. “I knew it’d be amazing, and I didn’t really think about the deadline. I just felt really strongly that it should be in there because I knew it’d be cool.”

Doak is convinced it’s a key part of the game’s iconic status: “It was an open secret that we were secretly working on it. I think the game would’ve been remembered fondly – but it wouldn’t have the legacy it has without the multiplayer. It was transformative at the time,” he suggests. “For a number of people, it’s their childhood memory, it’s their student days memory – it’s a thing that enabled a lot of great social points. Knowing I was part of the team that made something that went out into the world and made a lot of people really happy is great.” Hollis also has a strong sense of just how important the game was to players: “People come up to me and say, ‘Martin, it’s a pleasure to meet you – I got a 2.1 because of you,’” laughs the director, recalling encounters with players whose addiction cost them a First at university. “The other thing they say is: ‘Is it cheating to use Oddjob?’ And I say, ‘Yes – of course it’s cheating!’ One guy asked me to write down on a piece of paper that it’s cheating to use Oddjob and he took it away,” smiles Hollis. “He was angry – but also pleased.”

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