The original Perfect Dark for the Nintendo 64 is perhaps my favorite game of all time. I remember fondly playing it with my friends, all of us huddled around a television, the Nintendo 64’s oddly shaped three prong controllers clutched tightly in our hands as we played split-screen deathmatches against each other or against the bots. We would do that for hours on end and would have buckets of fun all the while. To date, I can’t think of a single game that has come close to replicating that experience, though many games have tried. Perfect Dark was, back then, my definition of the perfect game, as unattainable a concept as that may be. It delivered in spades whether I played it alone or with friends and, for me, never got old.
Naturally, when I turn on my Xbox 360 and load up the Xbox Live Arcade port of the original Perfect Dark, I have a tendency to look at it through what I like to call “nostalgia goggles”. Heck, the first time I loaded up the game, seeing a highly familiar loading screen and pressing start, seeing Joanna Dark typing something into a computer terminal sitting on a table before her and then hearing that oh so familiar main menu music begin to play, I smiled from ear-to-ear, that wonderful feeling of nostalgia flooding into me. This brings up a conflict of interest in regards to reviewing this game. After all, aren’t I just going to be influenced by those feelings of nostalgia to overlook any and all flaws the game may have? No. In order to give this game the review it deserves, I’m taking off the nostalgia goggles and replacing them with my reviewer’s hat.
Immediately when starting the game, the significant visual improvements practically smack you across the face. Environments, character models, weapon models and so on have been updated with much higher resolution textures and boast a much cleaner overall look than the original. Perfect Dark was a game that pushed the Nintendo 64 to its very limits in terms of visual fidelity and, as a result, struggled to maintain a consistent framerate. This version of Perfect Dark does not have this problem. This game runs in full 1080p at an incredibly fluid 60 frames per second that doesn’t falter even in highly intense combat scenarios. The visuals aren’t mind blowing and aren’t going to give modern games like Gears of War or Call of Duty a run for their money but the upgrades are more than adequate.
The single player campaign features more than 20 missions, most of which are very entertaining and some of which can be highly frustrating because of some weird difficulty spikes. It’s very fun to rush through a stage, blasting your way through your AI opposition but a few problems show up in the form of relatively obscure objectives and occasionally confusing level design. Many of your objectives take more than a little bit of guesswork and some trial and error to figure out. For the most part, there are audio or visual cues to help you figure out just what you’re supposed to be doing but there have been many times in my experience where I merely had to take a guess and hope that I had the right idea. The campaign is definitely very enjoyable from start to finish, despite these problems, but I do wish that these issues had been addressed in the porting process.
Another area where the campaign shines is in its cooperative and counter operative modes. Co-op has been done in a huge number of games since Perfect Dark’s release and needs no explanation but the original’s Counter-Operative mode has hardly been touched on by any other game in the nearly ten years since its debut. In this mode, one player plays as Joanna Dark in any of the campaign missions the other player takes on the role of the many AI enemies out to stop her and their goal is to eliminate her before she can finish the stage. This is a very innovative, unique and refreshing take on cooperative play even now and it’s a wonder that other developers haven’t adapted this concept and put it to use in their games.
The combat simulator, which houses Perfect Dark’s slew of multiplayer modes and options, is intact and includes the split-screen play, bots, highly customizable game modes and so on from the original and features one big upgrade in the form of online play for up to eight players. Through contemporary matchmaking hoppers and private match lobbies, it’s very easy to either take on up to seven other random players or get together with your buddies to have some old school, arena-style fun. It’s a bit disappointing that you can’t bring a friend or three into matchmaking with you á la Halo 3 but this isn’t too big of an omission.
Online play is smooth in matchmaking and I haven’t encountered any hiccups there but in regards to the cooperative and Counter-Operative modes, it was difficult to get a game up and running smoothly. During my time with these two modes, co-op in particular, I’ve encountered a number of bugs in which the game has told myself and my co-op partner that there was a sync error which booted us back to the main menu. Hopefully, these issues will be worked out in due time.
One area in which Perfect Dark shows its age is in its aiming. While the controls have been adapted for the Xbox 360’s dual analog controller in the porting process, Perfect Dark’s method of aiming is very much unlike the average shooter. Instead of the crosshair remaining static in the center of the screen, it moves as you do. For example, if you turn to the right, the weapon in your hand and thus, the crosshair, will move towards the right of the screen as well. Look up and the crosshair will follow that movement. This takes a great deal of getting used to for people coming from more traditional shooters such as Halo or Call of Duty and also leads to some issues with precision. Aiming is that much more difficult because you can’t count on the crosshair being in one spot no matter where you look. Because of this, auto aim is pretty much a requirement if you expect to be able to consistently hit your targets.
Aiming in this fashion is very much unlike what you’re used to with traditional shooters. The aiming reticule doesn’t move the camera, it merely moves within a small box on the screen. Another problem is the fact that the reticule doesn’t stay in place when it’s moved and if you release the right analog stick, it will jump back to the center of the screen. This makes high-precision shots very difficult because you have to fight with the reticule’s urge to move back to the center by holding it in place and it is very sensitive to even the slightest of movements. Even stationary targets are difficult to aim precisely at in some cases. I thought that lowering the sensitivity would help in that regard but unfortunately, it makes things slow and clunky across the board.
Because of these aiming eccentricities, high precision shots are practically impossible in most combat scenarios. This makes using a long range weapon such as the sniper rifle very difficult. In practice, the sniper rifle is only practical if you can get in close and “no scope” your opponent or maybe get lucky spamming bullets in their direction from afar. This inevitably begs the question, what’s the point of even using the sniper rifle if it’s practically useless at long range? Now, it seems that Perfect Dark’s strength lies in up close encounters, where a quick trigger finger, circle strafing and a powerful gun are more important than having pinpoint accuracy. Are these aiming issues a problem? Not necessarily. Perfect Dark’s unconventional aiming controls take some getting used to, certainly, but it was never an issue that significantly hampered the experience for me.
For better or for worse, at its core, aside from the visual face lift and the addition of online play, the Xbox Live Arcade port of Perfect Dark is virtually unchanged in relation to the Nintendo 64 original. Underneath the improvements, this is definitely a ten year old game and it shows in practically every aspect of the game. That’s not necessarily a bad thing though because this ten year old game was one that was, in my opinion, far ahead of its time when it was released. Perfect Dark has been passed up by modern shooters in many respects but there are some that still cannot offer the level of customizability in multiplayer modes, unique modes such as counter operative, or the incredibly varied and unique selection of weapons, nearly all of which feature great alternate fire modes.
Overall, I’m in love with the XBLA port of Perfect Dark. It brings back fond memories of simpler times in which the only way to play multiplayer games with your buddies was to get them all around a console and share the same screen, promising one another not to look at any other fourth of the screen than your own. The addition of online play on top of the original split-screen multiplayer is an obvious and exceptional upgrade to an already stellar experience (even with the occasional hiccups). Yes, Perfect Dark is certainly flawed, mostly because of its age but overall, this seems to have aged well. I highly recommend this game to anyone who would like to see the roots of console FPS games (Halo wasn’t the first, kids) and everyone old enough to have played and appreciated this game on the Nintendo 64. It’s not the console FPS perfection it was ten years ago but it’s still one hell of a great experience today.