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Nintendo 64 - The Console With a Distorted Legacy

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Many people today look back upon the Nintendo 64 with adoration. I’ve spoken to many gamers over the years which rank the system as one of their all time favourites, declaring their love for the many excellent Nintendo and RareWare titles the console was home to. I used to be one of these people myself, admittedly, many years ago. When I started collecting video games the first console which I concentrated on was the Nintendo 64, and over the years I’ve owned more Nintendo 64 consoles than any other. I’ve owned my current system since I was 16, but before this one I had owned five or six others, with me usually picking one up, keeping it for a few months to play the games I wanted to play, before selling it on.

But after a while, as my collection grew and grew, I realised just how few Nintendo 64 games I owned in comparison to other systems. Despite concentrating almost entirely on Nintendo 64 games for the first few months of collecting, in my collection of over 2000 games today I still own less than thirty. The amount of 3DO games I own is almost equal. For a while the apparent lack of N64 games in my collection didn’t really stand out to me. Because I own and collect for so many systems, I often stop buying games for certain systems for months or even years while I concentrate on others. After my initial splurge on N64 games at the start of my collecting days it was placed aside whilst I concentrated on other things. It wasn’t until maybe two or three ago, when I decided I wanted to buy some more N64 games that I realised something.

I already own essentially everything noteworthy or of any real interest to me for the system. There are still a few games which I would like to buy eventually, most notable of which are Body Harvest, Space Station Silicon Valley, Starcraft 64 and Ogre Battle 64, but other than those I already own pretty much every game anyone could possibly want to own for the system. And I own less than thirty games.

I find it somewhat baffling how a system with so few noteworthy games can elevate itself to such legendary status. Sure, the best games are amazing, some of the greatest ever made, but you can’t dictate the quality of any video game system based purely on the quality of the best games alone. The reason systems like the PlayStation, PlayStation 2, Super Nintendo and Mega Drive are so widely acclaimed it because you can find quality across their entire libraries. The Nintendo 64 had amazing games, terrible games, and nothing in between. There was no middle ground, no titles such as Kurushi, Urban Chaos, Plok or Alissia Dragoon to fill that mid-range void.

While this only really occurred to me personally two or three years ago I’ve started speaking to more and more people since who actually also agree with me. The Nintendo 64 just lacks the sheer variety and diversity of other systems from the time, such as the Saturn and PlayStation. I’m going to use the 3DO for a comparison once again, but that system, which was dead by the time the N64 launched in Japan and North America in 1996, received a grand total of 286 games across all regions. The Nintendo 64 received only 103 more, a grand total of 389, despite the hardware lasting until 2001. That’s insane.

Anyway, the whole purpose of this blog is to discuss exactly why I think the Nintendo 64 has a distorted legacy. But I’m not alone, my friend RezidentHazard has also helped contribute as well with his own views on the console, answering several questions which I asked him.

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So, firstly Nick, when exactly did you pick up your Nintendo 64?

Rez: Whatever launch day was in 1996. It was the first console I purchased on launch day, along with one of the two whole games that launched alongside it–Super Mario 64.

Widdowson: Ah, you picked it up at launch. I can’t remember exactly when my Dad bought ours back in the day, but I know it was no later than 1998, because we bought Ocarina of Time when it was released. We definitely picked ours up after already purchasing a PlayStation and Sega Saturn though.

 

What are your favourite games for the system?

Rez: Star Fox 64, Mario 64, Turok: Dinosaur Hunter, Doom 64, Zelda: Majora’s Mask. I loved Majora’s Mask back when everybody hated it. Remember all that love for the game before the remake appeared on 3DS? Prior to that release, people hated Majora’s Mask. I loved it for the deep, brooding, dark atmosphere. Turok 1 was an incredible marvel on the system. I loved dinosaurs, and I loved the vibrant violence Turok delivered. I had my name printed in Nintendo Power for a high score (not remotely the highest) for Star Fox 64. When it came to multiplayer, I was essentially unbeatable in that one. And Doom? C’mon, it was a sweet, exclusive Doom. It looked spectacular at the time, and still looks cool now. It’s rare for any N64 game to age well, and Doom 64 still looks pretty damn good.

