Twenty years ago this week, Joanna Dark rolled onto the Nintendo 64 for the first time. Her adventure, Perfect Dark, was perhaps the most ambitious game to appear on the Nintendo 64 to that point; a wildly complex shooter that sought to match the strides the genre was making on PC.
It was a spiritual sequel to GoldenEye 007, the Rare shooter that defined Nintendo 64's multiplayer legacy. Indeed, Perfect Dark likely would have been another James Bond game if the license hadn't been stolen away shortly thereafter. Rare still wanted to make a secret agent game, so it invented Joanna Dark, a British secret agent fighting aliens and secret organizations in 2023—a date that no longer looks so distant.
Today, Perfect Dark is remembered fondly for its big ideas, even if it tends to be overshadowed by its more famous predecessor. It's been a while since Joanna Dark has been on a mission, though, with the most recent entry in the series being the thoroughly-mediocre Perfect Dark Zero for the Xbox 360. With a new generation of consoles on the way, and Xbox badly in need for marquee franchises, what better time to revive Perfect Dark?
What Made Perfect Dark So Memorable
Perfect Dark was released in a period where first-person shooters were still largely confined to PC. Limited controls and a lack of online play made the genre largely a non-starter on console, though that didn't stop developers from trying. Rare was one of the studios to break through, capturing the imagination of players with wildly fun local multiplayer driven by gadgets and other items.
Perfect Dark wanted to follow in GoldenEye's footsteps, but by mid-2000, the Nintendo 64 was pretty much on its way out. Sony had decisively won the generation, and the PlayStation 2 was just around the corner. Nevertheless, the Nintendo 64 still had a few things going for it. The RAM Expansion Pack in particular was a major boon for developers, allowing them to create larger, more complex worlds with higher-resolution textures.
Rare was among the studios that eagerly embraced the peripheral, making it basically mandatory for Perfect Dark. It was emblematic of what the studio wanted to accomplish with its new shooter.
Everything about Perfect Dark was bigger than GoldenEye: its world, its selection of weapons, its multiplayer. It featured campaign co-op that pre-dated Halo by more than a year, as well as large setpiece areas like Chicago and Area 51. Perfect Dark is frequently praised for its unique, naturalistic environments; it felt "big" in a way that few shooters managed at the time.
A little too big, as it turned out.
Why It Needs a Revival
One of Perfect Dark's biggest problems was that the N64 simply couldn't handle it. As Digital Foundry shows in the video below, Perfect Dark's frame rate could be pretty miserable. Four-player in GoldenEye was rough; in Perfect Dark, it was practically unplayable.
Still, the spark of brilliance in Perfect Dark remained. It had a large number of weapons, with most featuring either an alternate fire mode or some sort of special ability, such as the ability to dual-wield. Levels were open-ended, with objectives that could frequently be completed in any order, and its expansive selection of gadgets included tranquilizers, timed mines, and a gun diguised as a laptop.
"Perfect Dark has the most replay value of any console game we've ever played—period," IGN wrote in its review at the time. "Rare has crammed so many options into this cart that we're surprised the thing doesn't physically explode."
There was a lot to build on from Perfect Dark, but Rare never quite managed it. Perfect Dark Zero, a launch game for Xbox 360 released five years later, received decent reviews but was ultimately deemed a disappointment. With its founders gone, Rare entered a period in which its reputation suffered dramatically. Outside of a 2010 remaster for the Xbox 360, Perfect Dark hasn't appeared since.
That's too bad, because Perfect Dark is crying for a next-gen revival. Its open-ended design was way ahead of its time, bringing to mind modern favorites like Hitman, which we lauded as one of the best games of the decade. Joanna Dark herself is also a very fun protagonist who is cut from much the same cloth as Lara Croft, making her a perfect fit for 2020.
Meanwhile, Xbox desperately needs platform exclusives to lead it into the next generation. To that end, it has aggressively acquired multiple new studios, including Ninja Theory, Playground Games, and Obsidian. It only makes sense for Xbox to dig into its existing catalog and bring back old favorites like Perfect Dark.
There are signs that such a revival may indeed be in order. In 2018, Microsoft announced that it was opening a studio called The Initiative in Santa Monica, to be led by former Crystal Dynamics studio head Darrell Gallagher. Last month, fans on social media took note of a LinkedIn profile that revealed that The Initiative's first project would feature "various weapons, gadgets, and a camera surveillance system." Sure sounds like a next-gen Perfect Dark revival to me.
Whatever happens, Perfect Dark deserves to be remembered for its boundless ambition. It was a product of an era in which Rare was perhaps the most prestigious studio in the world. And even if it never gets the next-gen reboot that it deserves, it's still worth picking up. You can play the original Perfect Dark in 4K on Xbox One X right now—a worthy way to experience a shooter that always wanted to be bigger than the contemporary restraints of technology would allow.