Following the 16-bit glories of the Super Nintendo, its successor often gets short shrift from gamers these days. Of course, it’s adored by Nintendo fans of a certain age who doubled down on it during the PlayStation generation, but it’s a wilfully ‘odd’ system and arguably tough to love if you weren’t there at the time.
Its odd-looking three-pronged controllers didn’t do it any favours, but for some of us the Nintendo 64 has a retro-fetishistic allure that few other consoles have. The system played host to myriad accessories, many of which never made it to the west, and its compliment of ‘Paks’, peripherals and add-ons frequently have us browsing auction sites and considering bidding on hardware we don't have the means to play. No, we couldn't actually use the modem connection cartridge that Morita Shogi 64 came on, but it sure looks ace. Oh, how we'd love to get our hands on a 64DD disc or fondle a Doctor V64!
Despite its reputation as the console which ceded Nintendo's industry dominance to Sony, the N64 pioneered innovations that are still with us today. We all know it birthed 3D gaming as we know it with Super Mario 64 and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, and the Rumble Pak brought haptic feedback to the masses. Although it’s now integrated into your controller, there was something immensely satisfying about loading it into the back of your pad with a chunky click.
The console's other accessories were also significant. The Memory Pak was a less welcome entry in the lineup - publishers offloading the cost of memory onto the player is nothing new - but later in the system’s life we got the Expansion Pak, with its hot rod red grille, that doubled the console’s RAM to a whopping 8MB, not to mention the mysterious 64DD, with its big discs and mouse. Japan gets all the cool stuff.
However, one of the oddest accessories did see release outside Nintendo's homeland: NUS-019, or the common or garden Transfer Pak. Plugging into the rear of the controller just as the Rumble and Memory Paks did, this intriguing device enabled you to connect a Game Boy cartridge to your N64 and opened up a new world of cross-console opportunities.
Seeing the peripheral, we recall jumping to conclusions; this was obviously the new version of the Super Game Boy – time to play GB games on the big screen! Unfortunately, this turned out to be incorrect. The developer/press-only Wide-Boy 64 was essentially the N64’s Super Game Boy, although it was never made publicly available, and the Transfer Pak didn't contain any Game Boy or emulation hardware itself. However, it was possible to play the handheld’s biggest game on your N64.
The accessory initially came bundled with Pokémon Stadium and, armed with a copy or Pokémon Red, Blue or Yellow, you could move your Pocket Monsters back and forth between the cartridges, view them and transfer them with friends far more easily than via Game Boy alone, and also witness your Pokémon fight in stunning, colourful three dimensions. A host of minigames rounded out the package (gotta love the Lickitung Sushi-Go-Round) and, yes, you could play through the Kanto region games on your telly by heading to the Game Boy Tower (the GB emulator software was on the Pokémon Stadium cartridge). Beyond the increased screen dimensions, there was another reason to do this – completing the Poké and Prime Cups on all difficulties unlocked double and triple gameplay speed options with special Doduo and Dodrio Game Boys, extremely handy for speeding through level grinding in the original games.
Firing up old carts these days comes with a feeling of trepidation. Is the battery still working? Will my saves still be there? We plugged in our trusty Pokémon Yellow cart and – sure enough – all our original Gen 1 Pokémon were still there, including our original monsters from Blue that we transferred to Yellow when we upgraded. After so many years, saying hello to 'Rocky' the Geodude, ‘BATMAN’ the Zubat and, of course, ‘piddle’ the Weedle once again gave us a warhead-sized hit of nostalgia that briefly left us considering transferring the lot to Stadium for safety before replacing the battery in the Game Boy cart and buying ourselves another 20 years of storage. It's comforting to know that our very first mons are still preserved there, 'forever' locked inside the amber of that little cartridge.
Pokémon Stadium 2 would offer the same features with Gen 2 games, and a recent ROM hack of the game enables you to play various other Game Boy games on the N64 using the cart's onboard emulator. For many, the Pokémon titles alone justified the Transfer Pak’s existence, but there were a handful of other releases that made use of it. The Camelot-developed pair of Mario Golf games across the platforms enabled you to transfer your Game Boy Color character to the N64 game and subsequently transfer XP back. You could also copy your N64 stats to the Game Boy Color game for portable bragging rights amongst your golfing buddies. Mario Tennis, another Camelot gig and notably the debut of Waluigi, featured more extensive connectivity, and owning both games unlocked courts and characters that were otherwise impossible to get.
Perfect Dark was famously supposed to support it. In conjunction with the Game Boy Camera, the idea was to allow players to map their own faces to models for use in the multiplayer portion, but the events at Columbine High School in 1999 altered those plans and connecting the Game Boy Color Perfect Dark via the Transfer Pak merely unlocked some hard-to-get cheats in the N64 version.
In Japan, however, the Pak could be used with the Game Boy Camera in Mario Artist: Talent Studio, a 64DD game which enabled you to capture video to the N64 and animate 3D models. A fusion of Mario Paint with the avatar creation that would go on to inform the Miis of the Wii generation, you could import Game Boy Camera photos onto the 3D models (you could even then transfer them to Sim City 64 for 64DD and have these proto-Miis populate your city).
Nintendo would go on to experiment with connecting their handheld and home consoles with the Game Boy Advance Link Cable for GameCube – connectivity that continued with token unlocks and transfers between home and handheld game versions, but also led to limited ‘second screen’ experiences such as the Tingle Tuner in The Wind Waker, or the four-player The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventure. Having the requisite friends and consoles to make it work was its own problem, but the potential for a shared Zelda experience made befriending the ‘weird’ kid worth it. All were welcome, provided they had their own GBA and link cable!
Only a handful of other games made use of the Transfer Pak, but its strange fusion of tech fired our imaginations back in the day. Perhaps it was the fact that you plugged it into the controller rather than the console, but whatever the reason, its melding of two entirely separate consoles felt somehow forbidden or otherworldly; a Frankenstein concoction of hardware that shouldn’t go together but now could. The potential this unlocked boggled our young minds. We plugged the Game Boy Camera into it simply because we could – it felt ‘wrong’, but imagine the possibilities…
Ultimately, its potential was never fully realised, but the Transfer Pak signalled the convergence that Nintendo would continue to pursue with its hardware line. Looking back there’s a fairly clear line that arguably starts with the Transfer Pak before moving on to the GBA/GameCube connectivity which foreshadows the hybrid nature of Switch, the true realisation of handheld and home console convergence.
Nintendo never bins a good idea, even if it’s impractical to implement or simply doesn’t work the first time round. The Virtual Boy’s undoubted failure led to fresh outings for virtual reality Labo VR and, likewise, the original 3D experiments of Luigi’s Mansion on GameCube would come to fruition on 3DS. This recycling of concepts is constant and consistent, meaning that if we were clever enough, we could very probably plot the future course of the company’s hardware based on the collection of ideas and consoles sitting in our closets right now. Alternatively, we could crack out the dartboard and do what most of the analysts seem to do. Regardless, Nintendo's rich tradition of off-the-wall ideas and accessories is alive and well in the Switch era, so the future is sure to bring some jolly surprises as the company strides forward while keeping one eye on the past.
Do you have good memories of the Transfer Pak? Can you think of any missed opportunities to make use of it back in the day? Share your memories and ideas below.