A Week with the Nintendo 64
The Story Thus Far…
I started down a gaming rabbit hole, and that brought me to Karl Jobst’s page where he breaks down the strategies of the speed-running community. One of the games that he specialized in when he was active is Golden Eye on the Nintendo 64. I watched so many videos on that game, that I just had to try it out.
I could have downloaded an emulator, and grabbed a copy of the ROM (and not felt too guilty about it, since the console was end of sale in 2005) but the only Mac emulator hasn’t been updated since OS-X 10.5 era (like FOREVER ago) and it definitely doesn’t play well with the latest OS-X (Big Sur as of this writing).
Hardware was the only option.
eBay was consulted, and for about $150, a refurbished console was bought, and I also added a few of the classic games. Super Mario 64, Mario Kart 64, Wipeout 64 (I have a soft spot for that game), Golden Eye (naturally, that was the one that triggered this impulse), its successor, Perfect Dark, and then for good measure, I tossed in a copy of Quake 64 - supposedly a very good fidelity port of the original Quake.
Last Wednesday, the console and the two Mario cartridges arrived.
Impressions of the game
First, let me point out that I do not have an old CRT based TV. The Nintendo 64 was launched 25 years ago, in 1996. At the time, HD was a twinkle in some engineers eyes, and apart from high end home theater systems, HD just didn’t exist. Thus, the N64 was designed to connect to a SD TV of the era. Fortunately by the mid 1990s, TV’s often had video inputs, so you didn’t have to connect via the HF tuner (you know, those boxes that attach to the antenna in) so the N64 has true composite video out. I connected it to my Samsung SyncMaster 710MP which is an LCD panel with a true TV tuner, and authentic circuitry. So the video quality is, excellent, about as good as the console can put out.
I have read up on the architecture, like many of the advanced consoles of the era, it uses an unfamiliar CPU, in this case a MIPS R4300i RISC processor. The MIPS CPUs were not manufactured by MIPS, but like ARM, they license the designs, and the customer finds a fab to build it. In this case, the Japanese company NEC is the contract manufacturer.
As an early full 3D game system, on a sub $200 console, it is unrivaled. I didn’t own a a Sony PlayStation I, but I did play on it, and while it was 3D, it was primitive. The other one was 3DO, but it was ludicrously expensive, and it had some serious shortcomings.
Nintendo worked with SGI (Silicon Graphics) to develop the N64, and paired with the Reality engine that did the 3D rendering, it is a marvel of engineering for its time. The development environment was based on the SGI Indy, their low cost (for the time) workstation. Absolutely epic.
For its time, the graphics, and performance were unparalleled.
But it was the end of a line in one key way. Why? The Cartridge format.
That doesn’t mean it was perfect. The console was developed before the 3D graphics hardware accelerators hit the PC world, thus in many ways this was bleeding edge at the time. Some people complain that textures in the game are blurry, but that is an artifact of the lower cost MIPS designed CPU (it was pretty poor in FP operations) and some design choices made around the Reality Engine that handled the display. Honestly, for 25 year old system design, and noting that it was intended to be plugged into a television that was a CRT, and had fuzzy resolution at best, it is pretty freaking awesome. This is not a nit that I will pick.
The console came with 4 megabytes (yes, megabytes) of RDRAM, or Rambus D-RAM, a compromise to keep the cost low. For a princely sum of $80 you could add a second 4 megs of RDRAM, and many games used that to improve game play, enhance graphics, and a couple of games REQUIRED the extra memory. Why didn’t Nintendo just make it 8 megs out of the box? Remember back to the mid 1990s and memory was freaking expensive. Like stupid expensive. And keeping the console price under $200 was of paramount importance to Nintendo. So, to get to what the console is capable of, you need to spend a few bucks extra (and yes, I have ordered a memory upgrade).
Saved games are a mixed bag. Most cartridges have either some SRAM (no, that isn’t static RAM, used to be ultra fast cacheing for mainframes and high end computers, it is for Save RAM) that is either EEPROM or an actual RAM chip with a coin cell battery back up. I will need to open my carts and see if they have batteries, because after 20+ years, it is not likely that they are super healthy.
But some games, including one that I have now - Wipeout 64 - have no storage on cartridge, so they rely on memory cards that you plug into the controller. Only about $13 used, and yes, I have ordered a couple, this feels very kludge-y. But looking back on consoles from this era, small memory cards that players could carry with them to play at friends houses were common, and accepted. So, I will roll with it.
