If ever there was a console that completely and utterly summed up a companies arrogance then the Nintendo 64 (N64 for short) was that console, every single thing about it screams Nintendo at their very best and also at their very worst.
After completely rescuing then dominating the games industry in the mid 80’s with the NES things had not gone completely smoothly for the Japanese giant the next console the SNES although utterly loved by gamers and journalists had not got anywhere near the same level of sales as it’s little brother. The Gameboy however was doing stupidly well, I mean it was everywhere and the handheld market belonged to Mario’s men but in the home that pesky upstart arcade company SEGA had wrestled key territories away from them especially the very lucrative North American market with the Genesis and Europe with the Master System / Megadrive and now there was a new major player in town…Sony. Times were changing, the old rules were out and the new tech was in, CD-ROM was the future.
Unless your Nintendo that is…….
Explained elsewhere on this site Nintendo rejected completely out of hand the idea that CD-ROM was the next big thing, they had after all stabbed Sony in the back over an add-on for the SNES and then watched Sega, Philips, 3DO totally fail to ignite the market and quite frankly prove them right. The problem was you can’t always be right forever as eventually everything changes.
Sega had been waving around the idea of a 32-bit CD-ROM console that would eventually become the Sega Saturn and Sony behind closed doors were wowing every developer on the planet with their first entry super console the Playstation so how exactly was a stalling company going to not only keep up but grab their throne back? A throne they helped create in the first place.
Enter classic Japanese arrogance……
Nintendo decided that not only would they completely bypass a step and go straight for a 64-bit console instead of the 32-bit era but they would do it using the fading media of Cartridge their thinking was CD-ROM was far too slow and broke up gameplay experience and that extra space didn’t mean better games. Project Reality was born. Developed in conjunction with several partners and directly linked into a new arcade tech that was producing stunning games like Killer Instinct Nintendo were going for pure in your face gaming power with near instant loading times, Sega and Sony would be blown out of the water….. They were wrong!
Whilst the Sega Saturn and the Sony Playstation were both released in parts of the world during 1994 Nintendo came to the party late, over a year late to be exact as Japan didn’t even see it until June of that year with America getting it September 1996 and Europe getting it even later in early 1997, Mistake number 1.
Nintendo had, as explained in another article woken a giant, Sony hit the market with a 3D powerhouse console that was walking into people’s homes all the while Nintendo were announcing the next big thing was coming, be patient it told gamers the best was yet to come and in so many ways it was and in others it absolutely fell flat on it’s face. The design brief for the N64 was as said power, it was going to be just like the arcades you played except at home, Killer Instinct etc were all on their way and this new home console would be just as good….. Nope Mistake number 2.
A lot of people will tell you a lot of things about the Nintendo 64 console and I am of the opinion that all are entitled to their opinion however 3 key things were to decide this console’s fate as runner up in this round of the console wars and all of them could have so easily been avoided, one however actually turned into one of it’s strength’s such is the crazy world of the games industry, let me explain in more detail.
It hit the market way too late, Nintendo had released no new home console since 1990 in Japan, what exactly were they doing for 6 years? Watching your competition is all fine and dandy however if you don’t work on your own game plan all you are doing is reacting rather than acting, this is evident in the extreme here, the Nintendo 64 simply doesn’t fit in with it’s generation at all, it’s cartridge media for one made it feel old even when it was new.
Speaking of cartridge this was another huge mistake, the benefits of them are small however the disadvantages are immense, they lack storage size for one thing and cost a fortune to produce, this alone put so many developers off, coupled with Nintendo’s insane royalties demand it priced so many people out of the game, their ill founded arrogance of CD-ROM although right in the early 90’s was now an opinion that was quite frankly flat out wrong, it also meant hardcore long time partners like Square walked away from them, Final Fantasy 7 was supposed to be an exclusive N64 game hence why all the characters look blocky and lack textures.
This brings me to the third biggest mistake, the graphics. The Nintendo 64 was a real 3D powerhouse itself, real 64 bit architecture and a very good processor meant that under the hood Nintendo had done their job well, the problem was however they failed to take into account a high Texture Cache, the screen would be full of smooth moving polygons however there was no way to sharpen them or give them a sense of real depth, so many N64 games look like pretty coloured moving blocks. Walls, floors and ceilings feel empty even bland. Other games feel like the graphics have a blurred almost wallpaper like effect in a weird low resolution haze. Later Nintendo released an expansion cartridge that fixed a lot of this, phew!
At this point I know it looks like I’m bashing the N64, like I don’t love it but trust me I’m building, rest easy retrobates, like Nintendo said themselves…… Patience.
