Changing The System: N64 at 21

❉ 21 years ago today, the N64 first launched in Japan – so let’s dust down some old friends…

The Nintendo 64 marks its twenty-first birthday this year, a sentence which makes me old just typing it.

(Image: Wikipedia Commons)

For a certain generation, computer gaming started and ended with the Atari.  For others, if you cut them in half you’d see the name‘Sega’ running straight through them like an especially grizzly stick of rock.  There is a whole subgroup who vow PC gaming is the only way ahead and any other direction taken is a foolish one.

I, meanwhile, have Nintendo emblazoned upon my heart.  The Game Boy and Super Nintendo Entertainment System (the SNES) were the two consoles to capture my imagination and, eventually, pocket money, but it was the Nintendo 64 (or N64 as it was affectionately known) which made the greatest impression.

I was at the right age: twelve years old.  Old enough to have a degree of financial resource so I could actually buy games; well-versed enough in computer gaming to know what genres I enjoyed; and political enough to have a firm side on which to camp in the great PlayStation/Nintendo 64 divide.

This was a time in my life when the idea of owning, running and purchasing for two separate units was an impossibility, and besides, I knew which side my bread was buttered.

(Image: Wikipedia Commons)

To this day, I remain a Nintendo fan, sticking with them through better and worse and some of their more… questionable decisions, and my Nintendo Switch takes pride of place beneath my television, sat beside the much-maligned (unfairly so) Wii U.

23 June 2017 marks 21 years since the N64 first launched in Japan and it gave me as good an excuse as any to dust down some old games and wallow in nostalgia.

I’ve tried my hardest to avoid a standard best-of/worst-of list for this article as that’d be just as dull as harping on about the usual suspects: quite frankly, who wants to read yet another article on how GoldenEye 007 changed the face of first-person shooters on home consoles, or how Super Mario 64 revolutionized 3-D platform gaming?

Instead, I have decided to look at one game a year from 1996 to 2000, when it was Nintendo’s only home console system (their follow up, the GameCube, was released in 2001).  They show off various stages of thought, technology and influence (I hope).  Without further ado… It’s time to lose my footing on the wet pitch.

International Superstar Soccer 64 (1996/1997)

 

Anyone who knows me relatively well may be surprised to see me list this game here for one simple reason: I don’t like football.  Despite this, I have an odd fondness for many football games, in much the same way that I’m not going to take up karate any time soon, but I enjoy learning it from a giant sentient onion in PaRappa the Rapper.

The football game which arguably got the most attention on this console came a few years later in the guise of FIFA: Road to World Cup 98, the sort of game title that seems to be crying out for the word ‘the’ to be shoved in there at least once.  Before that though we had this and FIFA 64, a console exclusive game which proved how you can take football and do it very badly in 3-D: poor controls, rubbish camera, sluggish movement? Check, check, check.  ISS 64 was the better effort, for all its flaws, not least the fact the commentary seemingly only has five or six phrases in it and that the pitch feels like it’s the size of a square of toilet roll.

None of this matters, even though it arguably should.  The controls are responsive, a variation on the infamous Konami code lets players’ heads inflate to gargantuan and nightmare-inducing proportions, and there is something rather wonderful about creating an entire team of identical clones and squaring off against your friend’s own team of similar monstrosities.

Actually working your way through the game’s menus is blissfully easy, too, with a smart interface and visual keys that makes picking the best of your available bunch easy: happy face equals happy player, angry face equals not so much.

It feels less developed than the hyper-polished official footballing efforts which followed, and it has no official license which means that all of the players’ names are sound-alikes, but it has about it a sheer joy and sense of fun which these more refined games can lack at times and its speed and camera paved the way for others to take a look and see what could be done.

Snowboard Kids (1997)

What do you get when you mix snowboarding, cartoon graphics, and ignorance of the laws of physics? Why, a cartoon ninja racing uphill on grass on a snowboard made of stars!