As I mentioned above, in the mid 1990’s we saw a rapid evolution from cartridge based game distribution, to CD’s. CD’s were cheaper to produce, they held up to 660 megabytes of data, at the time an almost unfathomable amount of space. Suddenly games had loading screens, cut scenes (videos between levels, that help move the story plot) and well, yes, they were slow to read. Also, they were easy to scratch, and that might make them unable to be read. A real bummer.
Cartridges on the other hand are instantaneous in loading, no delays, and they are fairly reliable. But the downside is that they are a lot more expensive to produce, and they are space limited. In reality, 64 megabytes is the upper limit. That means that the developers had to make decisions to fit their code within the space. That led to many creative techniques to maximize the leverage of the system resources.
I understand the why, and as long as you don’t miss the cut scenes, and the other extras, cartridges are a better solution. But I am sure that is only the justification that Nintendo proffered. The real reason was to prevent piracy. Cartridges are a lot more difficult to copy, and it is more costly to do so. Sure, there was a challenge/response chip/microcontroller that validates the cartridge as authentic, but there were and are several ways to get past that.
The rest of the market was unconcerned about the risk of CD duplication, as CD Writers were rare and ludicrously expensive in the mid 1990s. But that would not be true for long, and thus began a dance with the pirates and the game makers, to prevent easy duplication.
But cartridges, while they were stupid expensive when launched, going for $60 - $90 each, are plentiful on the used market, and I am picking them up for $20 - $30. I don’t mind spending that much money to immerse myself with the game.
Naturally, I had to grab a copy of Golden Eye, because that is what piqued my interest, a cartridge based FPS game that doesn’t suck? Sign me up. But I also grabbed a couple of the classics. Super Mario 64, and Mario Kart 64 are your classic cartoon-y Mario games that Nintendo is famous for.
Mario Kart 64
The first one I plugged in was Mario Kart 64 (MK64) to try it out. It uses the analog joystick for steering, and the buttons for acceleration, braking, and deploying power ups. It is easy and intuitive to play, and with a little practice you can navigate it easily. I have only played it at low skill levels (the 50CC races) and I tried it in both single player, and plugged in a second controller to see how 2 player works. It splits the screen, and both players run their own race.
Super Mario 64
Next, I dropped in the Super Mario 64 (SM64) into the slot and powered it up. You are greeted with a large Mario head animation and the iconic “Its a me, Mario” and the start screen. Fun fact, one of my wife’s friends from film school (a lifetime ago, she graduated from USC Film and Television School) was the recorded voice of Mario.
The game is a puzzler, where you have to solve puzzles, in different levels to collect stars. As you work your way through the game, the puzzles get more difficult, and you have to work harder and harder to collect the stars.
It is a catchy kid-friendly game, and I can understand the nostalgia and charm that it brings back. I didn’t grow up playing the original Nintendo, so I don’t have that nostalgia for Mario, but I will say that it is an engaging game, and it is not easy. The best players take about an hour and 20 minutes to speed run, or about 5 hours to complete fully. I am certain that I will sink a few hundred hours into the game.
I will admit that I bought this on a whim. I got a copy of Wipeout way back in the day with a 3Dfx card. Back then, a graphics accelerator was probably $250, and most of the makers would include a game or two so that you could instantly experience the delicious 3D graphics upon installation. Wipeout was one of those games.
A SciFi racing game, you battle with other racers, picking up and deploying missiles, bombs, and other tactical weapons, to eke out an advantage.
Alas, this cart has no memory on it, and it tells you that you need either the shaker module, or the memory cartridge for the controller to save your position/stats. That should arrive today, so I will play it some more once I can save my progress.
So far, I am impressed with this little console. No moving parts apart from the switches on top, it is simplicity. At the time of its release, it was a quantum jump ahead of what was out there at the time. Sure the PS1 had some great games, but the capabilities of that console were less than the N64. Nintendo had planned on a disk expansion for the system, but after testing in the Japan market, it never saw the light of day.
Over the 9 years of its production, well north of 33M units were shipped, far less than the PS1, but still a respectable volume.
Today, there is a healthy pipeline of used consoles and games. While it didn’t have the huge catalog that the PS1 ended up with, there were almost 400 games made for it, including several that are still well played to this date. People still speed run Super Mario, Zelda: The Ocarina of Time, Golden Eye, and Perfect Dark.
I will add the memory expansion (and likely buy a copy of one of the two games that required it to play, Donkey Kong 64) the controller memory cartridges, and consider a video converter. Ultimately I would like to retire the SyncMaster “TV” and build out a gaming corner in my office/den.
It is all good though.