I have written plenty on Nintendo, and the Nintendo 64’s blunders in losing ground to Sony’s PlayStation in the mid to late 1990s. But today, it is about honoring Nintendo’s last cartridge based console, as it is, undoubtedly, my favorite Video Gaming system, ever.
25 years ago I was 11 (about to turn 12)
The Macarena was ruling the Music world when the Nintendo 64 first arrived at American retail shelves on September 29, 1996. The Backstreet Boys (who were doing an European stint at the time) were a year away from breaking through in the US.
Yes, the Nintendo 64 is that old, and unfortunately, so are we 1990s kids.
But we shouldn’t feel too bad, about this (our age), as we were truly blessed as gamers to have been kids during this magical time. We are lucky to have lived through the 2D to 3D transition. This leap in gaming, remains the biggest in the medium, and will (likely) not be rivaled until the games transition into the ‘4th dimension’. This transition might take place in some form of Virtual Reality (eventually), and that seems to be decades away from coming to fruition.
So, how magical was it (the Nintendo 64) for a kid at the time?
Super Mario 64 was Nirvana..and Beyond
It is cool, for old heads to say now, that 2-D gaming is “where is at”, but sales and industry trends have shown otherwise for the last 25 years. The fact of the matter is that as much as I had loved Super Mario Bros 3. and Super Mario World (along with Sonic the Hedgehog 2), none of these games captured me in the way that simple magazine (mostly EGM, and GamePro) screenshots of Super Mario 64 did.
It was magical to watch Nintendo’s plumber in still shots depicting true 3-D. More than that, it was mind-blowing, and Super Mario 64 looked beyond what my wildest dreams as a child expected a Mario game to look in a “real” world, which is what 3-D graphics represented for the my then, 11 year old self.
I had PlayStation then, and its visuals were nothing to scoff at, but Super Mario 64 looked and played like “real 3-D” games should have played. It is important to remember, that before (and after) Miyamoto and Nintendo EAD got “3-D” right (on their first try no less), all we had in the PlayStation was Jumping Flash, Crash Bandicoot and Bubsy 3D…yeah, hardly the stuff of legends, though Bandicoot wasn’t bad.
True, Tomb Raider would later arrive, giving PS1 owners some comfort that their system could also run good 3-D experiences. But even then, nothing on Sony’s system could rival the world size, the visuals (smooth 3-D graphics with no pixelation), and the masterful controls of Nintendo’s 1996 masterpiece.
Perhaps I can’t really explain my experience with Mario 64 better than I did on recent Throwback Bit Thursday piece where I remembered the Nintendo 64:
Still, Super Mario 64 would turn into a revelation the moment it launched. The game made the system a ‘must buy’ for 3-D enthusiasts. Little 11-12 year old me must have spent dozens, if not hundreds, of hours enthralled in the magical world that Mario 64 offered.
In my mind, there were no limits. Nothing had come close to matching Super Mario 64’s greatness in my previous 6 years of gaming ( and I had played many NES, GEN, SNES, and even some PS1 titles).
The Nintendo 64 was notorious for its lack of AAA third party releases (one of the reasons for why it fell into a distant second place behind Sony’s PlayStation in Sales), but for a kid like me, Super Mario 64 was a game with infinite replay value and it made the long waiting periods between “AAA” games, inconsequential.
I was having a blast with Nintendo’s and Rare’s releases, and to be honest, if it wasn’t for JRPGs, I wouldn’t have felt the need to own a PlayStation.
First Person Shooters, and Wrestling Games
I truly spent more hours playing Turok, and Golden Eye than I did Final Fantasy VII (which was probably my favorite PS1 game). So, as much as many criticized (including myself when looking back objectively) the N64’s thin lineup during its lifespan (1996-2001), I never found myself bored, or waiting for something to play on the system.
WCW/NWO Revenge was my ‘go to’ fighting game, as I was huge pro wrestling fan as a kid. The game provided countless of hours of entertainment, either solo, or with friends. I could say the same for occasional “hidden” gems like Mystical Ninja, and even, Shadows of the Empire which consumed many more hours of my play time than, perhaps, they should have.
Rareware had a golden run of games that included, Banjo-Kazooie, Perfect Dark, Golden Eye, Diddy Kong Racing, Jet Force Gemini, Banjo-Tooie, Donkey Kong 64 and Conker’s Bad Fur Day. Rare would never reach those incredible heights again, but the company helped to make my childhood, and early to mid teenage years, a period worthy of remembrance.
But the experience to end all experiences would be reserved for a golden (literally) 1998 cartridge…
The Greatest Game of All Time
1998 was a special year (probably gaming’s strongest year ever). A very memorable one. I started 9th grade (freshman year in High School), had a crush on Britney Spears (what boy didn’t?), and The Greatest Game of All Time was released. All within the same year…talk about nostalgia.
The game? The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Nintendo’s first foray into 3-D with the Zelda series did to me what Mario 64 had done to a few years earlier: It turned me back into a six year old child who thought everything within a game world was possible.
To say that Ocarina of Time blew the doors out of anything that came before it, is an understatement. Much like Super Mario 64, Ocarina of Time revolutionized gaming, and the way that games would play from that moment onwards.
Nintendo EAD, and Shigeru Miyamoto made 3-D games, and consistent ground breaking advancements within said interactive software look easy. Ocarina of Time featured the first cohesive 3-D world (that felt open at the time), with a day and night cycle, lively NPCs, horse back traversal and even weather changes (via Ocarina) that I had experienced up to that point. Hyrule was alive.
By contrast, the PlayStation had Brave Fencer Musashi, not a bad game, but extremely limited by comparison, and the Nintendo 64 had Quest 64, and Mystical Ninja. Both of the former games looked great, but when stacked up against Nintendo’s Action-RPG, both felt like children learning to walk to Zelda’s Usain Bolt of a game.
Ocarina of Time was ‘next level’ stuff. A true reason to own the Nintendo 64, and a game that would forever alter my expectations for video games. In truth, Ocarina of Time probably – partially – ruined games for me thereafter.
I have yet to experience that same feeling of wonder, and absolute immersion that I felt when I took my first steps in Kokiri Forest. My jaw would never hit the floor quite as hard, as it did when I first stepped into Hyrule Field, and watched breathlessly as day turned into a warm evening, and then into a cold moonlit night (all in glorious real time) in any other game since.
I Could Rant About Zelda and Mario for Hours…But This is the Important Thing…
The Nintendo 64 was the powerhouse of its era, and it had the best two (and most revolutionary) experiences of its time, in Super Mario 64, and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. You can add Golden Eye to the fray if you wish, but it is clear that Nintendo’s “Quality over Quantity” mantra has never been truer than it was during the Nintendo 64 days.
If God came to me and said, “Samuel you can only keep the memories of one console in your lifetime, the rest will be erased…forever.” I would pick the Nintendo 64 as my keeper. No second thoughts.
I loved my PS1 JRPGs, but I loved Super Mario 64, and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time even more. I can’t imagine the 1990s, or myself being involved in video games 25 years later, professionally, if the Nintendo 64 hadn’t forever captured my young mind, and heart.
For those who missed on these N64 titles, at time, or were born later, it will be difficult for you to understand the magnitude of the importance (and experience) that Super Mario 64 was in 1996, and Ocarina of Time was 1998.
You had to be there…in the moment.
In that sense, if you are feeling old today (realizing that the N64 is a quarter century old) and you had an N64 back in the 1990s, feel blessed! You lived through what, in my opinion, was the most magical time to be a gamer (and a kid).
It feels good to be a 1990s kid. Happy 25th birthday Nintendo 64! My eternal beloved console!
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