Believe it or not, it is the 20th anniversary of the Nintendo 64. The console was first released on September 26th, 1996 with only two games under its belt. Nintendo was banking a lot on the 64, primarily because its previous system, the Virtual Boy, had done so terribly that it was taken off of shelves in just one year after it had launched. The N64 marked Nintendo’s jump into the 3D-realm, and it proved to be the console that provided many gamers all over the world with their first 3D experiences. Franchises such as Mario, Donkey Kong, Zelda, and Pokemon all made their debut into 3D gaming on this system. This transformation breathed new live into these series and many others. It was also the birthplace of new series like Banjo-Kazooie and Super Smash Bros. I am personally very fond of this system, because it was the first console that I ever played, and the reason why I’m such a big gamer today. Let’s take a brief look at its history.
The Nintendo 64 built-up a solid library of games over the years, and Nintendo marketed it pretty hard. But despite all of their efforts, the N64 failed to surpass its direct predecessor, the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, in hardware sales. The reason for the decline in sales is directly attributed to the system’s use of cartridges, which were called Game Paks. It was the only major home console at the time to had still been using that kind of storage format. The competing consoles, the SEGA Saturn and Sony PlayStation, had made the switch over to CDs. While the N64’s cartridges provided quick loading times and increased protection from piracy, they were inferior to CDs when it came to storage space. The Game Paks topped off at 64 MBs. In contrast, the PS1’s CDs could hold up to 750 MBs. While the N64 was the more powerful machine, developers (and consumers) preferred the PS1 thanks to its use of CDs. Some games could not even be brought over to the N64 due to the space restrictions; the most popular example of this being a Final Fantasy game which was too big to fit on the N64, so it was brought over to the PS1 instead. The game even needed to make use of multiple CDs because it was so massive. Ironically, Nintendo did create a disc-based system prior to the N64.
Nintendo and Sony had partnered up a few years prior to create the Nintendo PlayStation. This system had the ability to play CDs as well as SNES cartridges. It was developed to the point of completion, but Nintendo had backed out of the deal at the last minute when the two companies could not agree on how profits would be shared. Nintendo instead created a secret system along with Philips which then became the infamous Philips CDi. Infuriated by Nintendo’s actions, Sony then took the concept of the joint-effort system and turned it into its own new console, which then became the original Sony PlayStation. Being so developer-friendly and also being able to function as an audio CD player, the system was loved by both developers and consumers alike. It blew past the N64 in sales, making it the most successful home console of the 5th-generation. Nintendo did release an add-on for the N64 called the N64 DD, which gave the console the ability to play discs. Unfortunately, it was only released in Japan and was a commercial failure, so the console’s primary storage format continued to be the Game Pak.
Even though it lost to the ‘new guy on the block’ in hardware sales, the Nintendo 64 still managed to be a humble success for the Big N . Nintendo turned a profit on the system thanks to the high attach rate of its software. What are considered to be some of the greatest and most memorable games ever released were created on the N64; titles like Super Mario 64, Ocarina of Time and Banjo-Kazooie, just to name a few.
As Nintendo prepares to launch its upcoming system, the mysterious NX, we can only hope that lessons have been learned from the N64, as well as its predecessor the GameCube. Both systems were great, but they also marked the beginning of Nintendo’s fall from dominance in the home console market. Minus the Wii, that issue has continued to plague the company to this day. Maybe this time around, things will end up going a lot better.