Nintendo 64 101: A Beginner’s Guide

N64 101

Note from racketboy: Special thanks goes to andymol21
for putting the majority of this guide together!  Little tidbits were also contributed by a number of other racketboy forum members on this thread. The RetroGaming 101 series is aimed at gamers who are just starting out in the classic gaming scene or are curious about an older console that they don’t know much about yet.

Nintendo took their sweet time in bringing a console to match the Saturn, Playstation and the other 3D “powerhouses” that were popping up in the console market.    And of course, back in the later half of the 1990’s many of us made fun of Nintendo as they stuck with the cartridge format instead of joining in on the CD-ROM bandwagon and the multimedia revolution that came with it.  However, for all it’s limitations, it is interesting to see some of the things that were capable on the N64 and its aging format.   There are also a number of great games that only Nintendo and Rareware could provide that you just won’t find anywhere else.

Historical Impact

  • The N64 was Nintendo’s third home console. It was sold between 1996 and 2001, when the GameCube was released in Japan.
  • Codenamed “Project Reality, and originally titled the Nintendo Ultra Famicom, it changed its name twice before release. First to the Ultra 64, then, late in development, to simply the Nintendo 64. (The Ultra 64 logo can still be seen in the start up screen of Crusin’ USA)  You can also see some prototype images of the Ultra 64 console and controllers.
  • It was Nintendo’s last home console to feature cartridges as its main method of storage, before switching to Mini DVDs for the GC.
  • The console was significant in being the first true 64-bit home console to be released. (The Atari Jaguar claimed to be 64-bit, though the legitimacy of this claim is still being debated today)
  • The N64 was one of the first consoles to be specifically made to render 3D polygons, the launch title Super Mario 64 was one of the first 3D platformers, and is still one of the most successful to date.
  • The three pronged controller design was revolutionary in that it featured a fully analogue control stick. This was deemed necessary by Shigeru Miyamoto to give precise control over the movement of characters in a 3D world. Again, debate continues on which came 1st, the Saturn 3D controller or the N64 controller, although it is known that both the Atari 5200 and Vectrex both had full analogue controllers well before either the Saturn or N64.
  • The N64 also incorporated 4 controller ports on the front of the console, allowing 4 players to take part in multiplayer games.
  • The console was updated with Apple iMac inspired see through colored plastic named the “Funtastic Series” in 2000.
  • Nintendo came in second place in the “console race” of the 5th generation, being beaten by Sony’s massively popular Playstation, but outselling the Sega Saturn by a considerable margin.
  • The N64’s controller also featured a slot on the back where a memory card, or, for the first time, a rumble pack could be placed.
  • The N64 has the honor of being one of the only consoles to host one of the greatest games of all-time (Legend of Zelda: OoT), as well as one of the worst of all-time (Superman 64)

N64 With Controllers

Strengths

  • The N64 was the power house of the 5th generation. With its 64-bit processor and fast loading cartridge system, it was able to display smooth textures very quickly.
  • The quality of in-house and 2nd party games was top notch. Many of the internet’s “Best Games Ever” lists are populated by classics from the system. Zelda OOT, Super Mario 64 and Goldeneye to name a few. For more see The Best N64 Games The Still Matter Today
  • The controller of the N64 was well suited to the 3D games that dominated the late 90s. Whereas both the Saturn and Playstation had to improve on their initial designs, the N64’s controller was designed with that type of gaming in mind.
  • The cartridge design meant that Nintendo had very little issues with piracy, compared to its CD based competitors. It also made for very durable games, which last much longer than CD counterparts.
  • In the later years of the consoles life span, a ram upgrade was developed to increase the capabilities of the console, though it only worked in some games. The games that supported it were noticeably improved, and this helped to keep the console fresh as it started to age.

Weaknesses

  • The main weakness of the N64 was its cartridge based games. The maximum amount of data that could be stored was 64MB, compared to the 700MB of CD based systems.
  • Being limited to cartridges meant that the long CGI movies, high quality sound and even high resolution textures were not possible on the N64. This problem was helped by better compression techniques later in the consoles life, but compared to the Playstation, it was very underwhelming.
  • The overall game library was relatively small at about 300 in North America and 400 in Japan.
  • The N64’s selection of quality 2D games is extremely limited
  • Very few JRPGs and traditional fighters were released for the console. Square Enix had been on board to continue their Final Fantasy series with Final Fantasy VII on the N64, but left for Sony mainly due to their higher capacity CD based system (and also probably because of a large sum of money). If FF VII had been released on the N64, the story of would be very different.
  • The three pronged controller was confusing for new users to understand. It was designed like that in case Nintendo’s bet on 3D gaming failed, and they needed a way to resort to a more traditional form of 2D control. Unfortunately, this meant that new users often didn’t know how to hold the controller, putting them off before they had even started.
  • Because of the high cost of cartridge development, several companies were unwilling to release their games on the N64. This meant that Nintendo relied more on the 1st and 2nd party titles, rather than the 3rd party titles that populated the Playstation.
  • The N64 had the weakest GPU of the generation, but had an edge in graphics thanks to its high CPU speed.
  • It also has one of the worst shaped cartridge designs for organization.  The carts feature a curved top with no end label.  This leads to a lot of digging around to find the game you are looking for unless you store them all in the fragile cardboard boxes.

