Nintendo 64: Was It Phenomenal or was it A Flop?

Nintendo 64: Was It Phenomenal or was it A Flop?

20 years ago, Nintendo's final cartridge-based console launched in Japan. The USgamer team reflects on what the system accomplished, what it meant, and how it struggled.

Jeremy Parish, Editor-in-Chief:

The N64 debuted (in Japan) 20 years ago today. That's weird. I think of Super Mario 64 — a launch title in all regions — as a hard demarcation between "old" gaming and "new." And now Mario 64 is totally, undeniably, absolutely… not new. Man.

By the time the Nintendo 64 arrived, I had decided to give up video games. Gotta grow up, be an adult, move along with my life — the usual. But then… then I saw the system in action. I played Mario 64 at a demo kiosk at Toys R Us and knew then and there I needed to own the system. I was living on a monthly stipend of $500 for that school year, so I very irresponsibly took my first check and put half of it on an N64/Mario 64 preorder. It was amazing.

Then, six months later, I sold my system and games to a roommate and used the cash to buy a PlayStation.

Calm down, calm down. Eventually, about a year after that, I replaced that N64. But I didn't regret the sacrifice; in the time I had initially owned an N64, I owned five games and enjoyed two. One of those (Mario 64) was, as mentioned, amazing. Mario Kart 64 was good fun for a few weeks. But must-have releases were few and far between, and the cost of those carts was enormous; PlayStation ended up having far more games I wanted to play, and I could own two PS1 games for the price of a single N64 cart. It was nice to be able to own both (and a Saturn!) once I had more disposable income, but the hard choice I had to make between remaining faithful to my history of owning Nintendo consoles and actually owning the system where all the games I wanted to play were being released… well, that's something that's always stuck with me during my time as a professional reviewer. Sometimes console warriors have to make hard choices, and money matters when you don't have a lot of it The N64: Expensive and under-supported, but it made me a more considerate journalist.

Has any other system ever featured so many medium-defining, must-own works while otherwise having such a sparse library? What an odd little moment in video game history that console represented.

Bob Mackey, Senior Writer

We may make fun of how poorly the N64 games have aged today, but seeing Super Mario 64 in motion was nothing less than a mind-melting experience for those of us who grew up alongside the medium. Seeing those conceivably rendered, cartoony characters bounce around the screen in 1996 feels like our generation's equivalent of seeing a movie with synchronized sound for the for the first time: After this, nothing could possibly be the same again. True, 3D games had existed long before the N64, but Nintendo freed them of their former awkwardness by showing that polygonal worlds could be perfectly manageable outside of the first-person context.

It's a shame, then, that Nintendo refused to budge from their pro-cartridge standpoint as late as 1996. While this format meant N64 games would be free of loading times—a common annoyance for PlayStation fans—it also meant Nintendo would keep making money hand over fist by continuing to control the production of cartridges. This amounted to a losing prospect for developers as well as consumers: Not only could the games not be nearly as ambitious as those found on CD-ROM-based platforms, they also would have to cost a lot more to account for their physical parts and Nintendo's cut of the production. I distinctly remember going with a friend to pick up a copy of Mortal Kombat Trilogy in late 1996 for $79.99 (roughly $120 today) and thinking something wasn't quite right.

In the end, the N64 will largely be known as the console that figured out the action and adventure genres in 3D, just as Nintendo had done in 2D with the NES a little over a decade earlier. With such sheer talent from Nintendo's developers on display, you have to wonder how much better the system would have fared if their hands weren't tied by a sub-standard format. Despite all its problems, though, the N64 can at least be remembered for inducing unprecedented levels of joy that were fortunately captured on video.

Nadia Oxford, Contributing Writer

When you think about it, the N64 marked the end of an era for console gaming. Up until the system’s debut, we could more or less count on a single console to give us a complete gaming experience. Sure, the Sega Genesis didn’t have Mario, and the Super Nintendo didn’t have Sonic. But you could depend on a pretty consistent style of game between the consoles, namely 2D platformers and sprite-based RPGs with squishy heroes and top-down overworld maps.

