The True Birth Of 3D Gaming
This week marks the 25th anniversary of the Nintendo 64; Nintendo’s last cartridge-based system until the Switch. This system blew gamer’s minds in 1996, and it still inspires gamers today, evidenced by the recent announcement by Nintendo to begin including select titles as part of their expanded online service.
I was less than enthusiastic about the 30th anniversary of the SNES, a system I really have no nostalgic feelings for. Counting down towards the 25th anniversary of the N64, though, is a completely different story.
Back when Sears was still something worthwhile, I got my first hands-on experience with the system via a kiosk in their electronics department. I never really got an extended opportunity to play Super Mario 64 in this fashion, but just the experience of running around the 3D castle grounds got me hooked.
A supply shortage kept me from picking up a system when I had the funds, so I settled for a Sega Saturn. When the Saturn died a premature death, I moved on to the PlayStation, which was the only console offering Tomb Raider II. Truthfully, I would have been fine with staying strictly 32 bit that generation, but my brother convinced me to pool my money with him and pick up an N64.
I am glad he did as our first pickup, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, revolutionized how we viewed gaming. We had played the Tomb Raider series up to that point, but the game was confined to a series of 3D levels, not the fully connected open world that OoT offered.
To this day, the N64 is still one of my favorite systems of all time that is still turning up hidden gems that make the system a true classic.
The Heavy Hitters
Launching in North America in September 1996, the system was the first introduction for many into true 3D gaming. For years, people had dreamed about breaking out of the traditional 2D plane, and the game Nintendo used to finally showcase that to people could not have been better: Super Mario 64.
SM64 was the best selling game on the system, selling two million more copies than Mario Kart 64, which took the number 2 spot. SM64 did 3D platforming so well that it’s hard to believe it was one of the two launch titles for the system. Nintendo hit it out of the park on their first at-bat and propelled the N64 forward with a momentum that wouldn’t be seen again until the Wii launched a decade later.
There was no shortage of 3D platforming games on the system, but I’ll take SM64 over any of them.
I already discussed OoT, and it stood as my favorite Zelda game until Breath of the Wild usurped it. If you haven’t played this treasure yet, somehow, do so as soon as possible.
The N64 also saw the debut of perhaps Nintendo’s most popular franchise: Super Smash Brothers. I see why this series is popular, but it’s something that’s never really grabbed me. I always feel like I’m just smashing buttons.
Racers And More Racers
Anyone familiar with the N64’s library knows that a good portion of the library is dedicated to racing games. In the debate of kart racing games, I will always side on Mario Kart 64 versus Diddy Kong Racing. Outside of the kart-style racing games, though, there are a number of excellent racing games, both arcade and simulation.
The Cruisn’ games make up a well-loved trilogy on the system. I’ve never been crazy about the series, but I can see why people enjoy it. Ridge Racer 64 is another great arcade-style title and one I’ve put way too much time into over the last few years.
Beetle Adventure Racing is another racing title that has received a ton of praise in the last decade or so. It’s a fun time, offering multiple routes through its numerous courses. If you don’t mind the only available car being a revamped Volkswagen Beetle, it’s a game most people can find a lot of enjoyment in.
On the simulation side, World Driver Championship is the clear… well champion. While it doesn’t offer real-world car licenses, the knockoffs are close enough that players can tell which car is supposed to be which. As the problem with most driving sims, there’s a lot of grinding involved to enhance one’s skills and shave that critical second off a lap time in order to move up to the next tier.
This is also one of the best looking games on the system, offering a high-resolution mode without the help of the RAM expansion pack.
My favorite racer on the system, and perhaps favorite overall game on the N64, is Star Wars Episode 1: Racer, otherwise known as the best thing to come out of the making of The Phantom Menace.
Anyone familiar with my earlier review will know the adoration I have for this game. Hello, I picked up the Xbox One version just so I could unlock the achievements, and I plan to get the Switch version if the rumored Racer/Republic Commando dual pack turns out to be true.