Game Library

  • The Best N64 Games The Still Matter Today – Since the N64 had such a focus on 3D gaming when the technology was still in its infancy, the games that still hold up especially well today are not necessarily the same ones that garnered all the initial attention for the N64.
  • The Cheapest N64 Games Worth Your Time – If you want to build up a quality N64 library with the least amount of cash, check out this guide.
  • The Best Undiscovered N64 Games – There are plenty of good N64 games that most people haven’t tried yet.  Check these games out to broaden your horizons.
  • The Rarest & Most Valuable N64 Games – To make your N64 collection the most respected in the world, you need to survey the possibilities here.
  • Goldeneye 007: 10 Years Later – Goldeneye is still one of the most treasured N64 game.  Fastbilly1 takes a fresh look at the classic console FPS and sees how it holds up a decade after its release

Importing

  • Because of the cartridge design, importing N64 games requires removing the dust cover mechanism from your machine.  You’ll just have to keep a cartridge in there a lot of the time to keep dust out of the cart slot.
  • There are adapters that allow most games to be played on NTSC and PAL systems, but there are several games that do not work with these adapters, and often these are the most desirable games.
  • You can also mod your N64 to play import cartridges.  It’s a relatively easy and inexpensive modification to make.

System Add-Ons

n64-64dd 64DD
A little known disk drive system that was released in very small numbers in Japan in 1999. The unit plugs into the bottom of the N64 console and allows large magnetic disks, similar to Zip Drives, to be used. The 64DD also allowed users to access the internet, through Nintendo’s RANDnet system, and had a fully functioning keyboard and mouse designed for it. It was a commercial failure, mainly due to Nintendo’s reluctance to release it after such long delays (it was announced in 1995), and therefore it’s lack of support. Only 9 games were made for the system, with many of the planned titles being released as standard N64 cartridges.

Accessories

  • Controllers – This may be an obvious accessory, but considering how many games take advantage of four players, you should seriously consider stocking up on them.
  • The Controller Pak: Nintendo’s version of the memory card, it plugged straight into the controller in a port on the back. The official Nintendo card is 256KB, split up into 123 “pages”. Although most games featured in cart saves, some games or game features (such as the ghosts in Mario Kart 64) required more data to be saved than the cart could hold. 3rd party cards could be hold much more data, and often came with a rumble motor as well. However, their quality and reliability vary greatly.
  • The Rumble Pak: Released in April 1997 with Star Fox 64, the Rumble Pak used a small motor to give vibrating feedback of what was happening within the game. It used 2 AAA batteries to power the motor and clipped into the same slot used by the memory card in the back of the controller, meaning that both could not be used at the same time.
  • Transfer Pak: Another device that plugged into the back of the N64 controller, the Transfer Pak allowed Gameboy games to be plugged into the N64. This was mainly used in the Pokémon Stadium games, where the players Pokémon from his Gameboy game could be transferred over to battle within the game. The device could not be used to play all Gameboy games on the television, only the Pokémon games worked when used in conjunction with Pokémon Stadium. Another use of the transfer pack that was removed before its release was the ability to take pictures of you face with the Gameboy Camera and superimpose them onto characters in Perfect Dark. However, this was canned as it was thought too violent to kill digital representations of real people.
  • The Expansion Pak: Originally developed to allow the 64DD to work with the N64, the Expansion Pak plugged into the expansion port on the front of the console, replacing the Jumper Pak that was in there. It expanded the internal RAM of the N64 from 4MB to 8MB, allowing more graphically complex games to be developed for the system. A lot of games support the Expansion Pak and have “Hi-Res” modes when it is inserted. However, there are a few games, such as Zelda: Majora’s Mask and Perfect Dark, that require the Expansion Pak to be fully playable (Perfect Dark only allows a stripped down multiplayer game to be played without the Pak, whereas Majora’s Mask shows an error on booting).
  • VRU (Voice Recognition Unit): Used in only two games, Hey You Pikachu! and Densha De Go 64 (a Japanese train simulator), this giant yellow microphone plugs into the back of the controller, with a wire attaching it to the 4th player controller port, and allows you to communicate with the action onscreen via verbal commands. In Hey You Pikachu! it is a vital part of the game and is used to converse with Pikachu, giving him commands and answering simple questions. In Densha De Go 64, you use it to announce the station names to your passengers, although this is an optional part of the game.
  • Video Cables – The N64 supports RF cable, Composite/RCA, and S-Video

