The Making Of The Nintendo 64
With the success of the NES and SNES under its belt, Nintendo appeared unstoppable. That was all about to change. Mat Allen looks at how the N64 console is a perfect example of where it can all go wrong in the face of competition from a corporate behemoth and executive decisions from within.
“Wrong” is an entirely subjective and opinionated summary of the situation. It is hard to deny though that there were a number of factors that resulted in Nintendo being dethroned by Sony by the time the N64 was phased out. The innocent victim in all this was the console itself; it was a great machine with some unbelievable games, but it was hamstrung by certain corporate decisions and never fulfilled its potential. However it was not the flop many others label it as either.
Project Reality was first hinted at as far back as 1993, the name coined from Nintendo’s new relationship with Silicon Graphics and its workstations being used to great effect in films such as Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park. The following year saw the arcade machines Killer Instinct and Cruis’n USA released that were touted as using the same technology that would soon be available in your own home. In hindsight, the arcade machines were vastly overpowered by comparison, but no one was to know that and anticipation surrounding Nintendo’s next console grew.
It wasn’t until November 1995 that the new console, dubbed the Ultra 64, was finally unveiled at the annual Shoshinkai exhibition to great expectation. Only two of the 11 games shown were playable; one was Kirby Bowl, which would disappear into development hell shortly afterwards. The other was Super Mario 64. The playable demos available were all that was needed to convince the attendees that Nintendo still had the magic.
Part of that was due to the design of the controller. Nintendo is known for producing ergonomic devices that are focused on getting the best out of its own games, and for the N64 this was no different. Designed by Genyo Takeda, the controller had three prongs, offering three different holding positions and hence the possibility of varying control schemes all wrapped up in one unit. Sitting on the middle prong was an analogue stick, a device unfamiliar to many people at the time. This design choice was about to change the way videogames were made forever.
The controller was better than that of the competition, but it took time to learn how to use it. The same could be said for the console itself. When announced, terms such as “Z-buffering”, “tri-linear mip-mapping” and “Gouraud shading” both wowed and confused the public in equal numbers, and many magazines sought to explain these words to their readers. Whilst these features and more were to prove the power of the N64 was greater than that of the PlayStation, they also provided one or two serious end-user flaws.
The largest complaint levelled against the N64 is how quite often, the graphics appear as if someone has smeared Vaseline across the screen. This blurry appraisal was in contrast to the often jagged and pixelated look on the PlayStation; the N64’s mip-map and anti-aliasing techniques helped smooth out textures when they moved closer or further from view, but the restrictions on storage with cartridges and a very low texture cache meant these textures were often blurry as a result. Nintendo itself often chose to use the Gouraud shading to compensate for the lack of texture definition.
Clever tricks to get around some of the limitations, together with rewriting parts of the graphics processor microcode meant that the true power of the N64 could shine through. Developers such as Factor 5 and Rare were especially adept at getting the most from the machine. In conclusion, like most other consoles, those developers willing to put the effort into learning got the most from it, as witnessed in the end result of the games they released.
As early as 1994, Nintendo had started to assemble a group of programming teams that would be responsible for producing some of the early N64 games, that would inevitably give them a head start in getting the best from it. Aside from Williams and Rare who produced the previously mentioned coin-ops, others courted included simulation specialists Paradigm, Acclaim, Sierra, Lucasarts, and Electronic Arts. Notice anything about the companies listed? None of them were Japanese. A costly oversight at the time? Maybe so looking back. Perhaps Nintendo believed Japanese companies would automatically come on board. The reality was to prove a lot different. Either way, even with the head start, it took longer than expected for any of the third parties to fully push the machine.
Even Nintendo itself wasn’t immune to running late. The N64 had originally been scheduled for a 1995 release, and when a definite date of 21 April 1996 was finally decided upon, it shifted two more months due to the realisation that certain titles, such as Mario Kart 64, were not going to make the first wave of releases, and Miyamoto wanting more time to fine-tune Super Mario 64.
April 1996 incidentally had been the planned launch date in the UK. This slipped back to March 1997 as the US release was planned and orchestrated. The PlayStation was already out and Nintendo UK ran a series of adverts telling people to wait for the arrival of the N64. At the time it was still called the Ultra 64, the “Ultra” part apparently dropped in due course due to the name being owned by Konami.
When the console did launch in Japan, the PlayStation had already been on sale there for 18 months. The launch games were similar to that of its predecessor, the Super Famicom, in that it involved a Mario title and a Pilotwings game. The other title available that day was a version of Shogi, a game very much Japan-centric in nature.
And that was it. Until the release date of the console in the US was approaching, there was no other software released in Japan, which was somewhat worrying from a promotions and publicity point of view. Super Mario 64 may have been an epic, brilliant, groundbreaking title, but if people wanted something else to try on their new system, they were a little stuck, to the say the least. Not that Nintendo had much to worry about the success of the console at that point; Super Mario 64 had been sold with almost every console, and by the end of the N64’s lifespan, had shifted more than ten million copies, making it the most successful N64 game ever.
