As a collector, I really have a real love/hate relationship with the Nintendo 64. I did grow up with the system I suppose (sort of my mid to late teen years and I didn’t even own one myself until college), but really the NES and the SNES were my childhood systems (and the ones I feel the most nostalgia for).
Most people feeling nostalgia for this system (and many of those people are now coming into adulthood – the reason there’s so much demand for it lately in shops) really just remember the console’s highlights (or that’s my personal opinion). Yes.. Goldeneye, Zelda 64, and Mario 64 are undeniably good games. I would never think to state they aren’t.
And if you just own this system for those core 10-15 games alone that’s completely understandable. But if you really start collecting for the system, you’re going to quickly run out of those fantastic, grade-A titles. So what about the other games out there? How well do games from other publishers (besides Nintendo/Rare) actually hold up? That’s the point of what I’m looking at in this article. Is the N64 worth collecting for?
(Zelda 64, left; Mario 64, right)
The N64 is in a nutshell.. well.. awkward (both in hardware and software). Sure some games have quite a bit of polish (like the aforementioned Mario 64 and Zelda 64), but others just seem.. well.. how shall I put this?.. rough around the edges. And these days (to me) that’s sort of the charm in a way (seeing a slice in time where developers were taking chances, braving a new world), but it’s also kind of a detriment with many games that could have used a bit more tuning and development. And it’s always surprising (in a bad way) when the same game was out on the PS1 and came out on that system with far better control and framerate (despite the N64 having more CPU power).
The sad thing is that – internally – the N64 is a real powerhouse (it also came almost between generations so it’s rather unfair to compare to the PS1). Storage aside (the PS1 took advantage of the CD-based media for audio and in-game videos), the N64 was just much more capable (having a 93.75 MHz MIPS 64-bit RISC CPU) than the PlayStation (especially coupled with the 4mb ram expansion). But – in the end – we all know that a system is all about the games on it. And, while the PS1 had a plethora of awesome 2D/3D titles, the N64 ended with an abundance of mediocre 3D titles and a deficit of quality 2D games (not to say there weren’t some awesome ones)..
(Mischief Makers, left; Bangai-O, right)
It seems that if the majority of game companies at the time had simply created more 2D games with 3D element back then (with scaling tricks like Mischief Makers or Bangai-o), we’d have some of the best 2D games of all time on the N64. But, at the time, there was a mad scramble to make it into the 3rd dimension (and to take advantage of that extra power in the hopes of dominating the console market). And so a lot of the games honestly relied too heavily on the 3D novelty and ended up being experimental messes often rushed into production too early.
(Biofreaks, left; Mortal Kombat IV, right)
And it seems that Nintendo’s system wasn’t the easiest to code for either (at least not to take full advantage of its features). So – coupled with the push to 3D – instead of having games like Street Fighter Alpha 3 (which it could have absolutely pulled off), we ended up with Biofreaks and Mortal Kombat IV. And while we have a few (or a couple) interesting RPGs (like Tactics Ogre 64 and Zelda) we also got Quest 64 and the like.
(Tactics Ogre 64, left; Quest 64, right)
The lack of mind-blowing 3D games is symptomatic of the difficulty in programming for the system (that being the difficulty in utilizing the system in full more than porting a game from a less-powerful console to it). While Nintendo themselves could produce Star Fox and Zelda, other companies struggled and ended up making simpler games (or porting a game on a less-sophisticated platform and often with less polish).
(Android phone emulating Mario Kart 64)
And it speaks volumes that this system is very hard to emulate correctly even today (on machines orders-of-magnitude more powerful). Imagine being a developer back when this came out and not having access to everything Nintendo had with their game development teams. There’s a reason that Nintendo’s own games are leaps beyond most of the 3rd parties out there.