Emulation

  • Emulation of the N64 is very advanced on PCs. There are really two options that both work 100% for most games: Project 64 and 1964. It is mostly down to personal preference which one you choose, although some games work better on one than the other.
  • On the PC, you can also use texture packs with the emulator to make the games look even better than the real thing.
  • For Mac OSX, racketboy forum member, Niode said he tried sixty force around v0.5 and it wasn’t brilliant. It was fast on his Macbook Pro with a Core 2 Duo 2.33GHz. Shadows and skyboxes were glitchy. Quite a few games I tried had lots of graphical glitches. Since we are still only on 0.8, he doesn’t expect it to be much better.
  • One of the trickiest aspects of N64 emulation is the controller.  Since most USB controllers are nothing like an N64 controller, you’ll probably want to find a USB adapter for the real thing.
  • Nintendo’s Virtual Console also has many of the classic N64 games available for legal download. However, due to licensing issues, many of the most popular N64 games developed by Rare are not available on the service.

Affordability

  • The N64 is not very expensive to buy, with consoles typically going for $30-$50 on eBay, depending on accessories.
  • Unboxed, popular games can easily be found for $2 or $3, but because of the fragility of the cardboard boxes Nintendo used to package the game, boxed games tend to command much higher prices.  (See the Cheapest Games Worth Your Time)
  • Rare accessories, such as the Japan only 64DD, are extremely expensive and are only for deep pocketed collectors.

49 Comments

Captin N64 says:

“The N64 has the honor of being one of the only consoles to host one of the greatest games of all-time (Legend of Zelda: OoT), as well as one of the worst of all-time (Superman 64)”

This is a really weird statement to make considering that it can be said of almost any major console. The SNES had Zelda III as well as Shaq-Fu, for example, and the PS1 had FFVII as well as Bubsy 3D.

racketboy says:

Well I think the point was that OoT and Superman 64 are often regarded as the very best and very worst ever. Of course, there are people that disagree.

Eric says:

At 32 yrs old I just got one. I love it and my very young kids cant destroy the carts. 3 year olds love destroying cd/dvd’s. Carts are way better in this regard.

Eddie says:

In regards to Captain N64 comment, Ocarina of Time is regarded as THE best game ever in many gaming networks and Superman 64 is so awful it makes people sick just thinking about it. Bubsy 3D was really bad but not Superman bad. And Shaq Fu isn’t just for the SNES so it loses some steam in that sense.

Chris says:

I still use my launch N64 and the controllers still look and work like new. They never wore out.
When I got it, I saw the design flaw, opened it up, and lubricated the analog stick casing. Still works flawlessly after 13 years.
I also have one of the ultra 64 consoles.. Its my baby ^_^

I hope to see this article redone with pictures of the accessories and info about possibly the different colored controllers, etc. Not really THAT important, but I think it would be interesting.

kevin says:

my son bought a nintendo 64 and we cant get the games to go in the slot any suggestions?

racketboy says:

How far do they go in?
What game are you trying to use?

R says:

“weakest GPU of the generation”

I don’t think that’s right at all. It itself ran at a clock speed in excess of the clock speed of its competitors’ CPUs, let alone their GPUs. It had a great range of capabilities for its time, straight from the sort that SGI used, such as proper texture filtering (rather than the blocky nearest-neighbor interpolation the others used), and z-buffering depth testing which prevented all the dancing clipping polygons you see so often on Playstation).

The only weakness I can think that it had was that the GPU had to process audio as well, whereas the other consoles had a separate audio chip. Otherwise, it was just hampered by low-resolution textures that the cartridges provided.

Anthony says:

Good article.

Under ‘Weaknesses’, you mention high-res textures couldn’t be used due to the cartridge format. The reason wasn’t the cartridge but actually a limited texture cache in the N64 hardware. Later in the N64’s life clever developers found ways around the texture cache bottleneck.

Bobby says:

It’s not true at all that the system had the weakest GPU. As R said, the texture filtering was available exclusively on N64, as was z-buffering depth testing.

