Monday, 15 February 2016

Nintendo 64 - Retro Gaming's Weak Link?

Over on Facebook myself and a handful of like-minded friends often get together in a chat group and spend an unwise portion of our working day blabbering on about all manner of nonsense*, retro game-related and beyond, when we should probably be doing more important grown-up things. Of all the subjects that are often discussed, however, one continues to vex me so - the Nintendo 64, or more accurately, how it is regarded by this gathering of esteemed retro gamers and beyond.


My fellow shirkers, you see, are all keen on the wonderful games of yesteryear as I am, particularly if they are Japanese and native to a console. The N64 qualifies most comfortably based on this criteria, and yet it has long been the recipient of much scorn and vitriol from my otherwise-rational friends. Does it deserve such treatment? Should it stand proudly alongside all the other mainstream consoles, most of which are enthusiastically embraced by retro gamers, or should it stand apart?

This is the question I am aiming to answer here. As you may well have guessed, I do not really share the opinion of my friends on this issue, or I didn't prior to concocting the feature you are reading at least. Morose at the Saturn's relative failure, I bought my N64 about a year after its release along with a couple of games. I will no doubt go into in much more detail about this purchase in a future 'Gaming Memories' post here, but suffice to say, I was immediately pleased with my purchase.

Space Station Silicon Valley - funniest game ever?
A couple of things about it were a little irritating: the memory carts were teeny (although many games had their own internal storage), the ROM cartridges Nintendo opted for were a little restrictive, and those infamous graphics were a bit too blurry in some games, but I had a great many more reasons to be pleased with my new console. It had a lovely controller - the first analogue pad I really enjoyed using in fact - and ports for four of them for stonking multi-player mayhem, but the biggest reason to love the N64 in my view is the same reason as any other console should be loved (or not, as the case may be) - its games. In this area I feel Nintendo's system was noteworthy in several ways. Firstly, it had a great good/bad games ratio, and secondly it was home to many fantastic titles that could be found nowhere else, and many of which were of a style that was largely new to me.

Unlike the Saturn, the N64 was designed for and excelled at producing swanky 3D graphics. Accordingly, a vast majority of its games were of this nature too. Hardly surprising considering the 3D boom was in full swing at this time. A focus anywhere else would've surely spelled disaster? Apart from racing games, I had played few 3D games up until this point (I wasn't much of a PS1 gamer at the time) and enjoyed even less, but the N64 was home to some fantastic examples.

Ocarina of Time featured a truly immersive world...
One genre it really excelled at for me was 3D platformers. They existed before the N64, obviously, but few if any were very special previously. Super Mario 64 was the game that really kickstarted things of course, and it's fully deserving of the accolades it still receives, but it also prompted some other superb (and less superb) titles. Many of them came from Rare in their heyday - games like Banjos Kazooie and Tooie, Donkey Kong 64, and Conker's Bad Fur Day, but there were others too. Fans of action adventures and RPG's were well-catered for as well. There were entries in several existing franchises such as Resident Evil, Goemon, and Castlevania, some wonderful original titles like Body Harvest, Space Station Silicon Valley (still one of my all-time favourite games), and some shooty-flavoured examples like Jet Force Gemini, Sin and Punishment, and the Turok games.

Some other popular series' were found here too, such as Harvest Moon and the first Animal Crossing, and of course we had two cracking Zelda titles - Ocarina of Time and Majora's Mask. More violent tastes were catered for in the form of first-person shooters like the first two Quake games (great conversions) as well as the mighty Goldeneye and its semi-sequel, Perfect Dark, and there were some less FPS-ish explodey options like Blast Corps, Battletanx, and Worms Armageddon as well.

F-Zero X - one of the best racing games ever made...
Another strength of the N64 was its selection of the aforementioned driving/racing games. There aren't too many proper car racers to be honest, though one excellent (and exclusive) example springs to mind in Beetle Adventure Racing but there are plenty of other vehicles. Kart racing comes in the form of Mario Kart 64, of course, as well as the arguably even better Diddy Kong Racing, and we also have one of the best snow-based games in 1080° Snowboarding, and even a cross between the two genres in Snowboard Kids. Switching surfaces to water gives us the magnificent Wave Race 64 - still probably the finest such game to exist - and Hydro Thunder, and eye-shreddingly fast futuristic action is well and truly covered by Probe's exclusive Extreme-G and the mighty F-Zero X, still among finest racing games I've ever played and worth buying an N64 for alone.

