It feels weird these days that there’s no James Bond video games being released. The last major James Bond game was 007: Legends in late 2012, made to advertise the then-new Skyfall film. Activision revoked the James Bond licence the following year, and unfortunately killed off the wonderful Eurocom in the process. Since then, nobody has come up to the plate to bring the titular spy back in a big-budget licensed game. A shame, really.
While most people probably remember the heyday when Nightfire was the in-thing, or even tried to give stuff like 007 Blood Stone a try, James Bond games have been around much, much longer. There’s so many of them, more than you’d expect. Most of these are fairly quick to talk about, except for one that came out in the early ‘90s.
But before Activision, before EA, even before Goldeneye 007 was having people go Slappers Only in The Basement, there was those really awkward years throughout the 80s and 90s.
Before Nintendo published James Bond 007 and the famous Goldeneye, there wasn’t really a definitive publisher of James Bond games. Parker Brothers put out a passable action game on the Atari 2600 where you play as one of Bond’s fancy cars rather than the character. Mindscape published a few Angelsoft text adventures – written by James Bond historian and later Bond book author Raymond Benson – at one point even Interplay got in on the Bond thing, taking Delphine Software’s Operation Stealth and slapping the James Bond license on it, changing only a few names here and there. But the primary publisher for a lot of Bond games during this period was British publisher Domark.
When Domark had the license throughout the late 80s to early 90s, they released many different kinds of games. Often times these were action games inspired by existing games, like the game based on The Spy Who Loved Me being a passable Spy Hunter clone. There were also games based on Licence to Kill, Live and Let Die, and The Living Daylights.
I do not recommend actively seeking out these games. If you’re morbidly curious, find a cracked copy where you can turn on cheats. A lot of these games are stupidly hard, probably to cover up how little there was in overall game content. For example, Licence to Kill can be beaten in less than 15 minutes if you’re skilled enough. Probably wasn’t worth the $50 price tag with that little gameplay value.
While most of these games were on home computers, there was a James Bond game on home console and it was quite an interesting little piece, and I’m not talking about that busted THQ game based off the short-lived James Bond Jr. TV series. No, I’m talking about what ended up being Domark’s final James Bond game: James Bond 007: The Duel.
Released in 1993 for the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive and Game Gear, this is an action-based platformer. Developed by “The Kremlin” – in reality Domark’s in-house development team – this is the only James Bond game to appear on Sega platforms. Surprisingly this is not based on an existing film, but rather an amalgamation of various elements of Bond films up to that point.
This also got a Master System and Game Gear release, mostly identical to the Genesis game gameplay wise, but for the sake of this article I’m covering only the Genesis version.
It even features Timothy Dalton as Bond. At least, a video game rendition of him. This is interesting because he hadn’t done a Bond film since 1989’s Licence to Kill, and this was around the time where the James Bond franchise was in limbo because of legal problems between MGM and United Artists. Dalton would leave the role in early 1994, with Pierce Brosnan being the next James Bond later that year. Had this game come out just a little bit later, we probably would’ve gotten Pierce Brosnan making his James Bond game debut here. Oh, what could’ve been.
So the game plays something akin to Rolling Thunder. Bond can jump, shoot, and occasionally throw grenades at his adversaries. Each of the game’s four levels have the same goals: Find all the captured Bond girls (which all look like clones of each other), find the bomb, and escape before time runs out. It’s much like an arcade game in that respect.
While none of the levels are based on any specific Bond film, The Duel does use past James Bond villains as minibosses that can thwart Bond’s progress. Jaws, May Day, Oddjob and Baron Samedi will try to attack you, but if you hit enough shots into them, they drop a health refill, the only ones in the game.
So this seems fun, right? An arcade-like romp as 007. If only it was actually that fun.
As I mentioned earlier, Domark’s games were infamous for their difficulty. This game is no exception. enemies are constantly moving, running side to side until they see you, in which they’ll shoot you rather quickly.
With some enemies, Bond can duck to dodge their fire, but this doesn’t work with all enemies, and definitely will not work on the minibosses. Since the enemies aren’t static and their reaction time to shoot is very quick, expect to frequently blind fire to shoot an enemy that’s just offscreen. The downside to this strategy is that Bond doesn’t have infinite ammo, so spamming the fire button may not be a wise move. Thankfully enemies will drop spare ammo when you kill them.
Worst, these enemies will occasionally respawn, making it annoying when you’re waiting for a lift or a platform to arrive.
It takes a few moments for Bond to do certain moves like crouching, and even jumping isn’t very precise. Worst, there’s a small animation (shown above) where Bond switches the hand his gun is in if he needs to change direction, which makes Bond difficult to control sometimes. Getting shot knocks Bond back much like Simon Belmont. This is something the developers used to make the game even more unfair: Put an enemy on a ledge above a ladder, and if you don’t have quick reflexes, they can shoot you off the platform.
Oh, and there’s fall damage. Fall too far down and 007’s KIA. Which is just as annoying as the instant-death traps that plague most of the levels.
At least Bond can Only Live Five Times, and there’s only one continue after a game over. However, there is no way to get extra lives from what I saw, meaning that to stop the Big Bad™ and save the day, there’s only about 10 or so chances to do it. Combine that with all the cheap tricks the game does to artificially increase the difficulty, and it becomes a frustrating mess.
Admittedly when playing and capturing screenshots for this game I had to cheat, using an Infinite Lives Game Genie code. While it’s entirely possible to beat the game without cheating, it requires quick reflexes and lots of memorization to do so. It’s that ruthless.
On the bright side, the game looks pretty nice, and the game makes looking above and below the surroundings pretty easy. Despite my complaints about the goofy gun-swapping animation that plays, the game has solid animations. Granted, it doesn’t look as good as other Genesis titles released around the same time like Disney’s Aladdin, but it gets the job done.
Oh, and I have to talk about the soundtrack. While the James Bond Theme has been said by some to “sound like farts” in this game, the rest of the game’s soundtrack is ace, especially Wave Trouble, the track that highlights the first level.
The music was done by Matt Furniss, one of the unsung heroes of 16-bit game music, doing wonderful sound with the Genesis’s YM2612 sound chip. His arrangements of Dan Forden’s music from the first two Mortal Kombat games are so damn good that they’re practically better than the originals. If you can listen past the passable-but-average James Bond Theme, there’s some solid bangers in there. One of my other favorites is Caveman Rock, which highlights the third level, the volcano lair.
It’s a bummer that despite the game being a decent action platformer with good tunes and decent graphics for the time, it’s marred by its tough difficulty. I wouldn’t recommend playing this unless you’re willing to put up with the game’s bullshit, and even then I can’t blame you if you use cheat codes to beat it, whether on cart or emulator.
James Bond 007: The Duel is an interesting piece of history for James Bond games, because it’s the end of the frustrating, challenging Domark era; and paved the way for the enjoyable Bond games that followed.
…Well, most of them, anyway. 007 Racing, Goldeneye: Rogue Agent and From Russia With Love are trash, but those can Die Another Day. I swear, I write puns worse than even the Bond film screenwriters sometimes!