On September 30th, Dinosaurs Will Fly:
The Technology of the Nintendo 64
In 1995 video game magnate Nintendo proclaimed that in September 1996 “dinosaurs would fly” when they released their latest home video game console, the Nintendo 64. The N64 was to be the follow up to the successful Super Nintendo Entertainment System (and failed Virtual Boy unit) that poised to be another smashing success for the Japanese game developer. Released at a suggested retail price of $199.95 along with two games at a price of $69.95 each, the system enjoyed many great successes both in the fields of innovative uses of technology and overall sales, only to meet with criticism and stiff competition as the years rolled by. Electronics firm Sony smelled blood in the water and launched a competing console, the Sony PlayStation, while longtime Nintendo rival Sega came up with their own entry in the system wars, the Sega Saturn. Marketed as the world’s first 64-bit home video game system, the Nintendo 64 marks the era when Nintendo lost their iron-clad grip on the gaming world, ending the period when “everyone” had a Nintendo console and worshipped at the altar of company mascot and game hero Mario.
As the 16-bit Super NES / Sega Genesis wars drew to a close, Nintendo had claimed yet another victory in the ongoing battle of the consoles. Popular fare such as Donkey Kong Country and Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island had kept the system afloat while Sega watched their once golden mascot Sonic the Hedgehog devolve into a series of stale, unoriginal games. Never one to rest on his laurels, Nintendo’s most prestigious game designer, Shigeru Miyamoto, began looking to the next generation of game system. He had a wish list of features he wanted in the next Nintendo console, the most auspicious of which was 3D capability. Since the dawn of 1985’s Super Mario Brothers, platformer games had been 2D side scrollers where a character would jump from platform to platform across a series of levels over a number of obstacles. Miyamoto envisioned a game where the character could move in three dimensions through an entire series of little worlds, worlds built out of polygons instead of traditional sprites that the Super NES just couldn’t handle. Aside from a lack of console processing power, the traditional controller just wouldn’t work in Miyamoto’s vision. Every Nintendo system since the original Nintendo Entertainment System had featured a 4-way digital control pad that allowed for up, down, left, and right movement onscreen. Each direction on the pad had only two modes – on or off. A character was either running full speed or was standing still, there was no in-between. Miyamoto knew that his virtual world game needed more detailed controls that would allow a character to run, walk, crawl, creep, backflip, or perform any number of nuanced movements. Instead of a control pad, Miyamoto and Nintendo worked on creating an analog control stick that would allow 360 degrees of movement at various speeds. Another part of Miyamoto’s vision was to break free of the standard use of a fixed camera angle. Past platformers had been seen from a strictly side-view vantage point. In this new game the player could shift the camera angle at will to explode hidden secrets or simply get a better view of the situation. A new series of buttons were included on the Nintendo 64’s controller for this function: four bright yellow “C” buttons that mimicked the classic 4-way control pad. These buttons could shift the external camera left, right, in, and out. Finally, the new controller would include an access slot for various future expansions. Combing these new features with the classic control pad and action buttons, the Nintendo 64 controller was born.
But what good is a controller without a system to connect it to? Nintendo, working with chip manufacturer NEC and technology guru Silicon Graphics, created a special customized 64-bit MIPS R4300i-class RISC CPU with a clock speed of 93.75 MHz. This CPU was comprised of over four million transistors and featured a five stage pipeline capable of 93 million operations per second. A special 64-bit co-processor handled much of the “bells and whistles” of the system, enabling operations and functions such as texture mapping, anti-aliasing, Z-buffering, and transparencies. The console shipped with a base four megabytes of DRAM that was expandable to a total of eight megabytes with a special after-market upgrade known as the Expansion Pak and featured data transfer speeds of a maximum of 562.5 megabytes per second. The system also featured a custom 128-bit bus. Moving away from processing power we come to the audio and video features of the console. Featuring full 16-bit stereo, the system included a theoretical one hundred PCM sound channels, each of which only consumed 1% of processing time. Most games only made use of up to twenty-four channels. Video outputs included standard RF and A/V configurations and could be upgraded to S-Video or HDTV. Available video resolutions ranged from 256 x 224 up to 640 x 480 with a 21-bit color output. Unlike competitors Sony and Sega, Nintendo chose to forego the new direction in media storage, the CD, and instead stuck with the good ‘ol reliable cartridge (or, as Nintendo called them, “game pak”) despite the fact that cartridges were hampered by a limited storage capacity compared to that of a CD (a maximum theoretical size of 256 megabits on a cartridge compared to 650+ megabytes on a CD). It was Miyamoto himself who insisted on the use of cartridges, as he hated the idea of his new virtual world game - a game that by this point in development featured perennial hero Mario and was entitled Super Mario 64 - being plagued by load times as the console scurried to load game data between levels, a problem that CD-based games had to contend with.
