Last week, one of Nintendo’s most groundbreaking home consoles, the Nintendo 64, celebrated its 20th anniversary. For those of us old enough to remember the system’s launch, the N64 was a veritable game changer, opening up countless new gameplay opportunities and expanding the limits of what developers could achieve. Of course, the system also had some notable shortcomings, including a dearth of quality third-party software, but the games that it did produce became instant classics that pushed the boundaries of the medium and captivated fans with their innovative gameplay and (at the time) breathtaking visuals. In honor of the N64’s 20th anniversary, the staff share some of their fondest memories of the legendary console.
I was in college at the time N64 released, so my memories of the system fall into two categories: school and home.
When I was off at college, GoldenEye 007 was an absolute fixture in the dorms. I remember walking around and seeing doors open, with four people crowded around a small tube TV shooting the daylights out of each other. Sometimes those sessions would go on for hours; I couldn’t tell you how it affected their GPA.
When I went home, things changed a little. We had an N64, and we had GoldenEye, but I played a fair bit of single player in addition to multiplayer, so I have plenty of memories of trying (and failing) to survive that infernal bonus level at the end. Home play also revolved around Super Mario 64, and not just because it was a pack-in. It’s easy to forget how different it was from its predecessors, with the leap to 3D worlds and the crazy physics that went with it. Even the hub world was awesome. I mean, up to that point, Mario games were about clicking on a dot on a map; here you had a castle that was a thing in and of itself to explore.
For me, though, the penultimate experience was Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask. I still get goosebumps thinking about the first time I pulled that sword from the stone and was hurtled forward in time, or that quest in Majora’s Mask that literally took me 30 seconds from the end of the world. That was console storytelling at its finest, with all the emotions and action you could ever hope for.
I bought a faux-“retro” Nintendo 64 t-shirt last year. I love it to death, but I still haven’t wrapped my brain around the fact that the N64 is now considered retro. Our younger readers can’t really grasp what it was like back when it launched. I love the anticipation of a new console launch, but nothing has ever felt as revolutionary as the N64 did the first time played it. I was eleven, and I had been playing video games for so many years, but this felt so foreign. Even the controller was unlike anything I’d ever seen!
When I think about some of my fondest memories of Nintendo (and video games in general), I’ll always think back on the multiplayer aspect of the N64. When the system released, I was in middle school, and the GameCube wouldn’t come out until I was over halfway through high school. As a result, it was the unofficial console of late-night sleepovers, filled with Mario Party, GoldenEye, Smash Bros., and South Park. The NES and Super Nintendo were both beloved systems of mine, but the N64 era is when I really started to develop a passion for the industry and the bonds it could form between people. There have been other great multiplayer games since, but no system will ever have the same reputation for those types of experiences.
Of course, single player games were also huge. Ocarina of Time is still, without a doubt, one of the all-time greats. Wave Race and Star Fox were my first two games for the console, and two games that I still hold near and dear to my heart. Super Mario 64, Conker’s Bad Fur Day, Pokémon Snap… the list goes on and on.
There are a lot of things that went wrong with the N64. It began Nintendo’s fractured relationship with third party developers and the system’s lulls between games made owning a PlayStation a near-necessity. But lord, there was something magical about that system. It’s hard to believe it’s been 20 years.
In many ways, I kind of pity kids growing up with gaming now, because I don’t know if they’ll ever experience a transition from one console generation to the next nearly as revolutionary as the jump from SNES to N64. Yes, each generation pushes the limits of hardware, but the fundamental change from 2D visuals to 3D worlds changed everything and opened up more avenues for gameplay than any technological leap before or since. VR has some potential, but from what little I’ve experienced so far, much of it feels like a shift in perspective, albeit a very cool shift. Someone might create a truly brilliant and innovative killer app that turns the industry on its head, but until then I think N64 has it in the bag.
As for the games, I have more memories than I can, well, remember. Like everyone else, I spent hundreds of hours with likes of Ocarina of Time, Mario 64, GoldenEye, and the other tent pole titles, but I want to highlight some of my more personal memories with less celebrated titles.
Okay, plenty of people love F-Zero X, but that game and the franchise as a while are far too underappreciated. As far as I’m concerned, it is the high watermark of the franchise and on of the greatest racing games ever made. I wasted more afternoons than I can count on the Death Race mode alone, and that was nothing but driving in a loop while trying to wreck every other racer!
