The Nintendo 64 (ニンテンドウ64 Nintendō Rokujūyon?), often referred to as N64 (stylized as NINTENDO64, formerly known as the Nintendo Ultra 64, and codenamed Project Reality) is Nintendo's third home video game console for the international market.
Named for its 64-bit central processing unit, it was released in June 1996 in Japan, September 1996 in North America, March 1997 in Europe and Australia, September 1997 in France and December 1997 in Brazil. It is Nintendo's last home console to use ROM cartridges to store games (Nintendo switched to a MiniDVD-based format for the successor GameCube); handhelds in the Game Boy line, however, continued to use cartridges . As part of the fifth generation of gaming, it primarily competed with the PlayStation and the Sega Saturn. Succeeded by Nintendo's GameCube in November 2001, N64 consoles continued to be produced until its discontinuation in Japan on April 30, 2002, Europe on May 16, 2003, North America on November 30, 2003, and Australia in 2003.
The N64 was released with two launch games, Super Mario 64 and Pilotwings 64, and a third in Japan, Saikyō Habu Shōgi. The N64's suggested retail price was US $199.99 at its launch and it was later marketed with the slogan "Get N, or get Out!".
The console was released in at least eight variants with different colors and sizes. An assortment of limited edition controllers were sold or used as contest prizes during the N64's lifespan. The N64 sold 32.93 million units worldwide, and in 2009, it was named the 9th greatest video game console by IGN out of 25. Of the consoles in the fifth generation, the Nintendo 64 was the latest to be released.
One of its technical drawbacks was a limited texture cache, which could only hold textures of small dimensions and reduced color depth, which had to be stretched to cover larger in-game surfaces. More significantly, the N64 still relied upon ROM cartridges, which were constrained by small capacity (particularly in an era when games became more complex and their contents took up more memory) and high production expenses, compared to the compact disc format used by its chief competitors. As a result of the N64's storage media limitations, many third-party publishers that previously supported Nintendo's past consoles would reduce or stop publishing games; the N64's most successful titles came from first-party or second-party studios.
At the beginning of the 1990s, Nintendo led the video game industry with its Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). Although a follow-up console, the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES), was successful, sales took a hit from the Japanese recession. Competing consoles from Sega and Sony also increased the need for Nintendo to develop a successor to the SNES. Further complicating matters, the company also faced a backlash from third-party developers unhappy with Nintendo's onerous licensing policies.
The company sought to develop a console with high-quality, 3-dimensional graphics and a 64-bit processor. Nintendo's code name for the N64, "Project Reality", stemmed from the bold belief that the hardware's advanced CGI capabilities would rival supercomputers of the era. Nintendo had only limited experience with 3-dimensional graphics, and worked with outside companies to develop the technology. The Nintendo 64 owes its existence to Silicon Graphics (SGI) and MIPS Technologies, who were responsible for the R4300i microprocessor and the 3D graphics hardware used in the N64.
SGI had recently acquired MIPS Computer Systems, and the two worked together to create a low-cost real-time 3D graphics system. James H. Clark, founder of Silicon Graphics, initially offered the SGI project to Tom Kalinske, then CEO of Sega of America. The negotiations that ensued have fueled controversy.
Sega claimed that their evaluation of the early prototype uncovered several unresolved hardware-issues and deficiencies. They were subsequently resolved; but not before Sega had already decided against SGI's design. Nintendo resisted that assertion, arguing that Nintendo was a more appealing partner. SGI was apparently interested in using its chips in devices other than a game console; while Sega demanded exclusive rights to the chip, Nintendo was willing to license the technology on a non-exclusive basis.
Nintendo, falling behind in the console war, expressed interest in SGI's work. James Clark met with Nintendo CEO Hiroshi Yamauchi in the spring of 1993 and agreed to develop the project. Thus, "Project Reality" was born. An official announcement regarding their collaboration was made in October 1993.
