N64 01
Image: Nintendo Life

To mark the 20th birthday of Nintendo's 64-bit wonder we're republishing this feature on the console, which originally went live on the site in December 2014.

The Nintendo 64 is a console which divides opinions, even today. For some, it was an unforgivable fall from grace after the dizzying heights of the SNES; a system which failed in the face of stiff competition from newcomer Sony and its dominant PlayStation console. For others, it's home to some of Nintendo's most accomplished titles — a perspective that is reinforced by the fact we're still seeing "remastered" updates on the 3DS for past classics like Star Fox 64, Zelda: Ocarina of Time and — next year — Majora's Mask. While the N64 failed to replicate the incredible commercial success of its 8 and 16-bit ancestors and was forced to play second fiddle to the PlayStation, it remains a truly essential system with some of the most ground-breaking pieces of software ever seen in the video game industry.

The N64 began life in the early '90s as Project Reality, a much-hyped dream machine which would use a 64-bit tech and showcase incredibly detailed 3D visuals. Coming soon after the launch of CGI-heavy movies like Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park, the notion of working with Silicon Graphics — one of the most famous chip manufacturers of the period — gave the venture a degree of considerable cachet. Early tech demos were, in hindsight, hopelessly optimistic and not a fair indication of what the final hardware would be capable of, but these nevertheless fed the ravenous public anticipation for the new system — as did Nintendo's assurances that Rare's Killer Instinct arcade title was running on the same hardware that the home console would utilise. That would also prove to be something of a fib, but the desired effect was achieved.

Around the same time Nintendo confirmed that its next machine — by this point known as "Ultra 64" — would use cartridges rather than CDs. Speed was cited as the reason for this decision; CD drives were still quite slow at the time and it was faster to pull data from a cart. However, there were questions at the time regarding the validity of Nintendo's statement, with many industry experts saying that piracy was a more pressing concern for the Japanese giant. Irrespective of the reasoning, Nintendo's choice would have long-term ramifications and force some of its closest partners during the SNES era to move their focus to rival, CD-based platforms. Carts were more expensive to the end user and could house less data, and their production required an incredible manufacturing investment from publishers before games could even put on sale.

Prior to launch Nintendo attempted to assemble a "dream team" of third-party software developers that would create unique and exclusive titles for its new console. Nintendo's relations with developers during the NES and SNES eras had been so positive that the company had little reason to think that support would be anything but robust. However, some of the companies granted access to this much-hyped group raised eyebrows amongst players and press alike. The likes of Rare and DMA Design — the forerunner of Rockstar Games — were fair enough, but Williams, Acclaim, Time Warner, Virgin and GameTek hardly ranked as the best in the business. Big names like Square, Capcom and Konami were curiously absent, and this predictably set alarm bells ringing.

The final system — complete with its innovative three-pronged analogue controller and new "Nintendo 64" moniker — was unveiled to the Japanese public at the end of 1995 to a largely positive reaction. This was dampened slightly by the news that the system would not be hitting Japanese stores by the end of the year as was previously mooted; instead, Nintendo chose to hold it back until the middle of 1996. While the official reason was that Nintendo wanted to give N64 software more time to "mature", there were rumours from ex-SGI staffers that hardware issues were to blame. Regardless of the cause, the 32-bit PlayStation and Sega Saturn were allowed to fight it out over the 1995 Christmas season, with Sony's console gaining some valuable market share as a result.

Demand for the N64 was intense upon its Japanese launch in June 1996, and by the time the machine made its way to North America in September Nintendo had deliberately priced it low in order to gain some ground on its CD-based rivals. Early software was impressive; Super Mario 64 was an undeniable system-seller, giving players their first taste of what a 3D platformer could offer. Fellow launch release Pilotwings 64 also turned heads thanks to its expansive environments and deep, rewarding mechanics. In the following months these would be joined by GoldenEye 007, Mario Kart 64, Blast Corps, Banjo Kazooie, F-Zero X and — some time later — The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Out of the 387 games which eventually made it to market, most of the console's true classics were first or second-party releases, setting up a trend which has arguably continued to this day; Nintendo games sell Nintendo consoles. Third party support was weak compared to the NES and SNES, and former bedfellow Squaresoft would cause quite a stir when it decided to move Final Fantasy VII from the N64 to PlayStation, thanks largely to the fact that CDs would allow the company to produce a grander, more impressive game.

