Why 'GoldenEye' Is the Greatest Video Game in the History of Video Games

GoldenEye Nintendo 64 Illustration
Daniel Fishel/Thrillist
Daniel Fishel/Thrillist

As the curtain closes down on our lives, there'll be a moment before the reckoning when our greatest successes flash before our eyes. They will involve marriage and children and family. Acts of unmistakable generosity, bravery, and kindness. Or maybe everyone just gets to bear witness to me crouching down and popping Oddjob with a sniper rifle in Stack.

For people of a certain age, you don't have to make the argument that Nintendo 64's GoldenEye 007 is the greatest game of all time; it's already the game of their childhood. Or their teen years. Or their college experience. Regardless, it's inarguably one of the most important first-person shooters of all time. When GoldenEye came out on August 25, 1997, the gaming world -- which was essentially divided between the Sony PlayStation and Nintendo 64 (no one was playing Sega Saturn and certainly not the Atari Jaguar, which had a controller that looked like a failed house alarm company's master control panel) -- was knocked on its ass like a particuarly unskilled person playing "Slappers only!" The game went on to sell 8 million copies.

I was just about to enter my junior year of high school. My friend group was not "gamers" per se, but more standard male high school teen purveyors of the video-game lifestyle. Before GoldenEye, we mainly dabbled in the EA Sports game genre, with occasional forays into Twisted Metal (an entirely underrated PlayStation car-fighting game featuring a terrifying ice cream truck), but then James Bond et friends and the multiplayer option in GoldenEye came along, and all other games stopped. Bond became the central focus of our post-school lives. And not just for us. For EVERYONE.

"GoldenEye" set the f*cking table for the gaming industry to eat off that format ever since.

Soccer team dinners would devolve into Bond tournaments fueled by spaghetti and giant Costco loaves of garlic bread. US history study groups were now Bond tournaments with breaks to talk about Teapot Dome scandals. Basement make-out sessions while watching The Pelican Brief were still basement make-out sessions while watching The Pelican Brief. But sometimes you, like, thought about GoldenEye, or whatever.

Technically speaking, GoldenEye forever changed the face of gaming. First, the game toppled the fixed-rail-shooter monopoly of the DOOM and Virtua Cop era with its more free-wheeling, realistic shooting experience. Nintendo 64 controllers offered more buttons and joysticks working in tandem, giving players the freedom to crouch and climb and strafe and hide, rather than just steamrolling forward. And with that alteration, the entire skill set for an FPS game changed -- it was now not just about having quick reactions to coming threats by being able to shoot quickly, you had to shoot quickly while also figuring out how to get out of the way.   

Its single-player difficulty levels seamlessly added in new tasks and rewarded players in more difficult modes with unlocked levels, cheats (like the hilarious DK mode and Tiny Bond), and other bonuses like new levels for the multiplayer game. And speaking of the multiplayer game (which quite incredibly was built as an afterthought in the last month because the programmers were like, "Did you guys know you can plug in, like, four controllers to this thing? Maybe we should do something with that…"), it was the actual first to make split-screen deathmatch, head-to-head gaming into a thing.

If I wrote that all in caps, or changed the font to fire orange, or embedded an audio file of me shouting it maniacally with my mouth half-full of Strawberry Honeycomb cereal, it still wouldn't be overemphasis, considering GoldenEye set the fucking table for the gaming industry to eat off that format ever since, spawning gigantic, profit-hoarding series like Halo and even professional gaming leagues, which've allowed translucent nerds with above-average perceptual motor and cognitive abilities to buy fancy beanbag chairs and appear on gaming-based reality-television shows on The CW network.

But enough with the big picture. On a personal level, the details and choices you made even before you began playing the Bond deathmatches with your friends became a defining facet of who you were as a teenager, and what you wanted the world to think about you. Starting with the character you'd choose.

GoldenEye Oddjob Illustration
Daniel Fishel/Thrillist

What your favorite major GoldenEye deathmatch player reveals about you

Conventional, centrist, Nelson Rockefeller Republican. Puts ketchup on hot dogs.

Into Patricia Cornwell books and Michael Crichton AUDIO books. Grandmother lives with family, but has her own bathroom.

Stylish, untrustworthy, surprising lover of cats. Went through a black turtleneck phase. Has definitely had a Boku juice drink.

Sexually charged and crass. Definite closet feminist.

Rules-obsessed, always cold. Child of divorce.

Ironic, nerdy, also a child of divorce, but an amicable one

Cocky or clueless (Valentin's fatness makes him a wider target, OK?!?)  

Middle child and stupendous crash dieter. Fan of Pixar films.

