By now, everyone knows the exploits of the Carrington Institute's top agent, Joanna Dark. Whether ridding the world of extraterrestrial life-forms or toppling antigovernment plots, Ms. Dark's appearance on the Nintendo 64 is very highly regarded. Seeking to capitalize on this notoriety, Rare and Nintendo bring us a Game Boy Color rendition of Perfect Dark, a prequel set one year prior to the events that take place in Nintendo 64 release. Although this handheld version chronicles Joanna's training and subsequent first assignment as an agent for the Carrington Institute, like a wet-behind-the-ears rookie, it also makes a few mistakes.
Initially, Perfect Dark GBC suggests all is right with the world. There are ten missions, five training and five actual, each of which uses a plethora of viewpoints - such as top-down and first-person - to convey a sense of variety and depth. Thankfully, a battery-save feature tags along for the ride. As you progress through the main game, you can unlock a series of minigames, multiplayer modes, and printable character portraits, which then become accessible via the main menu. You even get the ability to transfer secrets to the Nintendo 64 game by way of the GBC/N64 Transfer Pak. So far, so good - that is, until you actually play the game.
In execution, the game relies mainly on a top-down semi-isometric viewpoint, akin to Mission Impossible or Metal Gear Solid. Moving around or aiming is done via the directional pad, while the A button fires your weapon and B reloads. At first, the initial training missions seem like a piece of cake, introducing you to the game's control and play mechanics without becoming overly difficult or repetitious. Walk around, learn how to sneak up on bad guys, free some hostages, and acclimate yourself with the first-person viewpoint via a few target ranges - not bad for five short training exercises.
Unfortunately, after these training exercises, you then get into the actual missions themselves. Within 30 seconds of starting the first mission, you're dead. Restart the mission, skirt past that last bad guy, and you're dead. Restart again, skirt past those two bad guys, pick up some health, and within another 30 seconds, you're dead. You die a lot in this game, far more than you really should. Certainly, the game is meant to be difficult, but there are a number of additional factors that only exacerbate the problem. First, ammunition and health are scarce, mighty scarce. As you get into the DataDyne set of missions, you'll literally go five or more minutes without replenishing ammo or health. Adding insult to injury, enemy soldier AI seems to consist of only two behaviors: run in circles or stand directly in front of you. The latter of these is particularly annoying, as the CPU seems to be able to fire its weapons at a slight angle, standing just off-center of and immune to your own aim, while you can't do a thing about it since Joanna can only fire in rigidly straight directions. As a final topper, you get a life meter that allows you to take approximately five hits, while most enemies take three and bosses take up to 100 to dispatch.
Regardless of the game's difficulty, Rare is to be commended for adding in so many nonisometric levels and diversifying the game by allowing players to take on DataDyne's minions in a first-person raft chase, a top-down Spy Hunter-style jeep race, and a sniper mission that uses a Duck Hunt-style shooting interface. Except for a couple cybernetic spiders, the boss levels are shown from the first-person as well. While these excursions all suffer from twice the difficulty of the game's standard levels, they are at least fun and interesting. The main game is not, though. For each of the five missions you must face, from a rebel supply base and crash site to the main DataDyne facility and beyond, the game just gets longer, more tedious, and more cookie-cutter as time goes on. Unlike Metal Gear Solid, Perfect Dark assaults the player with mostly linear levels and a distinct lack of strategy. Sure, in theory you should be sneaking up on enemies, defusing bombs, and saving hostages. In practice, however, enemies turn around and attack even when you're sneaking up on them and defusing bombs requires no effort, so the suggestion of strategy is moot. When you factor in an insane difficulty level and the way the game simply drags on, it's hard to amass any desire to complete the game. The sad part is, if you actually manage such a feat, you'll likely have to play the game over again to finish collecting all of the secrets and extras.
Visually and aurally, however, Perfect Dark does a lot better at conveying the action than it does at actually bringing you into it. The isometric stages resemble a beefed-up version of Infogrames' Mission Impossible, mixing fluid animation with a minor lack of detail, while the game's first-person and top-down stages delight with huge sprites and well-designed bosses. With the clever strategy that defeating bosses requires, coupled with how visually pleasing they are, it is a crying shame that the standard levels leading up to them are so worthless. The audio experience is exact opposite of this. Main stage audio foregoes background music in favor of digitized footsteps, grunts, shouts, weapon effects, and explosions, conveying a sonic environment that is, at times, too real. Boss levels, however, remain quiet and unassuming, imbuing the situation with only a few weapon effects and the occasional explosion.
If Rare and Nintendo intended to establish a back story for Joanna and offer a tribute to her Nintendo 64 exploits, then Perfect Dark GBC does its Nintendo 64 counterpart justice, albeit haphazardly. The blend of top-down, first-person, and vehicular viewpoints gives the game a decent sense of variety and fun, but the over-the-top difficulty and the pitiful level design greatly hinder what the game is trying to get across. Unless you're a die-hard Joanna Dark fanatic or have a friend willing to partake of the game's much more engaging deathmatch mode, you'll probably not have the patience or wherewithal to see Perfect Dark through to completion.