The Nintendo 64:
A Postmortem

Here, on the eve of the release of the Nintendo GameCube, we take a look back at Nintendo’s previous system, the Nintendo 64. Unlike the PlayStation, which still sees releases to this day, the release of GameCube officially signifies the death of the Nintendo 64, though the critics may note that the titles slowed to a trickle some time ago and the cynics may argue the system was dead on arrival. Nintendo 64 never ruled the world, but it wasn’t an utter failure, either. Nintendo won generation two (NES) and generation three (SNES) the victor of generation four was clearly Sony. History has a bad habit of poking fun at anyone who didn’t “win”, so where does that leave the Nintendo 64?


The Nintendo 64 is a conundrum. A paradoxical piece of hardware, it was neither a very successful system, nor was it a complete failure. It neither won the fourth generation console war (that clearly went to the Sony PlayStation), nor did it lose (that prize went to the Sega Saturn). It never had that many games – more games will probably come out in the final year of the PlayStation than came out within the five year life of the Nintendo 64 – yet it was home to some of the best and most exclusive games ever. While PC Gamers can partake in Final Fantasy VII and Metal Gear Solid, only Nintendo 64 owners can lay claim to Super Mario 64, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, and Goldeneye 007. Ultimately, the Nintendo 64’s legacy will be that of a promising yet flawed console whose achievements will be overshadowed by its shortcomings.


Clearly, the biggest liability and fallacy of the Nintendo 64 was the fact that it was a cartridge-based system. With the exception of handheld systems, it will likely be the last cartridge based console. In a way, this is sad – the end of an era that began in the 70’s with the Atari 2600. The cartridge served a number of advantages. Functionally, it offered no “load times”, which is an issue with CD-based systems. Less of a problem today, it was a huge liability for first-generation CD systems. Another advantage is durability – cartridges are tougher and last longer than CD’s. Logistically, cartridges are easier to copy-protect – anyone with a CD burner can back up a PlayStation game. In addition, cartridges afforded Nintendo control over the manufacturing, content and price – even if a 3rd party game doesn’t sell, Nintendo makes a killing on the money they charged the publisher to purchase the cartridges to put the game on.


However, cartridges bought higher costs, which irked consumers. Plus, game developers fell in love with the idea of having tons of CD-ROM space to play with, so even getting developers to write for the Nintendo 64 was tricky. Nintendo realized this and they figured that the strength of their first and second party titles would be sufficient. Nintendo itself is hands down the single best game developer in the world, so the idea almost worked. Having a Nintendo 64 means having access to some of the best games in the world, but owning a PlayStation means having access to tons of games, many at reasonable prices.


The copy protection advantage became a liability when a working Nintendo 64 emulator named UltraHLE was released in 1999. At the time the largest cartridge was roughly 32MB in size – smaller than most PC game demos, so their trade over the Internet was easy.


In Nintendo’s defense, when the cartridge vs. CD decision had to be made to that point every CD based system had failed on the market. Sega CD, Turbo Graphix CD, Amiga CD32, Phillips CD-i, Sega CDX, Jaguar CD and the 3DO (though this last one did enjoy a brief flirtation with success). Even the Sega Saturn, a direct competitor to the Nintendo 64, failed. Since the success of the Sega Dreamcast is arguable given the system’s quick demise and the ultimate success of the PlayStation 2 and future consoles is up in the air, the Sony PlayStation is the only successful CD-based console in history. Couple this with the Nintendo/Sony fiasco (wherein Sony gave Nintendo the run-around concerning a SNES CD add-on, eventually turning it into the PlayStation), and it is easy to see why Nintendo made the decision it did.


Nintendo’s second greatest liability was Nintendo itself. Nintendo is the self-proclaimed “Disney” of the gaming world. They marketed children’s games at children in the 1980’s, and like a good corporation they attacked the late 90’s in the same way – failing to take into account that the same gamers they got in the 80’s have now grown up. It’s not really so much that there are not any young gamers, but rather that the whole industry matured and Nintendo failed to grow with it.


To this end, Nintendo was restrictive as to its content to the point where an “M” rated game was rare – most games had to be tamed down in order to be on the system. The most notorious example was Carmageddon, a game whose main draw was hitting and killing innocent pedestrians. Nintendo forced the developer to change the people to zombies and essentially made the game pointless. In a vain attempt to change their image at the last minute the Rare-developed Conker: Twelve Tales was re-tooled and released as the M-rated game Conker’s Bad Fur Day wherein the overly cute squirrel was changed to a beer drinking, swearing, peeing-for distance protagonist. This maneuver was greeted with poor sales.


Nintendo’s final liability was Pokémon and a general smug apathy the Big “N” felt towards the Nintendo 64. Nintendo believed strongly in the Nintendo 64 in 1994, funding it with ad campaigns and even quickly ditching their fledgling Virtual Boy product before it (arguably) had a chance. However, in 1997-1998 when it became clear that Pokémon on the Game Boy was going to be Nintendo’s license to print money, their support for the Nintendo 64 waned. This may in fact be Nintendo as a company’s greatest liability, since it tarnished the Nintendo brand name in the eyes of the gamers who bought a Nintendo 64 in the hopes that more and better games would be forthcoming.


