A love letter to Goldeneye, the finest multiplayer game ever made

Pistols, Temple, Licence to Kill. Don’t @ me.

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It’s all still there in the muscle-memory. I can get to the Golden Gun room almost with my eyes shut, from any spawn-point in the Temple. Though you don’t want to go all the way there if you’re playing it properly. Pistols. Licence to Kill mode. You know what I’m talking about if you came of age around the same time I did.

Don’t go out in to the main Temple chamber unequipped if you can help it, because that’s a hunting-ground. But if you spawn there, sprint for the far-end left doors. Move in a zig-zag, always strafing. Back up as you open the door. Never stand still. Head down toward the lower chamber, down the slope. If you’ve gone through the right door, in the corner of the chamber you’ll find a DD44.

Then turn around. If you’re playing people who know what they’re doing, you’ll likely have someone on your tail by now.

A certain section of the population – those born in the mid ‘80s – will already know what I’m talking about. Their finger will be reflexively twitching on an invisible Z-trigger button. Their right thumb will be searching for the left and right C-buttons to strafe; because you never move forward, always strafe. You move in elegant parabola, watching for the twitch of movement that means either predator or prey. In Goldeneye, you’re either quick or dead.

For us of the N64 generation, there had never been and will never again be a finer-balanced test of skill and mettle than Goldeneye. The 1997 release by Rare revolutionised the first-person shooter genre and almost single-handedly introduced shooters to the console generation. (Some will point to the Metal Gear series, especially 1999’s Metal Gear Solid, as playing this role: to them I say, you bought the wrong console, get over it. Don’t @ me.)

It had a spectacular single-player mode, one which simultaneously paid homage to the film and jumped off from it. The 64-bit era marked the very beginning of 3D gaming, and developer Rare were its masters; the storytelling in Goldeneye influenced and prefigured the still-preeminent Half-Life, released for PC the following year.

But it was the multiplayer which shines brightest in the memory. PC gaming multiplayer, in the age of dial-up, was about either going along to internet cafes for a spot of intensive Counterstrike, or setting up complex wire-tangled LAN parties for ten-hour Starcraft sessions.

But while Nintendo has since gone in some weird directions – I’m looking at you, Wii motion controllers – nothing could top the N64 for easy, four-player multiplayer sessions. Its controller may have looked like it was designed for someone with three hands, but it fitted into the palm like you had been designed for it, rather than the other way around.

I tried a PlayStation at the time and didn’t take to it, especially the lumpen controller. Sony’s market-dominating console may have had better support for third-party developers, which is why they eventually won that iteration of the console wars, but the N64 was worlds ahead for easy useability. It had four ports, not two, and the processing power to make gaming, for the first time really, a viable party option for casual gamers. And it had Rare as a developer, which meant it had Goldeneye.

At my school we had our favoured mode, of course, though everyone had their own. I have met people later who played exclusively slappers-only, or proximity mines, or only on the Facility map. But our favoured mode was, I think, most common: Pistols Only – making the DD44 the king for its accuracy, (though the silenced PP7 was secretly as good if not better because it held an extra bullet in its clip, if I remember correctly) – and, Licence to Kill mode, which means one-shot kill. Ignore the Golden Gun, and ignore the Magnum – they are too slow.

And the level we played was Temple; the simplest and largest of the maps. Facility, if we wanted a change, but designed after the movie scene it lacked Temple’s balance and elegance of design. With Licence to Kill mode on, the game changed dramatically. I can’t play the other way – we never did – in which the game is one of attrition. But with one-shot kill, the gameplay becomes much more frenetic.

It’s all about reactions: in Temple’s wide open levels players can circle each other, frantically trying to strafe inside the turning circle of the other to get in the fatal shot. Like a shark, to stay alive you must keep moving. Keep an eye on the yellow dots on the map. They are coming for you.

That controller, that console, and that game, became almost like a religion to us. We would fight to be the first in the little dingy break-room that contained a pool table, a TV with an N64, and a ratty old couch. We would throw ourselves at the door in manic fury just to get first on the game – because it was, always, winner-stays-on. I loved it. I still do.

And of course, if you picked Oddjob: fuck you.

This article was part of the NS’s “Vintage video games week”, click here to read more in the series.

Nicky Woolf is the editor of New Statesman America. He has formerly written for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.