The N64 changed that. If you wanted 3D action games — to say nothing of 3D games based around Nintendo’s franchises — you had to get an N64. The PlayStation had 3D games, of course, and Tomb Raider was no slouch. But the N64 really committed itself to the format through Super Mario 64, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire, Turok, Banjo-Kazooie, and more.

On the other hand, if you wanted RPGs — and I did, oh did I ever — you had to get a PlayStation. A PlayStation was also necessary for classic sprite-based 2D platformers like Mega Man 8 and Mega Man X4. The pastime of gaming was well and truly divided. It was an interesting time, but it was also kind of heartbreaking if you’d committed yourself to a single system most of your life.

Obviously, the solution to enjoying the 32-bit era to its fullest was “Buy both the N64 and the PlayStation.” Easy to grasp, right? Sure. But trying to convince your parents you need both of the hottest game systems is something else…

Jaz Rignall, Editor-at-Large

Despite it being a cartridge-based system, and not one of those exciting, new-fangled CD-ROM machines, I had no qualms about buying an N64 the moment it launched. I loved my PlayStation, but wanted Nintendo's latest console just so I could play Super Mario 64 - and it didn't disappoint.

What blew me away was the game's incredible design, and the way it cleverly used the N64's joypad to deliver a really rich gaming experience. At a time when 3D platformers were very much a new thing, Super Mario 64 showed the way forward for the genre. It was intuitive and easy to pick up and play, and the way the camera worked was quite the revelation. Sure, it took a little while to get used to the then-alien concept of swinging the viewpoint around, but once you were up to speed, it became second nature. Ultimately, the game was absolutely brilliant, and finding all its secrets provided me with many, many hours of entertainment - a very good thing considering that high-quality N64 titles were otherwise few and far between in the months following the system's launch.

I actually didn't end up buying a huge amount of games for my N64, but cherry-picked them very carefully. The reason for that was because its cartridges were really expensive, and I couldn't afford to throw away my money on mediocre titles. Fortunately, though, the N64 library, while quite small, does have a good few classic games, and I enjoyed the best of the best - many of which were Rare-developed titles, like GoldenEye, Blast Corps, Perfect Dark, and Donkey Kong 64. I also really liked Wave Race 64, which I personally found very entertaining, and, of course, Ocarina of Time, which is one of my all-time faves.

I think that's the reason why I still have very fond memories for the N64. To be honest, I spent most of my time gaming on a PlayStation during this period, but every so often a new N64 game would be released that I'd really enjoy playing, so all my memories of the system are really positive. I don't think I bought a bad game for my N64.

Mike Williams, Associate Editor

The Nintendo 64 was a weird system. Other than the GameCube, I don't think I've ever seen a system with as odd a controller. The mighty claw worked great for games like Mario 64, but I've never had to struggle with a fighting games as much as I did with Killer Instinct. It's one of those things where I've always wondered how that was the final product for a general game console. I can't even imagine how it worked if you were left-handed.

Graphically, N64 games didn't age well either. A side effect of the Nintendo 64's small amount of RAM was every game had issues with limited space for textures, leading to a generally blurry look for most games. Nintendo was deft in working around it, but many third-party titles just looked bad on the system. Nintendo ultimately made the RAM cartridge, but it was a peripheral, so support wasn't as widespread as it could be.

Despite these issues, I look back on the N64 with fondness. Super Mario 64 is amazing and Mario Kart 64 remains one of my favorites in the series. GoldenEye 007 is one of the games that brought the first-person shooter to consoles. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was a huge jump for the series and it's impressive at how well Nintendo pulled that off.

F-Zero X, Perfect Dark, Blast Corps, Wave Race 64, Turok, Super Smash Bros, Star Wars: Rogue Squadron, Banjo and Kazooie; the system was graced with some excellent titles. It was the beginning of the end for Nintendo third-party support with the rise of the PlayStation, but I'll be damned if the system didn't have a great run.

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