As I sit here and type this it’s difficult for me to believe that the Nintendo 64 is celebrating it’s 20th anniversary. I began buying retro video games when the N64 was still being actively sold on store shelves and was considered contemporary. Now the Nintendo 64 itself is considered retro which makes me feel like a creaky old geezer that should be watching Matlock. The calendar doesn’t lie however and the Nintendo 64 was officially released in North America on September 29, 1996 and ushered in one of the greatest console wars in the history of gaming.
Polarizing is the best word to describe the Nintendo 64. When reading popular opinion on the internet this console evokes very strong emotions from people that loved it or hated it with very little middle ground. In fact, the console has been controversial for the entirety of it’s 20 year existence and even beyond as it generated a buzz while pre-release information was reported during the lead up to it’s retail availability. I fall into the camp of people that love the Nintendo 64 although I can certainly understand some of it’s criticisms.
Why is popular opinion on the Nintendo 64 so split? Frankly it all boils down to the choice of using cartridges as it’s medium rather than CD’s which it’s competitors used. An entire article could focus on the analysis of CD vs cartridge and plenty of information on the subject can already be found on the internet so I won’t get too in depth on the issue. Briefly breaking it down, the pros of using cartridge were load speed, decreased piracy, decreased console cost, onboard enhancement chips, and durability. Disadvantages were increased software production costs, low storage capacity, and longer production times. At the end of the day many pundits attribute the choice of cartridge over CD as the deciding factor in the console wars and the reason Sony and the PlayStation were able to dethrone Nintendo as the king of the gaming industry. The types of games available for the console seemed to be directly tied to the use of cartridge over CD as developers avoided taking risks or outright withheld releases due to capacity limitations.
Nintendo 64 games lacked the Red Book audio tracks and Full Motion Video sequences that the competing systems boasted, but it was great to slam a cartridge into the slot and just play the game without the long loading screens that plagued the PlayStation and Sega Saturn. CD drives were still expensive back then so to keep costs down the manufacturers utilized 2X CD drives which seemingly lagged on for an eternity. It was also nice not to worry about fragile CD jewel cases and scratched game disc’s which made the N64 a popular choice for families with young children. Nintendo’s first party releases were also typically very family friendly as well as being particularly high quality.
After several delays the N64 was officially released in North America on September 29, 1996 with only two games to accompany it; Pilotwings 64 and Super Mario 64. By comparison the PlayStation launched in North America a year prior with 10 games providing far my choices for early adopters. But the N64 launch lineup was of higher quality as Super Mario 64 still makes appearances on “greatest of all time” lists two decades after release whereas none of the PS1 launch lineup could seriously be considered a worthy choice on any such list. This was a trend that would carry on for the life of the console as releases were few and far between while fans of certain genres would be left out in the cold.
Personally I’ve always enjoyed the N64. Although the software library is among the smallest of any major release console, it has a high ratio of historic five star games when compared to other gaming systems. To put it into perspective, the N64 only saw 296 games released in North America compared to over a thousand for the PlayStation and around 600 total releases for the failed Sega Saturn. Many genres were represented weakly but the library was unique and loaded with first party Nintendo classics. The great thing about the 5th generation of gaming consoles was that each system provided a completely unique experience with their own share of exclusive titles. Unlike today there was actually a compelling reason to own multiple consoles in the mid 1990’s.
If you were a fan of turn based Japanese style Role Playing Games, fighting games, strategy games, or sports games the PlayStation was a better fit for you. The N64 was very strong in platform games, party games, first person shooters, racing games, and action/adventure titles. I’ve never liked JRPG’s that much so the PS1’s biggest strength was a non-factor in my eyes. A lot of PS1 games also relied heavily on FMV cut scenes which grew tiresome to me although I do wish the N64 library could have made use of high quality CD audio.
