The Nintendo 64 is now over 20 years old, but the impact that Nintendo’s first fully 3D video game console had on the industry is still felt today.
When the N64 released in Japan and North America in 1996, it was a landmark moment for Nintendo. After years of hype and anticipation, the company delivered a system that didn’t just live up to people’s expectations; it completely blew them away.
Of course, we now know in hindsight that while the N64 was hugely popular upon its initial release, it ultimately achieved mixed success and proved divisive with both game makers and players.
The N64 was a paradox. It introduced or popularised a number of now standard features, such as full-3D, 360-degree analogue joystick control and force feedback in controllers. Games such as Super Mario 64, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and GoldenEye 007 achieved new heights for the medium in terms of game design. Yet at the same time, the system used expensive, low-storage ROM cartridges and was notoriously difficult to develop games for, which resulted in the N64 having a comparatively small software library.
The N64 was first announced in 1993 under the codename Project Reality, as part of a global partnership announcement between Nintendo and then high-performance computing manufacturer, Silicon Graphics Inc. The purpose of this deal was to release a 64-bit, fully 3D game console that retailed for less than $250.
It was incredibly ambitious for the time: Nintendo – and most of the gaming and computing industries for that matter – had incredibly limited experience in developing 3D games. Nintendo formed what it called a “Dream Team” of development and publishing partners to create software for the system, including Williams (Midway) and Acclaim. While these were big names in the industry, the omission of heavy hitters such as Konami and Squaresoft was an early sign of the N64’s eventual mixed success.
However, none of this was apparent to the outside world. Nintendo cleverly drip-fed information about the system over the next three years of its development and used bold advertising to keep anticipation high. In fact, when Nintendo announced in 1995 that it was going to delay the release of the N64 until 1996, it negatively impacted the sales of the competing Sony PlayStation and SEGA Saturn over the Christmas period – primarily because the N64 would cost less and arguably do more in consumers’ eyes.
‘Now more than 20 years after it was released, millions of people around the world are still enjoying the N64 in a variety of ways.’
When the N64 was finally released in Japan on 23 June 1996, it only had three launch games: Super Mario 64, Pilotwings 64, and the Japanese-exclusive, Saikyō Habu Shōgi. In hindsight, it seems laughably small, but at the time it simply didn’t matter because Super Mario 64 was all Nintendo needed.
Super Mario 64 arguably had more of an impact on the games industry than the N64 itself did. It revolutionised the way we play games, providing full 360-degree analogue control for the first time. Mario’s transition from 2D to 3D was flawless, and with this one title Nintendo had successfully laid the groundwork for not just its own games, but virtually every 3D video game that has followed since.
Just two years after Super Mario 64’s release, Nintendo effectively one-upped itself with a game that needs no introduction: The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Still widely considered to be one of, if not the greatest games of all time, Ocarina of Time quite simply took the gaming world by storm. It set a new benchmark for how video games deliver an interactive, story-based experience.
Arguably, the single most-important thing to come out of Ocarina of Time was its pioneering lock-on camera system, which provided an intuitive and accurate way for players to interact with specific characters or objects in game. It’s a feature that is still used in games today.
The N64 is typically remembered for having a small, yet high-quality selection of games, of which the very best were either developed by Nintendo or its then second-party studio, Rare. This generalised view of the system is somewhat unfair: the N64’s game catalogue is relatively small compared to other systems, but still includes 388 titles. Furthermore, there were a number of third-party efforts that received critical and/or commercial success, such as Acclaim’s Turok series, Rocket: Robot on Wheels and Star Wars: Rogue Squadron, to name just a few.
The N64’s reliance on ROM cartridges to deliver games is at least partly responsible for this perception. Using cartridges worked in Nintendo’s favour: it brought down the cost of system itself, and allowed the company to retain control over the manufacturing process and more easily prevent piracy.
However, this proved problematic for third-party developers, as cartridges were 15 times more expensive and took at least two weeks longer to manufacture than CD-ROMs for other systems. Naturally, such costs were passed on to consumers, who in the system’s early days would be expected to pay up to $80/£70 for an N64 game.
Despite their higher asking price, these ROM cartridges could only hold a fraction of the data that a CD-ROM could; the largest N64 game cartridge produced was a mere 64MB, which was pitiful compared to a CD-ROM that could hold more than 650MB.
Cartridges did have one very noticeable advantage in that they had incredibly fast loading times compared to CD-ROMs (to the point where they were virtually unnoticeable). Nintendo repeatedly pushed this as a selling point, but it ultimately wasn’t enough to sway the masses. In fact, even though the N64 was a lot more powerful than competing CD-ROM systems, it was undermined by the limited storage capacity of its ROM cartridges. Many PlayStation games incorporated pre-rendered full-motion video thanks to the space offered by CD-ROMs, which helped games to look more visually impressive than they actually were.
All these drawbacks resulted in a considerable drop of third-party support compared to Nintendo’s previous system, the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. Of particular note was the loss of Squaresoft (Final Fantasy series), which was a heavy blow for Nintendo; in fact, it is believed that the lack of RPG games on the N64 is why the console wasn’t very successful in Japan. Other companies, such as Konami, reduced their output on Nintendo’s system considerably, instead shifting the majority of its focus to the PlayStation.
Nintendo sold a total of 32.93 million N64s during the system’s lifetime, the lowest total sales for one of its home consoles at that point in time. It was a far cry from the 102.49 million PlayStations that Sony shifted during the same console generation.
It’s a shame, because these sales figures undermine the impact that the N64 had on the overall quality and direction of the games industry. Within a generation, force feedback functionality in controllers became standard, all because of the Rumble Pak. Rare’s GoldenEye 007 completely shattered the illusion that the first-person shooter genre couldn’t be successful on home consoles. And every major home video game console since the N64 has featured a controller with analogue joystick control (even the Wii!). The N64 was a game-changer, and its importance in the history of video games simply cannot be explained through sales figures alone.
Now more than 20 years after it was released, millions of people around the world are still enjoying the N64 in a variety of ways. A number of N64 games have been either remastered or re-released in recent years for modern systems such as the Nintendo 3DS and Xbox One, many of which are still just as fun to play.
The N64 is a popular system for collectors, quite possibly thanks to its smaller, and therefore more attainable games library. You only have to look on eBay to see some of the absurdly high prices some N64 games fetch to know how sought after many of them are. While feasible, N64 game emulation on PC is still buggy and inconsistent depending on the game, which may be another reason why lots of people are still buying original cartridges.
Unlike other systems, the N64 doesn’t have much in the way of a homebrew game development scene, primarily due to how difficult it is to develop for the system (getting hold of the hardware and software needed to do it is also difficult).
Instead, fans are more focused on hardware innovations and improvements. For example, the EverDrive 64, created by krikzz, is a flash cart with a built-in SD card slot that enables you to load every N64 game on to a single cartridge. The UltraHDMI N64 mod adds HDMI output support to the system; given that some modern TVs aren’t capable of detecting the N64’s video signal through its standard cables, this mod could end up playing a crucial role in people’s continued enjoyment of the original hardware. Lastly, there are projects being led by SteelSticks64 and ENKKO to produce new N64 controller joystick components, which will resolve or at least alleviate the effects of years of wear and tear on original joysticks.
The fact that the N64 is still being enjoyed two decades after it came out is a testament to its quality. The impact it had on gaming was profound and is still felt today. Will people still be playing and talking about it in another 20 years? We definitely think so.