Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Console Review: Nintendo 64


In 1990, the Super Nintendo Entertainment System was released in Japan. The following year, it was released in Europe and the United States. Nintendo's new console not only rivaled the impressive 16-bit Sega Genesis, it nearly doubled its competitor's sales over time, and even today is known as one of the best video game consoles of all time.

Six years later, Nintendo sought to do the same with their new console, the Nintendo 64. The N64 promised to revolutionize the new 3D landscape of video games with 64-bit computational capabilities. I grew up with fond memories of the N64, so I wanted to take a look at it again to see if Nintendo made good on its promise.


File:Wikipedia N64 PAL.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
Nintendo 64, Wikimedia Commons

Look and Feel:

The Nintendo 64 is a good-looking system, a sleek, dark grey by default console roughly the size of an SNES, molded into the shape of something that vaguely resembles the hood of a sports car.

The system has a good heft to it and feels solid. The most noticeable difference in the console's design is that it has four controller ports - at the time, it was one of the only consoles released to build these in, and the only one of this generation to do so.

As opposed to the Sega Saturn and Sony Playstation, the Nintendo 64 decided to stick with cartridges as opposed to using CDs for game media. While this results in faster loading times and alleviates concerns about disc scratching, it severely limits the amount of storage available for application data (N64 cartridges are between 8 and 64 MB, whereas a PS1 disc can fit up to 660 MB). This restriction turned away developers who found it much easier to develop games for the competing platforms of the time, and it also raised the cost of manufacturing, resulting in higher selling prices. However, as a collector, I find it convenient that I don't have to worry as much about the physical integrity of my N64 games over time.

As far as the system's controller, Nintendo decided to go in a different direction. The controller features a unique "three-handled" design, in order to give gamers access to its d-pad, thumbstick, and right-hand buttons. The thumbstick was a great addition that Nintendo's competitors' primary controllers did not offer at the time, and it facilitates 3D movement well. The design of analog sticks over time has improved quite a bit (e.g. offering 360 movement rather than the mere 8 directions that the N64 offered), but I'm glad that this controller does have a thumbstick.

Love the "Funtastic" series of colors for this system

Overall, the N64's controller is kind of a strange design. When one uses the thumbstick on the center handle, they are unable to use the left shoulder button. The left shoulder button can be used if the player is using the d-pad, but this may or may not be used often in a given game. The d-pad is small and extremely stiff and chunky, not even close to the quality and comfort of the Super Nintendo's d-pad. The controller also features four "C-buttons" that take up much of the right side of the controller's real estate, which are ostensibly there for camera control, but many of the titles don't use them for this reason, and they are difficult to use when the right hand is engaged with the standard A and B buttons.

Back to the control stick... it becomes apparent that the mechanical nub is very hard against the thumb, and this can even become painful with extended play. This problem was so significant back in the day that there were numerous reports of thumbstick injuries while people played games like Mario Party that require aggressive, repetitive movements. Nintendo would dramatically improve upon this design with the Gamecube controller, but this "first" iteration was very awkward and not especially comfortable.

The Nintendo 64 supports a very interesting feature in that one can slot a "rumble pak" into its controller. This big hunk of plastic facilitates force feedback in the form of vibrations when the player's character hits a wall, gets attacked, etc. At the time, this was a really cool, immersive feature, one that tends to be fairly standard in controllers nowadays. 

One cool facet about the N64 and its controllers was the variety of colors available you could purchase them in. Many colors were widely available for the console and its controllers, including a line of "Funtastic" translucent colors, such as Atomic Purple, Ice Blue, and Jungle Green, which all look very cool and set your console apart from others'.

The Nintendo 64 is a solid, good-looking console with a questionably designed controller, and I'm glad I have one of these systems in my collection.


Nintendo's decision to use cartridges instead of compact discs, their strict licensing policies, and the inherent development hurdles of the system due to its architecture and system design severely limited the number of games released for the Nintendo 64. Nearly 400 titles were released for the N64 worldwide, compared to ~3000 for the PS1 and ~1000 for the Sega Saturn.

Unfortunately, the Nintendo 64's library is also somewhat lopsided compared to Nintendo's previous systems. The Super Nintendo Entertainment System boasted a number of incredible and classic role-playing games, but RPGs are curiously missing from the Nintendo 64's catalog, partly because of Square and Enix's decisions to not develop for the system. The only "pure" RPGs released in America for the system, as far as I'm aware, are Paper Mario and Quest 64, the former receiving critical acclaim while the latter was met with mixed reception.

The good news is that not only does the Nintendo 64 excel when it comes to three-dimensional platformers and racing games, several of the titles released for the system truly revolutionized the domain of video games.

No review of the Nintendo 64 can get away with sidestepping the groundbreaking Super Mario 64. While a small number of three-dimensional games with platforming elements were released to the Playstation prior to Super Mario 64, nothing before brought a fully realized, immersive world to the table.


