Nintendo 64: Living With The Underdog


The first time I walked into an AAFES Sight & Sound that had a Nintendo 64 kiosk with Super Mario 64, I took one look at the game and one look at the analog stick which I had never seen before, and immediately understood why it was there. That is the level to which Nintendo, when it launched the N64 with that game, had shifted people’s perception of playing video games.

That’s a pretty good anecdote, but it actually doesn’t get at what I’m about to talk about in my 20th anniversary reminiscence of the N64. Most people are probably either talking about what the console did to Nintendo market-wise or talking about seminal games on it. Instead I’m gonna go over how that console was a turning point in my own consumption of video games and what it was like not owning a PlayStation for that entire console cycle.

Oh, and while I said I’d wait until the North American anniversary of the N64 to start observing it, everyone else seems to have gone ahead and pulled the trigger last week, so here we go.

Basically, getting an N64 with the included Nintendo Power subscription is the point where I actually started following the video game industry which is probably what led to me writing about games today. Before that I probably played video games about as much as any other kid and was only vaguely aware of industry movements on the level of rumors any random person would pass around. I didn’t read gaming magazines until I actually got one with a console.

I probably stated this way back when I did my Nintendo Power eulogy post (which made Freshly Pressed and is probably still by far my most read post on this blog), but it started with using the magazine to keep up with game releases. Soon I became the guy among my friends who knew about all that stuff. Eventually it led to reading and the now defunct That was probably the point where I started spending more time playing games too.

I tend to not see very much written from the perspective of people who only owned an N64 at that time though, and thus I don’t see much on how the desolation of the N64’s library inflated the value of individual games in that library in the view of N64-only users. People who know about the period generally know that Nintendo was only able to get out a handful of great games each year — some of them the most revered games ever, with bad dry spells in-between due to a total lack of third party developer support. What I don’t see mentioned though is how N64 users subsisted on mediocre-to-straight-up-bad games, going so far as to strip every last bit of replayability out of products that in richer markets wouldn’t even warrant more than a rental.

A lot of people leapt at Quest 64 because it was the closest thing to a Japanese RPG on the N64 compared to the PlayStation’s ocean of them, and because it was the only thing that even remotely resembled Ocarina of Time — the game that was supposed to save the console. It didn’t matter that Quest 64 was a woefully simple and imbalanced RPG where you could easily get lost in maps made out of a few hundred polygons following a shoestring story, I looked longingly at Nintendo Power screenshots of that game for a year, and probably dumped a shameful amount of hours into the final game. I did the same thing for Superman 64, which I still own, complete with its box and manual. I probably put far more hours into Deadly Arts (aka G.A.S.P!! Fighters NEXTream) than it ever deserved because not a single Capcom fighting game was available. We discovered some gems on the N64 though, don’t get me wrong. It’s the whole reason I started doing Third Party N64 Games That Didn’t Suck — to disprove the notion that the N64 had no good third party games. I might even bring back another installment of that this week.

A nice coincidence, or maybe not nice, I’m not sure, is that my whole neighborhood at the time also only owned N64s. A few houses dabbled in PC gaming, but none owned a PlayStation. On the one hand this meant we almost never had to have anyone wagging PlayStation games in our faces and we could be somewhat secure in our N64 isolation. This environment was also perfectly suited to the N64’s status as the local multiplayer console, and it allowed is to rack up ridiculous hours on GoldenEye and probably hone our skills in that game to a fine edge whenever anyone visited anyone’s house. On the other hand we all owned the same four games.

Another thing I wanna talk about briefly is how the N64 didn’t fail as horribly in North America as everyone seems to assume. Sure, during that console cycle Nintendo lost a ton of market share to Sony, but it had some strengths in areas the PlayStation didn’t. Mainly, the third party games the N64 did get were much more western-oriented than what was on PlayStation which meant it wasn’t quite as weak in western markets. If you look back you can see this in the relative abundance of first person shooters the N64 had for the time like GoldenEyeTurokQuake, and quite a few others. Nintendo actually sold around as many N64s in North America as it had sold Super NESs in the previous cycle.

Nintendo just didn’t maintain that momentum with western games, probably because Japanese third party support, of which the N64 was pretty much bereft, seemed more important at the time. There are already huge articles to be read about how and why this happened, but I remember reading suggestions that most owners of the original Xbox moved to it from the N64, not the PlayStation. You could say part of Nintendo’s problem was prioritizing success in Japan over success elsewhere. That might have been SEGA’s problem too with basically all its consoles.

In any case, beyond being host to some of the defining three-dimensional console games, the N64 was the start of my long years of exclusively supporting underdog consoles as well as my following the industry altogether.


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