As of 2009, just under 33 million N64 consoles have been sold globally — a drop from the 62 million sales of the NES / Famicom and the 49 million sales of the SNES. There are multiple reasons why this happened; low third party support, the high cost of cartridges compared to CDs and the simple fact that it hit the market more than a year after its opponents. A combination of all these factors is more likely to be to blame, and while the N64 was a distant second to the PlayStation — which would go on to sell 100 million units globally — it played host to some of the best games of the period. Ocarina of Time is widely regarded as one of the greatest games ever made, while GoldenEye 007 pioneered the first-person shooter on consoles. Then there was the rest of Rare's incredible output — the company's golden era arguably coincided with the existence of the N64.

The N64 also proved that where Nintendo goes, others follow. The console's analogue controller might not have been revolutionary (the Magnavox Odyssey, the world's first commercial games console, shipped with an analogue controller back in 1972) but it certainly popularised the interface on modern consoles. Soon after the launch of the N64 both Sega and Sony would release their own analogue pads. The N64's Rumble Pack was also something of a trendsetter, bolting onto the back of the controller and offering force feedback — something Sony would copy with the Japanese version of its Dual Analog Controller (which actually launched a matter of days before the N64 Rumble Pack in Japan but was clearly inspired by it) and the iconic "DualShock" range of PlayStation pads. Finally, there was the all-important inclusion of four controller ports on the front of the system, allowing for raucous battles in GoldenEye 007, intense races in Mario Kart 64 and hilarious punch-ups in Super Smash Bros.. In the era before online play, the N64 was arguably the most social gaming platform available. Sega and Microsoft would later include four controller ports on their Dreamcast and Xbox consoles, no doubt inspired by Nintendo's approach.

Another unique feature of the console was the 4MEG Expansion Pak, which gave the system a combined total of 8MEG and was required to play certain games. This small unit docked inside an expansion bay on the top of the system and was sold at a relatively low cost. While it could be argued that such a move splintered the audience, the end result was undeniably impressive — as anyone who has seen Perfect Dark running on the console with the aid of the RAM expansion will attest.

Nintendo didn't stop there, however. Even before the system launched there were rumours regarding a "Bulky Drive" attachment for the console which would allow users to write data to special magnetic discs. The 64DD would only see the light of day in Japan, and it took until 1999 to arrive. Sales were poor and only a handful of titles were ever released for it, but it remains one of the most collectable pieces of Nintendo hardware.

Speaking of which, collecting for the N64 is a fairly painless process these days as consoles are relatively cheap to pick up. Ironically, Nintendo's decision to go with carts over CDs means that most second-hand N64 systems are in fine working order even today, while Sony and Sega's consoles from the same period are starting to experience CD drive failure. You can grab some of the more common N64 games — usually unboxed, thanks to Nintendo's annoying insistence on using easily perishable cardboard packaging— for very little cash. However, over the past few years the more desirable releases have risen sharply in price; games like Conker's Bad Fur Day and Banjo Tooie now cost way in excess of their original RRP. If you're aiming to amass a truly comprehensive collection then you can expect to part with a considerable sum of cash. Flash carts are another option if you want original hardware but don't like the notion of paying through the nose for pre-owned games.

As with most of its home consoles, Nintendo utilised region locking on the N64 — but it's not as strict as you might expect. If you're in Europe then you'll need a converter cartridge — which uses a PAL game to "fool" the N64 into playing an NTSC one — to run import titles on your PAL system, but in the case of the Japanese and North American NTSC consoles, the only barrier is the shape of the cartridges. By using a pass-through connector (or breaking the tabs which obstruct cartridge insertion) you can happily play Japanese games on your US console. With this in mind — and the fact that NTSC systems are generally easier to RGB mod than PAL ones — it makes infinitely more sense to pick either a Japanese or North American N64, even if you're in Europe.

The Nintendo 64 might not achieved the same sales as its predecessor or matched the incredible commercial performance of its direct rival the PlayStation, but it's a console that delivers some of the best gaming experiences money can buy, and is ripe for rediscovery today — even if you played it to death the first time around.