Feature: Nintendo 64 Let-Downs, Head Scratchers and Conundrums
Posted by Zach Kaplan
Analogue stick scars and unrealised Crystal Dreams
When the Nintendo 64 entered our living rooms for the first time, most of us couldn't help but marvel at its power and dream of the possibilities. But with great power comes great responsibility, and not all of those dreams ended up coming true. We already explored the system's most memorable games; now, we'll take a look at some things we'd rather forget.
The Nintendo 64 controller was a big innovation, including for basically the first time items such as an analogue stick, the backside trigger and vibration via the Rumble Pak peripheral. But the design was far from flawless, including an entire left-side 1/3 portion that proved basically useless, thanks in no small part to the system's sidescroller dearth and thus little opportunity to utilise the d-pad.
But the real trauma came with a little game called Mario Party and its emphasis on quick stick spinning for some of its mini-games. Still today, some palms wear the circular scars of an analogue stick impression while the sticks themselves lie forgotten in piles of plastic dust. Oh, the humanity...
Out of the Night, the Fog Rolled In
The N64 was a powerful machine, but not every developer knew how to harness its strengths. One way that developer Rare earned our respect was by allowing players to view distances previously unimaginable in Banjo-Kazooie; before that, the fog trick was our near-constant companion and worst enemy. When a game included an open area just too deep to view on-screen without slowdown, a thick mist would obscure whatever the processor couldn't handle. Take a look at Turok: Dinosaur Hunter to the left for one notorious example.
Herrings as Red as Mario's Cap
Oh Nintendo, you tease. It's so coy of you to place a Triforce in the menu screen of Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time that we can never complete, yet try for countless hours to figure out because "Why would they include it in the menu if you can't complete it?" Oh, and what could be at the top of Peach's castle in Super Mario 64? Well, two disappointing options would be a Yoshi you can't ride and a very large amount of lives that are no longer of any use as you obtain them, because you'll have completed the entire game already. Surely it's neither of those, right Nintendo?
Faster than a Speeding Building
The Nintendo 64 allowed players to perform feats previously unreachable. It gave us the powers of flight, super strength and agility and more, and the capability to realise these to their fullest. What better match for that most amazing of super systems than that most amazing of superheroes, Superman?
And the mist was back in full force, this time in the guise of poisonous Kryptonite Fog (sure, Titus, we'll play along...)
Of course, we all know how that went down. But we couldn't have possibly predicted such a vile outcome at the time, making Superman not only one of the system's worst games but one of its biggest disappointments. Horrible graphics and nightmarish controls compounded the most unheroic storyline of the Man of Steel's career – he’s not out on the streets but instead navigating Lex Luthor's virtual world – and the most tedious gameplay of all-time, seeing you fly through rings, then more rings, and even more rings, broken up by confusing, poorly designed car-throwing sequences. There’s more later on but it’s just as poorly executed, and you’ll have to conquer the control scheme well enough to get through the first part within a time limit or you’ll have to start over, going on to fly through the same rings all over again. And the mist was back in full force, this time in the guise of poisonous Kryptonite Fog (sure, Titus, we'll play along...) proving that the developers couldn’t even figure out how to program the game’s limited engine to run well on the system’s hardware.
The Wii may have introduced the Balance Board, but the Nintendo 64 was known for lack of balance... in genres, that is. Despite a plethora of fighting games (not all of them fondly remembered) and quite a few 3D platformers and racers, other genres did not see the same abundance; puzzlers are more of a handheld affair, so it's not surprising that the console only featured around ten, but place even that number next to the dearth of RPGs and it becomes a lot more impressive. If you were a role-playing fan with a Nintendo 64, you were limited to just four games.
The Wii may have introduced the Balance Board, but the Nintendo 64 was known for lack of balance... in genres, that is.
Thankfully, Paper Mario was one of these, taking the gameplay of Super Mario RPG and giving it that pop-out look we've come to love. The other three titles were far less impressive: Konami's Hybrid Heaven divided opinions while players largely agreed on the mediocrity of Quest 64 and subpar quality of Aidyn Chronicles: The First Mage. Thankfully there were action-RPGs to take up some of the slack, including two incredible entries from the Zelda series as well as a pair of quirky Japanese Goemon games and a few other worthwhile experiences, but for a traditional RPG fan, this is little recompense. Chalk it up to the small cartridge size or developers' reliance on expansive cutscenes that needed a CD to hold them, but at the end of the day, this was just not a console for RPG fans.
Another genre that was simply out of style at the time was the sidescroller, which just looked like yesterday's news until gamers re-embraced it in future generations. This was half of the reason why we never saw a Metroid 64, another great let-down of the day; besides its creators inability to visualise how Samus could move about in a 3D space, doing so in a 2D space didn't even seem to be an option, as you can read in our feature on the subject.
And finally, it's worth mentioning one more genre that was just out of style at the time: the puzzle-based adventure game. The console's sole entry didn't do much to help that, either, but we're sure that there are some fans of Shadowgate 64: Trial of the Four Towers out there.
Now you see it...
What outshone some of the let-downs that made it to the Nintendo 64, however, were those that were just as disappointing for failing to do so. Sin and Punishment is perhaps the most egregious – released near the end of the console’s lifespan, Nintendo chose not to localise the extremely highly rated and much anticipated title until its Virtual Console appearance many years later.
Another game that never saw the light of day was the cancelled Caesar’s Palace 64, which sounds like your average gambling simulator but was to include adventure game-esque puzzles and RPG elements, as well as some adult content on a system notorious for its lack thereof (see: blood replaced with zombie slime in Carmageddon 64, for one example). There’s also the ill-fated 64DD, which was to allow players to create art in a Mario Paint-esque series of games and edit tracks in F-Zero X-Pansion Pack, among other things, but never made it outside of Japan, leaving as its only relic four mysterious holes on the console’s underside. And the simple mention of Earthbound 64 is enough to bring tears to some fans' eyes; after an announced Western release with tantalising screen shots to boot, the game was pulled thanks to reliance on the failed 64DD and a faulty 3D engine, and was re-formatted as the GBA's Mother 3 – never to see localisation outside of Japan.
One more cancellation that also merits attention is that of Robotech: Crystal Dreams. Scheduled to release at the system’s launch, it featured a universe so expansive and realistic it was said to require six months in real time to traverse the entire thing. This would help accommodate the ambitious open-ended gameplay, which saw you both take on missions and navigate space until you found a disturbance, not unlike the Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption titles of today. But after multiple delays, the fate of the game seemed more and more uncertain. Developer Gametek was suffering from financial woes; it attempted to help remedy these by extending its Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! licenses to N64 games, but the poorly handled rushed releases ended up as some of the console’s worst. Doubt fell over the prospect of the small three-person studio’s ability to execute such a lofty project, and its original publisher pulled out. Soon after its showing at E3 ’98, Gametek cancelled the title and the company afterwards went defunct. The team generously released the unfinished rom image to the internet shortly thereafter, however, and you can still find it without much trouble.
Those are some of our least fondly recalled moments from the Nintendo 64, but perhaps something affected you just as much that we’ve left out here – say, the underwater-blurry graphics of NBA In the Zone ‘98, the AI of Dual Heroes that was so bad it sent opponents hurling themselves over stage edges, or the non-localisation of Tamagotchi 64 (ok, probably not that one). Let the world know your frustrations in the comments below!