At Ars Technica, our love of classic shooter video games usually revolves around the PC, but it’s hard to talk about that golden age of shooters without talking about Goldeneye 007. Rare’s first shooter for the N64 was an astounding technical achievement in 1997, and many of its innovations still hold up nearly 25 years later… but that’s only part of its modern mystique.
Unlike many classic ’80s and ’90s games, Goldeneye 007 never got a formal re-release on newer game systems. But it nearly happened. I’ve spent years reporting on leaks about an Xbox 360 remaster, helmed primarily by original studio Rare, which was nearly completed and then canceled. Last week, those years of teases exploded when a near-final beta dated August 2007 leaked—playable from start to finish on Xbox 360 hardware and emulators.
In light of the latest leak, I spoke via email to two of the Goldeneye 007 remaster project’s eight original team members, artist Ross Bury and programmer Mark Edmonds, to fill in as many gaps as they could remember 14 years later. I tracked those names in part because they’re not credited in the leaked game’s normal credits sequence, but rather are visible when looking at any in-game computer terminals. When pressed about his involvement, Bury began his first email with two modest answers: “Not sure that there’s too much to tell,” and “I’m pretty sure I’m no longer under an NDA regarding it.”
“We wanted to stay true to the original”
For starters, the story—as these two devs tell it—has none of the drama you might expect from “remake of the N64’s second-biggest game.” The project began in either late 2006 or early 2007 as a “small team” before growing to eight staffers in all “with no help from outside Rare in the making of it,” the duo says. What’s more, Rare’s devs began the work before clearing their plans with the game’s massive laundry list of rights holders, including Nintendo (the original publisher on N64), Activision (who had secured the film series’ game rights at the time), and MGM/OEM (the film series’ overseers).
“It started as a ‘let’s start and try this’ while we get approval,” Edmonds says. “I’m sure it must have come partly from Ken [Lobb, longtime Rare and Xbox producer], since he was procuring games for Xbox, was well-connected with Rare and [studio co-founder] Chris Stamper, and well-connected with Nintendo from when he worked there.”
Seemingly sheltered from the hustle to secure those rights, the team moved forward with a modest plan: to build off the N64’s existing source code and art assets, which Rare had saved in their entirety, and “keep the game exactly the same as the original, but with newer graphics and networking,” Edmonds says. He claims there was no plan to increase the game’s scope with additions like refreshed music or tweaked AI: “Changes like that would have required a larger team, and much more testing! Plus, we wanted to stay true to the original.”
On the coding front, Edmonds recalls porting the N64 game’s C code to C++, then modifying the interface to Xbox 360’s low-level libraries: “The idea was to keep the code as close as possible to the original, and compile it as it was where possible.” Where things got interesting was the addition of a “swap graphics” button. Any time a player tapped that button, the game’s new Xbox engine would bolt new models and textures on top of the N64 version’s geometry, collisions, movement, and “joint and skinning” systems, then increase the in-game resolution and remove an N64-like anti-aliasing filter. Tap the button again, and the game would go back to the original resolution, textures, and base geometry.
It would be another four years after the project’s 2007 cancellation before anyone tried this on Xbox 360 again, in the form of 2011’s Halo CE: Anniversary. And the results are quite impressive as the first version of this trick on 360 hardware.
Playing through the leaked GE360 beta, it’s apparent how and where this system applied, which Bury and Edmonds clarify. Levels’ distant backgrounds can bolt new geometry like mountain ranges onto the older, simpler versions, while various parts of characters, particularly the number of polygons dedicated to faces, can be swapped in and out with higher-resolution textures attached. But the ways joints come together and animate is identical, even if you furiously tap the “new graphics” button over and over. Some objects, like weapons and Bond’s hands, were rebuilt with new geometry and textures; others, particularly vehicles, buildings, and wooden crates, couldn’t be overhauled any further than texture updates without breaking the original code base.
Updated character models and faces were handled by Sergey Rakhmanov, who Bury says “had a great pipeline to work through in-game characters quickly. For main characters, I believe he just used his skills to improve their look from his source library and Internet reference, certainly nothing official to use.” In other words: Remade faces were built from scratch without official MGM/OEM documentation. With the exception of Natalya’s updated “boxy” head, they look quite impressive, especially as made by (apparently) only one artist.
“They didn’t check with the one guy who mattered”
As the project went on, Edmonds and Bury point to a moment—exactly when, they can’t recall—when their bosses gave the GE360 team a green light. “We were told everyone had approved it,” Edmonds says. The rights were all cleared, with no condition that anybody had to work on a version for a Nintendo console or any other requirements. That was all the team needed to hear to continue work on the Xbox 360 version.
Later, the eight devs on the project learned the truth about negotiations… when GE360 was unceremoniously canceled.
“When it was put to Nintendo, everyone there approved it,” Bury says. “Except they didn’t check with the one guy who mattered.” Edmonds then clarifies who that person was: former Nintendo Chairman Hiroshi Yamauchi, who had vacated the post by 2007 but was still Nintendo’s largest Japanese shareholder.
“I believe I was told his response went along the lines of, ‘There is no way a Nintendo game is coming out on a Microsoft console,'” Bury adds. (If you’re wondering how some of Rare’s N64 games eventually wound up on Xbox consoles, remember: Rare took many of its older games’ rights with it to Microsoft, but not all of them. 2005’s Conker: Live and Reloaded was the first example.)
You would have more chance of seeing it [on Xbox] by changing everything in the game.
Neither Edmonds nor Bury has particular insights on the evolution of Nintendo, Rare, and Microsoft’s combined rights relationship, having both left Rare years ago. When pressed about a leaked mini-documentary from 2014, which hinted to Goldeneye 007 almost landing on Xbox One via the Rare Replay anthology, Edmond shrugs his shoulders. “I am assuming that all the information and quotes around rights negotiations on the ‘Net are from this time period, as previous to that, Yamauchi’s orders trumped everything,” he says. (This includes loud rumors that MGM and OEM’s handling of Bond video games evolved over the years to place serious restrictions on the license in games, many of which have never been confirmed.)
“You can never say never, but I think you would have more chance of seeing it [release on Xbox consoles] by changing everything in the game,” Edmonds adds. “Maybe a Halo Master Chief-based game.”
“So far as I know, I can’t see it happening, unless Microsoft buys Nintendo,” Bury says.