Feature: Celebrating the 15th Anniversary of the Nintendo 64
Posted by Thomas Whitehead
The Big N’s gift to modern gaming
Looking back on the Nintendo 64, there are plenty of subject areas that warrant exploration. As a console, the N64 was a trend-setter that pushed the boundaries and expectations of gaming experiences. This status as a technologically advanced and experimental console was both a blessing and a curse, as it enjoyed loyalty and enthusiasm from gamers who bought into its ethos, while also suffering the backlash as certain eccentricities drove some gamers away. The negatives meant that the N64 sold significantly less units than the SNES, and Nintendo surrendered the market lead to the Sony PlayStation. Despite this, it’s a console remembered by many with fondness, and the bold design decisions that Nintendo took with the N64 have influenced and inspired various trends in modern gaming. This article will touch on three of these major innovations, and why they should be celebrated.
It’s hard to believe that it’s been 15 years since the Nintendo 64 was launched in North America until, perhaps, you fire up your favourite game from the console. It’s immediately striking that, graphically, the N64 arguably doesn’t stand up to modern standards as well as some 16-bit games from the Super Nintendo era. While pixel-based titles retain retro appeal, the early 3D polygon models evident on the N64 often look crude and ‘blurry’ by comparison. This may all sound like a negative, but it’s actually an indication of the bold step that Nintendo took with its 64-bit console, and judging these graphics by modern standards doesn't give a fair reflection of the impact that they had on contemporary gamers in 1996.
Although earlier consoles had dabbled with 3D graphics, Star Fox on the SNES being a notable example, the shift in graphical fidelity on the N64 cannot be emphasized enough. By dropping pixels in favour of polygons, Nintendo set a new standard for gaming graphics. Launch title Super Mario 64 was the perfect example of what the graphics processor could do, allowing Shigeru Miyamoto to create a Mario experience within a fully realised 3D environment. Even simple acts like rotating the camera were a novelty, and to gamers who had previously enjoyed 2D pixel-based games, Super Mario 64 represented a whole new world.
On the negative side, this technology was new and suffered from limitations. Combine this with the restricted space on the N64 cartridges, and developers faced significant challenges achieving the best visual results. Despite this, the Nintendo 64 brought extensive 3D environments into the gaming industry, astonishing gamers at the time and laying the foundations for future generations of home consoles.
New gaming experiences
As we’ve shown in our most memorable N64 games poll, this console has a legacy of definitive titles that have, arguably, had a major influence on modern gaming trends. From a Nintendo-only perspective, titles such as The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and the aforementioned Super Mario 64 demonstrated that Nintendo’s biggest franchises could become 3D gaming experiences. There were exciting new directions, also, with Paper Mario being a prime example of a Nintendo title that was inconceivable on past generations of hardware. Upgrades of well known SNES titles also bore ‘next-generation’ hallmarks of superior graphics, with Star Fox 64 (known as Lylat Wars in Europe) being an example of the significant enhancements over its predecessor in the series. Titles developed by Nintendo generally made excellent use of the technology, with Wave Race 64, to take one example, introducing impressive water and weather effects such as fluctuating waves and the use of fog on more atmospheric tracks.
Other developers did step forward, none more so than British developer Rare, that worked under an exclusive publishing agreement with Nintendo at that time. The output from Rare for the N64 was substantial in quantity as well as quality. Titles such as Banjo Kazooie and Conker’s Bad Fur Day utilised the 3D environments possible on the console to good effect. It's perhaps Goldeneye 007, though, that carries the greatest legacy for the acclaimed developer, as it's often credited with revolutionising the FPS (first-person shooter) genre on home consoles. Not only did the graphics engine introduce features such as weapon zooms and context sensitive injuries, but also brought multiplayer gaming to the fore. It is common for happy recollections of Goldeneye 007 and its spiritual successor, Perfect Dark, to revolve around split-screen multiplayer with friends. It is a gaming experience with an almost legendary status, setting the tone for FPS multiplayer gameplay that, in the fullness of time, would become an online affair.
It is interesting that, statistically, the N64 had a low number of game releases in comparison to previous Nintendo consoles. Despite this, the number of top quality titles cited by fans of the console is significant, making any debate about the ‘best’ N64 games a fierce one. The influence of some of the titles highlighted can be seen even in the current generation of console games, not to mention two notable re-releases on the 3DS.
The joy of analogue
Our final area of focus to celebrate the legacy of the Nintendo 64 is its controller. The design isn’t perfect, but at the time it was a revolution. The four ‘C’ buttons enabled unprecedented camera control, particularly important for players exploring a vast 3D landscape. The shape necessitated a trigger button, and it was a controller that felt unlike any that had come before.
The key development on the N64 controller was the analogue stick. It wasn’t the first of its kind, not quite, but it set trends as it was the primary control mechanism, rather than an optional extra. The nature of the games on the console meant that this analogue stick was mandatory, providing a natural means of control and movement for the 3D gaming that the console was pushing. In terms of the innovations that we’ve referred to in both graphic design and the memorable gaming experiences borne from the technology, none of these would have functioned properly without the analogue stick.
It would be remiss, when remembering the N64 controller, if we failed to pay due homage to the Rumble Pak. It was a bulky accessory that clipped onto the controller, but brought the idea of haptic feedback into mainstream gaming. The effect of this add-on was particularly memorable in arcade-style titles, with the device going into meltdown after boss battles in Star Fox 64, in particular. It was a trend-setter, with rumble feedback quickly becoming a common feature in console controllers.
Innovation and wonder
The bold design decisions that Nintendo took with the N64 have influenced and inspired various trends in modern gaming
These three areas, we hope, touch on the essence of what made the Nintendo 64 the technological powerhouse of its generation, and a fondly remembered console today. The console had its fair share of problems, such as the expense and limitations of the cartridge medium, but its legacy and influence on modern gaming is secure. We should be grateful for the innovation shown in the N64, and we suggest that anyone who experienced this console in its prime should fire up their favourite game this week, and raise their glass to 15 years of memories.
Keep checking Nintendo Life all of this week for more Nintendo 64 celebrations, such as a look at some missed opportunities on the console, the potential for bringing more N64 games to the 3DS, and a staff roundtable discussing its legacy.