Monday 28 May 2018

The Rule of 4 or 5: Nintendo 64

Next up in this continuing series of four or five reasons not to put your old systems on eBay, we arrive at the frontier of proper 3D gaming in the home...

For a company now coy about advertising its system specs, Nintendo went balls-out with the N64. While SEGA imploded through infighting and bad decisions, Sony turned up and ate Nintendo’s lunch with the PlayStation. Previously, the ‘Super’ prefix had been sufficient to differentiate the successor to the still-popular NES. ‘Ultra’ seemed like a natural progression for the next console, but this naming convention was a dead-end, so Nintendo swerved onto Highway 64. SEGA had emblazoned the Mega Drive with an embossed and golden ’16-BIT’ so even if the exact meaning was vague, the public knew that ‘bits’ were a thing. 64 was double Sony’s 32 bits, too, and by putting it front-and-centre in the name, Joe Public’s going to think it’s twice as powerful as the competition. ‘Nintendo Ultra 64’ is an eight-syllable mouthful, so they ditched the ‘Ultra’ (and the Famicom branding in Japan) and went with a worldwide, unified name and number. It’s the most Blast-Processing move Nintendo ever pulled.

It didn’t quite work out. Of course, N64 wasn’t double the power of the PlayStation – a console is the sum of its parts. Each system had strengths, but Sony’s strong marketing, install-base and cheap CD-ROM medium struck a chord with developers and gamers, and Nintendo struggled in contrast to the crushing successes of their previous two home consoles. Sony saw the Nintendo kids of the late ‘80s growing up and attracted them by marketing to an 18-30 demographic; Nintendo’s massive multi-coloured controllers and chunky cartridges looked childish by comparison. The primary coloured, three-pronged pads drew derision and, despite hosting some of the most influential and impressive games of all time, N64 still carries the stigma of disappointment to this day.

Looking back now, that Nintendo managed to nail so many aspects of 3D on its first try is a pretty spectacular feat. Super Mario 64 and Ocarina were the poster children for proper 3D gaming in their respective genres, but most franchises with an entry bearing the -64 suffix made the jump to the third dimension extraordinarily intact. Sure, they’re looking a bit rough nowadays, but the core mechanics are solid and the N64’s innovations in control and feedback influenced many of the modern features we now take for granted.

Rumours of an N64 Mini – continuing the line of micro consoles emulating a curated library of NES and SNES games – are doing the rounds after Nintendo renewed some trademarks. Of course, it’s a no-brainer for fans, but there are diminishing returns to be had for the company. For one, N64’s reputation as a disappointment means fewer people are likely to pick one up. The added complexity (not to mention size) of the controllers will also increase production costs and, therefore, retail price. And who knows where they’d put the four ports on the console! A significant portion of the system’s finest games came from Rare – now owned by Microsoft – which would (presumably) be excluded. That’s not to say that a licence agreement couldn’t be reached (Microsoft games already appear on Nintendo platforms, after all) but it’s a hurdle that Nintendo may not be motivated to overcome.

Having said all that, the fact that the original console doesn’t play nicely with modern TVs means its library would arguably benefit more than any other from being released in an HDMI-friendly format. The chance to play these games looking sharp on a modern TV is tantalising and I’d put down 100 notes for the opportunity.

Arriving at four or five essentials ultimately boiled down to controls and availability. The N64 analogue stick sticks out further from the pad than the average stick does today, so smaller movements translate into finer control. Or so it feels – perhaps it’s all in my head, but the games on this list really benefit from being played with the original pad. Lack of availability on other platforms led to a couple of surprise entries, too. There are multiple ways to get hold of Ocarina of Time, for example – the 3DS remaster is arguably the best way to play in 2018. Mario 64 was a tough omission, but again, you can play it elsewhere.

GoldenEye 007 – Rare
Despite being phenomenally successful and fondly remembered, GoldenEye 007 (to give it its full and correct title) is still only officially available on a 21-year old cartridge thanks to tangled licencing issues. In truth, it’s somewhat appropriate – while hugely influential, some aspects haven’t aged well and it really was built for that single-stick controller and four people crowded around a CRT TV. The control scheme is elegant and precise in that context and there’s something clinical in bringing up that crosshair and pulling the Z-trigger on the underside of the middle prong (preferably accompanied by a little jolt from the Rumble Pak). Lone players can even use a second pad to enable some twin-stick action. With Microsoft seemingly open to collaborations, and Nintendo working better with third parties, I wouldn’t be surprised if this turns up with some online multiplayer at some point, though modern players might find it jarring after nigh-on two decades of dual stick controls. On original hardware, though, it’s still, *ahem*… dam good.