(OE N64 controllers, left; Hori N64 controller, right)
While I like the N64’s controller personally, I understand that it’s also sort of an experimental one – created in an awkward shape while developers tried to figure out the optimal ergonomics to fit this new 3D gaming world. A lot of people dislike it and I understand why. But at the same time, the thumbstick is an honest-to-God analog controller with a really cool mechanism (well.. the Dreamcast is too, however). And the digital pad feels really good (as good as NES or SNES) for the rare times you actually get to use it. While the Z-button is also awkward for most games (used in Wipeout 64 as the left shoulder button by default), it makes sense when you’re holding the middle section with your left hand (since you can’t get up there to the digital pad or left shoulder easily). There’s always the Hori pad (which is awesome to hold, but pricey to acquire), but that’s really a 3rd party so I think the complaints (and awe) for the original controller hold up here to scrutiny.
(N64 cartridge, left; PS1 disc, right)
As a collector, I’m quite happy that Nintendo went with the cartridge instead of optical media. This means – in general – that the games will hold up longer (without having the type of bit-rot that can affect optical media). But this also means that the audio offered by the system isn’t CD-quality and some of the visuals in games (FMV sequences) are super compressed (as is the case with Resident Evil). And the cartridges don’t have end-labels (ugg), but you can buy those aftermarket end-labels to stick on at least. And, while the front-labels are sometimes damaged, that’s the case with all games (even jewel cases are sometimes cracked or scratched up with PS1 games).
(Mario 64 wireframe)
As far as how the games hold up, I think it’s all about your personal perspective on the subject. If you like to see near-wire-frame-model graphics and blocky pixels then things are just fine.
(Classic CRT TV playing Zelda 64)
If you play the games on an old CRT or with scanlines you won’t see all the blocky aliasing that happens with such a low resolution. A lot of the racers also have graphic pop-in (where objects all of a sudden pop into view once they reach a certain distance from the view) and fogging (where things blur or fade to white in the background).
(Mario 64 fogging, left; Turok 64 fogging, right)
The fog “feature” in games is due to graphic memory coming at a premium when the N64 was being developed (even requiring the user to spring for the extra 4mb ram cartridge to be able to play games like Donkey Kong 64).
(Final Fantasy VII pre-rendered background for PS1)
Games like Final Fantasy on the PS1 did tricks where the background was pre-rendered and had 3D models (or sprites) overlaying it, but the majority of N64 games didn’t go for that style (maybe due to system/memory limitations).
(Train model in Mario Kart 64)
While games like Mario Kart 64 looks visually OK, they really are a little bland by today’s tastes (with even Mario 64 seeming more of a fleshed-out world than the spartan landscape in that game). The worst of that game is tracks with static or barely-moving 3D models (that look like a small child drew them). However, this works for very cartoony-games (you’ll see a lot of those on the N64).
(HydroThunder for N64)
Meanwhile, cross-platform arcade-style racers like Hydro Thunder are very low-res by our current standards (especially compared to Dreamcast – the N64’s main competitor), but still play very well (and to me this kind of makes them more interesting). And Nintendo’s own Wave Racer definitely holds up well – with the gimmick being the awesome waves that the N64 generates (probably a success since it was created by people that knew the system best).
(N64 Rogue Squadron with Ram Pack)
Rogue Squadron for the system also looks just beautiful (it’s really a visual marvel, but then again it was published in partnership with Nintendo). It really shines with the extra ram pack installed (which everyone should have in their system really).
I know I gripe a lot about the library and I’d like to write about the games I love for this system (in a future article.. I know I just scratched the surface here), but I think a lot of people already know the really good ones (such as all the first-party games and the games by Rare).
In summary – I just wanted to point out why I both love and hate this particular console. As someone that really doesn’t hold nostalgia for the N64 or its competitors at the time, I feel I’m at a good position to judge it based on its own merits. I think the system is definitely interesting (from a historical, design, and entertainment perspective) and worth owning as a collector. That being said, I think the same about the 3DO (which is very unpopular by comparison).
In the end I feel that the Dreamcast and the PS1 really offer a better gaming value to newcomers. That said, if you were born where this was your first or second console, I can definitely understand feeling love for it. And I think we can all agree that the first-party games bring enough to the table to make this worth owning alone.