Hardware Focus - Nintendo 64
Posted by Nima Mottacki
Since the 80's Nintendo's name has been synonymous with gaming, the company's current market dominance highlighting how attuned they have become to the requirements of the market, and providing the buyers with the very things they need.
However, given the current success of the DS and Wii, it is perhaps too easy to forget that it was achieved through no less than a baptism of fire lasting two hardware generations; it is the story of an unfortunate refusal to accept the shifting paradigms of the industry in the face of new competition, a lack of flexibility as regarded quality control and licensing, and a series of business decisions leading to the mass exodus of the most important third-party developers to a platform (the PlayStation) that did not even exist two years prior. This is the tumultuous story of the N64.
To understand the positioning of the N64, it is important to comprehend Nintendo's company culture at the time. Through the stringent licensing statutes associated with the NES, Nintendo effectively monopolised the software industry for a generation. The deal was simple: either you developed solely for the NES (or Famicom, as it was in Japan), or you did not develop for it at all. Through this arose some interesting situations, with third party games occasionally being licensed and reprogrammed by first-party companies to circumvent the inability of the original developer to port their games to other hardware (the Mega Drive port of Ghouls 'n' Ghosts being a case in point). By the time various lawsuits relating to monopolistic practices in the USA had borne fruit - preventing Nintendo from legally continuing its licensing schemes - the effect was already near-total, and the NES was practically the only machine on the market.
Nintendo also kept a close eye on the quality of software produced, affording only those it thought worthy with the necessary "Licensed by Nintendo" seal, and unlicensed games were not treated kindly. Nintendo was the only company capable of mass-producing the carts for its machines, and developers had to buy in tremendous amounts to assure decent per-unit prices, but this of course meant development costs grossly inflated by the cost of the medium. In the days of the NES, this was irrelevant, as other hardware suffered the same limitations. By the time the fifth generation had rolled around, beginning in 1995 with the Sony PlayStation and Sega Saturn, the realities had changed.
The move to optical media had begun in earnest in 1993, with early 32-bit consoles like the 3DO Interactive Multiplayer and the Commodore Amiga CD32 relying exclusively on it, though CD add-ons had been available for previous consoles such as the Sega Mega Drive and the TG-16. Indeed, as has often been noted, the original PlayStation was born from a failed co-operation between Nintendo and Sony to build a CD-based add-on for the SNES. The first two major hardware players to come to market with 32-bit machines, however, were not available world-wide until 1995, the successful debut of the PlayStation - with its edgy marketing and teen-oriented games - being followed by the arguably less successful "surprise" launch of the Sega Saturn.
Nintendo had, in 1993, been approached by CGI computer manufacturer Silicon Graphics with a hardware architecture that SGI had developed for the console market. After several failed pitches to other companies, SGI and Nintendo agreed to develop the console, codenamed "Project Reality" (due to the purported quality of its graphics), and the announcement was made in 1994, with a speculated release worldwide in early 1995 to compete with Sony and Sega.
The SNES was still the dominant console on the market at this point with a user base of over 40 million worldwide, and an abundance of quality third party titles in addition to the first party releases Nintendo had been long famed for. Viewing the resultant battle between its two competitors from afar, Nintendo took the faithful decision not to follow suit - though their console would be 3D-based, like the PlayStation, it would forego optical media for cartridges, Nintendo citing advanced compression technologies and familiarity with the technology to assuage the near-immediate criticism this decision attracted. CDs, they argued, were not only slow to load, and difficult to engineer proper anti-piracy devices for, but the requirement for large (for the time) amounts of RAM in the console to load games into prior to playing would cut into back-end profits on console sales. Instead, it was decreed that the new machine, codenamed Ultra 64, would maintain Nintendo's market dominance through superior technology, not untested media.
Nintendo also unveiled the novel control pad for the new machine, which was notable not only for being the first mainstream controller with and analogue stick, but also for it's 'trident' design, which allowed the hands to adopt several configurations for different types of games.
