Any discussion of “the best video game consoles of all time” always involves a few important systems. The Super NES and the PlayStation 2 are a couple you can expect whenever the conversation arises. One of the biggest contenders for this ongoing conversation is Nintendo’s big entry into the 3D world: the Nintendo 64. It’s funny that it’s such a beloved system 15 years later, because it’s all about perhaps the worst of the best consoles on the market.
The Nintendo 64 has done a lot for the modern gaming world. It showed us how platforms should work in 3D, gave us immersive worlds that stood out at the time, and showcased some of the most influential titles, many of which are still cited as inspirations to this day. So, what is it that earns this “worst” prefix? It comes down to both the hardware and its library of games beyond hits.
Let’s talk about hardware
This 3D era of the late 2000s featured four consoles to complete the “retro generation”. These consoles were the Sega Saturn, Nintendo 64, Sony PlayStation, and the hybrid-generation Sega Dreamcast. Nintendo’s system may have a bigger place in the hearts of gamers than others, but the hardware tells a different story.
Both the PS1 and the Dreamcast used a CD format for games, giving them both superior sound quality and better graphics. This has helped both systems create stronger game libraries with more consistency. The Dreamcast sported arcade-perfect ports and took what a home console could do with its Hitachi SH-4 processor. The PlayStation had 3,000 games to choose from, becoming what many would call “the console ”for multiple genres at once.
The PlayStation dominated the Nintendo 64 when it came to power, despite weaker hardware. While the N64 was a much more powerful system, it was held back by Nintendo’s choice to continue with its cartridge format. These helped with the visuals and load times, but ended up obstructing the console’s true capabilities. Meanwhile, PlayStation CDs could hold games up to 700MB compared to the 64MB of N64 cartridges, along with its single processor and unified memory architecture. This left more room for better sound and textures, fullscreen videos and bigger games, and made console development easier. And we can’t forget the CD player capabilities that made Sony’s console a 2-in-1 entertainment machine, setting the stage for future consoles.
And who can forget that damn controller? While Nintendo has innovated in its popularization of the controller, the controller remains an anomaly. I’m sure we’ve all asked this once in our lifetime, but what happened when Nintendo approved a three-pin design that’s better suited for octopuses than humans? There’s a big reason PlayStation kept its core controller philosophy while Nintendo completely evolved. The N64’s odd gamepad didn’t make sense at the moment, and looks particularly foreign today.
You’ve probably heard the word “shovel” many times when talking about consoles like the Nintendo Wii. In the gaming world, this term refers to poor quality games that are generally designed to make money quickly. They are generally inexpensive to attract oblivious buyers. To someone who doesn’t know which games are good, they might think they’re getting a good deal from their local Walmart’s recycle bin.
The Nintendo 64 is a console where the excavator flourished, as have some of its successors. While the PlayStation 1 and 2 also had their fair share of shovels, keep in mind that their total number of games exceeded 64,393. Yes, you read that right: the N64 only had a library of games. 393 games in total.
The counter-argument here is that you couldn’t play Bio FREAKS, Gods of war, Where Xena: warrior princess on PS1. Ah, didn’t you want to? My fault.
Seriously, take a close look at the full N64 library. It offers twenty games considered “excellent” on the console. When you hear about the system, there are always the same few weird outliers as the hidden gems of the system, like Glove maker, Mystical Ninjas, and Malice makers. But much of its library is all about racing and sports games. Nintendo’s rejection of CD technology, despite the industry moving towards it, resulted in less third-party support, which meant fewer games overall.
The Nintendo 64 had an overall weak library, but its peaks were particularly high. The reason you still see N64 games in the lists of the best games of all time is that these titles have literally changed the shape of the medium as a whole. So much so that I don’t even need to explain in detail why games like The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Super mario 64 are fundamental elements that developers are still inspired by today.
The Nintendo 64 is also one of the best local multiplayer consoles thanks to the four controller ports. If you own an N64, you probably have four controllers and have it taken out to play board games with friends in your life. It features multiplayer classics like Mario kart, Smash Bros 64, Excitebike 64, Mario tennis, it golden 007, Snowboard Children, Diddy Kong Racing, etc. It’s literally a party in a box. And that’s part of the reason the console continues to be relevant years later.
However, those big hits are a drop in the small, excavator-dominated console line. When you compare two friends’ N64 game collections, you’ll probably notice a fair amount of crossover. There just isn’t much to enjoy after the summit.
Why is the Nintendo 64 still growing in popularity?
If the N64 was inferior to its competitors in hardware and library, why is it still so popular? Four years ago, retro game vendors told Kotaku that the Nintendo 64 was the “most popular vacation vendor.” Two years ago, Nintendo Life reported that the price of the console had skyrocketed in eBay listings, which means growing demand. And last year alone, largely because of a pandemic that got gamers playing more than ever, people were looking for retro consoles with an unprecedented clip, including the N64.
As far as I know, there is a driving reason behind this anomaly: nostalgia.
The generation that grew up with the Nintendo 64 grew up with money in their pockets. Warm memories and extra cash is always a deadly combination, but add a little social isolation and you’ll get more interest. It’s perhaps even more popular now than it was when it was first released – the console sold a modest 32.9 million units over its lifetime, putting it behind the SNES and Xbox One for some. unpopular. Its legacy keeps that nostalgia alive, and it’s kept alive by a handful of great games that play a big part in fans’ memories.
The Nintendo 64 is a terrible package compared to other more complete consoles, but where it excels, it kicks it out of the park. Does he deserve to be considered one of the best of all time? Probably not. But the amazing games it boasts of presents its devotees with a fair argument. Although I would say a dozen god-like games don’t put a console in the top five discussions of all time.
It’s hard to say what makes a console really great. For me, it’s a balance between quantity and quality. We’re now seeing console exclusives becoming less important for companies like Microsoft, which is doubling down on gaming services that make it easier to buy cross-platform games. Companies are more willing to share the pie and deliver great games to more owners than ever before, despite their console preferences. Nintendo only doubled its commitment to exclusives that couldn’t be played elsewhere due to N64 restrictions – a philosophy that then spilled over to its consoles. Some might say that Nintendo still hasn’t made it through even after switching to Nintendo Switch.
Once you’ve gotten past the few quality N64 titles, what’s left compared to the staggering amount of high-quality games on PlayStation? For some, these few successes may be enough for the N64, but I need a wider range of quality choices when it comes to my consoles.