Perfect Dark is a domino piece whose very existence changed the fate of the entire industry. All right, that's a slight exaggeration, but if there had been just one detour to Joanna Dark's debut, a ripple effect could have had long-term ramifications on our favorite way to spend our leisure time. So let's examine what would have happened if Perfect Dark had been pushed back just 18 months and had been released not toward the tail end of the Nintendo 64's existence, but at the launch of the GameCube. Just a warning, this is pure conjecture. But the prospect of what might have been has been gnawing at me for years, and represents one of my favorite alternate takes on video game history. After all, delaying Perfect Dark just one year seems like it would have had negligible results on the surface, but in reality it could have had a major impact.
How Perfect Dark would have changed:
Although Perfect Dark was showered with near-universal praise, it had severe technical problems that made it nearly unplayable by our current standards. Extra memory (sold separately) was required to enjoy much of what it offered, and even with twice as much RAM, it still suffered from terrible slowdown. Shifting Perfect Dark to the GameCube would have eliminated those problems, ensuring a smoother experience that wouldn't require you to take Dramamine to keep your lunch safely in your belly. Even without any other changes, moving Perfect Dark to more powerful hardware would have elevated the experience so that it was more palatable to everyone.
Why would Rare have been happy to transport the Nintendo 64 version to the GameCube without any changes, though? With so much time to move the game from one platform to the other, Rare could have implemented a few design tweaks to modernize the action. If you remember the Nintendo 64 controller, it had only one analog stick, but that wasn't the case with the GameCube. Moving Perfect Dark would have given you more precision in shooting, which would have been a godsend considering how much aiming the sprawling levels demanded. Imagine how much more satisfying the FarSight would have been if you hadn't had to fight the controller. So, by pushing Perfect Dark back, we would have gotten a game even better than the one that was already so beloved.
How the GameCube would have changed:
The GameCube was a fantastic console. However, despite housing some of Nintendo's most inventive games and a plethora of the best third-party adventures of the day, it struggled to shed its identity as just a place for families to congregate. Perfect Dark would have injected a hard-edged persona from launch day that would have shifted the perception of the purple lunchbox. Remember, people flocked to the Nintendo 64 to play GoldenEye even if the colorful adventures Nintendo was known for didn't strike their fancy, so a spiritual successor to that classic would have engendered the same competitive spirit. Housing the preeminent first-person shooter of the day would have drawn in those who relish using guns to solve problems, instantly expanding the GameCube's potential reach.
With initial success for Rare's futuristic shooter, we would have seen more third parties willing to create Mature-rated games for Nintendo's console, filling out an important segment of the library the Japanese giant was unable to fill itself. And, as long as I'm dreaming, we might have seen one major change to the controller that would have better accommodated Perfect Dark. Its reliance on a right stick might have convinced Nintendo to upgrade the yellow nub to a more functional form, opening the door for more versatility as the console aged. If Rare had pushed Perfect Dark from the Nintendo 64 to the GameCube, we would have seen a demographic shift in who flocked to the console and a more serious rival to the upstart Xbox.
How first-person shooters would have changed:
This is where things get really interesting. Console shooters began to take off with the generation that started early this century. What was popular back then has dictated much of how the genre has evolved, so if Perfect Dark were released in that era, we would have seen an evolutionary split very different from what actually happened. It's important to remember what was popular back then. Halo was still entirely unknown in 2001, and Bungie was a name only Mac diehards had any inkling of. The success of Combat Evolved was not guaranteed, and, if a worthy competitor had stood toe-to-toe against it, the market would have gone in two directions. I don't believe that Perfect Dark GameCube would have crushed Halo before it ever had a chance, but rather that a healthy number of people would have chosen one side or the other, forcing developers to adapt to varying needs.
So what did Perfect Dark offer that was so different from Halo? The differences are almost too numerous to count. Mission design, for instance, included accomplishing specific objectives that changed whenever you increased the difficulty. This is a marked shift from the straight-ahead conquests that Halo demanded, and seeing level design that was as much about investigation as shooting would have offered variety that is desperately lacking in traditional shooters. Furthermore, Perfect Dark not only encouraged the use of bots in competitive play, but let you choose the personalities of your AI-controlled foes. Bots let you design multiplayer experiences in a specific style based on what you were in the mood for, forcing your AI foes to play passively, with chips on their shoulders, and with ruthless efficiency, among many other combat philosophies. This was an idea that was never pushed further, but imagine if other companies had mirrored this approach. Considering how reliant multiplayer games are on their online communities now, how few games catch on with the public, and how quickly the populations die down once a sequel is released, having bots as a standard option would have extended the longevity and injected more variety in modern shooters.
And those aren't the only things that Rare's shooter did differently. Perfect Dark implemented counter-ops, a mode that still doesn't have a modern equivalent. Having one person control the hero and another man the guards who populate campaign levels is a brilliant idea that was never iterated on, just like bot personalities. If Perfect Dark had come out on the GameCube rather than smack-dab between the releases of the Dreamcast and the PlayStation 2 on a dying, underpowered system, it would have had a much wider impact on a genre still getting its footing. It would have been incredible to see other developers build on the level design ideas that Rare started, tinker with versatile AI, and experiment with interesting competitive modes. Instead, we got the disappointing Perfect Dark Zero five years later that couldn't live up to the brilliance of its predecessor.
How Rare would have changed:
Assuming that Perfect Dark carried the torch that GoldenEye first lit, it would have been a massive success for the GameCube. And if Rare were the brains behind this adored shooter, it would have been awfully difficult for Nintendo to let Microsoft swoop in to purchase it. We already know that the Stamper brothers, the heads of Rare at the time, first approached Nintendo when they decided to sell the company. When Nintendo refused, Microsoft jumped at the chance, simultaneously hurting all three companies in one blundering stroke. Seriously, take a look at how each party has been affected since the sale took place way back in 2002. Nintendo struggled to add diversity to the GameCube library, and though the Wii was insanely popular, Rare would have done a great job of churning out quality games during its frequent dry spells. Rare could have also shouldered some of the software burden for the Wii U, which goes for months without compelling games.
Microsoft essentially wasted $375 million on a developer that didn't fit within its ecosystem. Rare was built on diversity and experimentation, a company who could make a variety of different games. If you take a look at the developers Microsoft employs, none of them fit within that structure. Turn 10, after all, makes only simulation racers, 343 Industries and Black Tusk were created to churn out sequels to established shooters, and Lionhead has been riding the Fable train for longer than I can remember. Because Rare doesn't have a franchise big enough to warrant that dedication, it jumped around like it had been doing for decades, meeting varying success with each new endeavor. Now it has been stuck working on Kinect Sports for more than five years, and most of the people who made Rare a name worth knowing have long since left.
Clearly, Rare suffered the most from this transaction. If Perfect Dark had established itself as a core element of the GameCube, maybe Rare would have stuck with Nintendo, a company that knew what it was capable of, and continued to nurture it to get the best games possible. Rare had been around for almost 20 years before Microsoft swooped in, and it took only a little bit of time for Rare to become completely irrelevant. That's why this what-if scenario is so appealing to me. Not only would it have changed the GameCube and first-person shooters, but it might have saved Rare from its horrible fate. Now if only I could get my hands on a time machine. Then I could be enjoying another Conker, Battletoads, or who knows what new characters instead of lamenting the death of my favorite developer.
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