James Bond 007 Review
It’s safe to say that I’m a huge James Bond fan; I own all the Bond movies except for Skyfall—which I’ve seen, but hate due to a number of completely ridiculous (even for the series) plot holes that you could drive a truck through—and am especially partial to From Russia With Love, which I’ve probably watched something like 50 times by now. James Bond 007 is a 1998 Game Boy game that took a Zelda-like approach to the franchise, creating a story that evokes the brand of crazy early Bond villains were notorious for dabbling in while creating gameplay that’s equal parts action and adventure game-esque item acquisition/usage. If it’s not immediately apparent, I suppose it’s worth disclosing that I’ve had this game for something like 15 years and have played through it multiple times, so I’m admittedly coming at this from a place of nostalgia. That said, I made an effort to look past my love goggles and see this game for what it truly is, and what it is turns out to be a flawed, but underrated gem.
When one brings up Bond games, it’s only a matter of time until Goldeneye is brought up. I have no problem with Goldeneye per se; though it’s aged quite a bit, it’s still a hugely entertaining game that did a great deal to popularize shooters among the more Nintendo-oriented crowd who had been largely deprived of them. It also set a bar for movie tie-ins, for the most part being true to the movie (another of my favorites, and undoubtedly the best of Pierce Brosnan’s Bond) without sacrificing gameplay as a result. All that having been said, I find that I enjoy James Bond 007 a bit more as a Bond game.
Part of this has to do with how Goldeneye was almost exclusively comprised of shooting segments, which limited its storytelling ability. James Bond 007, on the other hand, is equal parts gunplay/martial arts and adventure, with several of the early levels consisting largely of item collection and usage. An early area sees you running around a city trading items in the black market while avoiding machete-wielding thugs, all so you can get into catacombs to obtain a diamond to trade for a tranquilizer rifle that you then use against a gambling henchman in order to obtain his room key. This is straight out of the playbook of early Bond films, which were often slower-paced affairs rather than the flashy spectacles they eventually became, and if there’s another game that offers the same “old Bond” feel this one does, I’m unaware of it.
This slower pace isn’t always to the game’s benefit, of course. Just like some of the older movies, the plot occasionally takes a bit too long to develop and the whole thing becomes a bit boring as a result. Trading in the black market is initially interesting, but toward the end it becomes a fetch quest that requires backtracking since it inexplicably expels you from the catacombs after you obtain the diamond. Naturally, you can’t go back the same way, so you have to navigate your way through the labyrinthine city back to the market, through the market into the catacombs, and finally fight your way through the catacombs (for the second time) to trade the diamond for the tranquilizer gun. It may be in the spirit of older Bond films, but this particular sequence winds up being unnecessarily tedious. Fortunately, it’s the only occasion where item acquisition requires lots of running around, as most of the time levels only require you to procure one or two items, like two pieces of a grappling hook when you’re in the mountains or a shield when you’re in a military base. The other levels do a much better job of giving you reasons for collecting these items, as well.
About the story, characters, and shoehorning
The story is typical Bond fluff, which is to say that there’s a completely deranged madman with the power to do something terrible, and James investigates, following lead after lead until he’s drawn into the inevitable confrontation with the bad guy that leaves said bad guy dead and Bond sailing off on a slow boat with the girl. There’s nothing particularly inspired about the story in this game, and yet it captures the feel of a simpler time where Bond was a fairly ordinary individual who just happened to have abundant resources at his disposal rather than being defined as the nearly superhuman explosion dispenser he’s since become.
The characters are every bit as typical-Bond as the story, and the whole thing seems set up to evoke memories of Bond movies rather than creating something that stands out on its own. You have the baddie-turned-love-interest Zhong Mae (who probably plays the biggest role of all NPCs), tribal chief Iqbal, and a number of other characters who come in to the story, only to have their story importance diminished entirely once they’ve provided you with information. As such, it’s not uncommon to see named characters who exist in a single level and are ignored once you’ve dealt with them. Notable characters like M and Moneypenny appear, as well, and their characterization is equally thin. All of this is in line with the style of the movies, of course, so it’s not necessarily a negative so much as something to be aware of going in. Still, I found myself wishing for a character with a bit more permanence.
It’s worth mentioning that I played this game before I ever watched a Bond movie and felt that it was still interesting despite me failing to pick up on all of the game’s references. Playing through it again after having seen all the movies, a few things stood out in my memory as being particularly notable. Some of the dialogue is directly lifted from movies, and while this could have been a train wreck, it somehow manages to avoid being cringe-inducing. On the other side of things, there are appearances by notable series villains Odd Job and Jaws that feel nothing short of shoehorned in, and neither of them play a significant enough role that they couldn’t have been replaced by another character. In fact, Jaws exists solely as a boss fight, and you don’t even get any information out of him. He’s the definition of a tacked-on character.
The combat is mostly solid so long as you’re not in a cave
One of the things that stood out when I first played through James Bond 007 is how solid its hit detection was compared to other games that were being released at the time, especially on the Game Boy. The only real quirk would be the weirdly large hit boxes for bullets and bladed weapons when they’re aimed up or down, forcing you to avoid situations where enemies are attacking from above or below you. This quirk also applies to your own weapons, though, so you can use this to your advantage. Beyond that, the game is littered with medkits that act as an inventory item you can use, and sometimes enemies drop items that instantly restore a portion of your health.
The ubiquity of health items ensures that the game never becomes too difficult, though there are some sections that proved to be unexpectedly challenging. These all had a common thread: 2-3 gun-wielding enemies. This is a scenario the end of the game loves to throw at you, and the real problem with it is that you’re often trying to conserve your ammo for upcoming bosses (you can pick up rocket launchers and grenades that kill enemies in one hit, but they’re incredibly limited), and going up against multiple enemies using a machete or handgun isn’t a very good idea. Machine guns shoot in 3-round bursts and can kill regular enemies in two bursts, but they also burn through ammo incredibly fast.
Groups of gun-wielding enemies would be bad enough, but the combat just falls apart toward the middle of the game when you leave the safety of city corridors and buildings full of right angles and find yourself in the rougher terrain of caves and areas with similar clutter. It’s easy to recognize when a bullet is going to hit the environment and when it won’t when you’re dealing with right angles, and yet when the game moves to more unpredictable terrain this advantage is lost. When you’re not having shots blocked by invisible walls that don’t accurately correspond to what you’re seeing, you’re being hit by bullets that you’d swear should have been blocked. It can get incredibly frustrating.
Melee combat is where this game shines. The first level consists entirely of hand-to-hand combat, and this is as easy as blocking an enemy’s attack, then following it up with a strike. Rinse and repeat. It’s a beautifully simple approach, and once your enemies start being armed with machetes, you learn to be a bit more proactive about attacking. The gunplay of the later parts of the game simple don’t live up to the surprisingly strong melee combat demonstrated early on, and this is no doubt why my strongest memories of the game were of the first few missions. It’s really too bad the developers didn’t find a way to make the game revolve around melee combat.
Bleeps and blocks
Obviously the graphics and music in this game are incredibly outdated, being for a system that had huge limitations in both departments. Both manage to be fairly surprising in their quality, however, with the art style managing to be clean and distinct and the soundtrack remaining Bond-ish despite the bleeps and bloops. Both are old enough that they’re headache-inducing in large doses (trust me—I played large doses for the sake of this review), but they’re still stronger than you’d probably expect.