Widdowson: Rather unsurprisingly many of my favourite games for the console are Nintendo and RareWare titles. Ocarina of Time, Majora’s Mask, Super Mario 64, GoldenEye 007, Banjo-Kazooie, Conker’s Bad Fur Day… we all know these games. They are spectacular. But I’m also a big fan of Turok 2 and Star Wars: Rogue Squadron. Those two games took advantage of the Expansion Pak to run in higher resolutions with increased draw distances, and because of this they are two of the best looking N64 games. I can go back to those games and play them at any time, even if I don’t necessarily sit down with the intention to play them to completion, just because I enjoy them so much. I thought Turok 2 was a massive improvement over the original in almost every way. But here I will say something controversial. One game which I’m not particularly a fan of in the slightest is Mario Kart 64. Seriously, from the moment I played that for the first time it disappointed me, yet many people I know love it. I don’t personally understand why.

 

When exactly did it first occur to you that the Nintendo 64 wasn’t going to be the system you hoped or expected it to be?

Rez:  The N64 marked the dawn of what I call the “modern Nintendo fanboy.” Prior to the N64, we rated a Nintendo consoles quality the same as we do Xbox or Playstation now. Great exclusives, great 3rd party, great multiplatform titles, all that. The N64 was when Nintendo was on a roll with terrible decisions and poor design choices. The N64 was a mess, and while there was red flags early on, within about two years of it getting it’s ass handed to it by the original Playstation, it didn’t take long to realize the N64 had failed to live up to potential. It was gradual.

First, the cartridges. Nintendo’s stuck with these expensive wrecks to control piracy, but the cartridge put them on a losing track–they kept game prices higher, they held less content, and they kept 3rd parties away. That was point one: The N64 failed to maintain the 3rd party content on the NES or SNES or Game Boy. The company went from being known as the best place for RPGs to being an RPG desert.

The N64 was plagued with lengthy delays with no new games or content. The PlayStation, and even the Saturn, might have seen 20-40 games released in a month. The N64 was lucky to get 3. But the big breaker for me was Tekken 3. That’s when I bought a PlayStation, and that was the first time I strayed from Nintendo as a console owner.

Widdowson: Like I hinted towards in the introduction, my own negativity towards the Nintendo 64 didn’t come until fairly recently, when I thought about buying some more games for it. Back in the late 90’s I didn’t think all too much about it, but I definitely played the Saturn and PlayStation tons more. Back then my Dad used to have weekly game nights with his friends, and they were usually always at our house, but sometimes at his friends’ houses. He always used to let me join in, and we almost always played multiplayer games for the Saturn and PlayStation. For the Saturn we played Athlete Kings (DecAthlete in the States) and Winter Heat a lot, and we used to play games like Time Crisis and racing games for the PlayStation. My Dad and his mates were also big fans of Syndicate Wars, and my Dad bought the PlayStation multi-tap I still own to this day specifically to play four-player Syndicate Wars. It was also at these game nights where I was first properly introduced to other awesome games like NiGHTS into Dreams and Panzer Dragoon.

But I can’t really remember any time we played the Nintendo 64 at these game nights, other than when GoldenEye 007 was released. My Dad adored that game, and me, him and his friends used to play four-player split screen on it quite a lot when it came out. We all *** hated Oddjob. But, other than this, I didn’t play the Nintendo 64 all that much at the time. I played Ocarina of Time by myself, but a lot of the other good games I didn’t purchase until years later when I bought an N64 of my own. My Dad got rid of ours in a trade the PlayStation 2 when it launched, despite his reluctance to, because my mother said we can’t have another console in the house until we got rid of some others. Our Saturn was sacrificed as well, sadly.

 

What are the major criticisms you level against the console?

Rez:  My biggest gripe is that it was a training ground for convincing Nintendo fans to treat Nintendo with kid gloves… forever. Instead of acknowledging shortcomings, they come up with excuses. Instead of championing 3rd party support, they ignore it. It broke Nintendo. They went from being competitive and aggressive to meandering through gimmicks with unpredictable rates of success. Old Nintendo was an industry bully, but this post-SNES Nintendo was a confused old man. And we see occasional moments of clarity and brilliance from them–like the Nintendo DS, and the Switch seems to be going that way–but also moments of insane dementia, like the mishandling of the Wii, GameCube, and Wii U.

