A Nintendo 64 Story
(Originally posted in 2017)
Console launches are very special events, and Nintendo console launches for many are particularly so. With the launch of the Nintendo Switch on the horizon, I’ve decided to tell my stories of Nintendo console launches past, and why those systems are special to me.
A Nintendo 64 Story…
It's no secret that the 32/64-bit generation is my least favorite in gaming history. Even the very best games of the day were hideous, polygonal messes with glitches and bad camera angles galore. To say that most haven't stood the test of time would be an understatement. However, at the time, I couldn't help but get caught up in the hype. In their heyday, those polygons I find so distasteful today were the very definition of the future. For me in 1996, there was nothing in this world bigger to me than the Nintendo 64.
I've always loved the color scheme they used for the N64 boxes.
To put it bluntly, the lead-up to the N64's release created a form of hype like nothing I had ever experienced before. I had seen what Sega and Sony had to offer in the realm of next generation consoles, and I was perfectly happy to sit back with my SNES until "Project Reality" materialized. Then I started reading in magazines that Project Reality had become the cartridge-based Nintendo Ultra 64. Then I started seeing screenshots of games like Super Mario 64 and the all-time king of hype, Zelda 64. Then Cruis'n USA and Killer Instinct with their flashy Ultra 64 logos hit the arcades promising that games like these were soon going to be playable in my living room.
Then the delays hit. Killer Instinct was released on Super NES instead, Nintendo dropped the "Ultra" from their name making it the Nintendo 64, and key 3rd parties like Squaresoft abandoned Nintendo for refusing to get with the times and use CDs like the rest of the industry. But even those setbacks weren't enough to combat the unfathomable hype created by this video. It was a promotional VHS tape mailed to peoples' homes, and it was awe-inspiring.
I was only 15 when the N64 officially launched, so I still wasn't in a position to go out and get my own. I still had to rely on my parents, and while I don't remember specifically why I felt this way, I didn't think it was going to happen. I was sure I was going to have to wait until Christmas to get a Nintendo 64 to call my own. It was probably because they had just gotten me a Virtual Boy last year, and money was typically tight around our house. Either way, this was no small disappointment, but I was old enough to understand that I couldn't always get everything I wanted. I wasn't happy about it, but I was prepared to wait patiently for the holiday season. Still, watching that launch day come and go without a Super Mario 64 to call my own was going to be tough.
Having followed the news surrounding the N64 pretty closely, I had the release date of Sunday, September 29th basically tattooed inside my eyelids, but it turned out that Thursday, September 26th was the date I should have been paying attention to. I remember coming home from school that day alone because my sister had soccer practice. I walked into the kitchen and saw my mom standing at the counter doing something or other, and I didn't notice anything out of the ordinary. She turned around and asked me how I was doing, and then it hit me, she was wearing a Super Mario 64 t-shirt. It took a minute for my brain to register exactly what I was seeing. Why was she wearing that shirt? Where did she get it? Was I getting a Nintendo 64 this weekend? I immediately asked her what the heck was going on and she told me she got the shirt when she preordered the Nintendo 64. She decided to put it on to surprise me when I got home from school because she had gotten a phone call earlier that day telling her she could come pick up her system, which is what we were going to do as soon as I put down my backpack and got my butt in the car.
What a memorable ad. I do wonder why the "official" release date was changed from the 30th to the 29th though...
After giving her the biggest hug in the universe, I did exactly what I was told and got my butt in the car, and let me tell you, that ride to our local Toys R Us felt like we were driving from my house in New Jersey to Alaska. When we finally arrived, we wasted no time. We went right to the pickup booth (remember those?) and got the console, a copy of Super Mario 64, and were on our way. I didn't even ask to look around the store at other games. I didn't ask for anything. I clutched that box like my life depended on it, thanked my Mom a few thousand more times, and walked back out to the car the happiest kid on Earth. I read that Super Mario 64 instruction manual the whole ride home, positively giddy with excitement. I couldn't believe it was actually mine, and that I was going to finally play Super Mario 64 with my own 2 hands.