Nintendo has always followed the “razor and razor blade” method of sales; that is, sell the console itself at a loss and make the real profits on games and accessories, and the Nintendo 64 certainly had its fair share of money-making add-ons. Aside from needing four controllers to get the full four-player multiplayer experience in games such as Mario Kart 64 and Goldeneye 007, consumers were encouraged to stock up on all sorts of not-so-optional accessories. Released along with the console and Super Mario 64 was a small 256K flash memory cartridge called the Controller Pak that plugged into the slot on the back of the controller. This memory was used to save game data that could not fit on a standard cartridge, such as the “ghost” data in the popular racing game Mario Kart 64. Players could record replays of their best racing performances to the memory cartridge in order to race against themselves later with the CPU using the saved data to create a ghostly apparition for the player to compete with on demand. Each Controller Pak could store two ghost players, and in theory an infinite number of ghosts could be saved by repeatedly swapping out an infinite number of paks. Unfortunately most games did not support the pak at all, and aside from a few other notable uses (storing player data for Diddy Kong Racing and Blast Corps, for example) it went unused. Another near-useless obscure accessory was the Transfer Pak that enabled Game Boy Color games to link up with the Nintendo 64 itself. Players could transfer game data back and forth between the games to unlock secrets and load new characters into old games. The unit was designed with children’s cash cow Pokemon in mind, although it was also used with titles such as Mario Golf and shooter Perfect Dark. Nintendo experimented with speech recognition with the Microphone Pak that came packaged with Hey You, Pikachu that allowed players to actually speak to onscreen character Pikachu in order to get him to carry out commands, although the game and technology did not meet with much success or interest. A far more supported accessory for the controller was the Rumble Pak. Packaged in with space shooter StarFox 64, the Rumble Pak contained a small motor that caused the controller to vibrate at preset times and intensities to match action occurring onscreen. For example, when a player blows up the enemy base, the controller rocks and shakes in time with the explosion occurring onscreen. On the other hand, when another ship flies by the player’s ship, the controller only vibrates slightly. Powered by two AAA-batteries, the Rumble Pak became a wildly popular accessory and most games thereafter featured support for it, such as popular first person shooter Goldeneye 007, the action fantasy epic The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, and a re-released Japan-only version of Super Mario 64.
Not all of the add-ons to the system plugged into the controller, however. In 1999 Nintendo released the Expansion Pak which, when plugged into the top of the console, boosted the unit’s RDRAM by an additional four megabytes. This extra memory was commonly used by developers to include larger 3D worlds and real-time lighting and shadow effects to games as well as provide more animations, detailed textures, higher frame rates, and greater color depth. Unlike the controller add-ons, the Expansion Pak was not always optional to the games that made use of it. The pak came packaged with Donkey Kong 64, the first game to support the pak, and once installed it need never be removed. Games that did not support the memory boost would simply ignore it. At the time of the pak’s release it was too little, too late to win back the Sony PlayStation crowd, which by now had become the winner of that generation’s console war, and the pak was only used by a few games such as The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask and Perfect Dark.
