The Nintendo 64 (N64) hit the shelves 20 years ago today in England. My word, the 12 year old Mr. Wapojif properly soiled himself about the momentous occasion and the arrival of Super Mario 64 (a genuine landmark title, for the time). The N64 boasted never before seen graphics, an immersive and perfect controller, your standard masterpiece exclusives from Nintendo, and British developer Rare delivering numerous era-defining classics.
Looking back two decades on, gamers were treated to a truly special occasion with the N64. It’s was the moment games made the big shift towards where they are today, helped along (of course) by Nintendo’s competitors Sony and Sega. Whilst the PlayStation outsold the N64 and introduced CDs to gaming, the N64 brought about new gameplay mechanics whose influence can be seen in the latest games. It’s still a glorious console and we’re here to celebrate it!
N64: Launch Day!
March 1st, 1997. The Wapojif family (i.e. Mr. Wapojif and Wapojif Jnr.) headed off to pick up the shiny new N64, Super Mario 64, and Pilotwings 64. At the time they no doubt thought the £250 price tag was a waste of money and young Wapojif would grow out of his anti-social hobby before too long.
Happily, as the industry is now an accepted mainstream entertainment activity (rather than being considered the pastime for nerdy boys with no social skills), we can look back and proudly claim to be a part of all of this. It’s a new, interesting era in history where kids growing up have so many spectacularly wonderful memories due to video games, and Nintendo powered much of this for us.
The N64 was also genuinely revolutionary – from its graphics to the controller, Nintendo deliverd a statement to the industry on where it was heading. The major misstep at the time, however, was the use of cartridges over CDs (more on this later), but for gamers this wasn’t much of an issue as it was all a bold step into new territory, guided along with a sensational new control pad.
The N64 Pad
At the time, in the likes of the brilliant N64 Magazine, the N64 controller was hailed as a masterpiece. More recently, we’ve been surprised to find a lot of gamers consider it one of the worst of all time. What’s happened? Some of the indifference possibly arises from the three prongs – we distinctly remember several friends trying to play games by holding the pad’s outer prongs and stretching a thumb out to the central controller. Unimpressed, they dubbed the pad “crap”.
Has this bizarre inability to grasp the right prong continued for 20 years? The way to hold the pad is simple – left hand on the middle prong, right on the right prong. Few N64 games required the D-pad, so with this setup you remain perfectly poised to head off into any gaming world.
To this day we find it quite wonderfully perfect in a way no other control pad has managed since. It slots neatly into your hand and the concise number of buttons allow, aligned with the wobbly bit in the middle, puts the player in complete control. Indeed, if anyone tells you the N64 pad was (or is) no good, call them an idiot and leave them to their ignorance. Stupid outer prong imbeciles!
Super Mario 64, simply put, was the most mind-blowing gaming experience Mr. Wapojif had ever had. In 1996, this thing was beyond belief and signaled the future of games – everyone knew it, too. With its sensational graphics and huge open world (a bold step away from Mario’s glorious 2D games), Super Mario 64 looked the part but also delivered (as you’d expect from creative genius Shigeru Miyamoto) an unmatchable gaming experience.
This bold new world of 3D proved difficult for many developers, however, having recently mastered the 2D era. The SNES marked the high-point of all this (it’s still the best games console ever, in our opinion) with a seemingly endless stream of masterpieces from the likes of Konami, Nintendo, Squaresoft (now Square Enix), Capcom, Iguana Entertainment, and Rare. Many of these companies failed to properly get to grips with the N64’s technology, however.
Squaresoft was supposed to release Final Fantasy VII on the N64 but instead opted for the PlayStation due to the N64’s memory limitations (a legacy of its use of cartridges) – the company defected to Sony indefinitely, although now appears to be back onboard for the Nintendo Switch.
Others stuck around, however, and early N64 games were rough diamonds (such as Turok: Dinosaur Hunter, which was plagued by horrific graphical fogging as Iguana Entertainment couldn’t figure out how to get it running without massive framerate lag). Tellingly, Nintendo and Rare had it nailed from the off.