How many JRPG fans, desperate for anything to play, snatched up a copy of Quest 64 as soon as they could? That game gets a lot of flack, and while I can see its many faults now, back then I didn’t care. Even with all of its faults, Quest 64 does deserve some credit for its large worlds, and interesting battle system that I wouldn’t mind seeing implemented in a better game.
And let’s not forget a great little gem called Jet Force Gemini. During the N64 era, Rare proved themselves masters of constructing interesting 3D worlds and filling them with an endless supply of things to collect and Jet Force Gemini was among their most unique offerings. Platforming still had its place, but the focus on sci-fi gunplay really set it apart from Banjo Kazooie and Donkey Kong 64. Also, you earned unlockables by shooting the heads off of baddies and collecting them.
Last but not least, there’s Hey you, Pikachu! I got it for Christmas shortly after it came out and played it for an hour or two and then never touched it again. But at least I got a cool mic for my N64 that really didn’t serve any other purpose!
I still remember my huge plastic box full of N64 cartridges– far more than I’ve had for a console since!
For me, one of the best things about the N64 was that it was the proper beginning of 3D gaming. While this alone made so many of its games feel new and exciting, it helped that there was an unbelievably diverse range of quality games from both Nintendo and other developers. Platformers, shooters, adventure games, racers– the list goes on. Beetle Adventure Racing remains one of the few racing games that I have really loved playing!
One of my fondest memories of the system remains an evening with friends playing all of the classics: GoldenEye, Pokémon Stadium (the minigames, of course, rather than the main battles), Perfect Dark… While some of these now show their age, it’s remarkable how much fun they still are. I challenge you to play through Banjo-Kazooie or Conker’s Bad Fur Day without chuckling to yourself, or to play Perfect Dark and not marvel at how much gameplay was packed in!
The console saw the birth and refresh of so many great Nintendo franchises, and these games and their mechanics have lived on to this day. While a surprising number have either run into hard times (Mario Party and Mario Tennis, for example) or grown stale, Nintendo seems to understand that (as great as these templates were) games have progressed to a point where change is now needed, as shown by The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
The N64 was undoubtedly a fantastic console with a great library and a controller that could have been a third smaller in retrospect. Nintendo is finally starting to break away from its legacy, though, and I’m excited to see what the state of play will be on the console’s 25 anniversary. In the meantime, I’ll continue buying my favorite N64 games on the Virtual Console– I just hope that they might carry across on my My Nintendo account this time!
Dude… 20 years. It’s insane to think about. What’s even more insane to think about is that something like Star Fox on SNES was a big part of the impetus for the system to even exist. The system and, of course, its marquee piece of software Super Mario 64. What started as a need to satisfy Shigeru Miyamoto’s vision for a 3D Mario game (as well as to keep up with Sony’s PlayStation) blossomed into N64 and nothing would ever be the same again.
Truly. Just think about it; there was nothing like Super Mario 64 when it hit the stands. Being immersed in an actual three-dimensional environment was jaw-dropping for those of us who experienced it for the first time. Mario moved into the screen, jumping required making more realistic spacial judgments… and Bowser was huge! Huge, people! The switch from 2D to 3D was a genuinely seismic one, bringing all sorts of new gameplay problems and scenarios to tackle for players and developers, alike.
It didn’t take long for the rest of the video game world to acclimate to what Nintendo had brought to the table, and the changes it heralded led to many of the different genres and series that are still being played today. The first-person shooter might not have started on N64, for instance, but without the likes of GoldenEye making a multiplayer FPS viable on a home console for the first time, I can guarantee you that titles like Halo and Call of Duty might never have happened in the first place. N64 made it possible to pave the way on new roads much like NES did, back in the day.
The system was also home to some real classics, games that are still being played, or inspiring the creation of others, to this day. Ocarina of Time, Super Mario 64, Banjo-Kazooie, GoldenEye, Perfect Dark, Star Fox 64, and many, many more beyond. I spent hours grinding away at my farm in Harvest Moon 64. Saving Termina became a passion project by the time I got to the end of Majora’s Mask. Who didn’t love the sushi minigame in Pokémon Stadium? N64 is every bit the legacy machine that NES and Atari are, and deserves our respect for the pioneering and innovation it fostered within the industry. We can forgive it for being the death of 2D platformers on home consoles for a couple of generations!
What are some of your fondest N64 memories? Share them with us in the comments!