In an effort to quell concerns about the lack of storage capacity Nintendo announced the 64DD, a magnetic storage device very similar to Iomega’s Zip Disks. The average N64 cartridge only had a capacity of about 8MB which was a drop in the bucket compared to the 650MB afforded to CD’s. 64DD disks would have afforded an additional 64MB of storage while also being writeable allowing game data to be retained to the disk. Examples included footprints in the sand, cleared dungeon areas, or destroyed landmarks to retain their condition even when the game has been shut off. Unfortunately 64MB of storage was still considered to be a lacking total and developers were not eager to support add on hardware that would segment the user base after the failure of previous devices such as SEGA’s 32X and SEGA CD. The device was only briefly available in Japan and quickly discontinued while never being offered in other territories.
Nintendo 64 shipped with a unique 3 pronged controller that, much like the console itself is very polarizing. Although most games were played with the left hand on the middle prong and the right hand on the right prong, different games could call for different configurations making things somewhat confusing for novice players. One innovation that was important however was the analog control stick which allowed for more precise movement in 3D space. The controller also offered a trigger on the underside and an expansion port on the bottom which accommodated a wide range of peripherals.
Nintendo also pioneered force feedback in video games with the innovative Rumble Pak, which was first released as a bonus along with the Star Fox 64 cartridge. The Rumble Pak plugged into the expansion port on the bottom of the controller and caused the controller to shake based on what was happening in the game. Of course this is all commonplace this day and age, but at the time people were in amazement. Nobody had ever seen anything like it. Sony would shamelessly rip off the ideas with their Dual Shock controller which implemented force feedback as well as adding two analog control sticks. I will say although Nintendo introduced the features, Sony refined the design as the Dual Shock is still mostly in use today whereas no other game console used three pronged controllers.
Although people still whine about 3 pronged controllers to this day, my biggest problem with the controller is the fact that it had an expansion port on the bottom leading to the most hated accessory in gaming. Although it was fine for the Rumble Pak, most developers got cheap and lazy and used it for my nemesis: the Controller Pak. The Controller Pak was just a memory card to save game progress which pisses me off to no end. One of the benefits of using a cartridge over a CD is that it is capable of game saves. Sony forced users to purchase memory cards to save their games because CD’s are read only media. But such an accessory was COMPLETELY unnecessary for the N64. Although Nintendo’s first party games usually saved directly to the cart, you can pretty much count on every third party developer skimping out and making use of the stupid and aggravating Controller Pak. Furthermore, sports games typically required an ENTIRE CONTROLLER PAK to save a season meaning you couldn’t use it for anything else! That was a real kick in the pants.
Another trait the N64 is widely known for is the variety of colors the console and controllers were available in. Nintendo branded them “Funtastic” and although I never purchased anything besides the standard grey, these color variants have become very popular to collect among N64 enthusiasts. Aside from the primary colors Nintendo also released some pretty cool translucent consoles and controllers as well as some limited edition schemes. Some of the controllers are downright rare such as the Millennium 2000 controller which was given away to 1000 Nintendo Power subscribers. There were also several console colors that were never released in North America such as the popular smoke variant.
When the dust settled the Nintendo 64 finished a distant second behind the PS1 in sales but was always fondly remembered for the high quality offerings it offered such as Super Mario 64, GoldenEye 007, Mario Kart 64, The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time, Banjo Kazooie, Super Smash Bros., Donkey Kong 64, Star Fox 64, and a whole host of wrestling games and other platformers. It’s also notable for being the last cartridge based home video game console. For me personally the Nintendo 64 was released at the perfect time in my life where I was old enough6 to really get into gaming but young enough to still enjoy them without many responsibilities. Although I have purchased several gaming consoles in the 20 years since, I’ve never really moved on from the N64. Even when I was playing Gamecube and Xbox 360 games I would routinely pick up Nintendo 64 offerings to add to my collection. Despite it’s short comings there’s a certain magic and personality that I feel the N64 possesses that has been lacking from all the console generations since.