Whenever I visit my childhood home in Woodinville, Washington, I have an opportunity to collect old possessions from my past life as a shy high schooler. I can’t take too much at once, and I have no idea how I’m going to ever get my replica longsword to New York (I can imagine, somehow, leaving it in my carry-on by mistake and getting the most incredulous TSA interrogation of all time). But every time I go home, I come back to my Brooklyn hovel with something – a book from my old bedroom shelves, a moth-eaten sweater, some trinket from the safety of home.
The last time I traveled back, my parents pleaded with my siblings and me: Take some of the video game stuff with you when you leave. We were lucky to have an array of systems growing up, from the NES to the Dreamcast, and they hinted that since all the kids had moved out years ago, they found the fact that their family room was still littered with video game paraphernalia somewhat to their distaste.
So, when I returned to New York, instead of picking up a sword at baggage claim, I picked up an unwieldy duffel bag with an N64 and about thirty games inside.
Firing the old system up again, after much praying to the console gods and ceremonial cartridge-blowing, my friend and fellow Bit Creature contributor Drew Paryzer joined me in welcoming the 64 back into use, playing a game of Ken Griffey Jr. Presents Major League Baseball.
We quickly realized when playing the N64 that there were some games which were real nostalgia bombs. Super Mario 64, Ocarina of Time, Goldeneye, you know the list. These games were simply comforting to have on. To play them was to lull oneself into a brief state of hypnosis, each moment a shock of remembrance as theme songs, gameplay quirks and favorite characters came rushing back.
But our favorite game to play so far is one that has only passing nostalgia value for both of us. It was one of the later releases on the console, and neither of us spent too much time on it. What makes it playable now is the same thing that made it playable back then – its brilliant multiplayer design.
The game, of course, is Perfect Dark.
Perfect Dark was Rare’s spiritual successor to Goldeneye. It’s an FPS that is an eerie midpoint between the slick shooters of today and the old-school style of the 90’s. The plot is an original story about aliens and corporate warfare, but its multiplayer is the pinnacle of multiple-person gaming in the era before consoles became online entities.
Goldeneye’s multiplayer you probably remember well. It’s an addictive, singular thing, somehow deathly serious and oddly light-hearted at once. You hunt other players down with a variety of weapons and kill them. Even with DK Mode disabled, all the characters look vaguely ape-like. I still get a smile when I remember my brother spending entire matches coating the Facility level’s bathroom area with mines and laughing maniacally as he blew anyone who dared to enter (and usually himself) to high heaven.
But Goldeneye multiplayer has limits, the limits of essentially every multiplayer back then: player numbers. If you had four players, Goldeneye was a blast. There was enough chaos and the maps were just big enough. Everybody got a moment to shine. With three players, the fun decreases a bit, but it’s still eminently playable. But with only two players, the thing is a slog. It turns from a wonderful free-for-all into a straightforward, joyless duel. There are no third parties to mix things up, and so if there is any kind of skill difference, the game turns into a sadistic exercise in hunting prey for one player and a series of ignoble deaths for the other.
Perfect Dark is another story. In addition to giving the player myriad appearance options and gameplay mode choices, it adds the magic ingredient that makes two-player deathmatch click: bots.
That’s right – bots. Perfect Dark calls its bots “simulants,” and they come in different flavors. And they have personalities. You’ve got the vanilla bots that are classified only by their skill level – normal, perfect, or, if you’re not looking for much of a challenge, “meat.” But you’ve also got bots that have a variety of different play styles, from Preysim, who stalks the weakest contestants, to Turtlesim, who moves slowly but can take a hit.
Other sims are simply hilarious, and play the part of match spoiler in a marvelous fashion. “Fistsim” is foremost among these. He, for some sick reason, faces armed characters with only his bare hands. His favorite move is to disarm you, and if you’ve ever played Perfect Dark, you know that this is the single shittiest thing an enemy can do to you. It not only knocks any weapon you’re holding out of your hands, but also makes you “dizzy,” blurring your screen to a point where the game is, for a time, pretty much unplayable. So Fistsim is not very dangerous, but he is the sim you want to brutally murder more than any other.
And with Perfect Dark’s ability to divide players and sims into different teams however you like, there’s amazing potential for humor. In our matches, Drew and I (Red Team) would team up against one team of formidable sims (Blue Team) and one team of fuck-up sims like Fistsim and Meatsim (Brown Team). Inevitably, Brown Team’s Fistsim would run up, disarm us, and in our bewildered, gauzy-eyed state, we’d get gunned down by Blue Team. Crazy? Yes. Boring? No. And a funny, unique gameplay challenge: Absolutely.
Bots in multiplayer are a dying breed. When consoles made the leap from local-only to online, multiplayer matches expanded to far beyond the people in the room. While horde-mode games still pit you and your pals against bots, the last time I saw bots en masse in a multiplayer game was on servers for outdated PC games. But for the brief time where bots were a viable way to pad an otherwise boring multiplayer match, Perfect Dark was the gold standard.
I love nostalgia. It’s the closest thing we have to time travel, and the feeling of falling in love with a different time in your life is pretty much the definition of bittersweet. But, when it comes to video games, it’s great to know that good design, great implementation, and plain old whimsy can go toe to toe with the mighty nostalgia factor and come out on top. This way the best games, and not only the most popular ones, will keep their appeal long past their sell-by date.
About the Author:
Aaron Matteson is a stage actor in Brooklyn, a Seattle native, and an alum of Village Voice Media's Joystick Division.
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