20 years ago, the world was anticipating the launch of a new console - a machine that promised to deliver unprecedented levels of detail and involvement.
That system was the Nintendo 64, and it was released to the Japanese public on 23rd June 1996 – twenty years (along with the turn of a century) has passed since Mario turned 3D.
This is the pocket-sized story of the Nintendo 64 - from beginnings to endings, with examinations of the development of launch titles Super Mario 64 and Pilotwings 64. Enjoy!
“Project Reality” had been in development for well over two years, badged initially in the West as “Ultra 64” but eventually finalised as “Nintendo 64”. Throughout that time, Nintendo struggled to keep to deadlines, experienced their first real hardware failure in the shape of the Virtual Boy and had witnessed a slow dwindling of interest in its 16-bit, 2D-based output due to the arrival of optical media-based consoles such as the 3DO, Saturn and PlayStation. Defiantly, Nintendo refused to follow suit for their successor to the Super Nintendo, and developed a powerful cartridge-based console capable of displaying the most advanced 3D graphics ever seen in the home. Partnering with American chip manufacturers Silcon Graphics, and along with the help of their exceptionally talented team of game designers, it was a plan they believed would put them at the summit of the videogaming world once again.
With the tit-for-tat battle between SEGA and Sony well under way, Nintendo's internal development teams were set the unenviable task of pulling their beloved characters into the third-dimension on brand-new hardware, with little previous 3D game design experience. Under the control of Howard Lincoln, Nintendo's American counterparts repeatedly assured an eager public and press that, thanks to the exceptional power of the Silicon Graphics-designed hardware, the Nintendo 64 would brush aside its competition with consummate ease and that the extra delays being imposed on the system would ultimately be worthwhile. Arcade titles Killer Instinct and Cruis'n USA (both developed by early N64 adopters Rareware and Midway) optimistically, shall we say, claimed to be running on the same technology that was to be running the Nintendo 64.
In Kyoto, NCL were also confident, and got to work doing what they had always done best: creating unique and deeply compelling software that could be enjoyed by all. Nintendo had already begun secretly assembling its most experienced in-house teams to develop and research a new generation of videogames, as sequels to Super Mario, Mario Kart, StarFox, Yoshi's Island and Wave Race (a lesser-know Game Boy racing game) were set in motion. Shigeru Miyamoto oversaw the development of four of these titles in particular, but there was one, as director, he was to be more deeply involved with than any other.
Although details of the hardware specifications had been announced earlier in the year, it wasn't until the official unveiling of the Nintendo 64 in late autumn of 1995 during the Shoshinkai Trade Show at the Makuhari Messe convention centre, that the public got its first glimpse of the console design. Most notably, the system control pad, which had been kept hidden until this point, was showcased. Designed by Genyo Takeda (co-producer of Wave Race 64) and his R&D Team 3 at Nintendo, the controller had an unconventional three-pronged design. Reluctantly included was a standard D-pad to cater for 2D games on a console Nintendo had otherwise been keen on promoting as a 3D-only system. There was a slot for inserting a “memory pack” into the back of the unit itself and, most significantly, a 3D-stick which allowed for full analogue control in three-dimensional environments. With four controller ports on the front of the machine as standard, it would also be the only console to allow simultaneous 4-player gaming without the use of an extra adapter.
Just two games were demonstrated and playable at the event; Super Mario 64 and Kirby's Air Ride. Nintendo had promised many more playable games but, at the eleventh hour, removed all but those two. Games were ready, but clearly not the to a standard Nintendo (read: company overlord Hiroshi Yamauchi) was happy with. Kirby's Air Ride was roundly criticised by those who saw it, despite it only being around 20% complete at the time. After being stuck in development hell for several years, the concept would be abandoned altogether only to curiously reappear on the Nintendo GameCube under the same title in 2003. However, one demo involving a short, portly plumber running around various vibrant 3D worlds truly captured the imagination of the attendees and salvaged Nintendo's reputation. Coupled with the new revelatory analogue-stick controller, Super Mario 64 did much to convince players, journalists and developers there was great potential in the 64-bit system.
In the months leading up to the Japanese release date NCL was hard at work, but feeling the pressure. Development on both Wave Race 64 (which initially included hover-craft style machines bouncing through the waters before human jet-ski riders were implemented) and Mario Kart R (later re-named Mario Kart 64) was proving problematic and neither would be made ready for the launch as intended. Meanwhile, a reputedly stubborn Miyamoto-san insisted his magnum opus Super Mario 64 “wasn't perfect” and requested more development time. It was granted, and a further two-month delay was imposed on the Japanese 21st April release date, which also meant subsequent US and UK dates were staggered further behind to allow for localisation and additional software to ship with the system.
On 23rd June 1996, the Nintendo 64 was finally released in stores across Japan accompanied by three games; Super Mario 64, Pilotwings 64 and Japanese chess game Saikyo Habu Shogi from Seta. Early reports stated almost every single system sold with a copy of Super Mario 64 - a trend that echoed around the globe over the coming months.
Whatever the game's wider significance, there is little doubt that Super Mario 64 was (and remains) an astonishing videogame in its own right. With exceptional attention to detail, smooth, crisp polygonal graphics and a previously unparalleled sense of control, the game was clearly a labour of love for the 15-strong team involved in its development.
