The Video Game Critic's Console Reviews
Nintendo 64 (1996-2001)

Manufacturer: Nintendo
Format: Cartridge
Controller Ports: 4
Save Capability: Controller packs, most cartridges save via internal battery
Number of games: 300+
Video Output: RF, Composite, S-Video
Initial Price: $199

system

Highly anticipated and often delayed, the Nintendo 64 (N64) delivered cutting-edge 3D graphics and a truly innovative controller. The system's wildly-popular flagship title, Super Mario 64, showcased an unprecedented "go anywhere" style of exploration. The oversized N64 controller featured a revolutionary analog thumb-stick that made Mario walk or run based on how far the stick was pushed. While analog thumbsticks are standard on today's controllers, in 1996 it was revolutionary. The Nintendo 64 could also generate lush, high-resolution 3D environments with smoother textures than other systems. Initially priced at $199, the console was surprisingly affordable, and appeared to have a bright future ahead of it.

Unfortunately, Nintendo's decision to go with the cartridge format instead of CDs turned out to be a serious liability. The production cost of manufacturing N64 cartridges was extremely high compared to pressing Playstation and Saturn CDs, as computer chips were an expensive commodity. Consequentially, N64 titles regularly entered the market at an astounding $70-$80 price point, which was unheard of at the time (and still is). During the same period, the average price of a Playstation or Saturn game was well under $50 and still falling. Most third-party vendors understandably balked at producing N64 titles due to the slim profit margin, and flocked to the Playstation instead. The number of titles available for the N64 was modest from the start, and it grew at a very slow pace. Another drawback of the cartridge format was its limited capacity. In order to squeeze a Playstation title into a N64 cartridge, elaborate cut-scenes and digitized soundtracks had to be shortened or axed altogether. N64 versions of games like Resident Evil 2 and Tony Hawk Pro Skater seemed like second-rate, scaled down versions of the originals.

While Nintendo 64 never thrived like the Playstation, it did usher in a number of groundbreaking titles. Two Legend of Zelda games successfully transitioned the popular franchise to 3D, and outstanding Star Wars titles like Rogue Squadron and Episode One Racer offered a level of gameplay not technically feasible on the Playstation. The N64 proved ideal for multi-player action, thanks to its four controller ports and standout titles like Goldeneye, Mario Kart 64, Smash Brothers, and Mario Party. Star Fox 64 and its innovative rumble pack attachment provided gamers with their first "force feedback" experience. The system certainly had its moments, but high prices and a lack of games limited the console's appeal. By the time Nintendo's Gamecube was released, the N64 seemed like a forgotten relic.

controller Console design: B. The Nintendo 64 has an understated design that suggests a flattened, gray car engine. On top of the unit resides a power button, reset button, cartridge slot, and covered expansion port. The expansion port was put to good use in 1999, with the release of an expansion pack that doubled the system's main memory from 4 MB to 8 MB. The front edge of the system boasts four controller ports along with the Nintendo 64 logo. A bulky power adapter actually plugs into the back of the unit, and protrudes out slightly.

Console durability: A. With its solid-state design and few moving parts, the N64 is an extremely durable machine. In fact, I've never heard of the system breaking down or malfunctioning for any reason.

Controllers: B. The oversized yet comfortable Nintendo 64 controller was extremely innovative and attracted a lot of attention. Its three handle grips allowed it to be held in two ways. Your left hand could either hold the left handle to access the digital pad, or grip the elongated middle handle to use the analog stick and trigger-style Z button in the backside. A red Start button is situated in the center, and the right face of the controller sports six additional buttons. The large A and B buttons are simple enough to use, but the four smaller yellow "C" buttons, arranged in a diamond configuration, can be confusing. Certain games (including first-person shooters) use these as a secondary directional control, but it takes some getting used to. Once you count the two shoulder buttons, the controller had a grand total of ten buttons. Since the trend in gaming was toward analog control, very few titles made use of the digital pad. The back of the controllers allows you to plug in a rumble pack or memory card, but not both at once. Games that required both had to prompt the user to swap them out, which was awkward.

box Media: D. Although Nintendo had built their success on the strength of cartridges, their loyalty to the format was shortsighted. With games growing ever larger in size and complexity, combined with the high cost of computer chips, the cartridge was no longer practical. Nintendo also failed to take proper advantage of the benefits of cartridges. Although cartridge games should load instantly, gamers were forced to page through endless "intro" screens which displayed logos of the publisher, developer, producer, caterer, etc. Heck, you might as well be sitting through a Playstation load screen! Some developers were forced to use compression techniques to squeeze their games into cartridges, resulting in actual (albeit brief) load times for certain games. While certainly durable, the rounded gray design of the cartridges was boring, and the lack of labels on the top edge made them difficult to store.

Packaging: D. Clearly Nintendo didn't put much thought into the packaging of Nintendo 64 games. They were sold in the same style of cheap cardboard boxes as the Super Nintendo, except with a green and purple color scheme. I especially hate how the lid flap tucks into the same area where the manual resides, making it easy to inadvertently tear or crumple it while simply closing the box.

Games: B. The Nintendo 64 library was limited compared to the Playstation, but it compensated for the lack quantity with quality. Titles like Wave Race 64, Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Goldeneye 007, Perfect Dark, Mario Kart 64, Donkey Kong 64, 1080 Snowboarding, Banjo Kazooie, and Diddy Kong Racing offered a level of gameplay unequalled on other systems. Mario Party and Super Smash Brothers even pioneered entirely new genres with their innovative gameplay. Still, some popular genres were poorly represented on the system, namely traditional RPGs and one-on-one fighters.

game Graphics: A. The N64 rendered the best 3D graphics of its generation, and these were further enhanced with the release of the memory expansion pack in 1999. While optional with most games, the memory pack does make a significant difference in terms of graphic resolution.

Audio: D. With the limited capacity of cartridges, N64 games couldn't hold as much digitized music and sound effects as disk-based systems. As a result, some games feature degraded audio or music that "looped" continuously.

Collectability: C+. Nintendo 64 games were expensive in their time, and they still are. Although the console itself is cheap and easy to acquire, the better games tend to be costly. It's especially difficult to locate complete versions, thanks to the cheap throwaway boxes the games were originally sold in. Still, the system has enough must-have titles to attract collectors and Nintendo fans.

Innovations: Analog control stick, four controller ports, rumble pack (1997), memory expansion pack (1999)

Pros and Cons:
+ Smooth 3D graphics
+ Short load times
+ Hardware durable and cheap
- Games are hard to find complete
- Limited library

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