The Launch of the Nintendo 64 (1996) | Classic Gaming Quarterly

The Nintendo Entertainment System is widely
credited with resurrecting the North American
home video game market, and was a defining
feature of the standard American childhood
in the 1980’s.
In 1991, the Super Nintendo was released,
and immediately locked horns with the Sega
Genesis for control of the 16-bit generation.
A pair of Ill-fated systems launched in 1993
foretold the transition of home gaming into
3D, but it was the 1995 release of both the
Sega Saturn and Sony Playstation that brought
it into the mainstream, and even with triple-A
titles like Yoshi’s Island and Donkey Kong
Country 2 yet to come, it was obvious that
the Super Nintendo could no longer remain
as Nintendo’s flagship product.
On this episode of Classic Gaming Quarterly,
in 1996 Nintendo joined the 3D revolution
by partnering with Silicon Graphics to develop
the Nintendo 64.
And while many in the older generation of
gamers had moved on to the Saturn and Playstation,
in the mid to late 1990’s the N64 made Nintendo
fanatics out of a whole new generation of
gamers.The history of 3D gaming stretches all the
way back to the early 1980’s with vector-based
arcade games like Battlezone, as well as home
computer games including 3D Monster Maze.
By the late 80’s, 3D graphics had matured
to the point that racing games like Namco’s
Winning Run and Atari’s Hard Drivin’ were
able to, through the use of polygons, give
a rough approximation of the real world.
However polygon-based 3D graphics required
powerful hardware, leaving home consoles of
the time to fake it with techniques like raster
In the 16-bit era, the Super Nintendo’s
Mode 7 scaling and rotation made pseudo-3D
games like Pilotwings possible, but Nintendo’s
first foray into proper 3D gaming came with
the development of the Super FX chip, a graphical
co-processor that allowed for polygon-based
3D graphics.
The chip was most-notably used in 1993’s Star
Fox, a 3D rail shooter that was co-developed
by UK-based “Argonaut Games”, who also developed
the chip itself.
The Super FX chip opened a Pandora’s box,
and Nintendo wanted to emphasize 3D graphics
moving forward.
An enhanced version of the chip, known as
the GSU-2, was used to create Star Fox 2,
which was completed in 1995 but never released.
By this time, both the Saturn and Playstation
had been released in Japan, and Nintendo wanted
to avoid comparisons between Star Fox 2 and
games on competitors more advanced hardware.
They also wanted to create a stronger association
between 3D gaming and their next entry in
the home console market.
Silicon Graphics created workstation computers
that were capable of rapid 3D modeling, which
in the early days primarily had applications
in the fields of science and engineering.
The company was founded in Silicon Valley
by a group of Stanford University graduate
students in 1982, and by the early 1990’s,
as Hollywood shifted towards using computer-generated
special effects, SGI workstations were used
in blockbuster movies like Terminator 2, and
were even featured on-screen in 1993’s Jurassic
Sensing the potential of using Silicon Graphics
technology to develop video games, brothers
Tim and Chris Stamper, founders of Rare, leveraged
their success on the NES to invest in an SGI
At around the same time that Star Fox was
hitting store shelves, the Stamper brothers
were beginning development of one of the most
important games to hit the Super Nintendo,
and would use a new graphical technique creating
2D sprites from 3D renderings to develop Donkey
Kong Country, which in the waning days of
the 16-bit era helped put the final nails
in the coffin of the aging Sega Genesis.
Silicon Graphics specialized in producing
highly advanced, and highly expensive, computer
hardware with a limited target audience.
But in the early 90’s they turned their
eyes towards the mass market, and video gaming,
they thought, was their golden ticket.
In 1993 they developed a game hardware prototype
called the “Reality Engine”, based on the
MIPS R4300i CPU.
“See how, as it passes the lorry, the billboard
If your point-of-view was in the lorry, that
would just look like a tree all the way round.”
SGI founder Jim Clark went first to Tom Kalinske
at Sega of America, but the two were unable
to convince a skeptical Sega of Japan President
Hayao Nakayama.
Clark then went to Nintendo and got a much
different reaction from Hiroshi Yamauchi,
who agreed to license the technology on a
non-exclusive basis.
