N64 | How Nintendo’s console quietly changed videogaming

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The N64 was far from Nintendo’s most successful console, but it still managed to change the games industry forever.

In the league table of successful Nintendo consoles, the N64 isn’t remotely near the bottom, but it isn’t near the top, either. At the high end we have the zeitgeist-grabbing NES, Game Boy, DS and Wii, all of which sold north of 60 million units over their lifespans. The Switch, having passed its seventh birthday, has sold around 139 million units and counting.

At the other end of the scale, there are the rare out-and-out misfires like the infamous Virtual Boy (sales: just 770,000 units) and the haphazardly marketed Wii U (roughly 13 million units). By contrast, the N64, launched in 1996, sold a comparatively not-bad 33 million consoles worldwide – worse than its predecessor, the SNES (49 million) but better than the GameCube (22 million).

By the mid-1990s, however, Nintendo suddenly had a competitor with far deeper pockets than its old adversary, Sega. Sony, which thundered into videogaming with the PlayStation in 1994, seemed to get so much right on its first attempt: with its sleek design, affordable, CD-based media and eye-popping 3D graphics, the console was an immediate, era-defining success.

Thanks to some great design ideas and clever marketing, the PlayStation became the must-have system, entirely eclipsing Sega’s Saturn and ending Nintendo’s decade-long dominance of the console market. By the end of its life cycle, the PlayStation had sold over 100 million systems.

Even more telling was the PlayStation’s library of games. As noted in the excellent book N64: A Visual Compendium, Sony’s console had around 2,500 developed for it in its lifetime. By contrast, the N64 had just 400.

The problem, ultimately, lay with some of Nintendo’s design and business decisions. Paranoid about the spectre of piracy – something it was forced to grapple with in the 1980s following the launch of the Famicom Disc System in Japan – the company was wary of adopting CDs as its media of choice.

Instead, it stuck with old-fashioned cartridges, which were limited in capacity and expensive to produce; this, along with Nintendo’s earlier hardball approach to its business deals, saw a number of major third-party publishers and developers move over to the PlayStation.

Perhaps the most significant defector, especially in Japan, was Squaresoft (later Square Enix). Up until the early 1990s, Square had published all its games on Nintendo’s consoles; the flashpoint turned out to be Secret Of Mana, released in Japan as Seiken no Densetsu 2 in 1993. Although an acclaimed game that is still revered today, Square had all sorts of problems with Nintendo while making it.

During development, Square worked on the understanding that Secret Of Mana would emerge on the SNES-CD, an add-on device that Nintendo was developing in partnership with Sony. You probably know the story: the deal between Nintendo and Sony fell apart, and the SNES-CD ultimately became the PlayStation.

Suddenly faced with much more limited cartridge space, Square had to scrap its work and start again, with some of its initial work eventually becoming a separate game, Chrono Trigger. All of this was no doubt fresh in its mind when Square accepted a generous offer from Sony, and the out-and-out classic Final Fantasy VII ended up as a PlayStation exclusive. The RPG sold two million copies in the first three days of its release alone.

GoldenEye 007
GoldenEye 007 on the N64. A stone-cold classic. Credit: Rare/Nintendo.

For all of Nintendo’s own-goals, though, the N64 was still a forward-thinking console in other respects. On several technical fronts, the N64 was far more powerful than the PlayStation; its superior processor could move around more polygons per second, and the console also had more RAM as standard. The cartridge format, although expensive and retro-seeming, also meant faster loading times. The inclusion of four controller ports (versus the PlayStation’s two) gave developers more scope when it came to couch co-op games.

The N64 also gave the world a few firsts. Its controller had the first analog controls on a console – something Sony didn’t adopt until later. The N64 was also one of the first consoles to come up with vibration feedback on its controllers thanks to the Rumble Pak, released in April 1997. (Sony’s Dual Analog Controller, also released in April 1997, had a vibration feedback function, but only in Japan – the feature didn’t appear in other countries until the DualShock launched worldwide that November.)

Then, of course, there were the games. The N64’s library may have been small, but several of those titles changed gaming forever. Super Mario 64 successfully took the resolutely 2D series into the third dimension, and showed other developers how to make a 3D platformer feel fluid and intuitive. (Seriously, play some rival 3D console action games from 1996 again, and you’ll see just how far ahead of the curve Mario 64 was.)

The Legend Of Zelda: Ocarina Of Time broke new ground in terms of immersion and sheer ambition; neither the Zelda series nor action-adventure games in general would be the same after its launch. Its Z-targeting system alone revolutionised 3D combat, and was widely adopted by rival developers afterwards.

Ocarina Of Time’s Z-targeting system was nothing short of revolutionary. Credit: Nintendo.

GoldenEye 007, as well as being an unusually brilliant licenced game, proved that a first-person shooter could work on a console. Its mix of stealth, detailed enemy reactions and inventive level design was unparalleled at the time; then there was its now-iconic local multiplayer – a feature that developer Rare, incredibly, only threw in at the last minute.

Read more: GoldenEye 007 on the Nintendo 64, and its game-changing, film-accurate levels

Aside from the N64’s big hitters, there were the lesser-known gems. Animal Crossing got its start on the platform, albeit only in Japan. Bakuretsu Matsuko Bangai-O and Sin And Punishment were both terrific shooters from cult developer Treasure that deserved far wider attention than they got.

The N64 may be remembered as the point in Nintendo’s history when it lost its crown to Sony, but it’s far from just an also-ran. It’s also far more than merely the console that played host to Mario 64, Ocarina and GoldenEye. It was innovative, technically powerful, yet still retained the playful quality that Nintendo’s still known for today.

As GoldenEye designer David Doak puts it in his foreword for N64: A Visual Compendium, “The N64 simply embodied fun.”

N64: A Visual Compendium is out now from Bitmap Books.

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