I went along with their lunacy for years, but looking over my Nintendo fandom, the first cracks in my fandom started with the N64, and the company continues to baffle. As it stands, I consider the N64 their worst console, although (as we’ve discussed before), a good argument can be made for the Wii U.

Outside of that, the N64’s hardware was a notorious mess. Nintendo deliberately supported this garbage hardware in the idiotic belief that crappy hardware would “force developers to make higher quality games.” Instead, it drove developers to Sony. Because of this hardware, the vast majority of the N64’s library has aged like crap. Muddy, blurry textures abound. Games control like a sluggish nightmare of being encapsulated in Jell-O. At the time, I loved Body Harvest. I tried playing it again a couple years ago, and found it nearly impossible to control, even to perform the most basic actions.

Widdowson: I think, of all the things which I can criticise the console for, I’d have to say the sheer lack of variety is the main criticism I have. The console is lacking in so many genres it’s blatant. You don’t need to look hard to find the lack of shoot ’em ups, fighting games, RPGs and many other types of games. Sure, at the time the N64 was the place to play console first-person shooters and 3D platform games, and it had a lot of sports and driving games, but even with those last two genres most of the games were of very poor quality. I don’t think any other console stands up to the amount of shovel ware driving games the N64 has.

The use of cartridges is an obvious criticism as well, although I don’t honestly think I need to explain why. And any justification Nintendo has given for using cartridges is, in my opinion, weak at best. The only advantage they have over CDs is their lack of load times, but other than that they are a worse storage device for games in every way. The muddy and blurry textures, as you mentioned, are also a real annoyance, especially compared to the, for the time, clean, rich textures found on the Saturn and PlayStation.

The console also lacks native RGB support. Back in the 90’s RGB wasn’t such a big thing in the States, but here in Europe anyone who owned consoles back then that wanted the absolute best picture quality bought an RGB cable for any console which supported the output. RGB was the clearest form of analog picture fidelity on old CRT televisions, and I remember fondly when my Dad bought our first RGB cable for our PlayStation. We was using RF at the time, which is shocking, and he set the PlayStation up with RF connected and turned on Tomb Raider. He then, while the game was running, swapped from RF to RGB and was gobsmacked at the difference in quality. But no, the N64 doesn’t support RGB without a hardware modification, and this is especially disappointing when the SNES did support RGB. Even the bloody Sega Master System, which was released ten years earlier in 1986, supported RGB. From a hardware perspective this is very poor.

 

Cartridges certainly handicapped the hardware, so why do you think Nintendo decided to stick with them instead of embracing optical media like the direct competition?

Rez: As noted, it was for piracy and control, pure and simple. They tried to spin it as “oh they load and play so fast compared to a CD!” But the reality was they took way longer to manufacture, cost way, way more across the board, and couldn’t hold anywhere near as much data. Basically, full-blown selfishness, greed, and bullying is why they stuck with cartridges. Even the “slow loading” of CDs ultimately didn’t matter to most gamers, and despite being cartridges (where you could save game data), they still made memory cards! Make some damn sense!

Widdowson: Piracy and that control over developers and publishers were the main reasons, of course, but I don’t think it was just that. As everyone should already know, Nintendo worked with both Sony and Philips to develop a CD add-on for the SNES, and the whole thing was a clusterfuck. I think, potentially, this had an effect on Nintendo, who chose to stick with what it knew instead of following the trend. This is something which Nintendo still does to this day.

 

How would you rank it against other consoles from that generation, including systems like the 3DO and Atari Jaguar?

Rez:  Against the PlayStation, the N64 is an unfettered failure. Against the Jaguar, it was clearly superior. Against the 3DO, I think it becomes a level playing field. Without Nintendo’s games propping it up, it’d fall down with the Jaguar, and maybe be worse because it couldn’t drive a homebrew market without the CD ability. The 3DO’s downfall was largely from price and the free-for-all licensing set-up. The Jaguar was harmed by garbage hardware even worse than the N64 and Saturn. Sony very simply did everything right with the PlayStation. It’s no surprise at all that console won the generation.

