When I think back to summers when I was a kid, most of them are just a blur. Streaks of sunny days, warm nights, family vacations, and getting into trouble that all kind of melt together into one single amorphous blob. Except for the summer of 2000. That span between May and August during the first year of our new millennium remains fresh and clear in my mind, thanks mostly to the fact that a majority of it was spent fused to my Nintendo 64 playing Perfect Dark. At the time, Rare’s ambitious shooter was an absolute revelation. In a world before Halo: Combat Evolved changed everything, Perfect Dark was king of the console FPS. And looking back on it 20 years later, not only does the game still hold up, but that entire world is ripe for Microsoft to return to on the Xbox Series X.
Throughout the ‘90s, Rare was in the midst of an incredible streak that few developers have ever managed to deliver. Starting with the likes of the Donkey Kong Country trilogy and Ken Griffey Jr.’s Winning Run on the SNES, then transitioning onto the Nintendo 64 with games like Banjo-Kazooie, Jet Force Gemini, and GoldenEye 007, Rare had created some of the defining experiences on Nintendo consoles. After a long and winding development road, Rare released Perfect Dark on May 22, 2000. The game pushed the aging Nintendo 64 hardware so much that it came bundled with the Expansion Pak, whose additional 4MB of RAM was required to access most of the features in the game. Even in the current era with mid-cycle console updates like the Xbox One X and PlayStation 4 Pro, having a game that locked so many of its features and modes behind an upgrade is tough to wrap your head around. But for me back in 2000, needing the Expansion Pak made the game feel all the more cool, like it was somehow exclusive only to those in the know.
Perfect Dark’s single-player campaign took the beloved structure of GoldenEye 007 and injected it with a healthy dose of Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell, and The X-Files. Levels didn’t feel like a series of bland corridors, but rather actual spaces that encouraged experimentation and exploration. Especially on higher difficulties, which added a slew of new objectives to each mission, Perfect Dark felt more like Deus Ex, Hitman 2016, or Dishonored than a traditional shooting gallery. This added a hearty dose of replayability that kept me coming back to each and every campaign mission to try and find new and different ways to tackle the challenges. This was aided by our heroine Joanna Dark’s array of gadgets, which let you interact with the world in clever and creative ways. From X-ray scanners to disguises to remote spy cams, this bevy of options made it feel like you were a genuine secret agent on a set of futuristic missions. This was all blanketed by an exceptional soundtrack, which delivered an almost-hypnotic neo-noir synth score to the entire adventure.
All of these elements felt radically ahead of their time for a console shooter in 2000, which is partly why it makes so much sense for the series to make its return 20 years later. Joanna already had more personality than most FPS heroes at the time, so crafting a modern narrative around her, while drawing in all of those compelling spy components, seems like a perfect fit. Since the original Xbox, Microsoft has relied so heavily on Master Chief and Halo to be the face and identity of its consoles, with Marcus, Kait, and the Gears crew pitching in every few years. Xbox Game Studios could use a new and reliable icon in catching up with Nintendo and Sony, which have both proven to be able to create characters and franchises people love, and revisit them every few years.
But no talk of Perfect Dark is complete without diving into its remarkable multiplayer suite, which is what kept me coming back day after day during the summer of 2000. Aside from traditional co-op in the campaign, there was a fantastic Counter-Operative mode, which saw one player going about the missions as Joanna while the other would bounce between all of the disposable guards throughout the level in an attempt to stop her. This kind of asymmetrical multiplayer felt absolutely groundbreaking at the time and is practically begging for further exploration.
But of course, the heart of Perfect Dark’s multiplayer was in its deathmatch and the host of options and modifiers available to tweak and mold it into the exact experience you’re looking for.
From standard deathmatch to Capture the Case to King of the Hill, there was a mode for whatever mood we might’ve been in that summer. Add in the armory of weapon choices and a wide array of maps, including some of the absolute classics carried over from GoldenEye, and Perfect Dark multiplayer became a staple for my pals and me. On top of all of this, one of the standout features was the ability to not only add up to eight computer-controlled Simulants to any match, but to choose each of their individual personalities to give them a completely different play style. Having to deal with bots that only target the person in the lead, hunt down the last person who killed them, or simply prey on whoever’s in last place added an incredible sense of depth and strategy to each match.
But as great as that summer of Perfect Dark was, it’s been a rough 20 years for Joanna since Microsoft’s acquisition of Rare in 2002. Perfect Dark Zero was an average, but ultimately forgettable launch game for the Xbox 360, and aside from a wonderful HD remaster of the original that hit the 360 and was again bundled in Rare Replay back in 2015, the series hasn’t come close to reaching those initial heights. But despite this, and perhaps even because of it, now is the perfect moment for Microsoft to bring the series back.
Over the past few years, Microsoft has excelled at forming, acquiring, and cultivating talented development teams under its Xbox Game Studios brand. Stalwarts like Rare, Playground Games, and The Coalition now sit alongside iconic developers like Double Fine, Obsidian, and Ninja Theory. But it’s a new team called The Initiative, made up of industry veterans who’ve worked at places like Crystal Dynamics, Insomniac, and Respawn, that just might be the studio that is working on bringing Joanna back out of the dark.
From job postings to cryptic tweets from Xbox head Phil Spencer, the rumor machine is running on high gear when it comes to linking the new studio with a Perfect Dark revival. Of course, with Rare under the same umbrella, it would still be keeping the series in the family. Between this and constant chatter regarding Fable and Banjo-Kazooie making a comeback, a lot of folks are hoping that the wealth of teams at Microsoft embrace their past with the Xbox Series X, while simultaneously leading us into the future.
The summer of 2000 feels like a lifetime ago, but it also feels like yesterday. Mastering each mission of Perfect Dark’s campaign, seeing how much my pals and I could annoy each other in the Counter-Operative mode, and spending literal days staring at our tiny corners of the screen during countless multiplayer games all converged into one of those gaming experiences I’ll never forget. Two decades and several console generations later, the possibility of revisiting that world on Xbox Series X is starting to sound mighty nice.