On August 23rd 1993 Nintendo and SGI jointly
unveiled their partnership, then called “Project
Reality”, announcing that it would have a
hardware presence in the arcades in 1994,
and in the home the following year.
In March of 1994, the Stamper brothers, of
course already experienced in creating video
games using SGI hardware, officially joined
Project Reality, agreeing to develop games
for an arcade-based iteration of Nintendo’s
next-generation hardware beginning with 3D
fighter Killer Instinct.
Arcade powerhouse Williams would distribute
the game in the arcades under the Midway label,
as well as producing their own game for the
platform, Cruis’n USA.
Although these games were intended to show
that a title developed for the arcades could
be brought home with little to no compromise,
in fact the arcade hardware bore little resemblance
to what would become the Nintendo 64.
Rare and Williams were the first two members
of what Nintendo called their “Dream Team”,
a supposedly hand-picked group of mostly lesser-known
third-party developers, as Nintendo’s next
big announcement pushed many of the big names
out of Nintendo’s camp.
Although the company had hinted that their
new console might use CD-ROM media, in May
of 1994, Nintendo controversially announced
that cartridges would remain as their medium
of choice.
Cartridge media was faster, but it was also
more expensive, and had at best about 1/10th
the storage capacity.
While publicly stating that this decision
was based on what they felt was consumer demand
at the time, in fact it may have had more
to do with driving down the cost of the hardware,
with Nintendo’s Peter Main admitting that
it lowered the per-unit cost by at least $150.
This decision also allowed Nintendo to maintain
tight control over software publishing, which
had always been a defining characteristic
of their business strategy.
Bellwether third-party developers like Capcom,
Konami, and Square, who had up to this point
been major sources of quality third-party
titles on Nintendo hardware, would come to
have a vastly reduced presence on Nintendo’s
latest offering.
In mid-1994, Nintendo released the first image
of the console, now called the “Ultra 64”,
likely a reference to pre-video gaming Gunpei
Yokoi-designed Nintendo products like the
Ultra Hand and Ultra Machine.
While this Ultra 64 was simply a prototype
that was nearly 2 years away from release,
it ended up being the final cosmetic form
of both the console and cartridge.
On January 5, 1995, the Ultra 64’s finalized
hardware configuration was announced, and
is centered around the 64-bit NEC VR4300 CPU
running at just under 94 MHz, and interfaced
with a 32-bit system bus.
The 64 has a stock 4 MB of RAMBus unified
system RAM, expandable to 8 with the purchase
of 1998’s Expansion Pak.
The system uses the same multi-output audio/video
jack as both its predecessor the Super Nintendo
and its successor, the GameCube, but unlike
the SNES, the 64’s video output is limited
to composite and s-video, with RGB output
requiring hardware modification.
The true heart of the 64’s hardware is the
Reality Co-Processor, which is actually 2
chips in one.
The Reality Signal Processor handles all 3D
graphics processing as well as generating
system audio, while the Reality Display Processor
performs pixel-level functions like texture
mapping, anti-aliasing, perspective-corrected
texturing, and tri-linear mip-mapping, all
of which combine to allow the hardware to
display smoother 3D objects than what’s possible
on either the Saturn or Playstation, without
requiring high polygon counts.
Lastly, whereas both the Saturn and Playstation
required the purchase of a multi-tap, the
Nintendo 64 had 4 controller ports built-in,
a feature not seen on a mass-market video
game console since 1982’s Atari 5200.
Because of this, and thanks to the 64’s powerful
chipset, many of the most popular titles for
the system prominently featured 4-player play,
including Mario Kart 64, Goldeneye 007, Super
Smash Bros, and the Mario Party series.
The Japanese release of the Ultra 64 was scheduled
for December 1st, 1995.
And with the industry leader set to release
a $250 64-bit system mere months after the
launch of their own 32-bit systems, both traditional
foe Sega and market newcomer Sony would try
to grab as much marketshare as possible before
the Ultra 64’s arrival.
The Ultra 64 made its worldwide debut in final
form on November 24, 1995 at the Shoshinkai
trade show, also known as Nintendo Space World.
The name of the system had changed, becoming
simply the Nintendo 64.
One rumor was that the “Ultra” moniker was
trademarked by Konami, ironically because
they had created a shell company during the
NES days in order to circumvent Nintendo’s
own limits on third-party publishing.