If you’d look at N64 games, and then compare them to PS1 and Saturn games, you’d see that N64 games tend to look “Clean and Tight”, whereas the competition looks loose, excessively jagged, and just very sloppy.

In terms of weakness and strength, I believe it’s more fair to say the N64 was limited more in terms of AUDIO, than graphics, as the cartridges couldn’t hold much audio without severe compression, and because the either the CPU or GPU had to e taxed with managing the sound.

It’s also worth noting that, as the system does not rely on a dedicated sound processor, it can theoretically process higher quality audio than both the PS1 and Sega Saturn.

I also think the weakness involving the system’s lack of 2D titles should at least be expanded to include the fact that the 2D market wasn’t being pushed as much as the 3D market. (Nobody buys a 3D Gaming system to play 2D games, and It’s not really fair to label lack of such games as a weakness.)

George says:

I did not grow up playing the N64. I only “discovered” it a couple years ago. Let me tell you, it great being able to experience many of these classic games for the first time at my age (36). My 7 year old son and I have a way to do something together at a very tight budget. I love the fact that there are many quality games available at a reasonable price. The cartridges are very sturdy too so I don’t have to worry about him mishandling the media like I do with disc based systems. I definately recommend getting an N64 if you don’t have one.

kevinski says:

Whenever this article is updated next, it’d be nice for there to be some mention of the fact that either the Jumper Pak or the Expansion Pak is REQUIRED for the console to work. I just recently purchased an N64 on eBay, and I’m thinking that the seller had replaced the Jumper Pak with the Expansion Pak at some point and discarded the Jumper Pak. This wouldn’t have been a big deal, but I’m also thinking that he sold the Expansion Pak separately, so the N64 didn’t appear to work whenever I received it. People buying this console should check to ensure that one of the two Paks is in the Memory Expansion slot.

CSR says:

There is one more game that used the microphone.
Seaman.
Though I’d hardly call it a game.

kevinski says:

Seaman is on Dreamcast, not N64.

Isaac Jimmy says:

what a good game ever found

dominick says:

i got an n64 when i was like 4 and i only ever owned two games for it bugs life and namco museum, the thing is i didnt know you could buy new games for it(yeah i know) and it ended up getting thrown away when i was older(yeah i know you all wanna chew my ass now but hey) now i wanna get a new one and enjoy all the games i missed plus itll be a nice addition to my gaming collection

Patrick says:

Back in the day i got the PS1 for Final Fantasy VII and it’s fighting games. 12 years later, I got my N64 next to a donation bin at a local grocery store. Free console with 10 games, cables and Controllers.

JamesM says:

Looking back on the N64 it really makes me ponder what could’ve been for the system? What if they had simply included the extra 4MB of RAM from day one with the stock 64? It was already the superior platform in terms of performance but the texture size limitations and blurry look often hide that performance advantage at a quick glance. I mean look at the results developers were able to get from it without even being able to focus 100% on it being there, it is a night and day difference in some titles like Rogue Leader, Turok 2, etc and when games did count on it like DK64, Zelda MM, Perfect Dark it makes them look more like Dreamcast quality then 32-64 bit generation.

Patrick BBE says:

I’ll planning to travel to Japan in order to get a 64DD.

I Play the N64 is sometimes, but not as much as Gamecube/Wii & im impatiently waiting to get my hands on Nintendo’s Newest Console “The Wii U” also love the article, great read.

John J Maloney says:

The N64 is the greatest console of it’s generation and the 1st and 2nd party developed games are much superior to that of the over-rated Playstation releases. The PS1 has some classics of course, but the N64 is host to some of the most cherished classics of that era. The only chink in the N64’s armor is the tiny cruddy memory cards that would corrupt too easy and that the controller’s analog stick wears out over time. A superb classic gaming console.

JMillott says:

The N64 is a solid console to collect for because its cheap and the game library is also fairly cheap. It also surely has a handful or two of truly classic games that defined a generation for many gamers.

That being said the Playstation was clearly the console to own during that era. It simply had by far the best selection of games available despite lacking the first party quality that Nintendo and Sega could offer.

Fact is that both Sega and Nintendo dropped the ball with major snafu’s in the design of their platforms. Saturn was far to complicated without any real payoff for the extra work in development and Nintendo dropped the ball on cartridges, gpu limitations and should have had the extra 4MB’S of RAM built in from day one.

KenD says:

Not sure about the confusion of using the controller… The N64 was one of the first consoles I had that was actually mine besides the Genesis and even back then I had no problem holding the controller the correct way upon first play… It felt almost natural to me and to this date is probably my favorite controller to use ever besides the PS controllers.

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