While playing Batman: Arkham City, the kinetically entertaining new videogame from developer Rocksteady, I found myself thinking constantly about another game based on a decades-old media franchise: The Nintendo 64’s GoldenEye 007. When GoldenEye was in production, there was no reason to believe that it would become one of the greatest games in history. It was a first-person shooter, a genre that had never made the successful transition from computers to consoles — the whole FPS aesthetic seemed positively hard-wired into the specifics of PC gaming. GoldenEye was being designed by Rare, a company that had never worked in the shooter genre; they were known for frothy sidescrollers like Donkey Kong Country and for Killer Instinct, the fondly-forgotten third wheel of the Mortal Kombat/Street Fighter arcade era. Heck, in hindsight, it’s bizarre to even imagine family-friendly Nintendo doing a first-person shooter: By comparison, imagine discovering a lost Disney zombie cartoon from the silent era.
But more to the point, GoldenEye was a Licensed Game — the industry catch-all term for anything based on a pre-existing property. And Licensed Games have been existentially terrible since the dawn of time. Take a casual gander at the list of videogames based on movies, and you find an endless array of mortal sins: Glitchy gameplay, half-hearted storytelling, level design that borders on abstract expressionism, cut-rate imitation voice actors imitating celebrities, actual celebrity voice actors phoning it in. (Videogames based on TV shows are their own separate hell — woe to all who have ever gazed upon the empty horror of Lost: Via Domus). There were exceptions — the Sega Aladdin, the Nintendo Ducktales, LucasArts’ point-and-click Indiana Jones adventure games — but those were rare indeed.
And then GoldenEye came out, and it wasn’t just incredible: Like an Orson Welles film or a Beatles album, the game simply dripped with innovation. There is much to be said about how, exactly, GoldenEye was able to be so good: it came out a full two years after the movie, something unthinkable in today’s tie-in environment. And there is also much to be said about how GoldenEye pushed the medium forward: focusing on stealth over action, turning “Multiplayer Deathmatch” into the most popular male hobby on college campuses.
But the greatest thing about GoldenEye was just how effectively it captured the source material. It wasn’t just a straight adaptation of the first Pierce Brosnan James Bond film — although the videogame so completely colonized our cultural memory of GoldenEye that the film itself looks a bit shrimpy today.
No, the videogame felt like a massive art-installation translation of the whole James Bond concept. The soundtrack reconfigured old Bond themes. The globe-hopping missions took you from subterranean bunkers to cities to lush green forests. The game’s overall tone could shift on a dime from Connery-era stealth to Moore-era whimsy to Brosnan-era ultraviolence. If you were any kind of James Bond fan — and TBS’ 7 Days of 007 was a holy tradition in my household — then the game’s retro-fabulous extras (the Moonraker level! Play as Oddjob!) made your head explode. It was like listening to your favorite band’s Greatest Hits album, performed live by that band in a perpetual rooftop concert that featured every song five different ways.
And so, as I said, GoldenEye 64 has been on my mind over the last couple days, which I mostly spent in a dark windowless room embarking on a heavily-caffeinated marathon playthrough of Batman: Arkham City. Arkham can’t possibly achieve the same epoch-shifting influence as GoldenEye — it’s very much in the modern tradition of Licensed Videogames that re-skin existing gameplay tropes with superhero outfits. Spider-Man 2 was basically “Grand Theft Auto with a web-shooter,” and you could argue that the essential thrill of Arkham is “Grand Theft Auto with a batclaw.”
But Spider-Man 2 became pretty boring once you got tired of web-swinging. And Batman: Arkham City never gets boring. A big, rollicking, dementedly over-detailed and addictively brutish adventure, Arkham City isn’t just one of the most fun games I’ve played this year. It’s also just a flat-out entertaining Batman story, a celebration of the Caped Crusader’s expansive mythology.