Everything coupled together plus a price point that in places like Europe was far too high compared to it’s rivals such as Sony meant that when Nintendo had launched this new home console everything felt very old from a tech point of view, after so much media bombardment of playing the waiting game Nintendo had produced the worst graphically looking console of the 3 main players. This was for a lot of people at the time a real disaster, games magazines were sceptical to say the least as many had already fallen head over heels in love with Sony, even Sega were being trampled on by the time the N64 was launched and a lot of gamers who at that point in time were still boys aged 10-18 had nearly no interest in it at all, on paper this was a failure, considering the pedigree of Nintendo before this console (NES,GAMEBOY,SNES) the N64 was a joke, on paper they had completely lost it, on paper they would be left out in the cold.
Never…. EVER trust Paper!!!
The Nintendo 64 would go on to sell over 32 million units worldwide during it’s glorious lifespan and give to the world some of the finest games ever made, I mean that as well…EVER made!
So how on earth does a console that run’s out of date looking games (some cases) on a console that’s so very late to the party do this exactly because there was no way this should have worked and if it had been a machine from any other company it would have never sold more than 5 million units, of that you can be completely assured, after all the 3DO with all it’s amazing qualities sold less than 2 million. The answer is simple, NINTENDO. Only Nintendo had the perfect mixture of arrogance, vision and above all else games franchises and design to polish a turd into a diamond. Here comes the breakdown so pull up a chair and let me talk you through some of the greatest things to have ever existed in the world of gaming.
The controller….. When first images of this were seen many people were caught in a state of shock, it just looked totally different to everything else out there, sure it had a D-Pad and buttons but it was now a weird shape with some sort of stick in the middle and a trigger button on the back leading people to wonder what the hell was going on?!?!?!?!?!
Maybe Nintendo didn’t see the future regarding format however they absolutely got it spot on with analogue sticks for controlling games, this was a sensation and utterly changed everything overnight. Analogue control went hand in hand with gaming in a 3D world so much so that it’s still the standard today. The stick in the middle made first person perspective feel great, it also meant that car racing games now had gradient turning meaning you could glide past other cars and the trigger underneath (Z button) meant that firing a gun or accelerating a car felt like you were in control, I can’t explain the difference at the time but trust me it was totally over whelming.
The mystery of this brand new controller and it’s new features, feel, shape etc were however solved by the N64’s launch trump card, a game that the controller was actually created for and a game that fitted this new home system like a glove to a hand, Mario 64. This writer was lucky enough to know someone who imported consoles from Japan back in the day and I played this new machine less than a week after it’s Japanese launch, I could try and describe the feeling of seeing this game for the first time but sometimes words simply are not enough, only emotional feeling can replicate emotional feeling but I sincerely hope that one day everyone has that moment when the whole world vanishes and all that’s left in that one exact perfect moment is you and the object that brought you to that point.
I can honestly say that I remember almost nothing else of what was going on during my hours playing this new game on a new console including those others in the room at the time one of which, my then girlfriend, commented afterwards that she had never seen someone so utterly mesmerized or what she referred to as in love with something.
Mario 64 in one fell swoop changed the entire world of gaming, not just for me but for the actual world, it’s a game so utterly perfect in almost every single way that it easily hit’s the height’s of being an art form. It’s not a game, it’s not something so trivial as to be explained by a geek on a website using words, god no. Mario 64 is at it’s core a feeling, an emotion, a heartbeat, a breath, a better place in space or time, it’s not the past, the future or even the present it’s just there and as such is a game that in my humble opinion is completely timeless as well as peerless. Now what would you say if I told you Mario 64 wasn’t the only game like this on the N64 console? Would you immediately think ‘no bloody way’ or ‘shut up’ If that is indeed your response I hereby challenge you to prove me wrong because the next 2 titles are also giants of their genre’s.
Goldeneye!!! Do I need to carry on here? If you had an N64 or knew someone who had one you have played this game for sure if however your new to the world of retro then firstly. Welcome fellow geeks! And secondly go out right now and buy this game, no emulation here please, get an N64 and play the original game on original hardware with controller because…OH MY GOD!!! If ever a game deserved the hype it was this one, not hype before it’s release but the sheer amount of praise afterwards Goldeneye got was insane, it is one of those games that once you played round a friend’s you immediately went out and got your own copy. unlockable difficulty levels, weapons and missions as well as 2 completely hidden secret levels meant that to fully complete this game would take ages and because of it’s mission based structure it could easily be played for 20 minutes or 6 hours at a time.
The soundtrack is just quite frankly out of this world and mixes classic bond themes with new beats to produce sonic overload. Whack into this a 4 player split screen mode and you have the game that for so many people actually defines their childhood memories, seriously people to this day I know sit around in groups all remembering better times with friends before they grew up and life got all serous and boring. Lastly I’m going to drop the game that in itself causes several different debates, nobody can ever agree on it’s genre or it’s standing in said genre or even it’s place in the franchise history however it is another example of a developer completely on top of it’s game, almost to the point of showing off. You already know what I’m going to say, yup that’s right you guessed it, it was of course the mind blowing........ Earthworm Jim 3D!!!