The most ambitious add-on to the Nintendo 64 was, in reality, the other half of the console. The original design of the unit called for what became the actual Nintendo 64 plus a disk drive unit capable of reading 64 megabyte magnetic discs with 38 megabytes of writable space. These disks would work in tandem with cartridges to provide more interactive games. Take, for instance, the canceled game Mother 3 (known as Earthbound 64 in the United States). This game would unfold differently for each player depending on what actions occurred at the start of the game, and this information would be stored on the disk. Game developers could also update existing cartridges as was planned with a set of new levels for The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. An internal clock in the unit would allow for real-time play; if it was 5:47am in the real world, it would be 5:47am in the game. Costs and development time caused the disk drive half of the unit to be shelved for the Nintendo 64’s release, but in 1999 it returned as an external add-on unit known as the 64DD (as in “64 double density”, the type of disks read by the system) . The 64DD was released only in Japan for a price equivalent to $150 and met with limited support. It connected to the Nintendo 64 via the expansion port on the bottom of the console. Only a handful of games were released for the unit, including innovative titles such as the F-Zero X Construction Kit which allowed players to create their own racetracks for the original F-Zero X game and the Mario Artist series which was an update to the cult classic art creation title Mario Paint from the Super NES days. The 64DD itself relied on the Nintendo 64 console for all of its data processing needs and consisted entirely of the disk drive, internal clock, and a smattering of standard sound bytes and other commonly used data stored in ROM. Also note that the aforementioned Expansion Pak was required for the 64DD/Nintendo 64 combination to work and the pak was included in the 64DD package. Even Nintendo’s accessories had accessories available; when the 64DD was released Nintendo also offered for sale a special modem that, when connected to the unit, allowed players to take their consoles online to the special RandNet service offered by Nintendo and their online partner company, Recruit. RandNet allowed players to play special game demos, compete for high scores, swap Mario Artist creations, and even surf the web with a rudimentary web browser all for a low monthly service fee along with the purchase of a special keyboard and mouse. Nintendo pulled the plug on RandNet in February 2001, rendering the modem hardware useless, although the Nintendo 64/64DD combination works perfectly fine without it.
Due to technology limits and social pressures, the Nintendo 64 never had the chance to do everything it was capable of. Famed second-party developer Rareware led the pack in interesting technology gimmicks that, for various reasons, never proceeded past the testing stage of development. For example, the 1998 release Banjo-Kazooie featured a number of items and level areas that the player could see but not access. These items (a series of colored eggs and a key made of ice) hovered just out of reach of the game’s bear and bird characters. When gamers began pestering Rareware for answers on how to obtain these items, the company alluded to a sequel, Banjo-Tooie, that would connect to the first game through a process they called “Stop ‘n Swop” in which gamers would have to physically switch cartridges during play, a process unsupported by the Nintendo 64 hardware. When Banjo-Tooie was released two years later all signs of Stop ‘n Swop were gone and the company went silent on its possible existence, but a group of hackers using a cheat device known as the GameShark dug through both games’ code and found a series of cheat codes that unlocked the secret function. Unfortunately it was incomplete and nonfunctional, but the menus were present indicating that Rareware had been developing the process at some point. Similarly, Rareware created a function for Perfect Dark that utilized the Transfer Pak and a peripheral camera for the Game Boy to enable players to photograph their own faces and transfer them to in-game characters. However, as the game neared completion the Columbine High School tragedy occurred and, facing the social pressure of angry parents who did not want their children putting their own faces in a first person shooter, Rareware removed the function from the finished version of the game. Once again hackers with the GameShark managed to uncover the menus for the function, but they are inoperative.
The era of the Nintendo 64 came to an end in 2001 when Nintendo unveiled and released their latest video game console, the Nintendo GameCube. Although touted as a completely new experience, the GameCube owes much of its features to the Nintendo 64’s original innovations. The GameCube’s controller features the familiar analog stick (only now improved to allow gamers with average sized thumbs to play) and the camera buttons have been replaced with a second analog stick. Rumble Pak functionality is built directly into the controllers, negating the need for a separate add-on. Controller Paks (now called Memory Cards and containing 8 megabytes of flash memory) connect directly to the console and the Transfer Pak has been reborn and expanded upon as a link cable between the GameCube and Nintendo’s portable console, the Game Boy Advance. Cartridges have finally been retired and Nintendo chose minidisks for data storage for this generation’s games. Some of the 64DD’s features, such as the internal clock and limited online capabilities, are also available in the GameCube generation. Even some of the Nintendo 64’s most popular games, such as Super Mario 64 and Mario Kart 64, have been given GameCube updates in the forms of Super Mario Sunshine and Mario Kart: Double Dash!! respectively.