Taking its inspiration from the Mario Kart series of games and Nintendo’s own Mario Kart 64 in particular, Snowboard Kids is a fun, fast and slightly daft racing game.  The object of it is simple: race to the bottom of a course, hop onto a ski lift, and repeat for the required number of laps.  Along the way down, you can grab power ups which come in the form of defensive weaponry or projectiles, from shards of ice which freeze you to the spot and mice which steal other players’ coins and wiggle their bums at you to huge golden pans (or coins; I could never tell) which slam opponents into the ground.

All very simplistic then, but the charm in Snowboard Kids comes not through the basics but the gameplay and design.  Graphically, it was always a hard sell with its blocky and slightly ugly cartoon racers and mixture of low-resolution 2- and 3-D visuals, but you’d be a fool to dismiss a game based on this alone and the sheer imagination of the levels.  Dinosaurs roam fairgrounds, snowmen flank sunsets, the desert proves it can be a suitable race course for a sport based around winter weather, and for all their ugliness the characters are charming, too, from Slash with his enormous hair, Tommy with his plaster, and Nancy with her huge puffy pink jacket.

Lob in a catchy soundtrack, hidden levels and a character to give you an incentive to finish the game all the way through, and a multiplayer race mode that is genuinely exciting and engaging, and you’ve a solid title.  Two sequels to increasingly lesser degrees were released later on, but the original Snowboard Kids remains nested in my heart.

Wetrix (1998)

By 1998, developers were getting used to the graphical capabilities of the system and its physics, as well as the unique N64 controller (love it or hate it, you can’t ignore it stands out), and with that came a slew of familiar titles spruced up for 3-D, including puzzle games aplenty.

Later ported to other consoles, including Nintendo’s own Game Boy Color, Wetrix is one such game boasting 3-D visuals and a whole load of water.

The aim of the game is to rack up points by enclosing water, not letting it slip off the flat, square surface which is your playing field.  Lines and squares fall from the sky, which you have to pile up and embed upon the field, creating boxes and containers in which to place water.  Some of the falling debris will raise your perimeters, some diminish it, and before too long you’ll have bombs to contend with, too, which tear holes in your carefully-cultivated playing field. When the water falls, it comes thick and fast and you need to spill as little as possible: too much, and it’s game over.  As well as being contained, water can also be evaporated with fireballs and if you get enough water safely tucked away, a rubber duck will visit you to say hello.

Even in the late 90s, points-based puzzle gaming felt dated and out of sorts, so poor Wetrix was stumbling out of the starting blocks from the word go, but the simple gameplay mechanics allowed for some neat strategy and visual anticipation: “If I place this wall here, will it be enough to stave off a bomb? Or should I concentrate instead on creating more pools for the water?”

It was never going to rival puzzlers such as Tetris or PuyoPuyo (better known to many Western gamers as Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine) or even the N64’s own Pokémon Puzzle League, released a couple of years later in 2000, but it’s a fun way to pass the time and addictive enough to want to beat your high score once you’ve grown accustomed to the controls and scoring.

Donkey Kong 64 (1999)

It’d be silly, if not impossible, to talk about the N64 without mentioning Rareware, a UK-based developer who to many are as integral to the system as Nintendo themselves.  I’ve already mentioned GoldenEye 007 and others such as Diddy Kong Racing and Perfect Dark made waves, too.  Lesser titles like Blast Corps are remembered with fondness and Conker’s Bad Fur Day is a lesson in what happens when cute cartoon characters grow up and becoming functioning alcoholics (it’s quite something).

Donkey Kong 64 is an apparent platformer that is really a game about collections.  Oh, sure, there is the occasional moment where you have to swing from vine to vine or pop a peanut shell into the hide of a giant beaver, but mostly you’ll be hunting for bananas, gold bananas, banana fairies, and blueprints… which you give to a sneaky weasel for more bananas.  I cannot really stress enough how much this game is about collecting things.