Legend Of Zelda: Ocarina Of Time. (Zelda OOT)
If this writer get’s emotional over Mario 64 it’s very possible I may be crying tears of happiness when I write about this game, I feel about Zelda OOT so much that to me it compares to a lost love, a girlfriend who was the one! And you let her slip through your fingers, that may sound weird but I’ll explain a bit more below.
From the second the title screen appears you know your in for something special, the music just seems to reach out virtual arms and hug you and the horse doing something as simple as galloping along and drinking water from a stream just further reinforces sheer class.
I see Zelda OOT as both an action adventure and an RPG but if nobody else does that’s fine with me however what everyone who has played this will agree on is that from start to finish this particular title takes you on a rollercoaster ride of fun, love and heartbreak. The only down side to this game is that it ends, what a stupid down side right? Complete it however and then tell me you don’t feel like a friend has died, I personally had thoughts of not knowing what I was going to do now, I almost felt alone, the person that tells me games can’t be as emotional as human contact will get some contact all right of the my fist to their face variety.
Of course 3 games no matter how great don’t make a console (they kind of do though x) but this is where Nintendo’s 64-Bit beauty shines, a conversation with a couple of collectors recently heralded the fact that the N64 may just have the highest quality to quantity ratio regarding games ever released for it, this is backed up by this list of games I’m about to lay down.
Banjo Kazooie, Banjo Tooie, Mario Kart 64, Mario Party 2 &3, Mischief Makers, F-Zero, Pilotwings, Resident Evil 2, Conkers Bad Fur Day, Jet Force Gemini, Rogue Squadron, Zelda: Majora’s Mask, Mario Golf, Mario Tennis, Donkey Kong 64, Pokemon Stadium 1&2, Yoshi’s Story., Diddy Kong Racing, Perfect Dark, paper Mario, Starfox 64, Super Smash Bros and about 30 more are utter essentials to both play and if possible own.
The N64 was a console that absolutely didn’t have the number of releases the Playstation had but it did have in so many ways a better quality of games, there’s simply no Playstation equal to Mario 64, Goldeneye or Zelda OOT.
Earlier I mentioned Texture Cache and it’s this lack of power that meant that most N64 games seem to have a look about them, you can almost instantly tell if a screenshot is from a Nintendo 64 title because it looks almost blurry even if the colours are vivid there’s no real definition to scenery. Whilst a lot of people then and indeed now tend to see that as a huge negative I see it as both that and also positive because it helps give the N64 it’s own sense of identity and also forced developers to go down the route of making a killer game rather than a killer looking game with no sense of fun.
Speaking of developers it was at this time that the usual hardcore Capcom, Konami, Square etc took a step back from Nintendo to embrace (certainly with respect to Square) the larger sized CD-ROM format and the capacity for amazing FMV, CD quality sound to be included so Nintendo really had to up their game to be able to compete and this they did in spades, the first party games some of which mentioned above are some of if not the best examples of games in their genre and franchise. Nintendo did however have third party help in the form of a known UK developer that they had purchased and made exclusive games for them, a company called RARE.
Rare were absolutely in most ways the reason to own an N64, they were a developer in their prime during the mid - late 90’s churning out the all beating Goldeneye and of course classics such as Banjo Kazooie and Perfect Dark. It’s nearly impossible to find a bad RARE game from this time, trust me I’ve gone looking people. Although very big during the latter part of the SNES lifespan and also around during the Gamecube era the games created for the 64-Bit console were their best work by a mile. Eventually RARE would be sold by Nintendo to Microsoft for a cool $350 million as the quality output started to fade away, clever old Nintendo eh, RARE are now a complete joke of a developer simply making rubbish avatar items and Kinect games for Microsoft, if I were them I’d kill myself.
So that’s the tale of the patient Nintendo console, the boy who waited you may say. Released 6 years after the SNES it got loads wrong but got the most important thing right…The games! To this day when you see a top 100 list of all time games you can be completely assured that at least 3 of the top 10 will be N64 games and that in itself says everything really.
A new way of playing with a new type of controller, games that actually worked in 3D, a library of software that included all genres some of which are the stand out best in said field means that the first class legacy of this apparent failure is cemented in Retro history. Everybody has copied aspects of this machine from Sony and the taking of controller rumble features to Sega and it’s 4 controller ports as standard for the Dreamcast to everyone stealing the analogue stick the N64 is a triumph of brains over brawn and quality over quantity. While I myself sometimes detest Nintendo’s arrogance I can also stand up and clap when said arrogance turns out to prove people wrong, I don’t care if it sold 70 million units less than the console war winner the Sony Playstation because to me it’s the clear winner on fun.
Unlike the real woman I once loved and allowed to get away I managed to always make an effort with the N64, she may not have been my first love, she may not have been the prettiest lady at the dance but she was without a doubt my soul mate and I will always… ALWAYS, love her.