There are plenty of other more than decent games to be found on the system too, but there were admittedly some genres that were notably lacking. Fighting games, for example, were restricted to a couple of gimmicky efforts such as Rakugakids and the first Smash Bros game, and a couple of Virtua Fighter wannabes in the form of Fighters Destiny and Flying Dragon. Faring even worse were shoot 'em ups with the few available being 3D ones like Star Fox and Star Wars Rogue Squadron, but there wasn't really anything for fans of the more traditional forms of these games.

Goldeneye 007 introduced me to the sniper rifle...
Were these genres really in much demand during the N64's lifetime though? Any new console is meant to be about looking forward after all, not looking back, and this 64-bit monster arrived at the peak of the 3D/polygon craze. Why would developers fill it with antiquated 2D titles? Of course, much of this is from the perspective of the N64 as a 'current' console; I'm meant to be determining its validity as a retro treasure, and it's precisely this lack of 2D games that sees many in the retro community pour scorn upon it. There are a handful of 2D games (or kind-of 2D) to be found though, such as Mischief Makers, Yoshi's Story, Paper Mario, Bangai-O, etc, but I certainly wouldn't try to argue that it's a system heaving under the weight of games of this type. There are very few in truth and I suppose I'd have to concede that it's a fair argument from a retro gaming perspective.

There are other arguments against the N64 though. There are claims that its only good games come from Rare or Nintendo themselves, with the former even giving the latter a run for their money, and it's another point that it's hard to argue with, but in my experience, a lot of people seem to take issue with the N64 simply because it's a Nintendo console, whether they would admit it or not. After all, no one can possibly be tough and manly if they play a game with bright colours or cute characters.

Wave Race 64 - the most summery game ever...
A cynical attitude? Perhaps so, but there is definitely some truth to it. Nintendo have had a reputation as a family-friendly company making only childish games since forever and it was strengthened in the N64's days. It was a console that saw none of the kind of violent games we're used to now - nothing even close to them in fact. But it was still home to some genuinely fantastic games. Even if most of them did come from Nintendo and Rare, there were still plenty of top stuff to choose from. Not quite up to the standards of its predecessors, perhaps, or even rivals like the PS1, but while that might've meant less variety, it also meant less crap (and let's face it - there was a lot of that, on the PS1 in particular). Most of the titles I've mentioned above are among the best examples of their respective genres if you ask me, and some even count among my favourite games ever.

Despite this splendour, however, it's a console that gets a lukewarm reaction at best from most retro gaming enthusiasts these days. I know of few fans and no one that collects for it. The system itself has become quite collectible, with numerous colour variations and special editions seeing release (I still think the Pikachu version is crap though) but it's definitely not held in anywhere close to the same regard as other consoles, even ones that were around at the same time like the Saturn.

As far as I'm concerned, if you're one of those stubborn gamers looking for nothing more than hardcore old-school 2D action, then the N64 is definitely not the console for you. Even I, as something of a fan, can't possibly argue that point. I guess the question is: does an absence of 2D games make a console ineligible for consideration by retro gamers? While it's true that many 3D games from the mid-to-late 90's have aged badly from a graphical point of view, that alone doesn't make them unplayable, and N64 games don't suffer from this nearly as much, I don't think.


It doesn't have a huge number of titles to get through, and they may be mainly 3D action/adventure games or racing games, but most of them really are superb, and can't be played on any other system either. If you simply want to play bright, cheerful, and above all fun games, without being concerned about the very latest cutting-edge graphics or finding new gruesomely depraved ways of killing people, then the N64 is one of the finest consoles out there in my opinion.

An unpopular opinion with the retro-gaming community I suspect but... so what? I can't be alone in my appreciation for this splendid console? So lets hear from some more of you. Do you like, or at least respect the N64 and its contributions to the world of gaming? What is your favourite game? Let's celebrate the N64! :)

* - Special Disclaimer: This is of course a joke. Neither I nor my fellow chatters of Team Flicky would dream of spending any work time on such a frivolous endeavour, obviously.

