Forgive me for going the long way round while describing the experience of playing the new GoldenEye 007 port on Switch and XBOX, but do you remember the ending of Interstellar? This is going to be a spoiler for that 2014 film, so come on back at the end of the paragraph if you haven’t seen it. But basically, Matthew McConaughey leaves his family behind to find a new, habitable home for mankind, losing time in bunches while traveling through space as years go by in drips and drops on a dying Earth, much to his dismay. When he finally finds his way back to the bedside of his daughter (Jessica Chastain), she’s lived a long, full, and heroic life but is near death. McConaughey, on the other hand, barely seems as though he’s aged. Their reunion is bittersweet, to say the least. He took too long to get home.
Okay, now to the game.
The GoldenEye nostalgia high has you touching clouds when the first chords of the familiar score hit your ear and you reacquaint yourself with pixel Pierce Brosnan and the dossier menu of GoldenEye. But it’s hollow. Like most purely nostalgic things, it offers a pop of initial giddiness and then a building feeling of, “Is this it?” Because the reality of the thing can’t compete with the sweet memory of the original and everything connected to it. This game imprinted so deeply on me because it came at that transitional moment when I was feeling like a kid, but also fascinated by and looking forward to the excitement of more adult things. That’s powerful. But this new GoldenEye’s greatest sin is that it doesn’t come with a time machine. Its second greatest sin is that it took too long to get home.
A GoldenEye 007 port to modern systems has been rumored for years and years, including an XBLA version in 2008 that teased HD graphics and a toggle to play with N64-era visuals. The timing of that would have been perfect, filling a hole for longing fans whose memories were still ultra-fresh, but it died on the vine and we got the half-baked GoldenEye Reloaded in 2011, the occasional rumor, and the lingering desire to get into emulators or find a CRT monitor and an N64. A fading desire, to be honest. Twenty years is a long time to carry a torch for a game.
Putting aside mushy meditations on GoldenEye as an emotional vessel and re-centering on the technical accomplishment of it for a moment, the game was unlike anything I had ever played before. But that was 1997. Jump ahead to 2023 and it’s obviously been lapped several times over by games that took its influence and evolved the idea of what an FPS can be with the benefit of hardware that’s a world away from an N64. You probably used to love using an Etch-A-Sketch, but if someone told you to spend a lot of time with that over a tablet and an Apple Pencil, you might get bored quickly after the awe of reflection dimmed.
I should add (so as to live up to the idea of this as a “review”) that the raw experience of playing this version of the game is great for what it is — I greatly preferred it on GamePass to Switch owing to the limitations of the Switch controller, but your mileage may vary. Visuals are blocky and unrefined, lacking dimension, but they’re of the original era (though fit for modern screens). There’s a kind of beauty to some of the landscapes and the way colors blend. Accidentally otherworldly instead of hyper realistic. It’s kinda trippy when you’re cutting through the snow on a red hazy night in search of a bunker while dozens of foot soldiers trudge through the cold to try and shoot you on sight. And I was playing straight.
I should also point out that I suck at this game, at least on first play. I set a high bar for myself, playing through its levels hundreds of times as a kid, aiming for perfection when it came to how quickly and efficiently I cut through the endless parade of guards and bads. These 35 percent marks for accuracy and clumsy crawls through maps I used to know like the back of my hand? A disgrace that falls squarely on me. But I’ll get better. I’ll run through these levels a few more times to prove to myself that I can be as good at it as I was back in the day. I’ll occasionally tinker with multiplayer in search of those similar nostalgia hits and memories of when I made my little sister play with me when none of my friends were around (and how she kicked my ass at it).
But while that’s more than enough value to get from something that’s basically free on subscriptions I already pay for, I used to think a new GoldenEye was going to be a big part of my gaming diet for a long while if it ever came out, just like it was in the late ’90s, but I just can’t see that happening now. And while that’s a surprise, I don’t know that it’s anyone’s fault, nor do I think it’s a bad thing, especially considering the amount of joy this thing has given me over my lifetime.
I’ve been thinking about nostalgia and who it’s for a lot lately. How I enjoy it, but how it might be toxic for me and for culture, in general, if I treat it as more than an occasional treat. Try as I have through the bulk of my adult life to live in total defiance of reality and time, I can’t be 12 forever and I probably shouldn’t expect or demand the things I grew up with to always be there, capable of holding my attention like they used to.
I do hope people who have never played GoldenEye give it a go and that the fun and novelty of it finds appreciation. It looks like crap (compared to modern games, of course), but the play is still smooth with richly detailed levels that are as fun as they are challenging. Multiplayer, in particular, could be the centerpiece of a lazy weekend night hang with friends. Slap Mode with the aid of a bottle of wine = laughs galore. It’d also be a full circle kind of thing because the original wasn’t built to carry the weight of personal connection or the epic legacy we’ve hung on it, it was meant to be a fun escape then, now, and forever.