The console's design was revealed to the public for the first time in late Spring 1994. Pictures of the console showed the Nintendo Ultra 64 logo, a ROM cartridge, but no controller. The final N64 console would retain the shape pictured by the Ultra 64. The system was frequently marketed as the world's first 64-bit gaming system. Atari had claimed to have made the first 64-bit game console with their Atari Jaguar, but the Jaguar only used a 64-bit architecture in conjunction with two 32-bit RISC processors and a 16/32-bit Motorola 68000. Around the same time, Rare (UK) and Midway (USA) released two arcade titles, Killer Instinct and Cruis'n USA, which boasted their upcoming release on the Ultra 64 platform. Killer Instinct did use the same CPU as the N64, a MIPS R4300i,. Killer Instinct featured pre-rendered character artwork, and CG movie backgrounds that were streamed off the hard drive and animated as the characters moved horizontally.
The completed N64 was fully unveiled in a playable form to the public on November 24, 1995, at the 7th Annual Shoshinkai Software Exhibition in Japan. Nintendo's next-generation console was introduced as the "Nintendo 64" (a name given by Shigesato Itoi, who named the Game Boy before), contrary to speculation that it would be called "Ultra Famicom". Photos of the event were disseminated on the web by Game Zero magazine two days later. Official coverage by Nintendo followed later via the Nintendo Power website and print magazine. In the lead up to the console's release, Nintendo had adopted a new global branding strategy, assigning the console the same name for all markets: Nintendo 64.
The console was originally slated for release by Christmas of 1995. In May 1995, Nintendo pushed back the release to April 1996. Nintendo claimed it needed more time for Nintendo 64 software to mature, and for third-party developers to produce titles. Adrian Sfarti, a former engineer for SGI, attributed the delay to hardware problems; he claimed that the chips underperformed in testing, and were being redesigned.
Nintendo priced the console as an impulse buy, using a strategy from the toy industry. At US $199.99, the console was cheaper than rival consoles from Sega and Sony. The console was first released in Japan on June 23, 1996. The North American version of the Nintendo 64 officially launched on September 29, 1996 with 500,000 units sold in the first four months,while the PAL version was released in Europe on March 1, 1997. As of December 31, 2009, the N64 had sold 5.54 million units in Japan, 20.63 million in the Americas, and 6.75 million in other regions, for a total of 32.93 million units. Benimaru Itō, a developer for EarthBound 64 and friend of Shigeru Miyamoto, speculated in 1997 that the N64's lower popularity in Japan was due to the lack of role-playing video games.
Graphically, results of the Nintendo cartridge system were mixed. The N64's graphics chip was capable of trilinear filtering, which allowed textures to look very smooth compared to the Saturn or the PlayStation.
This was due to the latter two using nearest-neighbor interpolation, resulting in textures that were pixelated. However, the smaller storage size of ROM cartridges limited the number of available textures, resulting in games that had blurry graphics. This was caused by the liberal use of stretched, low-resolution textures, and was compounded by the N64's 4,096-byte limit on a single texture. Some games, such as Mario Party 2, use a large amount of Gouraud shading or very simple textures to produce a cartoon-like image. This fit the themes of many games, and allowed this style of imagery a sharp look. Cartridges for some later games, such as Resident Evil 2, Sin and Punishment: Successor of the Earth, and Conker's Bad Fur Day, featured more ROM space, allowing for more detailed graphics.
The Economist described effective programming for the Nintendo 64 as being "horrendously complex.
The Nintendo 64 had weaknesses that were caused by a combination of oversight on the part of the hardware designers, limitations on 3D technology of the time, and manufacturing capabilities. One major flaw was the limited texture cache of 4 KB. This made it difficult to load anything but small, low color depth textures into the rendering engine. This small texture limitation caused blurring due to developers stretching small textures to cover a surface, and then the console's bilinear filtering would blur them further. To make matters worse, due to the design of the renderer, when mipmapping was used, the texture cache was effectively halved to 2 KB. Toward the end of Nintendo 64's lifetime, creative developers managed to use tricks, such as multi-layered texturing and heavily clamped, small texture pieces, to simulate larger textures. Perfect Dark, Banjo-Tooie, and Conker's Bad Fur Day are possibly the best examples of this ingenuity, all of which were developed by Rare.
Games often also used plain colored Gouraud shading instead of texturing on certain surfaces, especially in games with themes not targeting realism (e.g., Super Mario 64). There were other challenges for developers to work around. Z-buffering significantly crippled the RDP's (Reality Drawing Processor) fill rate. Thus, for maximum performance, most Nintendo 64 games were actually fill-rate limited, not geometry limited, which is ironic considering the great concern over the Nintendo 64's low polygon per second rating of only about 100,000; however, some of the most polygon-intense Nintendo 64 games, such as World Driver Championship, frequently pushed past the Sony PlayStation's typical in-game polygon counts.