Gameplay Video: Here's a look at some of the splendid games the N64 has to offer courtesy of YouTube user 'jvgsjeff'.


 

21 comments:

  1. I wish I could say I agree with you, Simon, but I can't. Not because I dislike the N64 or its games catalog, mind you. I loved both the system and a number of its games back in the day. No, the reason I can't agree with you--at this moment--is that I haven't played my N64 in many years. So, I guess I'm kind of "part of the problem," eh? Anyway, I'll do my best to drag my N64 and games out of hiding soon and see how they all hold up!

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  2. Haha, I hope you do good sir :) Perhaps you can even make a blog post about your experiences?

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  3. Gotta side with your fellow shirkers as well. I generally don't find the N64's library too appealing. Certain games like Ogre Battle 64 and Harvest Moon are amazing. Super Mario 64 is a classic. But then I start playing its FPS library or non-Nintendo games and too many of them have aged poorly.

    Even RARE's line-up hasn't stood the test of time all that well. I generally prefer the Saturn and PS1.

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    1. Oh no, that's disappointing :( I kind of know what you mean but the PS1 and Saturn are both very popular and well spoken-of in the community while the N64 is not, in my experience at least. That's okay though, more great games for me ;)

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    2. Ironically, if you speak to someone outside the retro community (or someone who only watches sources like the AVGN) the Saturn and N64 are switched when it comed to acceptance.

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    3. I can see that actually - the Saturn is viewed as a failure by casual gamers. Most of them don't know about its amazing Japanese-only games of course! :P

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  4. I suspect it's a generational thing. Many members of Generation X don't think too highly of the Nintendo 64 (and for good reason), while Millennials view the system with a sense of warm nostalgia, bordering on reverence. The kid in the video who freaked out when he found an N64 under the Christmas tree wasn't the only one who had that reaction, and all those kids are in their twenties and early thirties now.

    Personally speaking, I thought the Nintendo 64 did tremendous damage to Nintendo as a company- more than the quickly forgotten Virtual Boy- because it demonstrated that Nintendo was out of step with the rest of the industry and stubbornly unwilling to evolve. Developers were hamstrung by the cartridge format and either had to scale down their ambitions accordingly, or just make software for the Playstation instead.

    As a result, Nintendo and RARE pretty much had to carry the full weight of supporting the system themselves, resulting in a never-ending drought of software, particularly in a handful of genres (fighting, RPGs). Some third party games were available, but they were largely forgettable; sometimes even downright lousy in the case of Titus's Superman 64.

    So no, I'm not particularly fond of the Nintendo 64. It really feels like Nintendo ran out of gas after releasing (the admittedly important) Super Mario 64, and five years is a long, long time without a significant follow-up. If I had grown up with the system like so many Millennials had, I might have a different opinion, but... nope.

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    1. Hi Mr. ArugulaZ - I suppose you could well be right there actually. Most retro gamers, at least in the circles I associate in, grew up in the late 70's or early 80's so the N64 won't be one of the systems they look back upon with huge affection.

      Personally though, I was over 20 when it was released and I still love it. It's true there are few great games other than those by Nintendo and Rare but... I think they're enough for me. Most of them are fantastic and still among my favourites.

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  5. Agreed. The Nintendo 64 has to be one of, if not the most unfashionable of retro consoles around at the moment, for sure.

    There's too many tired complaints that have been perpetuated by the community over and over, that it has become in vogue to bash the system all too quickly.

    Particularly grating is the 'blurry graphics' issue. Firstly, the N64 is a first generation, 3D-focused system - low resolution graphics and framerates are (in the main, but not always) sort of par for the course here, people. It's often confusing to know what they were expecting? Secondly, it doesn't help with the fact that with modern TV's the system suffers more than other consoles, but that's not to say there are not solutions (CRT's, mods, upscalers, for example).

    But these trends come and go, it's worth remembering, and at the end of the day, the games speak for themselves. There really isn't another system of the 90's era than can compete with the trio of SM64/GoldenEye/Zelda - games that simply were in another league to everything else at the time. That kind of quality doesn't tarnish.