Sports, Sports, And More Sports
Collectors, in general, tend to shun sports titles when it comes to classic consoles, but to understand a console’s importance, these are generally some of the more popular titles during its lifetime. Nintendo bent the definition of sports title during this time as they released their first Mario sports titles in Mario Golf and Mario Tennis.
While the traditional Madden games fared better on the PS1, the All-Star Baseball franchise were my favorite sim-style baseball games from that generation. Like most “real” sports games, they’re a bit hard to return to 20+ years later, but at the time, they were a large part of why I loved the system.
The N64 has some overwhelmingly fun arcade sports titles that still hold up, though. Wayne Gretzky’s 3D Hockey gave hockey the NBA Jam treatment, and it’s still a blast to play today either solo or with friends.
The late-90s early 2000s was also the prime era for “extreme” sports. The Tony Hawk games were available on the system, but I’ve never played the N64 versions. Nintendo even got into the act with their snowboarding game, 1080° Snowboarding, and Wave Race 64. Both of those titles are still fantastic, bringing me to revisit them annually.
Beyond The Mat
Never was there a more perfect pairing of real-world entertainment with video game technology. During this era, I’m not even going to say “arguably”, it was the most entertaining time for professional wrestling.
Three warring companies were going at each other although ECW was more of an outside-looking-in and only mustered one outdated game on the N64 before it collapsed.
Instead, WCW and WWF were getting involved in an out-and-out slobber knocker. Warzone and Attitude were fine at that time, but their WCW counterparts in the WCW vs. NWO series are far superior and hold up exceptionally well today.
Luckily, the WWF was able to secure the developers of the WCW titles to make their games, offering WrestleMania 2000 and No Mercy as the two pinnacles of wrestling games on the system. No Mercy was so beloved that a robust online community still exists for it today, providing updates and other mods.
Bringing The PC Experience To Console
Outside of the jaw-dropping 3D graphics, the great technical achievement of the N64 could be bringing first-person shooters to home consoles. Doom had been ported plenty of times, but those versions weren’t able to grab the feeling of what made it work on PC.
The early FPS titles were OK. Turok still has its fans and Doom 64 is being rediscovered via its ports to the modern consoles. Of course, there’s one title that everyone will not shut the fuck up about in any N64 discussion.
I can’t argue that GoldenEye wasn’t a great game in its heyday, and I played the shit out of it back then. Even today, I can still rekindle some of the enjoyment, but I choke it up to more of the nostalgia of playing it back then.
Those in “the know” will say Rare’s follow-up, Perfect Dark, is superior, but I do prefer the earlier title. I like the multiplayer aspects of PD, but the single-player campaign has little appeal to me. I had to get a guide to figure out the first level of PD, which I chalk up to that level being an uninspired mess of similar-looking office spaces.
The Unsung Hero
Nintendo has always been known for their first-party titles, but the N64 wouldn’t have been the success it was if it didn’t have some tremendous support from Rare. For every gamer that loves SM64 another prefers Banjo-Kazooie.
Rare was so entwined with Nintendo during this time that they even developed Donkey Kong 64, hoping to recapture some of the success they found with the DKC games on the Super Nintendo. Rare was even allowed to push the boundaries of what Nintendo would allow by reconfiguring their Conker character into a drunken, potty mouth.
It makes one wonder what success the two companies could have had if Microsoft had never snapped up the company only to do fuck-all with them since that acquisition.
More Than A Handful Of Games
Most people I see online discussing the N64 appreciate it, but they only mention the same titles that everyone knows. When the idea of an N64 mini was being bandied, people said that all of the good games could easily fit into the 20-30 game range the previous systems did. That’s a bunch of crap as I had to leave a metric shit ton of games out of this article or run the risk of it being way too damn long, and there are franchises I didn’t even touch on, such as Mario Party.
This era in gaming has aged the least gracefully of any, but the N64 titles preserve that early 3D charm not found as easily on the PS1. There’s a certain N64 aesthetic not found on any other platform, which helps the system endure to this day. For the love of all that is holy, though, never play Superman 64.