Along with the Super NES (August, 1991) and the Gamecube (November, 2001), the Nintendo 64 also marks its own milestone anniversary this year. September 29th will mark 20 years since the official launch of the Nintendo 64 in stores across the United States. The Nintendo 64 will always be synonymous with some of my life’s highest– and lowest– points. It’s not in my list of Top 5 Favorite Consoles, but it will always have a special place in my heart because of what it represents.
The highest point in my life that the Nintendo 64 reminds me of is my job at FuncoLand, which I held from August of 1998 until March of 2000. Getting a job in video game retail was a dream job for me at that time. It made sense, since video games were (and still are) such a big part of my life and I knew more about them than most people. After weeks of dropping by one of the new stores in my area and working hard to impress the district manager, I finally got my chance and was hired on as an Assistant Manager. It was as great as I imagined that it would be. Sure, there were some tough or challenging times on the job, but I was fortunate to be teamed with a great manager and an equally great team of part-timers on the staff. I worked hard enough that I was promoted and became manager of my own store in the summer of 1999.
I always remember a few specific Nintendo 64 games when I reflect upon my FuncoLand career. F-Zero X, for example, was the first Nintendo 64 game that I bought with money earned from my new job. Having a chance to play the game in-store sold me on it, and it remains one of my favorite Nintendo 64 games to this day. WCW/nWo Revenge is another game that comes to mind because there were several nights that my staff and I would stay late after closing the store and play a few matches. Thanks to playing that game, I started watching WCW (and WWF) wrestling telecasts for a few years. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time stands out because it was one of the biggest games released during my first holiday season in gaming retail. We wound up not receiving enough gold cartridges to cover preorders at my store, and the fallout from that shortfall was one of my first real tests as a manager. Finally, there’s Superman 64, which I wrote about here back in 2014. I wound up buying the game last year, and I finally saw first-hand why customers were so disappointed.
I still have a soft spot for two Nintendo 64 games that were released during the holiday season of 1998 that many people seem to gloss over (or don’t like very much). The first of these is Star Soldier: Vanishing Earth. It’s an unabashed nod to shooters from the 16-bit era, while trying to mix in new 3D graphics to give the game a more modern feel. The game is fairly challenging, especially at the higher difficulty settings, and I really enjoy the timed scoring challenges. My store only sold one copy of this game over the holiday season… that was my copy. The other game is South Park, which is generally disliked by most players. It’s not the deepest game in the world, and it’s not the best-looking Nintendo 64 game, but I always find myself laughing while I play it. Hearing those awful turkey noises still cracks me up almost 20 years later. It’s not a game that I need to play for very long, but in short doses, it’s just what the doctor ordered if I’m having a bad day and need to laugh it away.
The Nintendo 64 versions of NBA Hangtime and NFL Blitz are also really well done. As a fan of the NBA JAM games, I bought NBA HangTime when it came out and played it for dozens of hours. In comparison to the PlayStation version, HangTime runs a lot smoother… and compared to all versions of the game that were released, it’s the closest to arcade-perfect that we ever got. NFL Blitz was missing the full-motion video sequences that its PlayStation counterpart had, but it was a bit closer to the coin-op in terms of visuals. A few lines of Tim Kitzrow’s commentary were slightly different, too. These games, along with the Wayne Gretzky’s 3D Hockey series, represented a high point in arcade sports gaming that hasn’t been eclipsed since. I miss these kinds of games very much.
As for the lowest point in my life that involves the Nintendo 64, it was more about timing than anything else.
There was good timing, in that I happened to stumble upon one last console while visiting an electronics store on September 29th, 1996. There was also bad timing, as I only really got around to using the Nintendo 64 after I had lost a very close family member… who I also considered to be my best friend. Rather than write out the story, I got in front of the camera to just spill it:
I always felt fortunate that my grandmother was so understanding, when it came to my love of video games. She was never one to tell me about how they were bad for me, or how I’d lose brain cells if I played for too long. When I got my PlayStation in September of 1995 and I needed to relocate it to the living room because my bedroom television was incompatible, she was fine with it and even used to watch me play. I know that she would have been proud if she had been around to hear about when I set my Twin Galaxies records or when I finally got the opportunity to attend E3 as a member of the gaming press.
It’s interesting to note that the launches of the Nintendo 64, Gamecube (in 2001), and Wii (in 2006) came at times when life was kicking my butt pretty good. Video games have always seemed to be there to help me cope with tough times in my life, but coping with the loss of my grandmother was (and still is) the toughest time of them all. That’s a major reason why I’m so passionate about video games– and perhaps why I’m so passionate about video games of the past. They’ve always been this escape mechanism that I’ve been able to jump into when I’ve so desperately needed an escape from things. I readily admit that escapism isn’t always the best way to deal with challenges or crisis, and I’ve learned (with age comes wisdom, I guess) to lean on people more and to better come to grips with crisis over the years; however, when I have tough days or am feeling down in the dumps, I find that I’ve consistently felt better by popping in a video game that I know makes me happy and just shutting out the world for a few hours so that I can emotionally regroup.
So… here’s to you, Nintendo 64, on your 20th birthday. Thanks for the memories, the good times, and– most importantly– thanks for being the friend that I didn’t know that I needed during one of my life’s most difficult periods. I will never forget it, and I will always be grateful for it.