A musician can record a song and we can hear within it the sounds of songs before it. An artist can create a painting and we can identify the shapes from other paintings. A writer can publish a story that reads like the novels like it. Everything we humans do, every word we speak or thought we think is influenced by our experiences. Every moment and every choice that we make is acted out from a collection of past moments and previous choices that led us to the ones that are happening right now.
When we create a map of video game history, we look at the beginning and we look at how what we consider to be the classic era has shaped games that followed those of the arcade and early home consoles. As it turns twenty years old, this month we’re choosing to focus on how the Nintendo 64 has influenced us.
The Nintendo 64 released in North America on September 26, 1996, when Kay-Bee Toy Store broke the street date of September 29 early, and Nintendo allowed other retailers to follow. In the twenty years since its debut, we can see its polygonal shadow haunting us throughout the games that we develop and play today.
The controller design of the Nintendo 64, or N64, broke the conventional way of thinking about controller design. Instead of a standard, two-sided controller with some buttons, a directional pad, and the tried and true Start and Select buttons, Nintendo (who previously set the standard for home console controllers) added a third handle, rear trigger, an analog stick, and transformed its standard face buttons into camera control. Rather than require the player to grow a third hand, Nintendo instead designed games that used the controller in different ways in order to showcase its features.
Its flagship game Super Mario 64, was a launch title, and acted as a proof of concept for the controller from the moment the player reached the Start screen. The analog stick in the center of the controller gave the player the freedom to move a free-floating hand anywhere across the screen, grabbing at a detached Mario head and pulling at his skin to show off how the new system handled 3D technology. When (or if) the player finally pressed Start to begin playing the game, the controller’s four C buttons provided the player with full control over the camera in the game, something crucial to navigating a 3D space for the first time and something that Sony’s PlayStation did not immediately have an answer for. Not one that was as straightforward as four yellow buttons.
Later, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time would reimagine one of Nintendo’s most beloved franchises in the same 3D space it previously brought Mario into. This time, implementing features such as the automatic jump for Link and the addition of Z-targeting, a lock-on control that made it incredibly easy and fun to navigate the Z-axis in a game for the first time. Rather than mapping a jump mechanic to a button, the developers instead designed an auto-jump system that snapped Link to where the player (or where the designer) wanted the character to end up. It avoided the need to program collision detection and cut down on the use of memory in the game cartridge. Of course, Ocarina of Time would also become what many consider the gold standard for video games. Since its debut, it has been used as a milestone to measure any other game.
Four controller ports on the front of the console meant that for the first time in a meaningful and simple way, four players could sit in the same room and play the same game at the same time on the same platform. Local cooperative and competitive play suddenly became a new way to enjoy video games. Not unlike the arcades a decade earlier or even its console predecessors multiplayer games, the N64 kept us inside and on the couch. Mario Kart 64 and Super Smash Bros. were two of Nintendo’s best efforts in the multiplayer realm, and both franchises continue to be two of the highest selling and critically rated for the game maker.
The ultimate example of local competitive play would arrive by way of the licensed movie adaptation Goldeneye 007. Developed by British developer Rare, who previously extended the life of the Super Nintendo with impressive visual tricks in Donkey Kong Country, Goldeneye 007 not only defined the console for many, it also set the standard for our modern shooters in ways that almost didn’t happen based on the developer’s original plans for the game.
Hours Days Weeks were spent inside of Goldeneye, as we all pushed our blocky, indistinguishable (as humans) blobs at one another and tried to shoot, stab, or blow up one another. Marrying the fun of video games with the art of war was a new feat that entertained many in a way unlike any platform or game had done before.
Later releases of the console came in bright colors that let players peek inside through the transparent plastic; Nintendo taking a bite out of Apple’s iMac line. With a new visual identity and a new style of mature game, the latter years of the N64 combatted with the Sony PlayStation in the home of the teenager. Battling puberty, both Nintendo’s home console line and the mulleted, plaid-wearing teens it sought were going through a bit of an identity crisis that left those of us who were a few years younger eager to grow up quickly. We forced our parents to ignore the ESRB ratings on the front of the box and we experienced life in a new way. Where drugs and alcohol would find us later, farts and sex, language and violence were grabbing us now.
We celebrate the life of the Nintendo 64 just as we celebrate the time of its release. A cultural phenomenon, N64 helped us to bring in the new millennium. It asked that we grew up a little faster than we might have, as kids and as a video game industry. Suddenly, the little thing we did quietly in the corner had its own stage and everyone was watching. It was cool to play games. We were cool playing games.
Please join us this month as we look back on our favorite games from the Nintendo 64. We’ll be sharing our stories from 1996 and the years that followed. We’re going to talk in depth about a lot of what you just read about, and so much more. Bookmark this article, as it will get updated throughout the month with links to all of our related content.
Happy 20th Anniversary Nintendo 64!