64 Bits of Fun
Nintendo 64. The Fun Machine. The gaming console that was instantly viewed behind the times as it stubbornly stuck with cartridge format while its competitors went the CD route. In this retrospective, I’ll take a personal look at the highs and lows of the system that brought us one of the most (at the time) revolutionary games in history.
The Fun Machine
The Nintendo 64 was originally code named the Ultra 64, delayed a year, and came out well after the Sega Saturn and the Sony PlayStation in North America. In theory, the 64-bit console would be twice as powerful as competing systems at the time, and Nintendo had an undeniable track record of success leading into this generation after narrowly (and successfully) fending off Sega in the 16-bit Console Wars.
The first leaked games that I remember seeing in print were San Francisco Rush and Super Mario 64. The former was actually more intriguing to me because I love racing games, but I knew the latter would be the system selling title. Upon release, I didn’t get my N64 until about three months afterward, but I vividly remember the crowds of kids/teens/adults huddled around demo units playing Super Mario 64. Even knowing then what a revolutionary game it was, I didn’t know it would still be a Gold Standard for 3D platformers today – 19 years later.
Old Guard vs The New Medium
The biggest complaint people, myself included, had with the Nintendo 64 was the decision to use cartridges instead of the emerging CD format. On the plus side, cartridges were obviously more kid-friendly and durable, had next to zero loading times, and, from a company standpoint, allowed for far less hacking and piracy. However, they were also way more expensive – a cartridge averaged a $20-$30 price to manufacturer as opposed to a $2-$3 CD for companies – and offered far less storage space. Retail prices on N64 carts averaged $10 more at retail than their counterparts. Games on the PlayStation and Saturn could be four times bigger and longer. CDs allowed for crisp, arcade-like audio when the traditional N64 game music was in MIDI format.
The Master Race
During the N64 era is also when a trouble trend among Nintendo systems began to emerge: First Party games began to distance themselves from third party games in terms of sales. Looking at the best selling games of any Nintendo platform will allow you to see many of their own games at the top, but beginning with N64, you’ll have to go further and further down the list to find your first game not published by Big N. With having two competitors instead of just one, gamers began to gravitate towards other consoles for their third party games and only had a Nintendo console for Nintendo games. Even though GameCube and the Wii had ample third party support, none of those third party games – not even the much anticipated Resident Evil 4 on GameCube – could approach the sales of a Mario Kart or a Smash Bros. Things have obviously reached a critical mass on Wii U as nothing but seemingly Just Dance gets published on there.
A Lasting Legacy
The N64, though, had some amazing innovations and games that will go down in history as some of the best ever. It took the lead from the Game Boy and became the first home console to come out in a variety of colors – I personally loved the Ice Blue one, although the Donkey Kong Green seemed to be the most popular. Many of us spent late night hours playing marathons of GoldenEye 64. The wildly popular Super Smash Brothers franchise was born on the N64. Developer Rare scored big with the aforementioned James Bond game but also with Donkey Kong 64 and Conker’s Bad Fur Day – the latter of which goes for $100 in used game stores even with the game’s appearance on Rare Replay. Games such as Resident Evil 2 used masterful compression to squeeze two CDs worth of audio and video onto a single cartridge. The controller add-on (the “Rumble Pak”) made controller vibration and feedback an industry standard. And it’s crown jewel, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, is widely considered to be among the very best video games of all time.
So while many people now consider the N64 to be a classic, at the time it wasn’t as well received by everyone. It’s restrictive cartridge format and lack of variety of games that its competitors enjoyed sent the console to lower sales than the SNES enjoyed. It did come in ahead of the Sega Saturn in that generation but well behind the PlayStation, the industry’s newest darling.
But I loved it, and I still love it. As an oddball gamer, I think it had the best version of Monopoly and Virtual Pool on any home console. But aside from that, the N64 speaks to a time when I really cut my teeth as being a gaming fan. I loved Sega and owned a Saturn, but after the sun set on that fading planet, I defaulted to the N64 – and I never regretted it.