Undercover David Bowie fan. Over-cover sleeping fan. Allergic to freshly cut grass.

Voracious Roald Dahl reader, future orthodontist

Baron Samedi:
Fashion conscious, into magic/crunches. Talks wistfully of living in New Orleans in the near future. Subscribed to the now-defunct magazine Cargo.


Everyone agrees that using Oddjob is cheating. He is short and therefore a harder target, though not in the cool Jean-Claude Van Damme way. You actually have to aim down to shoot him, and that is an unfair advantage, like using Bo Jackson in Tecmo Bowl. People who still insisted on using Oddjob were inferior players with something to hide, and I made a point to write down their names in my diary, so later in life when I was a successful novelist who also played in the NBA and raced helicopters, they'd come to me for a large-sum loan that I would loudly deny them.

I know people who changed controller styles, who preferred Solitaire or Goodnight or even, ew, Kissy. I'm also aware the deep-cut nerds would actually sometimes employ DUAL controllers so they could strafe and jump at the same time while shooting, and because they’re cheaters, too. But I preferred to stick with the default setting, aka Honey, aka Dr. No's Honey Rider, because that was pure and true. Now this is the time when I talk about the weapons.

God forbid you end up using a Klobb, aka the weapon equivalent of a skunk pelt factory fire.

GoldenEye deathmatch weapon sets, ranked

12. Lasers:
No one ever finds the relatively lame lasers, so they end up just shooting at each other with Klobbs, aka the weapon equivalent of a skunk pelt factory fire.

11. All mine-related games:
Mines are for the type of people who don't actually want to play video games, but really enjoy pushing the buttons on the microwave.

10. Grenade launchers:
This and the next two fit in the "explosions aren't as fun, nor prove any skill" category.

9. Rockets

8. Grenades

7. Golden Gun:
There is a slight element of excitement to see if you can track down the gun, but you often fall back into Klobb-style skunk factory firing, and if you don't have the gun you feel bad about yourself, so it's also draining from a self-confidence perspective.

6. Slappers:
There is something weirdly satisfying about having to get all close and do karate chops. For maybe one round.

5. Automatics:
Too much Klobb skunk trash to go higher, even if you get to do cool things with the D5K Deutsche.

4. Throwing knives:
It's like playing GoldenEye as Bullseye from the Daredevil comics, but without the obvious copyright issues.

3. Power Weapons:
RC-P90s and auto-shotguns and no Klobbs!!! Relatedly, the people who always want to use Power Weapons tend to be the same type of people who have inexplicably muddy shoes all the time.

2. Pistols:
No tricks, no explosions, no Klobbs, just straight-up strafe and fire skills.  

1. Sniper rifles:
Even the Klobb can't fuck with perfection.

GoldenEye Klobb Illustration
Daniel Fishel/Thrillist

Perhaps maybe you think that I've been exaggerating my prowess with the sniper rifle in multiplayer mode when in Stack. Maybe you think that there's no way I broke down the most likely spots where someone who'd just been killed might regenerate, and that I wouldn't hustle over there and set up shop with the sniper rifle on their exit points, leaving them with no choice but to make a run for it, most likely holding a Klobb.

Maybe you think I wasn't also skilled in using the rifle like a PP7, and couldn't fire it accurately while strafing, even without the bullseye target, knowing that if I was going against an actual PP7, I had the same time between shots and one extra bullet to use before they had to reload. Maybe you think all these second-person hypotheticals are annoying, and that I should be somewhat embarrassed to be this proud of my skill set in a game I haven't played in at least 10 years. Maybe you're correct.  

But that was the thing about GoldenEye. If you were in high school (or middle school, or college) in the late '90s, mastering that game held actual cache. Like, I may or may not have gotten invited to a college party with my older sister's guy friends because one of them wanted me on his team for a four-player Bond tourney; and seen one of the Spanish teachers from my high school there slightly boozed up and making out with a pretty cool guy named Matt who had a beaded necklace and several Big Head Todd CDs; and been so proud and shocked by that scenario that I'm talking about it nearly 20 years after the fact. And yet that was how important Bond was to teenage culture at the time -- your abilities in a video game could quite literally bring you to another level of popularity. Speaking of levels…

GoldenEye deathmatch stages, ranked

NOTE: I’m not including all the ones you could unlock with the solo campaigns or cheat devices. Just the originals and Facility, since everyone played Facility. No need to weigh in on your slapping techniques in the Water Caverns though.