I’m personally fascinated with the Jaguar and 3DO, and I think both consoles have their perks and highlights. But for the moment, let’s set aside Nintendo fanboyism. Because without that, the N64 looks like a failure. We rip on the Jaguar for a largely junk library while ignoring it’s notable heavy hitters–like Alien vs Predator and Tempest 2000. With the N64, we as a collective of fans, do the exact opposite. We ignore the junk library and celebrate the few notable heavy hitters. Why is that fair?

Widdowson: It’s clearly a better system than the Atari Jaguar. There’s no question about that, the Jaguar was absymal (but fascinating), but you’d be foolish to think every game for it was abysmal as well. You’ve already mentioned Alien vs. Predator and the excellent Tempest 2000, but don’t forget the very good ports of Wolfenstein 3D and Doom. And Rayman, of course, which you own. It was also a better console than the Amiga CD32, even if that did have quite a lot of good games (considering all its games were Amiga computer ports). The PlayStation was the undisputed king, of course, and anyone who disagrees is just wrong. It’s that simple. The Saturn wasn’t very impressive outside Japan, and to some extent I can see why people would prefer the N64 over it when you compare the games which were localised in to English. But, the Saturn had some truly amazing games only in Japan, such as the incredible Radiant Silvergun, tons of near-perfect Capcom and SNK arcade ports and dozens upon dozens of RPGs. The N64 had no such equivalent, so overall the Saturn has a much more varied library.

But I agree with you, the 3DO is a very comparable system. That doesn’t mean the 3DO is better, because the best games on the 3DO don’t quite match the quality of the best games for the N64, but overall I’d say the amount of good games on both systems is actually fairly equal in number. The 3DO also, for those who don’t know the system very well, has more variety. The worst thing you can say about the 3DO is that very few of its best games were exclusive. Many were at the time they launched, such as The Need for Speed and Road Rash, but these games later made their way to other systems. But it did get some impressive ports for the time, such as versions of Syndicate and Theme Park, a strong version of Samurai Shodown and the hands down best version of Super Street Fighter II Turbo on any console. And that’s just a few examples.

I know some people will read this and think we’re crazy to even compare the 3DO to the Nintendo 64, but I honestly think that they were the two most comparable systems that generation.

 

Do you think Nintendo showed a level or arrogance going in to that generation, much like Sony did with the PlayStation 3, based on its success in the two preceding generations?

Rez:  Nintendo definitely went into the era flush with arrogance. I was eagerly anticipating the system back then, and I still have Next Generation (no longer published) magazines from when the N64 launched. You can see the arrogance and how it failed. With a near total absence of good 3rd party developers, Nintendo was championing some kind of “Dream Team” of largely unknowns and new companies that failed to really deliver on the console. They also talked a lot about “consumer loyalty,” and I recall that being questioned. What the hell is that? Why depend on that? They were outside the advancing industry norms on hardware, game design, and technology. They had good reason to be full of themselves with impressive and solid titles like Mario 64, StarFox, and Zelda. But the hardware was crap. Their reasoning didn’t make sense. And they ignored how badly they’d treated publishers the previous two generations, assuming everything was fine for no reason. You saw this same arrogance when they launched the 3DS and Wii U.

Widdowson: I think Nintendo greatly underestimated the competition from Sega in the previous generation, and lost it’s 90% market share in North America as a result. But, it did fight back well, with the SNES eventually outselling the Mega Drive world wide. You would think this experience would have taught Nintendo a thing or two about underestimating its competition, but the reveal and launch of the Nintendo 64 clearly shows Nintendo had learned nothing. Sony created the PlayStation to target an older demographic, one which Nintendo often ignores, and made the system very developer friendly. The licensing fees weren’t as high as the competition, and the cheaper cost of CDs meant the games would be cheaper at retail.

Developers were already sick of working with Nintendo, thanks to their strict policies, so most of them jumped ship to the PlayStation. For some developers, like Namco, this couldn’t come quickly enough. Even the developers which, initially, showed loyalty to Nintendo, such as Square, eventually left once Nintendo announced it was still using ROM carts. Nintendo gifted Sony and the PlayStation the juggernaut that was Final Fantasy VII, which is seen as one of the games which drove the PlayStation to success. Ultimately Nintendo gave its competition a huge advantage.