Super Mario 64 looks great on the N64

From the first moment you're dropped into the game, a sense of awe sinks in. Navigating everyone's favorite plumber around the vast grounds of the Princess's castle is a very empowering feeling; the game crafts the illusion that there are no limits to where you can explore. This experience is just the beginning... Super Mario 64 takes players on an epic and incredibly fun adventure through a number of well-crafted 3D levels. The only sense of frustration I experience when playing the game is trying to get fussy camera just right... but camera problems are an unsurprising speed-bump of bringing 3D into the mainstream.

Similarly, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time brought Hyrule into three dimensions, which is an engrossing experience to this day, due to how intricate and real its game world feels.

The N64 boasts a number of other terrific three-dimensional platformers, such as Banjo-Kazooie and Conker's Bad Fur Day. Retrospective opinions of Donkey Kong 64 have been more polarizing, but it's still a competent platformer that is gorgeous, and nearly all of the 3D platforming competition on the PS1 and Saturn pales in comparison.

The other "game-changer" on this system is GoldenEye: 007. The impressive Quake was released on PC just one year prior, but 007 cemented the notion that first-person shooters were viable on consoles; its realistic, stealthy missions and exhilarating couch multiplayer brought a uniquely special experience to the Nintendo 64. Most who played this game at the time have fond memories of using a vast arsenal of gadgets and weapons against their friends (no screen-peeking!).

Goldeneye 007 was exceedingly impressive in its day


For those that enjoy racers, especially towards the arcade end of the spectrum, the Nintendo 64 has you covered. Wave Race 64 is an absolutely thrilling jet-ski racing game, one that manages to pull off an incredibly intense and immersive experience - a must play for the system. Extreme-G, Wipeout 64, and F-Zero X are futuristic, polygonal racers at breakneck speed, complete with unflinching framerates; they are very much at the "arcadey" end of the spectrum. Mario Kart 64 is an incredible evolution of its SNES predecessor, featuring some welcome deviations like non-linear track design, a more devilishly perilous battle mode, and a tremendous feeling of verticality.

The list tends to go on and on when it comes to fantastic racing games: Beetle Adventure Racing, 1080 Snowboarding, Diddy Kong Racing, Star Wars Episode I: Racer.

There were some amazing racing games for this system, Wave Race 64 a personal favorite


Fighting games are few and far between on this system (thanks, Nintendo), but it does boast the birth of one of the most notable fighting franchises of all time: Super Smash Bros. Like many of the N64's exclusive titles, this game is incredibly refined, diverse, and replayable.

It would be remiss of me to talk about how the games on the N64 look. On the hardware side, the Sony Playstation was the easiest platform of this generation to develop for and was considered extremely developer-friendly. The Sega Saturn's hardware was complex enough that it scared off prospective developers, and I'd describe the Nintendo 64's hardware as "limiting".

For example, the Sega Saturn has an available texture cache of 512KB vs. 4KB for the N64. To compensate for this small cache, many N64 games made extensive using of shading techniques to "hide" the problem, resulting in a more smoothed over, cartoony feel in many of the games. Because of this, many describe the look of games on this platform as "blurry". In some ways, I think this actually makes the games age better because the sharp, jagged polygons aren't as obvious.

On the other hand, the Nintendo 64 had twice the RAM than the PS1 and Saturn. As a result, many of the "worlds" in N64 games are flat-out bigger than in games of the competing consoles. There was even a RAM expansion that could be purchased to double the amount of available memory. 

As a collector for the N64, I am really pleased with how fun and well-designed the games are that I own for this platform: most of them hold up remarkably well. Also, all your favorite Nintendo characters are here, which is a major selling point for the console and gives the platform more of a longstanding nostalgia factor that started in the early 80s.

However, I do find myself wanting more, and my "to buy" list is pretty short. It doesn't have a library as small and generally solid as the Neo Geo Pocket Color, for example, so the quest to obtain them all is not very enticing. Once you have the 20 or so best games on the Nintendo 64, your options become less interesting, and I can't say the same for the Sega Genesis or the Super Nintendo.


It's difficult for me to rate a console that had the fierce competition of the Nintendo 64. The N64 wasn't a novelty; it was one of the big three at the time, and most households only had one of the consoles from this generation.

The Nintendo 64 is an incredibly influential and fun-to-play console. Some of the best games of all time are exclusive to it, and it's an especially great system for 3D platforming and racing adventures. 

However, it's awkward controller design and small, lopsided library do stick out as flaws, and a result, the execution of this platform as a whole doesn't seem to be on par with Nintendo's two previous major home consoles. It's a great system, but it's far from perfect.

Retrodrunk Rating: (7/10 Whiskey Sours)