With the launch of the console in September in the US coming up, Sony raised the competition stakes slightly by dropping the price, a common tactic, of the PlayStation to under $200. However Nintendo seemed to panic, and in response dropped the price of the N64 pre-launch by 50 dollars from its original proposed price of $249.99. The same could not be said of the console launch in the UK; Nintendo resolutely stuck to its price of £249.99, which at the time made it 60 per cent more expensive than it could be bought for in the US. Realising its folly soon after, the price was dropped 100 pounds a few months after launch, heralding scores of furious complaints from early adopters. Nintendo attempted to placate them with vouchers covering the difference, which was mildly received. It wasn’t the only reason why being a PAL N64 owner at the time was the equivalent of getting a sharp stick repeatedly up the backside, for reasons that will be touched on later.
What can’t be denied is the quality of some of Nintendo’s own games. Examples of its great games include: Starfox64 with its marauding levels, challenge, addictiveness and the sheer film inspiration of the Katina level; Waverace 64 with its superb water physics and bouncy gameplay; F-Zero X for taking the original, giving it a serious rocket from behind and a real heavy metal soundtrack to boot; Pilotwings 64 for being so wonderful to play.
Three new series also made their debut on the N64, all becoming instant hits. Super Smash Bros was Nintendo’s answer to the Power Stone genre of multi-player fighter, but with the spark of HAL Labs at the helm, made it a unique creation of backstabbing brilliance. Paper Mario meanwhile was a different take on the turn-based RPG concept with plenty of nuances and invention to back up the gameplay. Finally Mario Party combined board games with mini-games and the chance to wreck your analogue stick in the process.
And then there are the Zelda games. Ocarina Of Time was constantly delayed but proved to be a tour de force of concept, idea and execution that has justified it to be labelled repeatedly as the best game ever. Majora’s Mask on the other hand has been unfairly overlooked by comparison, which is a shame because in some ways, it even trumps Ocarina. The relationships and bonds formed within the three days left before the moon strikes are some of the strongest ever produced from a game, and it really hits home when you realise just what the ending actually means.
Nintendo had its own popular games, the powerful hardware, and the new controller. There was just one piece missing from the equation: third-party support. Why was third-party support so lacking on the N64 compared to their two previous consoles? One of the main reasons lies in the choice of remaining with a cartridge media format instead of using optical as Sega and Sony had.
Not that cartridges didn’t still have advantages: they were more robust than CDs, less likely to be damaged via general use; they could hold save data via design instead of making the user buy memory cards; and loading times were non-existent compared to CD, which a generation of gamers, unfamiliar with loading tapes into 8-bit machines, were about to discover anew. Loading times disrupted the flow of playing a game, something that Nintendo were keen to avoid.
However, there was one over-riding link connecting all these features: they benefited the end user and not the publisher. Cartridges were expensive to manufacture, and as Nintendo still controlled their production, it profited directly from every one made. Cartridges were also harder to pirate, which is likely to be another reason for sticking with that format. They also held far less data than CDs could, so publishers were in effect being asked to support a console that had a far higher space-to-cost ratio than, say, the PlayStation.
Then there were the licensing fees. Sony had been smarting for years over Nintendo’s betrayal regarding the proposed CD peripheral for the SNES. Not wanting to cancel the project outright, Sony decided to continue research and build around what it had already created, with the end result being the PlayStation console we know today. Sensing an opportunity, Sony organised its licence fee structure (the money publishers have to pay to be allowed to release their games on a machine) on a much lower scale to Nintendo.
When you look at everything together, the cost of manufacture, the cost of licensing, the difficulty in getting the best out of the console, it isn’t hard to see why third-party publishers made a beeline for the PlayStation compared to the N64. It was far cheaper and easier for them to publish videogames all of a sudden. Their decision was made by the actions of both manufacturers. Edge magazine even predicted many of these factors in an article soon after the N64 launch. This situation was further escalated by the choice made by a certain Japanese company with a certain RPG.
Software availability from certain publishers and of certain established series is a key factor today towards a console’s success. In hindsight it did not matter that the N64 probably had a far better good-to-bad ratio of games in its library; it was the sheer volume of releases at a cheaper price for the PlayStation plus the presence of certain key games that tipped the balance.
Looking at the major third-party publishers during the Nineties, there were wide differences in their output between the N64 and the PlayStation. Capcom and Namco managed a whole three releases each for the N64: a shockingly low level of support. Konami by comparison released 20 or so games, which seems pretty impressive, until compared to the more than 50 released for the PlayStation. Even the king of third parties, Electronic Arts, only managed a similar number of releases.
The biggest blow to Nintendo’s fortunes was the loss of Square. Towards the end of 1995, several screenshots were published which were purportedly taken from the next Final Fantasy game. That’s how the journalism went. In fact they were from a technical demo Square had written to test various three dimensional techniques. Unfortunately no one knew this at the time and huge anticipation built when it was assumed Square were on board and were writing the next Final Fantasy game for a Nintendo machine, just like it had for the previous six.