Consumer loyalty meant nothing, in the end. The Nintendo 64 sold less than the SNES, which itself sold less than the NES, and this was all because the console just didn’t have enough to keep the average gamer hooked. The PlayStation was receiving new games on such a regular basis that owners always had something new to play. The mass exodus of developers left the Nintendo 64 with huge game droughts, something the great Nintendo and RareWare games never managed to mask.

 

Are fans somewhat blinded by the small selection of amazing games. Do these games cloud their judgement and allow them to ignore the lack of diversity in the library?

Rez:  You can count the N64’s best games on one or two hands. Ask any person the best games and they’ll list Mario 64, Ocarina of Time, Goldeneye, Perfect Dark, and maybe Conker… and that’s about where a lot of people will stop. Sure, their great titles were really great, but that’s true of almost every console, even other failures like the Jaguar and Dreamcast. The great games always stand out, and always inspire lasting fandom.

But let’s be rational here, and compare the N64 to both it’s contemporaries and it’s previous generations.

Compared to the NES and SNES, the number of historically notable games is substantially lower. The third party support is substantially lower. Quality third party support largely vaporized on the N64. Popular franchises vaporized from the system. Nintendo went from being the home of games like Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, Mega Man, Contra, Castlevania, Metal Gear, Street Fighter, Gradius, etc., to having none of that except for two notably crude Castlevania games, generally considered “outside canon” as I understand it.

Compared to it’s top competitors, the Playstation and Saturn, it can barely compare to the breadth and depth of those third party libraries. The N64 was terribly expensive compared to the competition, especially games (I spent around $70 for Shadows of the Empire when it released).

Widdowson: Yeah, it really struck me just how few genuinely great games are actually available for the system. I’d argue that in 1998 alone the PlayStation received more great games than the N64 received in its entire lifespan. No kidding, check out the list of PlayStation games released in 1998. It’s incredible. Now, I will say that 1998 was also the best year for software on the N64 as well, with titles like 1080 Snowboarding, Banjo-Kazooie and Ocarina of Time all launching that year, but these big releases were few and far between compared to the PlayStation.

A few months ago I was having a debate on a Facebook gaming page with someone who was clearly a huge Nintendo 64 fanboy, and the guy was driving me insane. I should have just ignored him, but he kept talking about how “awesome” the console was and how it was the best from that generation, but when I took him up on it, and tried making comparisons between it and the Saturn and PlayStation, he kept falling back on the usual excuses. No load times, Zelda and Mario etc. I’m getting fed up with those excuses. So I really laid in to it. I asked him where were the N64 equivalents to titles like Radiant Silvergun, or Time Crisis, or Final Fantasy, or Metal Gear, or Panzer Dragoon, or NiGHTS, or Silent Hill, or Virtua Fighter, or Tekken and many many more. He couldn’t answer, he just went on a rant about how the N64 had better hardware, ignoring the fact that it was actually limited in several crucial ways, just because it could push more polygons than the PlayStation and had more memory. He also ignored how much the use of cartridges handicapped the hardware.

It’s one thing to be a fan of something, but I don’t think your fandom should allow you to overlook flaws. Contrary to how it may sound, I actually do like the Nintendo 64 precisely because of games like Mario 64, Ocarina of Time, GoldenEye 007 and the like, but I don’t let those games cloud my judgement of the console as a whole. It was so far behind the PlayStation and Saturn in terms of software that it’s almost laughable, and software defines a console.

 

Which genre do you wish was better represented?

Rez:  As a shmup fan, I’d have to say shmups. While the TG-16 is historically the shmup fanatics ultimate console, the NES and SNES weren’t slouches in this genre. At the time, I greatly lamented missing RPGs and many fighting games. I loved Secret of Evermore, Chrono Trigger, and Final Fantasy III (VI) on the SNES. Nothing like that graced the N64.