According to Nintendo themselves, however,
the name change was simply the result of a
desire to create consistent branding across
all markets worldwide.
It was also announced at this show that the
Japanese launch date had been pushed back
to April 21st of the following year.
Although a number of games were shown at Shoshinkai,
including conceptual animations for what would
become Ocarina of Time, just 2 games were
available to play.
Kirby Bowl 64 was in development by Kirby
creator HAL Laboratory, and would eventually
evolve into Kirby Air Ride, a game initially
intended for release on the Nintendo 64 that
finally appeared on the GameCube in 2003.
The other game available for play was Shigeru
Miyamoto’s Super Mario 64, which Nintendo
at the time claimed was just the game’s
working title.
Although the demo was advertised as being
only 50% complete, so polished was it that
to show attendees it felt like they were playing
the final product, but the experimental build
of the game would undergo many changes before
its release the following year.
It was also at Shoshinkai that the public
saw the Nintendo 64’s unique inverse trident
controller for the first time.
The radical design features a unique 3-handled
configuration, and includes both a standard
D-pad and an innovative analogue thumbstick.
The total number of action buttons on the
face was increased to six, and along with
the two shoulder buttons, a trigger button
was added to its underside.
Lastly, the controller includes a peripheral
slot, which can be used with a memory unit
for saving games, a rumble pak for force feedback,
and a transfer pak for transferring data to
and from Game Boy and Game Boy Color games.
The controller was designed by Nintendo’s
Research and Development 3, led by veteran
Nintendo hardware engineer Genyo Takeda.
As head of R&D3, Takeda previously led the
development of the battery-backed game save
system that made it’s debut in 1987 with The
Legend of Zelda, as well as producing numerous
noteworthy games, including the first several
entries in the Punch Out!! franchise.
Having been delayed yet again, the Nintendo
64 finally launched in Japan on June 23, 1996.
The system sold for 25,000 yen, and available
on launch day were Saikyo Habu Shogi, a third-party
title based on the Japanese board game Shogi,
along with first-party titles Pilotwings 64,
and Super Mario 64 which predictably sold
at a nearly 1-to-1 ratio with the system itself.
Nintendo initially shipped 500,000 units to
stores in its home country, and they sold
out in just one week.
Throughout 1995 and early 1996, excitement
here for the Nintendo 64 was at fever pitch,
and the latest scuttlebutt was front page
news on seemingly every gaming magazine.
The Nintendo 64 made its official American
press debut on the day before the Electronic
Entertainment Expo, on May 15, 1996.
The launch date was announced; September 30,
as well as the price: $249.99.
With the June launch of the N64 in Japan,
consoles began making their way into the hands
of industry insiders, increasing domestic
press coverage and as a consequence, the public’s
anticipation for the system, with many gamers
resisting joining the next generation of video
games until everyone’s cards were on the table.
In August, with the system yet to even be
released, Nintendo announced a price drop
to $199, bringing the system in-line with
both the Saturn and Playstation.
They also moved up the launch date up one
day to the 29th because parents were complaining
that the 30th was a school night, and sent
this VHS tape out to registered Nintendo customers.
“Welcome to N64…”
Nintendo 64 systems were in-stores, under
lock-and-key, on the 26th in preparation for
the launch date, but when ubiquitous mall
retailer Kay-Bee Toys broke the street date
and began selling systems immediately, other
stores followed suit, and Nintendo had little
choice but to green-light the early launch
Breaking with tradition, the system did not
include a pack-in game, and came bundled with
only a single grey controller and a set of
composite audio-video cables.
Additional controllers in a variety of colors,
as well as an RF adapter for older TVs were
available as a separate purchase for about
$30 each.
The Nintendo 64 was released to both great
fanfare in the press, and high consumer demand.
In its first month on the market, the Nintendo
64 sold over a half million units, and that
November, Time magazine named the 64 as it’s
“machine of the year”, perhaps hyperbolously
stating that Nintendo had stuffed a $10,000
machine into a $200 package, and hailing it
as the first game machine to offer fully-immersive
3D environments.
Although it would later turn into a two horse
race with the failure of the Sega Saturn in
North America, in 1996 it looked like the
console wars weren’t just continuing, but
were about to heat up.
