Highly-anticipated and long-delayed, the Nintendo 64 (N64) delivered both 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. Analog thumbsticks are standard on today's controllers but 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.
Unfortunately, Nintendo's decision to go with the cartridge format over CDs turned out to be a serious liability. The production cost of manufacturing N64 cartridges was excessive compared to pressing Playstation and Saturn CDs, as computer chips were an expensive commodity at the time. Consequently, 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 under $50 and still falling.
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 glacial 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 felt like second-rate 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 its appeal. By the time Nintendo's Gamecube was released, the N64 seemed like a forgotten relic.
Console design: B. The Nintendo 64 has an understated design that suggests a gray car engine. The top of the unit houses 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, improving the resolution of many games. The front edge of the system boasts four controller ports along with the Nintendo 64 logo. A bulky power adapter plugs into the back of the unit and protrudes slightly.
Console durability: A-. With its solid-state design and few moving parts, the N64 is a durable machine. Only the power pack needs to be replaced on rare occasion.
Graphics: B. The N64 rendered some of the best 3D graphics of its generation, but its tendency to blur textures looks more and more unsightly with each passing year. In general, Playstation polygon games look cleaner.
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.
Controllers: B. The oversized yet comfortable Nintendo 64 controller initially attracted a lot of attention. Its three handle grips allowed it to be held in two ways. To this day people ask me "how do you hold this thing?!" The large A and B buttons are tappable enough, and I love the feel of the trigger on the back. The four smaller yellow "C" buttons, arranged in a diamond configuration, are more problematic. Certain games like first-person shooters use these as a secondary directional control, but it doesn't feel natural. Since the trend in gaming was toward analog control, very few titles use the digital pad.
The back of the controller has a slot that allows you to plug in a rumble pack or memory card, but not both at once. Games that required both routinely prompt the user to swap them out, which was annoying and awkward.
Media: D. Nintendo's loyalty to the cartridge 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. The benefits of cartridges were increasingly becoming less evident as gamers were forced to page through endless "intro" screens which displayed logos of the publisher, developer, producer, caterer, etc. On top of that, some games employed compression techniques to squeeze their games into cartridges, resulting in unwanted load times. 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.
Pack-In Game: None.
Launch Titles: C. Nintendo hit a home run with Super Mario 3D - a "go anywhere" game that showed off the system's 3D prowess. But the fact that Pilotwings was the only other title available at launch annoyed early adopters, especially since the system had been subject to so many delays in the first place.
Library: 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, survival horror, and fighting games.
Collectability: C. Nintendo 64 games were expensive in their time, and they still are. Although the console itself is cheap and easy to acquire, it's difficult to locate complete versions of games. 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 animation
+ Short load times
+ Hardware durable and cheap
- Games are hard to find complete
- Fuzzy graphics
- Limited library