Thursday, September 1, 2011

N64 Month: Intro

Dig, if you will, the picture: the fifth generation of video game consoles, which lasted primarily through the mid and late 1990s.  The major contenders were the Sega Saturn, Sony PlayStation, and Nintendo 64, and out of these, the PlayStation is considered the financial winner of this particular console war.  So the fifth console generation marked the first time in which Nintendo failed to capture the majority of the market since coming out onto the scene.  Who gives a bibble?  I was always on the side of the N64.  Maybe it was because it was the first video game console I ever owned, apart from handhelds.  (Although I had expressed interest in a Sega Saturn beforehand, because of arcade ports like the Virtua Fighter and Virtua Cop series.  But I didn't.  Good call, me!)  Maybe it was familiarity; whereas there wasn't anything on the fledgling PlayStation which grabbed my interest, there was always the house that Mario built.  (I was a big Sonic fan, too, but that didn't have much of a showing back then.)  Still, it's not like the console was a complete bust; with almost 350 titles over six years, this was still a respectable showing.

The Nintendo 64's American launch was on 29 September 1996.  You may be wondering where the "64" in its name came from, so I'll take a crack at explaining it.  The N64 runs on a 64-bit processor, which means that it can process numbers that are 64 digits long in binary (about 18.4 quadrillion in plain ol' base-10) in one calculation.  Numbers larger than the bit-value can be worked with, but it will take more than one computation to handle it - and in gaming, you don't always have that luxury.  For a better discussion of the topic, read this page.  Of course, bit size is just one factor as to how a game runs, and while competent on the whole, the N64 was held back by a few crucial shortcomings.

Unlike the competing PlayStation and Saturn, which both ran games off of CDs, the N64 ran games off its own cartridges Game Paks.  For one, they were more expensive to manufacture, pushing the costs onto the consumer.  Some N64 games would sell for up to US$80 on their initial runs, whereas new games for the PlayStation or Saturn rarely went above the now-standard $50.  On top of that, space was an issue: even the most high-end N64 Game Paks released late into the console's life could only store 64MB, less than one-tenth of what a CD can hold.  That meant that a lot of multimedia features - such as movie clips and voice acting - were out of the question.  This, combined with the machine's low memory set aside for textures, led to the console's much-documented problem of stretching and blurring low-resolution textures (you know, the pictures they put onto 3D shapes).  Then again, for some reason I still had a preference for the N64's blurry textures against the PSX's blocky ones, so I'll chalk that up to a matter of opinion.  On the plus side, being on a cartridge rather than a CD meant that some games could still save onto the Game Pak itself instead of needing a separate memory card Controller Pak to do so.

But when the N64 had a hit feature, it hit big.  The three-handled controller, while seeming unwieldy to anyone who hasn't actually used it, cemented the use of an analog joystick Control Stick.  (Sega released their own analog stick-equipped gamepad for the Saturn, bundled with the game NiGHTS Into Dreams, but with the N64 it became standard.)  The back of the controller housed an expansion port, which was widely used for accessories such as the memory card Controller Pak, and the Rumble Pak, one of the first force-feedback devices made for video game controllers.  And some of its most popular games are still hailed as being innovators, if not among the best, in their respective genres: Super Mario 64 (1996), Goldeneye 007 (1997), and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998) make up what I like to call the "Holy Trinity" of N64 games.  But we all know about them by now, so that's not why I'm here.

Let's hear my side of the story.  I got my Nintendo 64 console on Christmas Day of 1996, partly as a reward for learning how to ride a bicycle.  I started out with games like Super Mario 64 and Mario Kart 64, but then got to trying out new titles after reading about them in Nintendo Power magazine, which Mom got for me just for the latter.  Little did I know about the games' high price points at the time, but fortunately, I eased the pain for my parents and relatives once I got into renting games.  Whenever I could gleam a trip to one of the local video stores from my mom or dad, I could try out whatever I wanted for a couple of bucks for a couple of days, pending availability.  (I remember having to wait a month or two before big-ticket games like The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time or Star Wars Episode I: Racer would show up in stock.)  It was this newfound freedom that led me to explore games that I never would have encountered otherwise.  And that's the focus of this month-long special: I'm dedicating September 2011, the fifteen-year anniversary of the Nintendo 64, to all my "N64 Treasures", the games the Man forgot about.  Here are some of the titles you can expect me to review:
Until I get them up, you can check out some of my other reviews for games which I would now like to retroactively add to the "N64 Treasures" collection:

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