And the same gamers who were being told to
stick with the Super Nintendo through the
launch of the Saturn and Playstation were
now being encouraged to upgrade.
With Nintendo stating that they wanted to
emphasize quality over quantity…
“The key isn’t the number of the games,
the key is the quality of the games.”
…only two games were available on launch
day, each with a list price of $69.99.
Pilotwings 64 was the follow-up to 1991’s
Pilotwings, itself a launch title on the Super
The game was co-developed by Nintendo and
Paradigm Simulations, who were part of Nintendo’s
“Project Reality Dream Team”, and who
would go on to create the much-loved Beetle
Adventure Racing.
Pilotwings 64 is a great game in its own right,
and expands upon the original in every way,
while showing off the power of Nintendo’s
then-new console.
Unfortunately, Pilotwings 64 was in the unenviable
position of coming out alongside one of the
most hotly anticipated video games of all
The first true 3D platform game was a little-known
French title called Alpha Waves, initially
released in 1990 on the Atari ST home computer,
and brought to North America as “Continuum”
by Data East for the IBM PC.
The game uses simple, flat-shaded polygons
and has the player moving a simple polygonal
geometric shape up and across a series of
While rudimentary to the extreme, it was head-and-shoulders
above anything possible on a home gaming console
at the time.
Five years later, shortly after the console’s
launch, Jumping Flash appeared on the Sony
Playstation, and although the game features
a first-person perspective, vastly simplifying
camera issues, it was an early indication
of what was possible when bringing the platforming
genre into 3D space on more powerful hardware.
Naughty Dog’s Crash Bandicoot beat the Nintendo
64 to market in North America by mere weeks,
and while the game kicked off one of the Playstation’s
signature franchises, it’s linear levels
by their nature lacked the open-world exploration
that would be characteristic of the genre
moving forward.
In 1991, during the development of Star Fox,
Shigeru Miyamoto was already forming the idea
of a Super Mario game set in a fully 3D world,
but it was not until Project Reality was itself
a reality, that development of a 3D Super
Mario game was begun.
As was the case with all previous entries
in the series, the development of Super Mario
64 was led by Miyamoto and Takashi Tezuka,
along with series newcomer Yoshiaki Koizumi
as both an animator and assistant director.
Koizumi joined Nintendo directly out of college,
designing manual layouts and writing storylines
and dialogue for both The Legend of Zelda:
A Link to the Past, and its sequel Link’s
Initially intending to become a film director,
Koizumi sought to introduce deeper storylines
into Nintendo’s games, sometimes to the
chagrin of Miyamoto, and would go on to co-design
both Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask.
The 3D model of Mario was created, likely
by Koizumi, in a software suite by Nichimen
Graphics called N-World, most-likely on a
Silicon Graphics Onyx workstation.
Rather than trying to take advantage of the
system’s palette of over 16.7 million colors
to give the graphics a more realistic look,
Super Mario 64 stays true to the franchise’s
artistic style, with Mario donning a primary-colored
shirt and overalls, consistent with Miyamoto’s
vision to create the game as an interactive
The game begins with Mario outside the castle
of Princess Peach, who naturally has been
kidnapped, and this open area provides both
the tips and terrain for you to explore the
game’s new control scheme, which gives the
player a much-expanded level of control.
Once you’re ready, you can enter the castle,
which acts as a hub of sorts for you to access
the game’s levels.
Only one level will be unlocked at the outset,
with other levels unlocked in the order of
your choosing after the collection of a requisite
number of stars.
The collection of these stars is the ultimate
goal of every level, with a total of 7 stars
available in each of the game’s main stages.
In the Super Nintendo launch episode, I said
that Super Mario World was almost an adventure
game in platformer’s clothing, and this
is the case even moreso with Super Mario 64.
The game brought with it a major change to
the core gameplay of a Super Mario title,
and Nintendo was seemingly taking a risk by
affecting such a fundamental reinvention of
their marquee franchise.
Aside from the obvious change to 3D, the game
ditches linear levels, and takes place in
an open, almost sandbox-style world that encourages
untimed exploration over level completion.
While the completion of challenges leading
to a star is your ultimate goal, you can spend
quite a bit of time wandering around and interacting
with various elements in each stage, and Super
Mario 64 offers a much deeper and more immersive
gameplay experience than previous games in
the series.
