Though TSR's Top Secret was my first love when it came to espionage RPGs, I think Victory Games's James Bond 007 was probably my true love. I exaggerate slightly, of course, because, when it comes down to it, the Bond franchise is no more about espionage than Dungeons & Dragons is about the Middle Ages. That's what I liked about this roleplaying game, released in 1983 by Victory Games, a subsidiary of Avalon Hill formed a year earlier and staffed largely by ex-SPI personnel: it knew what it was and made no bones about it -- and what it was was an action-adventure game inspired by Ian Fleming's sophisticated pulp fiction (and its spin-offs).
That self-awareness might not seem like a big deal nowadays but, in 1983, it was noteworthy. Whereas the aforementioned Top Secret was a conceptual jumble intended to encompass everything from John Le Carré to The Man from U.N.C.L.E., James Bond 007 was a piece of precision game design intended to bring the flamboyant world of Britain's greatest secret agent to life. Written by Gerard Christopher Klug, whose primary design credit prior to this was "co-development" of SPI's SF RPG, Universe, the game employed a percentile-based "quality results table" to adjudicate most actions in the game. Not unlike the color-coded charts in games like later games, such as Marvel Super Heroes, the table determined not only the success of actions but also, as its name suggests, the quality of those successes on a scale of 1 (Excellent) to 4 (Acceptable). This scale elegantly enabled many actions, such as combat, to be handled with a single die roll. The chance of success -- and thus its quality -- can be modified through the use an Ease Factor assigned by the GM.
Character creation is a straightforward point-buy system designed to ensure that even rookie characters are quite competent, as you'd expect for secret agents in the James Bond universe. Points are spent on five characteristics (Strength, Dexterity, Willpower, Perception, and Intelligence), Skills (from a narrow but appropriate list), and Physical Appearance (including Height and Weight). Weaknesses of various sorts give additional generation points with which to purchase any of the above. Optionally, characters may have prior professions, which give them "Fields of Experience," which are non-mechanical "skills." That is, they represent areas of knowledge on which a character may draw without the need for a roll to determine success. They're a surprisingly elegant aspect of the game that nicely models the ability of Bond to come up with useful information in the course of a mission.
What's interesting about James Bond 007 is that it never loses sight of its purpose. Rather than cover a wide variety of topics in limited detail in order to provide breadth, it instead goes into much great detail about a small range of topics you'd expect of any game inspired by James Bond. Thus, there's an entire chapter devoted to chases of all sorts, just as there are chapters devoted gambling/casinos and interaction with NPCs, particularly seduction and torture. The result is a game that, while very focused, nevertheless doesn't feel cramped. In fact, it feels strangely liberating, as the rules quite clearly give the GM a fully-functional mechanical toolbox for emulating Bond films and novels.
Building on this, the Basic Rules of James Bond 007 provides an extensive GM section -- nearly half of the book's 162 pages are given over to the GM. Besides the usual advice, there's a great section on building memorable NPCs, complete with random tables for generating their stats and a random encounter system designed to simultaneously flesh out a mission and provide unexpected turns of events. It's surprisingly old school in its general approach and something I appreciate even more now than I did back when I played the game. Other portions of the GM section detail weaponry and gadgets, MI6, important NPCs from the films/novels, an enemy organization called TAROT to replace SPECTRE (which, for legal reasons, the game could not use), and information on numerous Bond-related world cities. There was even an introductory solitaire adventure to enable players and GMs alike to become familiar with the rules -- and all under one cover.
James Bond 007 was not only a good game, one that perfectly emulated its source material without the imposition of a mechanical straitjacket, but also a very successful one. During its brief time on the stage (1983-1987), it sold tens of thousands of copies, making it likely the most popular espionage-related RPG ever published. Support for the game was primarily in the form of adventures -- another connection to old school principles -- with a handful of sourcebooks, such as the Q Manual and Thrilling Locations, both of which could readily be used as inspiration for other modern day games. The adventures were a mixed bag, using the movies as starting points but in fact deviating from them quite radically in some cases. Even the worst ones, though, felt distinctly "Bondian" rather than generic, much the game itself.
Long out of print, Berin "Uncle Bear" Kinsman, has retro-cloned the rules under the name Double Zero and a full release of the game is coming late this summer. I certainly look forward to it, as James Bond 007 was a terrific example of early 80s game design and a true classic. Despite my fondness for Top Secret, I doubt I'd ever consider playing it again, whereas I'd happily play James Bond 007 in a heartbeat. For its genre, no one's ever done it better.