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    1. Hi Lewis - thanks for dropping by :) At least someone agrees with me! It's either the graphics issue that I most hear against the N64 or the 'it only has five good games' argument which... I certainly don't agree with, but I guess it's not up to me to tell people whether they should like a game or not. It's a shame though, there is so much goodness on the system and many simply haven't found it or bothered with it.

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    2. Well, I am also going to go against the grain of many from "Generation X". I am a fan of the N64 - and I dislike the NES that so many in my 40+ age group adores.

      For the record, I much prefer the Commodore 64, Sega Master System and NEC PC Engine.

      Anyway, I purchased the N64 only a few months after launch and I currently own 44 N64 game titles. I still frequently play quite a few of the N64 games - some that are probably considered "hidden gems" and not because they are hard to find, more because many are closed minded and won't bother to explore this system. It's sad and reminds me of the MSX and Sharp x68000 computers that are also neglected for the Amiga.

      While it is true that some of the titles I still play are from Rare and Nintendo: Banjo-Kazooie, Super Smash Bros, Diddy Kong Racing, Blast Corps, Jet Force Gemini, Donkey Kong 64, Wave Race 64, Super Mario 64, Pilot Wings 64 and the awesome Perfect Dark -- I really think it's a shame that other game developers are generally overlooked.

      I enjoying playing these gems - 1080 Snowboarding, All-Star Baseball 2000, Gauntlet Legends in co-op mode, Rayman 2, Bomberman 64 and Ridge Racer 64.

      The key to all of these games I have mentioned is they had substance - they were fun to play and had replay appeal - which counts so much more I think than the argument of looking pretty. Not to mention how quick those "load times" were from the cartridge.

      You may also find the "blurry" graphics issue is because the system is no longer connected to an old trusty CRT screen and these games are being run on a 40"+ LCD which will always make them look "blocky".

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    3. @Lewis
      The thing is: The N64 should've had awesome graphics, the Hardware is there and while it may not be able to compete with PC's (with 3DFX Voodoo Graphic Cards) at the time, it should've offered great graphics. Nintendo completely fucked it up though, when they:
      - Decided to go with slow RDRam and made it so the CPU can only access the Ram by going through the Graphic and Sound Processors first, which slowed everything down and is the main reason for Frame-Rate Problems and why a lot of games have "fog".
      - Decided that a laughable 4 Kilobytes of Texture Cache is enough. One of two reasons why everything is blurry.
      - No Level 2 Cache on the CPU
      - Cartridges with limited space, another reason why Textures are low-res and blurry
      Those all are baffling decisions that make me wonder if Nintendo actually has any clue about Hardware.

      As for the console itself "Meh" is probably the best description. It has one of the worst gamepads of all time, that never should've left the designing board (with the worse pseudo-analogue stick, that isn't even analogue at all, thumbstick) and there truly aren't a lot of great games.
      As a PC/Mac Gamer you had to laugh at Goldeneye and Perfect Dark (because even Marathon from 1994 is more impressive, you had System Shock, Duke Nukem 3D, Strife and then came Quake which was more graphic than gameplay but it was impressive). As a Playstation owner you had to laugh at most of the games they got, a lot of heavily cut-down version of PS1 games like Resident Evil or Ridge Racer 64 (just compare it to Ridge Racer Type 4...) or them getting those awful 3D Castlevanias while the Playstation has the awesome Symphony of the Night.
      There is one genre though where the N64 truly shines: Wrestling games. While it doesn't have any Fire Pro Wrestling titles, the AKI games were outstanding and there's a reason why WWF No Mercy is still regarded as one of the best in the genre.
      I think most other games that always get mentioned have aged horribly. Super Mario 64 is nothing special anymore, 1080° Snowboarding is laughable compared to the SSX series and so on and so on.

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    4. @ShadowAngel

      I bow to your knowledge on the RAM issues, and of course, the 4k texture cache was indeed a bad case of short-sightedness. But (going back to my original point) many of these lazy criticisms remain null-and-void when asked to explain the existence of games such as, for example, Zelda, Banjo or F-Zero: games which, respectively, demonstrate enormous zero-fog environments; varied and bright textures; and silky 60FPS.

      The problem was never really the hardware or the medium, it was in those who knew how to get the best out of it (Nintendo) and those who didn't have a clue (common misconception has that as 'everyone else' - though as Simon tries to explain, not strictly true).