When Square announced in January 1996 they were instead going to be publishing FFVII on Sony’s PlayStation, the collective jaws of Nintendo fans dropped. As it turns out, Square had never planned on publishing FFVII on the N64. Early on in development it was decided that the requirements of the game needed a much larger media capacity than cartridge allowed. Square’s decision in hindsight was elegantly simple to make, but it didn’t stop the accusations against Sony that it had “tied up” Square in a deal to take it away from Nintendo. Square had dealt the N64 a massive blow before it had even been launched.
With FFVII scheduled to be released on the PlayStation, other publishers knew that the console would sell in droves just so people could play the game, and this in turn gave them more confidence and knowledge that there would be lots more potential buyers for their games if they also released on the PlayStation. In a way, it was a self-fulfilling circle of cause and effect. Sony also marketed its console towards a different audience from the norm, complete with advert saturation; by comparison promotion for the N64 seemed quite small. Nintendo arrogantly assumed people would automatically go to buy its console regardless, which they did, but more people were flocking to the PlayStation for the games it offered and the “wow” factor that FMV provided via the new CD medium.
With a narrower selection of parties publishing on the N64, it meant that certain genres were neglected, which affected sales levels. For example, role-playing games are huge business in Japan and there are hardly any available for the N64. Likewise fighting games. By comparison the range of sports games available for American fans was sufficiently large to keep them happy. In fact, the US is what really kept the console alive, as it accounted for two-thirds of the worldwide sales, and it managed to sell half of what the PlayStation achieved in that region.
The N64 is probably where the adage ‘you buy a Nintendo machine for Nintendo’s games’ began. Given the magnitude of many, they were worth the entry fee alone and anything else was a bonus. Of the developers who did write for the N64, one stands out above all others: Rare. Having wowed games players with their SNES releases, it was about to pull even bigger rabbits out of an even bigger hat. Put simply, you can’t underestimate just how important Rare’s games ended up being towards the success of the N64.
From the regal beauty and genius of the Banjo-Kazooie games, the addictiveness of Diddy Kong Racing, to the offbeat destructive nature of Blast Corps, and the frantic bug blast of Jet Force Gemini, Rare games were held in vast esteem and rivalled the releases of Nintendo itself. Indeed in some ways, Banjo-Kazooie and Diddy Kong Racing supersede the games they were based upon. Sitting right at the top of the tree however is GoldenEye, which was a tour de force of programming, showing that consoles could do the FPS genre and give gamers a multi-player experience that was incredibly hard to let go. It is rightly heralded as not only one of the best N64 games, but one of the greatest of all time. Not bad for a team where many of the developers were doing their first ever game.
Of the major third-party publishers, Konami was probably the most prolific and consistent in its support of the N64, with versions of Castlevania, Goemon and ISS appearing on the machine amongst others; ISS98 especially should be singled out for praise as being the best console football game available until the Winning Eleven series started to become known in the West. Konami’s sports game contribution was large in general, probably helping the console’s performance in the US.
Other developers were just as notable on the N64 even though their releases weren’t quite as prolific as Konami. Left Field programmed a couple of good basketball games, licensed with Kobe Bryant, and the excellent Excitebike. Camelot transferred its superb golf series across to make Mario Golf, and then went on to produce the equally good Mario Tennis. Factor 5 produced two Star Wars games that almost pushed the N64 to its limit, and then went further and programmed the did-not-think-it-possible Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine. Special word of course must go to the doyen of development, Treasure, which managed to produce its usual wizardry in creating three masterpieces of mayhem, namely Mischief Makers, Bangai-o and Sin & Punishment. All three are well worth finding and buying purely for their unbridled quality.
Towards the end of the N64’s life, Nintendo belatedly released the 64DD unit in Japan (see boxout) and a 4Mb RAM expansion pack designed to double the available memory of the console and allow more demanding titles to be written. Only a few games in the end actually needed it (though many benefited from its presence) but these include Majora’s Mask and Perfect Dark, two of the classics. By the end of 2001, the N64 was all but dead with the release of the GameCube, though Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3 did make it out in the US in August 2002.
If you missed out on all the N64 fun back then, now is a great time to get into the machine. There is just one consideration though when choosing to buy: do not get a PAL machine. Not only can it not be modded for RGB, but many PAL games suffer from no optimisation at all, meaning those large black borders and much slower speeds also experienced with the SNES. By comparison, buying the US version is probably the way to go, as it can play Japanese games with the removal of the tabs inside the slot and it had available just about everything released in Europe and much more. The N64 is currently something of a cult machine, with a dedicated band of supporters who are gradually winning over people who dismissed it at the time.
In fact, many people consider the N64 to be a failure, especially when compared to the performance of the PlayStation, which has to date sold more than 100 million units. However any console that sells over 30 million units worldwide and has many games present in the bestselling and greatest ever games lists cannot rationally be called a failure. Nintendo revolutionised three-dimensional gaming and controllers via the N64, and it has an abundance of classics waiting to be discovered if you haven’t done so already.