Almost every single review that I’ve read of Perfect Dark begins with the caveat that FPS games do not age well. At some point in the early 2000s, a cultural shift occurred where the games went from being clunky mazes to much more precisely organized spaces with planned arena structures and well paced player progression. Concepts like play testing, visual clues to see where to go next, and even basic principles of fairness in competitive multiplayer have all changed during the latest generation of consoles. Perfect Dark has a fresh coat of paint, a few tweaked controls, and is otherwise the same game it was on the N64. The transition into modernity has mixed results.
Although the game does incorporate dual-analog it otherwise keeps the control scheme from the original Perfect Dark. You can carry every single gun you pick up, so selecting which one you want to use means steering the cursor over it with a thumbstick. This includes grenades, spy gadgets, etc. It all takes a bit of getting used to, and this is compounded by being able to aim with the left thumbstick. As weird as this sounds, part of the skill of playing an N64 shooter is being able to actually use one of those God forsaken controllers. Being able to strafe, move, and aim with one thumbstick is very hard. Being one of the first controllers to ever use a stick meant that it had a few design issues to, and it all worked as a kind of unspoken handicap. The consequence is that Perfect Dark’s controls feel like a step forward and a step backward at the same time. Most of the goofy menus feel awkward while at the same time the dual-analog system makes playing the actual game weirdly easy.
For example, one of the most dastardly moves that a soldier can do to you in an N64 shooter is duck. You would have to hold a button and aim lower, which meant that you had to use the strafe buttons instead of moving with the thumbstick, since they were probably shooting back at you. You could play with auto-aim on, but it always got boring because then you just had to point yourself in someone’s general direction to kill them. The dual-analog controls cause the exact same problem. I just sit and aim at each target without really having to move. The AI tends to operate on a “Stop, Shoot, and Roll” system, so they aren’t really compensating with complex maneuvers either. The average shoot out for me consisted of alerting every guard and then distancing myself from a doorway just enough so that the AI made them stop right where I could finish them. Adjusting the game’s difficulty only gives them more health and you less.
Level design is the exact same as the original game, and as a consequence, it’s very old fashioned. Locked doors, missing keys, no jumping, and little explanation for what’s going on are the norm. I don’t think that I played a single mission where I didn’t get lost or confused about what I was supposed to be doing. Checking the menu was usually helpful, but it’s rarely self-evident. The physics are mostly bizarre as some objects like desks or computers can be moved, but others, like a rolling chair, are apparently bolted to the floor. Some of the missions have very confusing stealth setups like the third one where you have to slip past a street full of guards. You’re essentially shot on sight and can only progress by memorizing exactly where everyone will be when in these moments.
As with the original, multiplayer is the most appealing aspect of the game and to its credit I had fun playing for the most part. The dual analog setup made every match feel like a weird quick draw session, since whoever opened fire first usually got the kill. Multiplayer maps were actually refreshingly simple arena spaces and hallways in contrast to the huge, complex battlezones that most games use today. Explosions still bleed through walls, which will both give you the giggles when you do it to an opponent and also make you want to smash your controller when it happens to you. It’s bare bones in every sense of the word, but I found myself enjoying the simplicity. Sometimes I don’t feel like screwing around with an elaborate, well balanced system and Perfect Dark is great for just running around guns blazing. I’d also forgotten what a refreshing variety of avatars N64 shooters offer compared to today’s games as well. Perfect Dark is still one of the only FPS games that lets you play as a female avatar along with numerous other options.
There are lots of charming bits of nostalgia to be found here. Classic MIDI music, goofy cutscenes with no moving mouths, and the satisfying squeak of a CPM-150 spraying bullets are all here. As a game, Perfect Dark was generally a Goldeneye clone, but it was certainly a good one. Like the title that it mimicked, a lot of the design principles it used were for outdated controllers and an audience unfamiliar with the FPS genre. As a consequence, I’m not sure that anyone who doesn’t have a soft spot for the game would be willing to put up with all its neurotic tendencies. But considering the price, it’s still an FPS that supports 4 player split-screen and Xbox Live play. Back in the day that was enough and I like to think that it’s still true today.