Let’s get something out of the way to begin with though: there are times when Donkey Kong 64 is not a very good game.  Overly complicated and sensitive controls when steering jetpacks, one of the worst cameras to grace a first-generation 3-D platformer, bonus games which veer between very/overly simple to bed-wettingly hard, and repetitive sections of gameplay all hamper the game (especially that camera).

Despite all the flaws though, there are some genuinely beautiful-looking levels and patches of charm in there, and just to really sweeten the deal they went and chucked in the original arcade version of Donkey Kong in there, as well as Jetpac, and then you have the infamous Donkey Kong Rap which is… well.  It is what it is.

Donkey Kong 64 is one of those games which I look back on with more fondness than when I ever actually play it, and going for that full 101% completion score is going to test the patience of any player, but I’d still recommend checking it out if only to see what happens when collectathon gaming goes out of control.

Pokémon Snap (2000)

I’m cheating here somewhat as 2000 was in fact the year the game was released in Europe, the rest of the world having grabbed it in 1999, but then again we here in Europe got Pokémon itself later than everyone else, so it was merely following the trend.

If you ask people what they think of when they think of Nintendo, it’s more than likely two names will spring to their tongues: Mario and Pikachu.  Yes, Pokémon was a monster that could not be avoided when it first came out (which is appropriate given its name is a diminutive of Pocket Monsters).

You could watch the anime series, play the game, plug the game into a special mechanism to have them in 3-D on your N64, or, in this case, take photos of them.

Pokémon Snap is an on-the-rails shooter, by which I mean you are in a vehicle that slowly moves along a rail and you shoot photos of Pokémon whilst you trundle along.  You can throw a variety of items at said Pokémon to arouse their attention, wake them up or severely irritate them, the hope being that they will get closer to you (but not too close) and in the centre of your frame so you can get the best photo possible.  Good photos mean good points and points mean progress, so before long you’ll be watching Jigglypuff sing in a cave, traipsing through a power planet past Magneton, or ambling down a river with Psyduck, all the while taking photos to please Professor Oak.

What should be an exercise in slight tedium is actually a hell of a lot of fun and you’ll soon find yourself trying to get that perfect photo of a surfing Pikachu or that ever-elusive Mew.  The more you play, the more items are at your disposal and so the temptation to return to previous levels to better your score is instant.  The old Pokémon mantra of “Gotta Catch ‘em All!” shows no signs of abating here.

At the time of release in some countries, you were able to save your photos to a card and print them out at special booths, which was a nice touch.  Later down the line, the game was re-released on the Virtual Console services of both the Wii and Wii U, which let you post said photos to your online friends.  Sadly, despite strong reviews of the original game and a console which boasted a second, separate screen with motion control capabilities (like, say, A CAMERA), fans’ hopes were dashed and a sequel never made it to the Wii U, which feels like a missed opportunity given the hardware.

What we have though is a fun and quirky game, even if it is on the short side, and a fine testament to Nintendo, Pokémon and the N64: it’s a franchise that let Nintendo try out new ideas for games on a system that boasted 3-D graphics and the marriage between the two things resulted in something rather special.

The next year was 2001 and a whole new console waited for people to discover it, and slowly but surely the N64 faded away.

I won’t pretend that every game mentioned in this trip down memory lane is going to be every player’s cup of tea.  I also won’t pretend that utter bias runs through this list, with fond memories of all-night gaming sessions throughout my youth clouding any real objective judgement at times, but twenty-one years on, I still find myself blowing the dust off the cartridges (actually a really daft move) and immersing myself into the heady world of 64-bit graphics time and again.

Super, Nintendo.  Indeed.


❉ Nick Mellish lives in the South of England. He reviews a lot of Doctor Who nonsense for various fanzines and websites, writes children’s fiction, and once lost a game of Countdown on national television.

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