But here’s another: Arcade games. The N64 was originally promoted as the “Ultra 64,” and heavily promoted in arcades with the likes of Killer Instinct and Cruis’n USA. I loved these games in the arcade and Nintendo constantly promoted them as the real N64 hardware. The reality was a crushing blow. The N64 wasn’t even *** close. The system was so badly delayed, Killer Instinct went to the SNES instead (which I loved), but when it came out, it got a modified Killer Instinct 2 and Cruis’N USA, and these were so far removed from the arcade games, it was a disheartening punch to the face. While the Saturn was delivering seemingly arcade-perfect ports of Sega’s games, the N64 couldn’t even get close to the promises Nintendo bandied about. Cruis’n USA was notorious for falling short of the arcade. Killer Instinct’s smooth, complex fighting came off rigid and chunky, where they didn’t have enough room on the cartridge to program fun.

Widdowson: It’s all about RPGs for me. The PlayStation was full of amazing RPGs, and those games are some of the reasons why I still play the PlayStation so much to this day, but the genre was entirely lacking on N64. Oh, sorry, it had Quest 64… yeah, take that PlayStation. The lack of RPGs is also the main reason why the console failed so much in Japan, where even the Saturn demolished the N64 despite selling only third of the amount of units the N64 did world wide.

 

And lastly, what do you think the systems lasting legacy is?

Rez:  The lasting legacy of the N64 should be Super Mario 64. That’s pretty much it. The greatest compliment you can pay the system was reintegrating analog sticks (Atari failed badly with them on the 5200), and showing us how the industry should utilize the technology going forward. Sony took that inspiration and totally improved it with the Dualshock, but this innovation was incredibly important. The N64 deserves to live for this alone (although an argument can be made that Sega may well have led this inspiration with NiGHTS, though it wasn’t a full 3D environment like Mario), and for all it’s shortcomings, we’ll always remember this.

But let’s not get crazy. The N64 was a painful fall from greatness for Nintendo. The problems the company constantly faces started on this machine. Poor 3rd party support, perpetually being outside industry norms, inferior 3rd party ports when they get them, a fan base that is toxic toward 3rd parties, a heavy emphasis on gimmicks to sell games and consoles (imagine if the analog stick had failed in the long run like the Wii U GamePad), pretending their shortcomings are somehow benefits (like cartridges over CDs at the time), and on and on it goes. The N64 also set in motion Nintendo’s painful post-SNES history of endless delays. The N64 was delayed nearly 2 years as I recall, and that meant stellar system-sellers like Killer Instinct skipped the system, going to the SNES instead. That forced the Virtual Boy to be launched as a market stop-gap, despite the hardware being even worse, and it being Nintendo’s only notable hardware failure.

Nintendo fans love to remember the highlights, and that’s fine. But let’s stay grounded here. The N64 was no where near the greatness of the NES or SNES, or the GameCube for that matter (despite the GC’s lower sales, it was a vastly superior console). A lot of fans are blinded by nostalgia, as it was their “first console” or “first Nintendo console,” but that’s irrational. My first was the NES, but I still hold the SNES and GameCube in higher praise by measuring what really worked on those systems.

Widdowson: For me the legacy of the Nintendo 64 will always be the fact that it was the console which forever lost Nintendo it’s dominance of the industry. Sega started that destruction the previous generation, but Sony really stuck the knife in. It was embarrassing to see Nintendo, the most dominant force in the industry, being totally humiliated by the newcomer. Sony did everything within its power to make the PlayStation successful, it advertised the console in ways no other system was advertised before, it was attractive to developers and publishers, and as a result it became attractive to consumers as well.

Nintendo certainly pushed the boundaries with its games that generation. Titles like Super Mario 64 and Ocarina of Time were ahead of their time, with both serving as a template for design in three dimensions which most third person action games still follow to this day. But the hardware? Not great at all. Nintendo made so many mistakes with the Nintendo 64 that I can’t call it anything other than an unmitigated failure. Yes, people will say it sold better than every console that generation other than the PlayStation, but the PlayStation topped 100 million units sold, the first console to reach that milestone, while the N64 sold only 33 million units by comparison.

Nintendo followed the Nintendo 64 with the GameCube, an excellent console which improved upon all the key areas which the Nintendo 64 failed, but because it followed the N64 it had a huge hurdle to jump, and it failed as a result. The Nintendo 64 was he beginning of the end of the “old” Nintendo, when the company still tried to compete on a hardware level, and where many of the criticisms of the “new” Nintendo first started to appear. I don’t think it’s Nintendo’s worst console, that is an honour saved for the Wii U, but it’s damn close.

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