The Nintendo 64’s legacy will be noted for what it brought to the table:


The Good


The Analog Stick – While Saturn and the PlayStation brought it in later as an option, the Nintendo 64 controller had an analog stick from day one. Nintendo innovates, the industry copies.

Force Feedback – The “rumble pack” brought force feedback to the home console. In a way, it is indicative of Nintendo’s thinking. While Microsoft and others put together $150 joysticks with complex forces, Nintendo said “nah, just put a thingy that shakes on it…”


Memory Expansion Pack – One of the few instances of a company using its options, Nintendo designed the Nintendo 64 with a memory expansion slot. Originally the plan was to package a memory upgrade with the 64DD, but when that upgrade was pushed back to (eventually) 1999 in Japan and was never released in the States, Nintendo decided to release the expansion separately in the U.S. when developers planned to develop for it and third party hardware companies planned to release their own versions. The Nintendo 64 shipped with 4MB of RAM, and the expansion upped that to 8MB. In comparison, the PlayStation only ever had 2MB. Developers used the pack to improve frame rates and boost resolutions.


The Third Person Platform GenreSuper Mario 64 jumped headlong into the rarely-entered and even more rarely-well done 3rd person genre and reinvented it. Some entries from developer Rare have come close, bit no game has nailed the genre like Super Mario 64. Ultimately, though, the game was the result of two years of work and came to be known as a one-trick pony of sorts.


The Multiplayer FPS on a Non-Networked ConsoleGoldeneye 007 was an effective FPS on a console. That’s significant. Goldeneye 007 was a successful game whose licensed movie had been available on home video for more than a year. That’s even more significant. Goldeneye 007 was an effective multiplayer FPS on a system with no network capabilities. That’s amazing, though less so today than in 1997 when the game was quietly released. Nintendo’s attitude again:


“How do we do multiplayer?”
“Just put them on different sections of the screen.”
“But you can see what everyone else is doing.”
“You wont be looking at what other people are doing, you’ll be looking at your own section!"


Besides, it did get rid of campers.



The Party Game – akin to Goldeneye, the Nintendo 64’s four controller ports lend itself to party games, most notably for a four-player version of Tetris and the Mario Party trilogy. The PlayStation could do with eight players with extra hardware, but since that was never a given most developers didn’t develop for it.


Strong SequelsThe Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time took four years to develop. The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask took two. Engine development time aside, who would have thought it would be as solid if not a better game than its predecessor? Camelot keeps belting out solid Nintendo-licensed titles – Mario Golf, Mario’s Tennis, also on the Game Boy Color. How in the hell are these things consistently good? Nintendo itself put out three Mario Party games in as many years, each one one-upping the previous by a huge margin, if a little repetitive. The game development community could learn a thing or two from how Nintendo keeps doing it.

The Bad

Few RPG’s – Longtime developer Square, whose first six Final Fantasy games had always graced Nintendo hardware, decided to develop for Sony instead, due mainly to the CD-ROM storage option. Since Final Fantasy is its own religion of sorts in Japan, this helped to lead to Sony’s dominance in that region. In fact, the sheer reluctance of developers to write Nintendo 64 RPG’s led to the system’s demise in Japan. The Japanese love RPG’s, and even the Sega Saturn had a larger market share in Japan (even after Sega dropped the console in the U.S.) before Zelda was released, which helped the Nintendo 64’s market share, but did not “save” the console in Japan.

Segmented User Base – There’s a reason few add-ons are released – they will never sell as well as the base hardware, and then the user base is divided into the have and the have-nots. The 64DD threatened to do this, which is why it wasn’t released in the United States, where the Nintendo 64 had fared better. Nintendo tried bravely to keep the memory expansion pack from segmenting the user base – it only released games that used it optionally at first. However Nintendo irked consumers when it announced that not only would Donkey Kong 64 require the pack, it would come with a pack in the game box. Since they would not release a second version without the pack (so as to not confuse less informed consumers who would gravitate to the less expensive version), anyone who had purchased the $30 expansion pack previously had wasted their money. To confuse matter further, Perfect Dark, the “sequel” to Goldeneye 007, required the expansion pack to play in single player mode – only the multiplayer mode would work without it.


The 64DD Fiasco – The Lewinsky of the Nintendo 64, the 64DD flopped in Japan with its nine titles and never saw the light of day in the U.S. When the Nintendo 64 was nearing release in 1995, the cartridge was looking more and more like an impending liability. Nintendo decided to tell the press that the then-titled Ultra 64 would have a CD-ROM drive add-on a few months after launch. By 1996, when the Nintendo 64 was delayed for what would be another year, the plan was for a “bulky drive” – a large removable rewritable magnetic disk. Dubbed the 64DD, it was to be a 64MB disk, in keeping with the “64” theme (Super Mario 64, by comparison, was 8MB), and whose main selling point was a rewritable portion. Taking the concept further than a memory card could, this meant that games could be customizable. Some games shipped with 64DD “hooks” – F-Zero X for example, allowed for a track editor add-on disk. However, the 64DD fell victim to the add-on curse in development. It suffered numerous delays – so much so that numerous games kept getting squeezed onto cartridges. Plus, as happened with the Famicom Disk System (The 64DD of the Famicom, the NES in Japan), before long cartridges could hold as much data as a 64DD disk, making the storage capacity argument moot. The system was dead in the water when it was finally released in Japan in December 1999, over 4 years after the initial release of the Nintendo 64 in that country.