The concept of a 3D Mario game had been prototyped years before on the Super Nintendo by the EAD team but, unhappy with the performance of the existing technology, Miyamoto-san had to wait several years before he could realise his vision to the requisite standard. Early versions of the game were played out in small experimental areas as the Mario physics, camera work and enemy characters were gradually defined, whilst character controls were tested on keyboards and modified Super Nintendo pads way before the final controller design and system architecture were finalised.
During the end of its development, and with the console specification now complete, the game came under severe pressure to be finished having already forced the delay of the system launch - a scenario somewhat unlikely to be repeated in today's world. Although Nintendo were no strangers to high-stakes game development, having made it their modus operandi over the past decade, this was certainly something else. Staff worked overtime and several internal personnel were drafted in from other divisions to get it onto shop shelves that June. In fact such was the strain on this team, programmer Hajime Yajina (who had previously programmed the likes of Pilotwings and Super Mario Kart on the Super Nintendo) decided he never wanted to code another videogame again and subsequently left Nintendo and the industry behind after the game was complete.
But few could deny Nintendo's efforts and persistence hadn't been worthwhile as its emergence earned unanimous praise from a gaming press who had patiently waited for its arrival. With zero loading times, silky-smooth intricate controls and 15 vast, colourful areas to discover, Super Mario 64 was a joyful playground brimming with ideas and throw-away touches most developers would be happy to base an entire game around. Each area - whether it was in the depths of a crystal-blue lake, the creepy boardwalks of a haunted mansion or under the heat-drenched glare of a hazy desert - each enticed the player to explore until every one of the game's 120 stars were discovered. It made excellent use of not only the hardware, but also the new 3D-stick controller, and arguably represents the pinnacle of the 3D platformer to this day. Just ask the copycat games and borrowed ideas that inevitably followed, or even Super Mario Sunshine.
The sight of a wing-capped Mario, gracefully soaring through the crayon-blue skies in his newfound dimension, is surely still one of the most poignant images in videogaming history.
Development duties for the next-generation Pilotwings were almost exclusively carried out by American flight-simulation experts Paradigm - not Nintendo. Having created a tech demonstration of a flying helicopter based on the N64 architecture for Nintendo in 1995, the company hoped to land a contract developing the modelling tool libraries for the console. To their surprise, they were instructed by the Japanese giants to create an entire game for the un-released Nintendo 64 - a sequel to the Super Nintendo classic Pilotwings.
The 1-year development process involved the American's modelling the four vast landscapes of the game and implementing the control methods for each of the flight apparatus. From there on, EAD helped iron-out bugs and intermittently suggested play elements and gameplay structure, as well as contributing character designs and artwork - areas Paradigm happily admitt were not their strong suit.
Paradigm's technical know-how shines throughout the game from the smooth frame-rate to the richly-coloured surroundings. During these early years, it remained one of the best looking games on the system. The gyrocopter, rocket belt and hang-glider each require deft movement of the 3D-stick and players have to contend with wind and steady landing approaches to succeed. Just as it did in the original, every task required concentration, but nothing was stopping players deviating from a mission and wandering around the incredibly detailed environments. From mountains, roads, hidden cave systems, waterfalls, rivers, lakes, houses and villages and even a ski-resort with a fully working ski-lift, the game is packed full of little treats.
Pilotwings 64 was also the finest example yet of the console's graphical power, and thanks to a charming soundtrack and its slow-paced gameplay, it is one of the most relaxing gaming experiences money can buy.
By the time the console hit shops across the rest of the world, the Nintendo 64 had already lost significant market-share, but would steadily gain momentum during the next three years. In its native Japan it was a dismal non-starter, and software production quietly disappeared after just a few years, but in Europe and especially the US it performed consistently well. Despite being seen as a failure compared to the colossal success of Sony's PlayStation, Nintendo's 64-bit machine went on to sell over 30 million units worldwide and played host to several high-profile multi-million selling games: certainly making Nintendo a tidy profit in the process.
Although the system was ultimately muscled out of many homes for a number of reasons, (such as the prohibitive cartridge format, eye-watering production costs and - most notably - a significant lack of Japanese developer support), few could argue that the N64 hadn't delivered some of the most significant and downright entertaining videogames the world had seen. The console had also pioneered the worth of 4-player gaming and the likes of Mario Kart 64, GoldenEye 007 and Perfect Dark ensured the console delivered the most essential of multiplayer-thrills whenever four (or more) persons were huddled around a single television set.
In the face of mounting adversity throughout its lifespan, Nintendo and their in-house teams relentlessly insisted they create high-quality, premium software that only they could seemingly produce: 1080 Snowboarding; Dōbutsu no Mori; Starfox 64 - hoping upon hope that one of their titles would eventually topple the balance of dominance in the N64's favour. The 64DD (a story in itself, a story for another time) was also indicative of this artisan mindset. It never quite happened, and their time-honoured attitude to game development was forced into change as a result - as evident with the GameCube and then Wii.
However, with that attitude, Nintendo ushered in another of its golden ages - software that was at times simply on another level to anything else available: a statement that only becomes more obvious with each passing year. PlayStation undoubtedly and with reason took the spoils of war, but without those games; the Ocarina of Time's, the F-Zero X's and absolutely the Super Mario 64's, the videogaming world then, and today, would be a different and perhaps far gloomier place.