So it came to pass, a series of staggering, landmark Nintendo titles launched in the late ’90s which shaped the industry to this day. Ocarina of Time, Smash Bros, and Mario Kart 64 (a legendary multiplayer experience) – era-defining games, all. Yet one British company managed to upstage even Nintendo during the N64’s run!
Better known simply as Rare, this British developer is still located in Twycross, Leicestershire. Having produced numerous classics on the SNES, the company went through the creative roof with the N64, emerging as arguably the finest video game developer in the world.
Without Rare’s input, the N64 could have suffered a similar fate to Nintendo’s current Wii U (i.e. a load of brilliant exclusives, but little third party support). With them, however, the N64 emerged as the must-own console of its generation. Looking at Rare’s exceptional output, the reasons are clear to this day: Blast Corps, Banjo Kazooie, Goldeneye (a game of monumentally legendary proportions), Diddy Kong Racing, Jet Force Gemini, Donkey Kong 64, and Perfect Dark.
That lot right there – multiple masterpieces of the highest order. Goldeneye was revolutionary and blew everyone’s socks off. Banjo Kazooie is arguably better than Super Mario 64, and Diddy Kong Racing is the console’s best racing game. At the time, the company seemed unstoppable geniuses!
Unfortunately, most of the team at Rare behind this lot moved on to new ventures in the early 2000s, with the company in its current state owned by Microsoft and not really doing anything at all. As such, and sadly, we generally view Rare as defunct as the central creative core is elsewhere. A real shame.
Enough from us, anyway, as honorary Professional Moron LightningEllen forced us at gunpoint to include her memories of those fateful days in back 1996 (when the N64 was officially released – us Europeans had to wait). Here are her mighty words – heed them well, readers:
"Dear old Santa surprised me one Christmas morning with a shiny new N64 and a copy of the superior kart racer: Diddy Kong Racing. Young me was captivated by the giant evil space pig and entire cast of cute characters, all ripping across a gorgeous 3D island (that was littered with balloons for some reason). Soon after, countless wonderful childhood hours were spent in Banjo-Kazooie. It was a delight helping the bear and bird duo deal with a vast array of sarcastic NPCs, and an angry bi... er witch, by scouring various worlds for quirky collectibles. And then there's my still-to-this-day all-time favourite video game ever: The Legend of Zelda Ocarina of Time. I've beaten this masterpiece so many times I can clear the Water Temple blindfolded, with one hand tied behind my back. I'll never forget the epic feeling I got the first time I used the Master Sword to deliver the final blow to that smug Ganon monster. The epic adventure that took me all across the first 3D land of Hyrule is solely responsible for turning me into a somewhat serious gamer. I just wish Navi would shut up and let me play the damn game. HEY, I know I get lost easy, but LISTEN I also know where I'm going by now! I owe all these magnificent experiences to the magical Nintendo 64, which will forever be my favourite video game console."
As you can see there, there’s a genuine, fanatical love for the N64 to this day due to the reasons listed above. If you were a kid used to the SNES, it was exciting and revolutionary – the equivalent of the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s launching out of the midst of other bands! To this day, gamers hold it in high regard, even if some sneer at its controller.
The N64 marked the console era’s first real foray into 3D worlds and, whilst other developers flapped about like drunken idiots, Nintendo and Rare’s output was enough to secure the console an impressive legacy. The N64 isn’t solely about those two companies, but if you own an N64 without their games it’d be a very sorry experience.
Ultimately, when one mentions the N64, most gamers will immediately think of the four-player options. We’ve not brought this up yet, but four N64 pads could be plugged into the console for multiplayer fun on games such as Goldeneye and Mario Kart 64. The memories this created is one reason why the N64 is held in such high regard – no other console offered this and the games were simply so much fun. With the explosion of the internet, it’s also now an integral element in most video game releases.
However, the magnus opus on the N64, and still the title many consider to be the best game of all time, is the magical and rather exceptional single player experience of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. We have the N64 to thank for this gloriousness, which looks set to be replicated with the arrival of the Nintendo Switch and Zelda: Breath of the Wild this Friday. A fitting way to mark 20 years since the brilliant N64 launched in the UK!