I said earlier that in my opinion games from this era haven't aged particularly well, and I still say that holds true, but nothing can take away the pure sense of wonder I felt when I turned that thing on and heard "It's a-me, Mario!" blasting out of my speakers. Princess Toadstool read me a letter. Mario could walk absolutely anywhere. Lakitu provided me with camera control. But most striking of all, for the first time ever there wasn't background music, there were just birds chirping in the distance, the faint sound of running water, and Mario's footsteps. I don't think realism is the word I'm looking for because Super Mario 64 is anything but realistic, but Mario's world felt so much more tangible than it ever had before. It was a transformative experience to play a game like this for the first time. I had messed with other 3D games on other platforms briefly, but nothing had compared to this. This was the future, and it was in my living room. I was in heaven.
It may not look like much now, but this was the stuff of my dreams back in the day.
Of course, there was quite a drought immediately following Super Mario 64, what with the only other game available at launch being Pilotwings 64 (which I did not get for years) but at the time I didn't even really notice. I didn't want to play anything other than Super Mario 64 for a good long while. By the time I had beaten it and got all the stars, other games started popping up in my local rental shops, so I was able to get my hands on stuff like Doom 64, Cruis'n USA, and (shudder) Quest 64. Plus, there was so much on the horizon to look forward to, including the aforementioned Zelda 64. Man, I could just about write an entire book on the crazy hype train leading up to that game's release.
So why do I love my Nintendo 64? Well, besides it being another shining example of my parents' unbelievable generosity (seriously, we didn't have a lot of money growing up. I have no idea how they fit this stuff into their budgets) and the countless hours of local multiplayer with games like The New Tetris and Mario Kart 64, the main reason I love my Nintendo 64 so much is oddly enough, its own ineptitude. That game drought I mentioned that didn't bother me for the first few months never really went away, while on the other side of the fence the PlayStation was getting amazing game after amazing game. Up to this point I had never even considered looking at a non-Nintendo system seriously before, but now, if I wanted to play the latest Final Fantasy, Metal Gear, Mega Man, Street Fighter, or Castlevania, all games I fell in love with on Nintendo platforms, I had to go somewhere else because at the end of the day, those new experiences that 3rd parties were making simply weren't feasible on Nintendo's archaic cartridges.
I got my first job at the local bench store (you read that right). I took the money I made there and bought a PlayStation and a copy of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. I loved that game hard, and that opened the floodgates for me. Just before my 16th birthday, I left my job at the bench store for a job at FuncoLand (still not sure how they legally managed to hire a 15-year-old, but whatever, I loved that job) and the whole world of gaming I had cut myself off from out of overzealous brand loyalty was now completely open to me. I bought a Genesis, a Saturn, a Jaguar, a Lynx, anything I could get my hands on, and I experienced some fantastic games that I never would have been able to play otherwise. And you know what? It didn't detract from my love of my Nintendo 64 in the least. I spent tons of time playing games like Soul Blade, NiGHTS, Chrono Cross, X-Men vs. Street Fighter, Metal Gear Solid, and gladly also picked up Star Fox 64, Conker's Bad Fur Day, and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. I went back and played the Sonic games on Genesis. I bought a Dreamcast on launch day. I obsessed over Katamari Damacy on PS2. I did all of this because Nintendo dropped the ball with the Nintendo 64 and in the process opened the door for some of the best games to be made on systems other than theirs. It's an odd thing to be thankful for, but Nintendo's stumbles on the N64 helped me see how dumb I was for ignoring what was going on on other systems in favor of brand loyalty.
Symphony of the Night was an absolute masterpiece. Maybe someday it will be released on a Nintendo console.
Even though I may look back on this generation and cringe at the hideous, blocky messes those beautiful sprites I loved so much had turned into, I also look back and remember how amazed I was the first time I saw the water in Wave Race 64, the unprecedented feeling of speed that came with F-Zero X, the sheer awe of watching the sun set in Ocarina of Time, how surprisingly funny Conker's Bad Fur Day was, how much fun 4-player Dr. Mario could be, how incredible it felt to grab Bowser by his tail and swing him around, and how thankful I am to have a Mom who was willing to take me to a toy store on a school night to get the latest and greatest from Nintendo. This console may have been the harbinger of the downward spiral Nintendo's sales have been in ever since its release, but it's because of its faults that I became a much more well-rounded gamer.
What's your Nintendo 64 story?