Same-Old, Same-Old – Since the Nintendo 64 didn’t have that many games, many of them fell into a familiar rut. Oh goody! Another racing game! Oh goody! Another Mario clone! Other genres, like fighting games, were woefully under-represented.

Bean Counter MentalitySuperman, from developer Titus, was a horrible game. But it sold well – which only tends to encourage more crap. Mediocre games like Mission: Impossible sold over half as many copies as Goldeneye 007. Whenever questioned early on about problems with the Nintendo 64’s library content, Nintendo of America president Howard Lincoln stated “What problem? Look at these sales numbers…”

The Ugly

Nintendo’s Cartridge Prices – Cartridges themselves weren’t inherently evil, but they started to appear that way should you take into account the dollar figures attached to them. A cartridge based game cost the developer/publish approximately $30-$35 to publish. Obviously at that point the game has to retail at $55 or more to pull a profit. Many games retailed at $70 on their release day. Gamers didn’t take to this sort of mentality, especially when PlayStation games were debuting at $40-$50, with their CD based media costing $2-$5 to make.

At any mass scale necessary to pull a significant profit, a publisher would have to “bet the company” to spend enough money to make enough cartridges to make a game a hit. Couple this with the fact that the Nintendo 64 was simply not as popular a console as the PlayStation and you begin to understand why there weren’t too many Nintendo 64 games and why when they did show up in stores there weren’t too many copies of them.

But the root of all of this wasn’t necessarily in the price of solid state media – true, cartridges cost more money to make than a CD did but the real problem was Nintendo themselves. They made a profit off of the cartridge itself. Then they made money off of the license to make the game. Then they made money off of royalties on the games when they did sell. This abuse of a market was tolerable when there were no alternatives, but as Nintendo started becoming the car retailer of the game industry many developers decided to take their games elsewhere.


The Pokémon Cash-In – A rumor started circulating before E3 2001 that Nintendo had decided that, had the GameCube not made an impressive showing they were going to abandon it and go Game Boy all the way. The hard facts are that the Nintendo 64 didn’t make as much money for Nintendo as the Game Boy with Pokémon, a ten-year-old platform, made in that same time period. This naturally made for some tie-ins – the easiest way to success is to leach off the success of others. A quick buck was to be had with Pokémon Snap, a game whose main goal was to take pictures of Pokémon. That’s it. This was followed by the Pokémon Stadium games and of course, there was I See You, Pikachu!, a game where you “spoke” to a 3-D Pikachu (the “cute yellow rat” Pokémon) using a special microphone. Nintendo decided the toy factor of this game merited an $89 price tag. All of this paled however to the ultra-gay Pikachu Nintendo 64 with the feet as buttons and cheeks for a power light. Scary


Delays – The Nintendo 64 itself was delayed over a year. Most of the important games saw delays. Perfect Dark was delayed so long that the Nintendo 64 was no longer even financially viable anymore (it missed Christmas 1999 by six months). Conker’s Bad Fur Day saw so many delays it went through two title changes (Conker 64, Conker: Twelve Tales) and a change in motive (meaning that the Game Boy game, aimed at Children, was horribly misplaced). The Super Mario 64 sequel and another Rare game, Dinosaur Planet, got themselves delayed onto the next Nintendo home console, the GameCube. Even Pokémon Stadium got delayed six months, not because it wasn’t finished but rather because Nintendo wanted to drag out the Pokémon phenomenon. One of the few titles not to see a delay, The Legend Of Zelda: Ocarina of Time only got the “on time” treatment because it was so vital to the continued existence of the console itself.


Attitude over UltraHLE – Emulation has always been in a gray area. The emulators themselves aren’t illegal, but the ROM images on the Internet for the most part are. The ROM images were useless, however, until UltraHLE was released. Therefore, it made sense that Nintendo immediately thought to try and prosecute the (anonymous) authors and declare that “emulation is illegal”. They even had an emulation FAQ on their site likening emulator fans to the great criminals in history. They eventually amended the FAQ and backed off, but it still didn’t do wonders for their PR image.



I originally wrote this essay over a year ago. That was when we had just seen the beginning of PlayStation 2 and we knew what was coming of November 2001. I hand-wrote 2/3 of what you see above in a very boring class and transcribed it a couple of months back. I revamped it to reflect what happened in the last year but not much did happen in the last year.


So who am I pulling for in the next generation war? Why, Nintendo of course, mainly because they’re a sentimental favorite. They had a slip-up, and if they’re smart they won’t let that happen again. If you’ll excuse me, however, I’m off to go play some more Majora’s Mask and maybe finally finish Super Mario 64.