7. Caves:
Where the fuck is everyone? This level is the worst of the worst, the veritable Klobb of multiplayer levels. Too dark and weirdly laid out, you could wander for minutes not running into anyone, and still end up dead because it's also one of those levels only enjoyed by people who like to play with grenade launchers and took the time to figure out how to shoot bank shots into other rooms. It's like playing HORSE against someone who sucks at basketball, but is really good at underhanded free throws.

6. Basement:
The tiniest of all the multiplayer maps, it was too easy to figure out where people would regenerate after getting killed, so you could get in a groove and basically ambush them immediately. One of the only saving graces in Basement is the pillars, which are fun to hide behind. But the small size means very little strategy and my favorite board game is Stratego so you understand how I have no choice but to lose all respect for Basement aficionados.

5. Library:
Just Stack and Basement combined. It's too big, so you don't get enough action. That's my only real complaint. You run into people like every couple of minutes. It's more like you're playing Google Maps Street View in an occasionally violent area. 

4. Complex:
For most of my friends, this is the clear No. 1 stage. Lots and lots of Bond fans like it for a variety of reasons, from the hiding places to the fact that it looks like it comes from a future where everyone has a robot that intuitively dislikes Will Smith. I thought it was fine, but would freak the fuck out if whomever I was playing against chose to be Janus Marine, as that sneaky sumbitch could chameleon himself into walls just long enough to kill you with essentially any weapon besides a Klobb.

3. Facility:
This is the stage that all my friends who aren't in the Complex camp get behind. And to be honest, many of those people were just excited by the titillating possibility that they could get into a firefight in the men's room. I liked playing in Facility, partially because of the men's room thing, but also because you were constantly just opening doors and trying to figure out how to strafe across a doorway while firing accurately, which is a different skill set to master than the top two, and I really wanted to be a well-rounded player so my father would be proud of me.

2. Temple:
Giant and open, this basically left everything out there. It's a great level for constant action but starting far enough away from each other so you can actually use some real skills before you engage. In the tight corridors of some of the smaller levels, ducking and running and jumping are all for naught -- you're still going to get smoked. But in Temple, you can show off all of the strafing and shooting skills you've acquired, and constantly be involved in the action. I basically kept it from being No. 1 because I always wanted that weird lighter-colored door to open and be the entrance to some sort of secret room filled with throwing knives, but it was just a ruse to get me to stand in one place and get Klobb-ered.

1. Stack:
The perfect open, medium-sized world where taking a high position on the upper level with a sniper rifle while playing as Xenia is the most glorious thing a person can do. Conversely, figuring out how to knock off someone who has that ground while you're darting around the lower level is the Bond equivalent of simultaneously getting a PhD and a motorcycle driver's license.

And yet that was how important Bond was to teenage culture at the time -- your abilities in a video game could quite literally bring you to another level of popularity.

If, by now, you still happen to believe GoldenEye isn't the greatest video game of all time, let me make one last argument here. Today's FPS games, which involve players playing multiplayer deathmatches against strangers, talking trash to 12-year-old Norwegians and 53-year-old associate bank managers from the Kansas City in actual Kansas, do not hold a broken Klobb helpfully repurposed as a candle to the act of sitting right next to someone and talking very specific and personal shit as you best them again and again, or excoriating them when you realize they keep glancing over at your screen to find your location and now have to be life-shamed (though there is a certain satisfaction in deriding a Nordic preteen about his country's predilection for paying tithes to bridge trolls).

GoldenEye’s multiplayer format encouraged actual human interaction -- the payoff of all those Bond tournaments meant that you often had four people playing, and several other teams lined up waiting to jump in when one team lost. And all of those people were usually glued to the screen, yelling advice, and making fun of whoever seemed hopelessly unable to do anything but pick up a DD44 Dostovei and run to the corner of Facility. The ability to repeatedly get that many people together in one place made it the perfect game for the high school and college set, as no other groups can boast so many people readily available for long periods of time with access to a television and nothing else to do.

Much has been made of Pokémon Go's ability to get random people together (or robbed. Or falling off cliffs. And many other things.). But Bond was the original common language. I remember the first week of my freshman year of college, walking past a room where two guys were locked in a shit-talking Bond battle. Naturally, I stuck my head in and asked if I could play next. When it came time for my turn, the tall, lanky guy who'd just won asked me what I wanted to play with. When I told him, "Sniper rifles in Stack," his face registered disgust.

"Sniper rifles in Stack," the tall kid snorted. "What kind of pansy-ass shit is that?"

Naturally, for the next three years, he was my roommate and closest friend.

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Kevin Alexander is Thrillist's national writer-at-large and the proud owner of the word "Klobb-er." Buy him a trophy @KAlexander03.