The gaming industry was in a strange place in 1995 and 1996; nobody had any idea what the hell they were doing. Old patterns and strategies had, for the most part, been swept away by the tide of 3D gaming on home consoles. Developers looked at that blue polygonal ocean and were overcome with inspiration... just before being dragged down to the depths by the advent of frustrating new problems, like the 3D camera.
The Nintendo 64 was supposed to be the system that would extend Nintendo's dominance into this exciting but tricky new era. But they hadn't counted on CD storage media and 3D graphics altering more about gaming than just visuals. With bigger, prettier games and expanded storage came higher expectations, and like any company faced with a major industry shift, Nintendo was forced to adapt.
The N64 would be the beginning of the company's "wandering years," closing the book on more than a decade of Nintendo dominance and signalling the beginning of the industry's slow, sometimes painful, transition from youth to awkward, pimply teen -- a hyperactive, occasionally violent teen that was always getting in trouble at school. Nintendo would eventually emerge from this awkward phase of the industry, but the process would involve a lot of false starts, and just as many difficult lessons.
Going into this new generation, Nintendo seemed to think it had learned all the lessons it could ever need from the days of the NES and the SNES. Customers wanted power, so Nintendo was happy to double their expectations with not just a 32-bit, but a 64-bit system. Remembering the Mortal Kombat "sweat" debacle, they worked with Rare to preemptively introduce new "hardcore" brands like Killer Instinct before later lucking into GoldenEye 007. And to deal with the awkwardness of moving in 3D space, they made sure to incorporate the first-ever analog thumbstick into the controller's design.
There was just one problem -- in an era in which CD-based media was coming into its own, Nintendo's innovation was limited to whatever would fit into a 64-meg cartridge.
Nintendo defended its decision to go with cartridges, claiming that being able to stream data in real time without worrying about the dreaded loading screens was reason enough to avoid CDs. Nintendo's top executives, Shigeru Miyamoto included, probably even believed this rationale. In fact, rumor has it that Miyamoto himself demanded a cartridge-based system or he would leave the company. He wanted players to have a seamless experience when playing his upcoming magnum opus, Super Mario 64.
But what was good for Nintendo had almost always proved to be not necessarily good for third-party developers. Cartridge constraints were the last straw after years of abuse at the hands of Nintendo's draconian licensing restrictions and market tricks, and when a far less restrictive licensing model became available in the PlayStation, Capcom, Konami and Square all simply took their toys and went over to Sony's house to play. Nintendo was left with Acclaim, which is kind of like hanging out and eating dirt with Ralph Wiggum while everyone else was over at Sony's place, splashing around in a pool full of money.
Everything was fine at first; the N64 launched in Christmas 1996 with the breathtaking Mario 64 and immediately became a nationwide sensation. But it didn't take long for gamers to notice that Nintendo's "dream team" of developers wasn't exactly panning out, and that Mortal Kombat Mythologies and Quest 64 were in fact not the answer to Final Fantasy VII. In fact, FFVIII was the game that made many gamers realize that Nintendo was not the only possible answer, period.
Sony had been smart enough to realize that gamers were growing up. They built their empire around the understanding that veteran players wanted a bigger, deeper and more powerful multimedia experience. They wanted FMV's, and lots of 'em; and with Square leading the charge, Sony had them. In spades.
The N64 would go on to be successful, but mostly by filling the margins left open at the PlayStation's periphery. We fondly remember games like The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Perfect Dark, but those games were once-a-year affairs. Outside of those singular event titles, the N64 was relegated to the margins that Nintendo still inhabits to this day (albeit greatly expanded in the current era). If you were a dedicated gaming enthusiast, there simply weren't enough quality games from year to year to justify owning an N64 alone.
Beyond the core gamers who happened to own an N64 so they could play GoldenEye with friends, the kind of people who only owned an N64 were Nintendo's loyal, slightly crazy fanbase, kids who called Pokemon their drug of choice, or gamers who were on their way out of the hobby. These latter were the types who had loved the NES as kids, but felt like they had outgrown the medium, and responded best to games like Mario Party. They were "casuals," but they were not the kind we have now; they were far removed from the new, untapped market that allows the Wii to flourish.
These casuals were simply the leftovers who wouldn't be following Nintendo into the next generation. Worse for Nintendo was the news that neither would the kids. Nintendo had previously taken the "hook 'em while they're young" strategy to building lifelong customers, much like McDonalds and cigarettes. Unfortunately, while the kids were getting hooked, when they hit adolescence or their early twenties, they were much more likely to graduate to Sony, looking back at Nintendo as baby games that their little siblings played. Subsisting on Sony's crumbs meant Nintendo was faced with a market in which it simply couldn't expand.
Nintendo's wander years were marked with spastic attempts to expand their niche by increasing their appeal to core gamers while trying to mitigate the N64's hardware failures. The event games worked well until the GameCube came along. Titles like the bizarre Conker's Bad Fur Day, not so much. Hardware innovations like the Nintendo 64 Disc Drive were designed to alleviate the storage problems but never quite materialized. The RAM expansion pack that came with the lamentable Donkey Kong 64 improved the system's blurry visuals, but all did very little to bolster Nintendo's fading reputation as a market leader. In the '90s, it was PlayStation, not Nintendo. whose name was synonymous with video games in the popular lexicon.
Nintendo would try to make amends with the GameCube, introducing disc-based media and reaching out to third-party developers who had felt alienated by the N64's problems, but it was too little, too late. Compared to the Xbox and the popular PlayStation 2, the GameCube developed a reputation for lacking power -- undeserved, given that its power was nearly on par with Xbox's, but nevertheless unshakeable. Nintendo had tried to play Sony and Microsoft's game, but failed.
So Nintendo changed the rules, just as Sony had against Nintendo and the Xbox. Realizing that gaming was on its way to becoming a strictly niche hobby, it made gaming a novelty again, and in so doing returned to its position as the logical entry point for the bewildered, but willing, general public. Nintendo is often accused of forgetting its roots, but the NES was every bit as much a gateway to gaming as the Wii has proven to be, and Nintendo has managed to get back to this point by internalizing the lessons learned with its 64-bit failures. The company wisely recognized that the best graphics or the right media weren't necessarily the final answer, but that Sony had become the medium's leader by predicting the direction of the market, and moving to take advantage of the coming changes. Nintendo misread the road map in 1996, but (ignoring the grievances expressed by core gamers) one glance at recent hardware charts will speak to its current success.
In the end, the N64 will probably not be remembered as Nintendo's finest hour. It stunned us with innovations like the analog thumbstick and force feedback, but it disappointed us with graphics that have aged poorly and a stunning lack of games -- both weaknesses that perhaps persist today. But it was a strange time for the industry as a whole, and we'd probably be just as embarrassed if we were confronted with our own middle school yearbook pictures.
We'll always associate Nintendo at its best with the NES and the SNES, but that doesn't mean that the N64 was the beginning of the end. It may prove to be the day that Nintendo took its first, awkward steps toward future triumphs.
Header image confiscated from Flickr