Today marks the 21st anniversary of the Nintendo 64's launch in Japan. The N64 is a console of dualities. It cost Nintendo its position as leader of the world video game marketplace, while providing some of the best games of the fifth-generation of consoles. It marked the turning point for Nintendo from monolithic and cutting-edge, to the more unique and simple company we see today.
Whether the Nintendo 64 was a success or a failure is up for debate. While it's obvious that Nintendo would have liked it to perform better in the market, it's still a favorite system for thousands of fans the world over.
Take a stroll back with us as we look at the good, the bad and the ugly of the Nintendo 64.
Nintendo 64 21st Anniversary: The birth of the N64
Development began on the Nintendo 64 in early 1993, under the codename "Project Reality." Nintendo worked with Silicon Graphics, Inc. to develop the Reality Coprocessor, which drove the visuals for the system. Preliminary designs for the system were unveiled to the public in 1994, dubbed as the Nintendo Ultra 64.
The N64 kept the Ultra 64 moniker until just seven months before release. Initially, the console was going to be called the Ultra Famicom in Japan, and the Nintendo Ultra 64 in other territories. Nintendo chose this console to be the release to unite their brands, dropping the Famicom branding entirely. At the Shoshinkai Software Exhibition in November 1995, Nintendo revealed that the console would be known as the Nintendo 64 worldwide.
The Nintendo 64 suffered two significant delays in release. Initially, it was slated to hit shelves by the 1995 holiday season. This was pushed back to April 1996, then again to June 23, 1996. One reason for the delays is reminiscent of Nintendo's predicament today with the Switch: They didn't have enough hardware manufactured. Additionally, developers found it hard to work with the Nintendo 64, and many in the industry hadn't worked with 3D before, so software availability was an issue.
Nintendo 64 21st Anniversary: The Good — awesome games
The N64 launched to plenty of fanfare, but 21 years later we can look at the system a bit more critically than journalists did at the time. The Nintendo 64's greatest asset and its worst problem is its game library. The N64 probably has the best awesome-to-crappy games ratio of any console ever. The problem is, only 296 games were released in North America over the span of the console's life. Comparatively, 1,284 were published on the PlayStation.
The Nintendo 64 has some groundbreaking games that still profoundly influence design to this day. Here are five of my favorites in no particular order.
One of Rare's finest games, and possibly the best licensed game of all time, GoldenEye 007 brought objective-based first-person shooter gameplay to consoles and was the first game to take the N64's four-player split screen to the limit.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
This game defined the action-RPG genre and provided an epic experience that was only recently matched by Breath of the Wild. With Ocarina of Time, Nintendo created an adventure that was nothing but progression, no tedious filler or confusing plot points, just lean, crisp gameplay. This is a must-play for any video game fan.
Super Mario 64
Super Mario 64 inspired hundreds of 3D platformers. It wasn't the first in the genre, but it was the first to get it right. Unlike its predecessors, SM64 got the camera right. Instead of having to fight to see where you were going, the N64 controller provided the means for changing perspective as needed quickly. Pair the excellent controls with the numerous and varied worlds you can visit and play through, and you've got a masterpiece of game design.
Just when you thought Rare had brought the best FPS action the N64 could offer, they hit you with Perfect Dark. It released near the end of the N64's lifespan and is a culmination of all the programming experience that Rare accumulated with the console.
It had the same great objective-based gameplay of Goldeneye but brought an original and more complex plot and game design. Multiplayer became better with the inclusion of bots, bigger and more varied levels and a ton of awesome weapons for taking out your friends.
Mario Kart 64
There's a reason that playing Mario Kart 8 doesn't feel all that different from playing Mario Kart 64: Nintendo got 3D racing right the first time. The best feature of the game is multiplayer. It's still a blast to race against your friends, and the gameplay holds up 20 years after release.
Nintendo 64 21st Anniversary: The Bad — cartridge limitations
A lot of the complaints about the Nintendo 64's performance come from the storage media choice: the cartridge. The Nintendo 64 Game Pak ranged in size from four mebibytes (MiB) to 64 MiB, which was far smaller than the 650 MiB CD-medium Sony PlayStation used. The cartridges also cost more, not only for consumers but developers as well. The increased cost and difficulty porting games to a much smaller storage medium turned a lot of third-party developers off and is a direct cause of the N64's low number of releases.
However, cartridges did have several upsides. Since they use solid-state storage, cartridges loaded games much quicker, and rarely on the N64 did you see a loading screen — something that was a constant for the PlayStation. Additionally, programmers were able to use the cartridge as almost an extension of the system's RAM, streaming the game directly from the cartridge instead of having first to store it in the console's memory.
Nintendo 64 21st Anniversary: The Ugly — the 64DD
Probably the biggest tragedy in the story of the Nintendo 64 is the fate of the Nintendo 64DD. Nintendo realized the weaknesses of a cartridge-based system even before the public release of the console. Their solution was an expansion for the N64 that would utilize a proprietary magnetic disk that offers a middle ground between the advantages of cartridges and the inexpensiveness of CD-ROMs.
The Nintendo 64 disks were faster than CDs and had a durable, plastic protective shell around the magnetic media that could be both read and written to. Additionally, the 64DD expansion itself had a real-time clock built in, and the ability to connect to the internet using an external modem.
While the Nintendo 64DD could play games specifically programmed for the drive, the most exciting capability it had was that it could expand cartridge-based games. One expansion, the F-Zero X Expansion Kit, was released overseas, but many N64 games had programming hooks for 64DD expansions that were never used. If you think about it, the whole idea is basically physical DLC, which put Nintendo about a decade ahead of the competition in that regard.
In 1995, the 64DD was announced to be launching at the end of 1996. However, the Nintendo 64DD was delayed numerous times, even though a lot of internal Nintendo titles were being targeted for launch on the expansion. Why Nintendo delayed the expansion over and over isn't known. Some speculate that Nintendo was waiting for the N64 to reach a certain level of sales before they released the expansion; a level they never reached.
Eventually, the expansion was released only in Japan on Dec. 1, 1999. To get a 64DD, you had to order it through Nintendo's partner Randnet. The Randnet version of the 64DD came with a year of internet service, a cartridge-based modem and a subscription for six bimonthly games. Later, the 64DD and games were sold in very limited quantities in stores. The Randnet service was discontinued in February 2001, after reaching a height of 15,000 subscribers.
Only nine games were released on the Nintendo 64DD. Any games that Nintendo and third-parties were developing for the 64DD were either ported to a cartridge or canceled outright. The failure of the Nintendo 64DD was no fault of the hardware. In fact, if released earlier in the N64's lifecycle, we may have seen some incredible new content for the system's most beloved games in the form of expansions, and new capabilities the system never got via the internet connection and real-time clock.
Unfortunately, Nintendo chose not to pursue the system and the N64 may have suffered greatly because of it.
Nintendo 64 21st Anniversary: How does it stack up today?
The Nintendo 64 is an iconic system, and it's still worth playing. The five games mentioned above demonstrate the beginnings of some of the game design features we take for granted today, and they are iconic classics. N64 devs tended to use a lot of solid color polygons which means those games aged a lot better than the muddled textures of many original PlayStation games.
Multiplayer was much better on the Nintendo 64 than the PlayStation, with the ability for four people to play instead of just two, so it's a great console to get nostalgic with a few friends. We definitely recommend taking a trip down memory lane with the Nintendo 64, or if you've never experienced it, grabbing one ASAP.
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