When I think about 1996, to me it’s like talking of yesterday. Damon Hill won his 1st Formula 1 Championship, Italy did an horrible figure during the European Championship in England and Dolly became the most famous sheep in history.
But, as a matter of fact from 1996 20 years have passed even if I still can’t believe it; when somebody tell me about a friend born in 1996 I still imagine a boy/girl around 6-7 years old.
So, even if it looks young, Nintendo 64 is 20 today, having been released in North America exactly September 26th, 1996.
The story in a nutshell
In 1996 the console world was on the edge of a revolution. The fourth generation, or the 16-bit era was almost over: the fight between SEGA Mega Drive and SNES left only a small space for “the others” and among the handheld consoles, Nintendo GameBoy was a so extraordinary success that the Big N looked like she could control the market for decades.
But in 1996 the 16-bit consoles were quite old: the SNES was already 6 years old and a lot of developers started to think about new ways to power up their products. In 1993 the fifth generation officially started with the release of the first 32-bit console, the 3DO. The hardware was powerful but the extremely high price of it, 700$ was a huge deterrent for people to buy it, so the commercial operation was in the end a shipwreck.
People all around the world were waiting for the next Nintendo product and the japanese firm instead of releasing to the market a 32-bit console had the idea to bypass this format and go straight to the 64-bit.
So, after the 1994 presentation and the official japanese launch in June, on September 29th, 1996 the Nintendo 64, commonly known as N64 landed in North America at the price of 199.99$ and it was pleasure and pain. The console was a success, since it sold over 30 millions of pieces, but not enough to be considered a fully success for Nintendo.
The 64-bit hardware surely gave more power to the console and the possibility to develop fully 3D games, but Nintendo seemed to take the wrong road when they decided to release a cartridge-based console instead of an optical one. For sure the cartridge was almost impossible to clone, preventing any kind of hacking but on the other hand was very expensive to build, instead of the low price of a CD. A decision that in the long run turned against Nintendo itself, especially after seeing how many units of the rival Sony PlayStation were sold (more than 100 millions).
Even if N64 wasn’t the success Nintendo expected it was however the 2nd most selling 5th generation console. Maybe not a great award but always more than the old rival SEGA who sold only 17 milions Saturns. Despite of its almost insuccess the N64 had a long life: 7 years, until 2003. Three years after PlayStation was discontinued too, puttin the end word on the succesful 5th generation of gaming consoles.
Looking in the heart of a console is always exciting and this is what you can see if you open the N64.
Along with rivals PlayStation, PS2 and PSP, N64 had a MIPS microprocessor and a 93,75 MHz NEC-VR4300 CPU.
Even if a lot of people always says that N64 controller is one of the most awful of all time, I like the Neptune trident-like shape of it. Yes, it’s a bit too big for a young boy hands but Nintendo stated that the shape was studied to let people hold the controller in three different ways: one that we can call “traditional”, holding the left and right “horns”, one holding the left and the center and the last holding the center and the right, one of the most used, since in your left hand you can hold the analog control stick.
This was the most important ferature of the controller and, in the end a huge non-innovation. I said non-innovation because as we all know in most of the old consoles, the controller was a joystick or something related to the shape of a joystick; the control stick was the natural evolution of it: smaller, easy to use and always with 8-movement.
After years in which the stick disappeared from the consoles (we can think about the controllers of NES, SNES, Mega Drive and among the 5th generation even the hyper-ugly controller of Atari Jaguar), the new needs of the N64 with its 3D games made unavoidable the presence of a small joystick to increase the freedom to move for the characters in the games.
It’s always present the Nintendo cross on the left and there are 4+2 other buttons on the right: four of them looks like the four on the PlayStation while the other two are called the C-buttons and they were customizable.
With the control stick, Nintendo showed it still had the power to reinvent and show the path to the other: the Sony rivals quickly modified their immortal controller adding the two analog controllers that remained in their place in all the consoles published until the latest PS4.
But there’s another surprise in the N64, this time a Nintendo invention that created a trend: the Z-trigger and the expansion port that can be seen in the back of the controller. The Z-trigger overall is the most interesting feature, and it’s like a “father” or maybe “brother” of the L and R button in the PlayStation.
So in the end, I keep thinking the threehorn it’s a wonderful controller!
The first thing everybody remembers about N64 is the 3D graphic of the games. the 64-bit core of the console made possible a large use of polygon to create the images on screen but the limited amount of storage size in the cartridge sometimes stretched a bit the graphics.
Even if 338 looks like a great number of games, we have to think that PlayStation had more than 1100 titles and NES and SNES released more than 700 games. Even the average Sega Saturn had a library of 600 games more or less.
In Nintendo partial defense we have to remember that most of the games released for their consoles came directly from the manufacturer, a strategy that “saved” the market after 1983 video games crash (remeber the Nintendo “Seal of Quality“?) but in the long run was a limitation for the distribution of new titles.
We already told about the debatable choice of Nintendo to base its console on the old cartridge technology (but at least prevent the piracy, while for example ALL the PlayStation or at least all of my friends PlayStation where hacked and ran with non original games) but we have to admit that inserting the cartridge in its slot has something poetic.
Among all the games is impossible not to cite the best selling Super Mario 64 (11 millions copies) that beat also PlayStation’s Gran Turismo and Final Fantasy VII (>9 millions copies), but we can even revember GoldenEye 007 and Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. During the first year were released 15 titles and the last ever released, in 2002, was Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3.
Even if it sold way less that forecast, N64 was an important console in the gaming world. A huge number of special editions or special colors has been released during its life until the production was discontinued in 2002 in Japan and the year after in the rest of the world.
I counted 19 different colors for the console and the same number of different controllers. My favourite is the Funtastic Colors Fire, in traslucent orange and the Gold one and among the “standard” controllers the yellow is the best one.
N64 is maybe one of the best designed console ever made and started the 64-bit fight until more modern system were released years later. After the discontinuation of N64, Nintendo lost the bet with the Gamecube (2000-2009) that sold roughly 21 millions of units until the worldwide success of Nintendo Wii, released in 2006 that put the Big N again on the top with more than 100 millions of units sold.