      More accurately, the larger carts and custom chips required in those games I mention were prohibitively expensive for most other developers, and Nintendo should have factored that in, but then they only tend to think of themselves, especially in the 80's and 90's.

      Yet Nintendo chose the cartridge medium precisely because it allowed them to do things that no-one else was doing. The advantages of MIDI, for one, are often overlooked. That the N64 ventured into 3D so exclusively (devs were actively discouraged from making 2D title) and lacked those 2D games or shooters the Saturn does so well, can't really be used as a stick with which to beat it. It was paving the way for something else.

      You mention that PC gamers laughed at GoldenEye. Well, in my experience the total opposite was true - it was precisely *because* it was the most advanced FPS made, beyond anything seen on a PC at that point, it got right up the noses of some in that crowd. All that was left to resort to (for those not already playing the multi-player religiously, which seemed to be everyone, at least in my circles) was petty mumblings about tech-specs and frame rates. It wasn't really until Half-Life arrived that some of that pride was picked back up off the floor.

      (Ironic story - I'm actually playing through Quake 64 at the moment for the first time, and guess what? It's a *great* looking and playing port. It even has an option in the settings which appears to turn OFF the N64's anti-aliasing.. Why didn't all developers think of that one?!)

      Oh, and Super Mario 64 is "nothing special anymore"? Go home, sir. You are drunk.

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    5. Nice pro-N64 arguments there Lewis, you make some great points :) I'm not smart enough to get into a detailed analysis of the technical stuff but I know I loved many games on the N64 and still do, and I experienced many 'firsts' on the machine too. I have spent a lot of time on Quake 1 and 2 on the 64 and both are great. I particularly enjoyed the second one due to its semi-sci-fi setting. Give it a try when you've finished with the first one :)

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  6. Hi Graham :) Great comment, your tastes sound a lot like mine. I have a similar number of N64 games to you and still play many of them regularly. I'm also still struggling to 'feel' the NES but I love the Master System and PC Engine. I've also become quite keen on the MSX and am planning a similar feature on that at some point.

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  7. Hi ShadowAngel, thanks for visiting my humble page :) I'm not sure I agree with some of your points there but I've certainly been hearing a lot from both sides since I posted this. I guess that means I was partly wrong - the N64 does still have a lot of fans, but it also still has many detractors. Oh well, it would be boring if everyone loved it I guess! :P

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  8. I have fond memories of the Pikachu version! It's bold and bright colours and lovable face made it extra special :) I share your affection for the N64 and hope to revisit many of these epic titles one day. However you failed to anser the question: which system is Retro Gaming's Weak Link?

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  9. I don't know yet, way more research would be required to answer that question. The most overrated one, in my experience so far, might be the NES, but that's mainly because I'm not keen on its graphical style.

    I think the Pikachu N64 is stupid as they've made the casing larger just so they can fit that bloody Pikachu on the top of it. Surely they could've managed it without making the casing bigger? (>.<)

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  10. I'm no fan of the N64 if I'm being bluntly honest. The pad looks cool at least but I didn't enjoy using it and the fact that analogue sticks WILL break eventually is the final deal-breaker. I do like the variety of colours though, especially the translucent consoles/pads.

    The games are great but I have a lot of them on other, more loved machines i.e. Mario 64 on the DS, the Zelda's on the Gamecube, F-Zero and Paper Mario on the Wii Virtual Console and so on. All I'm missing out on are the Rare games and other assorted exclusives though none appeal to me enough to invest in another N64 which I would no doubt rarely use.

    The PS1 has a great variety of RPG's, action games, driving games, shooters, fighters and a strong import scene. The Saturn is superb for 2D fighters, awesome Sega arcade games and (again) imports. Those are the reasons why I love those two machines and why the N64 is the weak link.

    I would never say that it's a crap console or platform but I guess it all comes down to whether you loved it at the time or whether you are satisfied with a library of games where all the best stuff is Nintendo and Rare.

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    1. That's all fair enough good sir, I would certainly not say the N64 is superior to the Saturn or PS1 but I think it can stand beside them proudly, I love too many of its games to think otherwise. It definitely has a smaller selection but it also has less stinkers so... it evens out, kind of.

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  11. This is awesome blog about retro gaming. Thanks for sharing your ideas.

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