Forget an exploding pen: all you needed were a few spare batteries to enjoy this forgotten gem of the early handheld era. Goldeneye may be the more fondly-remembered 90s outing for the super spy, but James Bond 007 on the Game Boy went to places that no Bond game has ventured to since.
Developed by Sapphire Corporation and published in 1998, a year after Goldeneye 64 had taken the first person shooter genre by storm, the Game Boy’s take on the James Bond franchise was one of the more ambitious takes on the character we’ve seen so far.
Top-down Zelda gameplay meets pun-laden super spy antics? You betcha. The fact that so few people remember it feels like a conspiracy that only Blofield himself could mastermind.
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A view to a thrill
If possible, cast your mind back to the licensed 8-bit and 16-bit games of the 1990s. While Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 and Jedi: Fallen Order are now big-budget, hugely ambitious takes on existing franchises, the potential was much smaller in the 90s. Slap a recognizable character and logo on the box, make a crude approximation of said character out of a handful of pixels, make a side scrolling platformer – job’s a good’un. This describes the vast majority of tie-ins at the time.
Sapphire Corporation, based out of American Fork, Utah, had other ideas though. Working to the strengths of the platform it had been saddled with, James Bond 007 was instead a Zelda-like, top-down adventure where exploration and clue gathering was as important as sharp shooting and fisticuffs. Like in Link's Awakening, you could map items to the A and B buttons as you saw fit, exploring locations for secrets and solutions to puzzles, as well as taking the fight to mobs of henchmen.
Travelling from China to Blighty, Marakech to Russia in globetrotting Bond style, it may not feature Zelda’s back-tracking unlockable secrets, but its level-based design definitely takes inspiration from Nintendo’s pointy-eared mascot. There are puzzles aplenty on offer here, whether it’s rifling through houses to find tools to repair a pivotal bridge, or shooting out the lights to get past a particularly vigilant guard, there were lots of clever ideas that went beyond the usual, brainless, ‘license to kill’ stuff.
Telling an original, if lightweight, ‘save the world’ story, it played out a bit like a James Bond greatest hits, too. You’d encounter MI6 boss M, trade blows with Oddjob and Jaws, and even woo a ‘Bond girl’. This was very much the Roger Moore of Bond games, with its cheeky asides, ludicrous situations and tongue-in-cheek attitude, for better and worse.
And though the family-friendly nature of the Nintendo handheld was never really breached, gunfights aside, there is very much a clear suggestion that old James ‘Thunderballs’ Bond partakes in the services provided by a brothel in order to pilfer a diamond.
The best bit, though, is just the way it captures all the other stuff Bond does. Games focus on taking Bond on killing sprees through secret bases, or bombing along in sports cars in pursuit of some dastardly villain. But they never let you have a chat with Q, or flirt with Moneypenny. They rarely let you outwit the bad guy, or let you kick back and hit the casino. It may have been visually limited, but the scale of its ambition was only constrained by the hardware’s modest limitations.
What’s next for Bond in gaming?
The Bond universe is in a state of flux right now, making it uncertain as to what shape 007’s next gaming outing will take.
For starters, Daniel Craig’s rough-and-tumble interpretation of Ian Fleming’s spy has now been put to bed, with Craig handing in his license to kill. The search is now on for a new Bond and, presumably, a new direction to take the well worn franchise in.
In addition, the rights to the James Bond universe have recently changed hands. Amazon looked to boost its Amazon Prime Video offering with the purchase of the Bond property via a whopping $8.54 billion deal for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, also known as MGM. (Incidentally, the purchase also hands over the rights to Sylvester Stallone’s ‘Rocky’ movies. Bond vs Balboa, anyone?). Who knows how Amazon plans to use the franchise across its many platforms and services, but its nascent gaming ambitions will surely see Bond play a part.
For now, though, the franchise sits in the capable hands of IO Interactive, the makers of the fittingly-spy-like Hitman series. Its ‘Project 007’ will be an all-original story set in the world of Bond, presumably featuring some of the stealthy mechanics that have made the Hitman games so satisfying to play.
But here’s hoping they take a little inspiration from the story-driven, explorative heart of James Bond 007 for the Game Boy.