Third-party developers were not amused. Though initially keeping quiet on the issue, the realities of Nintendo's decisions was nevertheless crystalline in its clarity; Nintendo would produce the cartridges, and third party developers would have to pay exorbitant prices to buy them. Not only that, but as customers, they would never be able to match the prices Nintendo could set itself on larger games, which would have to cost more in order to cover the manufacturing costs of the medium, solid state memory. Whereas PlayStation games had been selling at reduced prices compared to SNES games, secondary to the low mass-manufacturing cost of CDs, Nintendo's cartridges would not have such an advantage. Also, whereas bulk buying of CDs meant an unsuccessful game was a cost that could be absorbed, the same would not necessarily be true here. Subsequently, a large number of developers jumped ship, swayed by the creative opportunities of the vast amounts of storage on CDs and convinced by financial consequences.
After being dubbed the Ultra 64, the console was finally introduced in late '95 in Japan as the Nintendo 64 (often shortened to N64) due to licensing issues with the Ultra name, though the North American release did not happen until September 1996, and the PAL release even later, in March '97.
Aware that the machine would require a stellar game to show off its capabilities, Shigeru Miyamoto was granted a team of elite Nintendo programmers, and set about working on the first 3D iteration of the famous Mario franchise. Super Mario 64, released together with the console, was quickly hailed as one of, if not the, greatest games of all time. Early criticism of the PlayStation had centred on Sony's lax licensing, which had meant the market was flooded with PlayStation games, though not one had yet to be considered a true 'killer app'. But the attractive price of the PSX (with Sony taking a hit on every machine sold in the hopes of making its money back on software licensing fees) combined with the sheer wealth of titles available by the N64's release had led to a large installed user base.
Nintendo clarified its intended marketing position relating to its competitors early on; their console was, unlike the Saturn and PlayStation, distinctly aimed at a younger market from the outset. Having understood the likely dearth of third party development, Nintendo went looking for partner companies to form a 'dream team' and involved them in the development of the first batch of titles, almost all under the watchful eye of Shigeru Miyamoto. The resulting games, including Pilotwings 64 from Paradigm, were extremely well received both critically and commercially.
Nintendo's focus on first and second-party titles quickly became overbearing during the console's lifetime, with the later dearth of titles being attributed to the mass shift away from Nintendo's platform. But despite this, the unbridled creativity available at Nintendo itself could not be denied. Despite being a distant second in the sales fight against the PlayStation (the Saturn having failed at the first hurdle) with under 35 million sales against the 105 million of the original PlayStation, the N64 was nevertheless home to several flashes of undiluted genius, the likes of which the PlayStation arguably rarely, if ever, witnessed. The aforementioned Super Mario 64 and Pilotwings 64 set the ball rolling, but this high-quality (though low-volume) output continued throughout the life of the console and included what is still regarded as the greatest game ever made, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Another company that had been taken under Nintendo's wing, Rareware, produced a series of games to this day remembered very fondly, including the James Bond license Goldeneye 007 and the Banjo-Kazooie series of 3D platformers.
During the development and launch of the console, a rewritable optical disk format was proposed. This idea, the 64DD, never came to fruition in the way originally imagined, and though released in Japan much later than intended, was to become nothing more than a footnote in the history of the N64. Most of the games intended for it having been moved to ever-larger cartridges, notably including Zelda: OoT, and those that were eventually released were mostly expansion packs for existing games.
Today, the N64 holds a strange place in the hearts and minds of gamers, its perceived shortcomings at the time having been dimmed during the intervening years in light of the high quality of many of its games. Having been seen as technically archaic in its choice of medium and with games priced sometimes twice as highly priced as those from the competition. The sales figures certainly tell a story, but it can be argued that many of the N64 titles, particularly the first and second-party games, have stood the test of time distinctly better than software from contemporary rivals.
A console considered too expensive, too narrow in its demographic focus, and too difficult to program for during its lifetime, the N64 now stands towering in the memories of gamers due to the one thing that truly matters when all is said and done: its games.