In the end the Nintendo 64 is remembered fondly by some and decried by others. The system seemed to age very quickly and many felt that new games did not compare to offerings for the Sony PlayStation and the Sega Saturn’s replacement, the Sega Dreamcast. It is commonly believed that the Nintendo 64 was designed solely with Super Mario 64’s requirements in mind and future games would be left to expand off of new ways to use existing hardware. While game graphics did improve over the years, they never seemed to escape the jaggedness of early titles for the system. Dazzling graphics are not everything, of course, and without good gameplay a game can look stunning and still play horribly. One thing Nintendo has always excelled at is creating innovative and original games, a tradition that continued on the Nintendo 64. In fact, it would seem that gamers who passed up on some of the now-classic Nintendo 64 titles are eager to take a second look at the system, as Nintendo has been offering emulated Nintendo 64 games from The Legend of Zelda series for play on the GameCube. Like it or not, the Nintendo 64 helped pave the way for today’s modern day video games and will always be remembered for bringing excellent video games into the third dimension.
Aside from the sources listed throughout this paper, the following websites have been an invaluable source of information as I have studied the history and architecture of the Nintendo 64 over the years:
And, last but not least, I must acknowledge and thank the members of the video game community at http://www.everything2.com of which I am a member. For the past year we have worked to document and explore the various accessories and notable game technologies of the Nintendo 64 and this paper would not have been possible without their efforts.
A Node Your Homework Production
Some miscellaneous tidbits and factoids about the Nintendo 64...
- First Game Released: (tie) Super Mario 64 and Pilotwings 64 (released on the same day as the N64 itself)
- Final Game Released (Retail): Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 3 (released in August 2002)
- Final Game Released (Rental Only): Razor Freestyle Scooter (available for rental at Blockbuster Video in November 2001, in early 2002 used cartridges were sold off by the chain)
- Most Anticipated Game: Super Mario 64 - early screenshots and video footage available online dropped millions of jaws, and anticipation for this game pushed the N64 console into millions of homes upon release. Honorable mention goes to The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina Of Time which, aside from being an amazing game, caused a preorder rush when Nintendo announced that all preordered cartridges would be gold (in a nod to the original NES Zelda games), whereas cartridges sold off the shelf would be the usual gray.
- Most Used Peripheral: The Rumble Pak - It was included with Starfox 64 and became a staple of most all following first person shooters.
- Least Used Peripheral: The N64 Microphone - It only supported one game, Hey You, Pikachu!, and was used to issue spoken word commands to Pikachu onscreen. It came packaged with the game.
- Most Disappointing Peripheral: The 64DD - Designed as a disk drive for the N64, the 64DD was to beef up the system's capabilities and add rewritable memory for games to utilize. The add-on also included a system clock that would keep times in games. The canceled Mother 3 would have played in real-time (much like the future Animal Crossing) and forced players to play at all hours of the day to meet different objectives. Announced games for the failed system included Super Mario 64 2 and a new Zelda title which eventually was released as a cartridge (The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask) as well as an expansion to The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time called Ura-Zelda. The 64DD was never released in America and only surfaced briefly in Japan where it met with poor support and the games that did require it never did make the most of the machine's potential. Notable releases include the F-Zero X track editor and the Mario Artist series, as well as the RandNet online service.
- Most Delayed Game: Robotech: Crystal Dreams - Originally announced as a launch title for release in 1996, the game was delayed time and time again, and eventually was cancelled altogether when developer GameTek filed for Chapter 11. The rights and existing development to the game (roughly 40% complete) were then bought by Capcom, but they also failed to complete the game. It was officially canceled for the last time in 2001.
- Games Gone To Nintendo GameCube: A number of games began their lives on the N64 and were later shifted for GameCube release. These titles include Dinosaur Planet (which became StarFox Adventures: Dinosaur Planet), Animal Leader (which became Cubivore), Animal Crossing, and Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requium.
- Most Popular Canceled Game Feature: Banjo-Kazooie featured a number of places that players could see but not access. A group of players working with a GameShark snooped around in the game and found a series of screens instructing gamers to stop 'n swop the Banjo-Kazooie cartridge with the then-unreleased sequel Banjo-Tooie to access these secrets. However, for some reason, Rareware dumped the feature from the sequel. Nevertheless, some players continue to believe that stop 'n swop still exists and will someday be revealed. Honorable mention goes to Perfect Dark and it's Game Boy Camera support. Rareware announced that the game would allow players to take photos of their friends with the Game Boy Camera and then upload those pictures to the game. The game would then map the photos to characters in the game so that friends could shoot each other in multiplayer. The mode was scrapped from the final release (partially due to an outcry following the Columbine High School tragedy and also due to the fact that implementing the feature was proving to be increasingly difficult). However, once again GameSharkers picked through the game and found the menu screens for the feature. These menus are non-functional and the feature does not work.