Unlike the small handful of 3D platform games
that preceded it, Super Mario 64 features
a revolutionary camera system that allows
you to move the camera in real time during
Arguably a hallmark of the franchise, each
of Super Mario 64’s levels has a distinct
atmosphere and is uniquely themed.
The game’s graphics, while colorful, are
as expected much more detailed when compared
to prior entires in the franchise, and I would
argue that Super Mario 64 has visually held
up much better than most 3D games of its generation.
Veteran Nintendo composer Koji Kondo also
had a slew of new toys to play with on the
Nintendo 64, and used them to great effect
when writing the soundtrack for this game.
While many of Super Mario 64’s tracks are
familiar rearrangements of franchise mainstay
melodies, gone are the chiptunes of the 8
and 16 bit eras, replaced by an eclectic mix
of jazz and orchestral styles.
The voice of Mario in Super Mario 64 is portrayed
by veteran voice actor Charles Martinet, who
got his start working for Nintendo at trade
shows like the 1992 Summer CES, where both
his voice and movements were coordinated with
a Silicon Graphics-generated 3D Mario in an
interactive experience called Mario in Real-Time.
Martinet would go on to voice all of the characters
in 1994’s Super Punch-Out,
and his first in-game performance as Mario
took place in 1995’s “Mario Game Gallery”
for the PC, but it was his work in Super Mario
64 that cemented the voice of Mario in the
minds of gamers.
In fact, it was Marinet’s idea to have Mario
fall asleep and dream of Italian food if you
left him idling for too long.
Great as it may be Super Mario 64 is, understandably
as it was blazing a new trail, not a perfect
While the new analog thumbstick gave players
more precise control over Mario, even Miyamoto
himself admitted that players accustomed to
digital controls would face a steep learning
And as innovative as it was the camera system
does at times get in the way of playing the
Super Mario 64 also lacks a 2-player mode,
and as a consequence Luigi is absent from
the game.
But in much the same way that the original
Super Mario Bros influenced other 2 dimensional
platform games, the influence of Super Mario
64’s game play and camera system can be
clearly seen in other titles of both it’s
own and subsequent generations, and the game
can be at least partially credited with the
move away from 2D gaming by the industry as
a whole.
It’s simply impossible to over-state the
influence that Super Mario 64 had, both on
the game industry, and on an entire generation
of gamers.
In much the same way that my childhood was
defined in part by early video games and iconic
80’s pop culture, Super Mario 64 looms large
in the memories of those who grew up in the
90’s, and has gone on to become many people’s
all-time favorite video game.
For all of the games released for the Nintendo
64 over the course of its lifetime, Super
Mario 64 is, for most people, the game most
closely associated with the console.
It was also the highest-selling game on not
only the platform, but of its generation,
moving just under 12 million units.
It also arguably set the standard by which
every other 3D platformer of the era was to
be judged, and was in Miyamoto’s storied
career, his favorite game to develop.
Much like Super Mario World on the Super Nintendo,
in its own generation Super Mario 64 never
received a sequel.
It would be 6 years before the next installment
in the franchise, with 2002’s Super Mario
Sunshine appearing on the Gamecube, and 11
years before the game’s true sequel, Super
Mario Galaxy, would be released on the Nintendo
If you’d like to play Super Mario 64 but
don’t own a Nintendo 64, the game was remade
and upgraded for the Nintendo DS in 2004,
and both the original and DS versions of the
game are available on the Wii-U Virtual Console.
That’s going to do it for this episode of
Classic Gaming Quarterly, but before we go
I need to give a huge thanks to CGQ viewer
Sami, who sent in the much-needed first-party
Nintendo 64 controller all the way from Riyadh,
Saudi Arabia.
For his trouble, Sami has a CGQ shirt coming
his way, and if you’d like to support the
show by purchasing a shirt, you can do so
by clicking the Amazon link at the top of
the video description.
If this is your first time visiting to the
channel, also be sure to check out our other
launch videos.
We’re going to switch things up a little
bit this time, and taking us out is one of
my favorite YouTubers, Banjo Guy Ollie, with
his rendition of Dr. Wily’s Theme from Mega
Man 2.
As always, thanks for watching and I’ll
see you next time.

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