F-Zero X – Nintendo EAD
This is metal. Pure, simple, guitar-screeching, balls-out metal. EAD stripped back extraneous detail to achieve a buttery smooth 60fps before I even knew what that meant. It was just fast. The tiniest prod on the stick matters here and the original pad offers peak precision for those micro adjustments which make the difference between gracefully sweeping through a corner with nary a pixel to spare… or catching said corner and ricocheting between barriers before an explosive early retirement. The tracks are insane. How much more metal could this get? None. None more metal. Flaming skulls and motorcycles would actually reduce the metal content of this game.

Also available on: Wii and Wii U Virtual Consoles, although the former is more-or-less closed for business (unless you’ve still got points on your account, in which case you’ve got until the end of January 2019 to spend them) and the latter is running on fumes.

1080° Snowboarding – Nintendo EAD
This game taught me the rewards of dedication and perseverance. It’s there in the title – that’s the goal. And I couldn’t do a ten-eighty for years. But I kept at it and – boom – finally, I nailed it. The speed and precision of F-Zero were joined here by some beautiful visuals, with sunlight glistening off the piste and snow spraying up behind your board. The framerate suffered accordingly, but again, the subtle controls enabled you to sharpen up shallow turns and gracefully arc across the course, conveying a sense of the feeling you get from the sport in real life. When you’re not falling arse-over-tit, that is.

This spot could easily have been taken by Excitebike 64 or Wave Race 64. I’ve written before about how these games need new iterations. I miss them.

Also available on: Virtual Consoles, same as F-Zero, Excitebike and Wave Race.

Snowboard Kids – Racdym
Another snowboarding game!? An Atlus-published sub-Mario Kart racer!? A reason to own the system!!?? Yes, yep and yarp. Mario Kart 64 has it detractors (it was my first and I loved it) and Diddy Kong Racing sorted most of them out, but the underappreciated Snowboard Kids (that’s right, not Kidz: +1 Respect Point) is the secret best multiplayer racer on the system. It’s essentially Mario Kart on snowboards – goofy characters collecting items and firing at each other while racing down a mountain to a ski-lift which takes them to the top for another lap. What Snowboard Kids added was extra tension and comedy. Obviously, snowboards have no accelerator and downed characters must hop to get back up to speed – easy on a slope but very tense on flatter areas as your opponents shoot down the piste behind you. The end of the run usually produces hilarious pile-ups as you scramble for the lift. It controls beautifully and it’s not available on anything else. It’s even-more-forgotten sequel is now one of the most expensive cartridges on the system.

Star Wars Episode 1: Racer – LucasArts
Racer number four, eh? That analogue stick was good from something! This was essentially a prettier F-Zero (thank you RAM Expansion Pak) that wasn’t quite as smooth but which added a progression system with purchasable pod enhancements. Plus, it was the only good Phantom Menace game, based on the best bit of film (apart from the Darth Maul bits and all the soundtrack). Similar to GoldenEye, a second pad could be used for some twin-stick precision that more-closely mirrored the controls of the actual onscreen pods. Watto’s banter and post-race rendition of the Cantina theme is also excellent.

Also available on: There were versions on PC, Mac and Dreamcast (plus a top-down GBC version). They all looked prettier but they didn’t have that sweet, sweet ’64 analogue stick.

The Ones That Got Away:
Paper MarioSupposed to be a cracker. Never got round to it.

Honourable Mentions:
Lylat Wars – The Super FX chip made a primitive version possible on SNES, but Starfox 64 arguably fulfilled the cinematic promise of the original with a smooth framerate. Came in a massive box with the Rumble Pak. Top drawer. The 3DS version is very good, although it lacks the rumble.

Rogue Squadron – Bettered by its sequel on GameCube, but this still has some great moments.

Banjo-Kazooie – Had to be mentioned being The Greatest Game and all.