The unified memory subsystem of Nintendo 64 was another critical weakness for the machine. The RDRAM had very high access latency, which nearly negated its high bandwidth advantage. In addition, game developers commented that the Nintendo 64's memory controller setup was poor. The R4300 CPU was severely limited at memory access since it had to go through the RCP to access main memory, and could not use DMA to do so. The graphics and audio co-processor was programmable through microcode.
By altering the microcode run on the device, it could perform different operations, create new effects, and be better tuned for speed or quality; however, Nintendo was unwilling to share the microcode tools with developers until the end of the Nintendo 64's life-cycle. Programming RSP microcode was said to be quite difficult because the Nintendo 64 code tools were very basic, with no debugger and poor documentation. As a result, it was very easy to make mistakes that would be hard to track down, mistakes that could cause seemingly random bugs or glitches.
Some developers noted that the default SGI microcode ("Fast3D"), which allowed more than ~100,000 high accuracy polygons per second, was poorly profiled for use in games (it was too accurate), and performance suffered as a result. "Turbo3D" microcode allowed 500,000–600,000 normal accuracy polygons per second. However, due to the graphical degradation, Nintendo discouraged its use. Several companies, such as Factor 5, Boss Game Studios and Rare, were able to write custom microcode that ran their software better than SGI's standard microcode. One of the best examples of custom microcode on the Nintendo 64 was Factor 5's N64 port of the Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine PC game. The Factor 5 team aimed for the high resolution mode (640 × 480) because of the crispness it added to the visuals. The machine was taxed to the limit running at 640 × 480, so they needed performance beyond the standard SGI microcode.
The Z-buffer could not be used because it alone consumed the already-constrained texture fill-rate. To work around the 4 KB texture cache, the programmers came up with custom texture formats and tools to let the artists use the best possible textures. Each texture was analyzed and fitted to best texture format for performance and quality. They took advantage of the cartridge as a texture streaming source to squeeze as much detail as possible into each environment and work around RAM limitations. They wrote microcode for real-time lighting, since the SGI code was poor for this task and they wanted to have even more lighting than the PC version had used. Factor 5's microcode allowed almost unlimited real-time lighting and significantly boosted the polygon count. In the end, the game was more feature-filled than the PC version, and unsurprisingly, was one of the most advanced games for Nintendo 64.
Factor 5 again used custom microcode with games such as Star Wars: Rogue Squadron and Star Wars: Episode I: Battle for Naboo. In Star Wars: Rogue Squadron, the team tweaked the microcode for a landscape engine to create the alien worlds. For Star Wars: Battle for Naboo, they used what they learned from Rogue Squadron and made the game run at 640 × 480, also implementing enhancements for particles and the landscape engine. Battle for Naboo had a long draw distance and large amounts of snow and rain, despite the high resolution.
Nintendo 64 games are ROM cartridge based. Cartridge size varies from 4 MB (32 Mbit; e.g. Automobili Lamborghini and Dr. Mario 64) to 64 MB (512 Mbit; e.g. Resident Evil 2 and Conker's Bad Fur Day). Some of the cartridges includes internal EEPROM, flash memory, or battery-backed-up RAM for saved game storage. Otherwise, game saves are put onto a separate memory card, marketed by Nintendo as a Controller Pak.
Nintendo cited several advantages for making the N64 cartridge-based. Primarily cited was the ROM cartridges' very fast load times in comparison to disc-based games, as contemporary CD-ROM drives rarely had speeds above 4×. This can be observed from the loading screens that appear in many PlayStation games but are typically non-existent in N64 versions. ROM carts are much faster than the 2× CD-ROM drives in other consoles that developers can stream data in real-time from them. This was done in Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine, for example, to make the most of the limited RAM in the N64.
Indeed the high price of RAM in the early 1990s (due to the Great Hanshin earthquake, which destroyed a major factory in Japan) was why SGI suggested that Nintendo stick to cartridges to keep the console's costs low. By the time RAM prices had fallen and become more accessible, it was too late to make any revisions so Nintendo decided to keep the cartridge format. Nintendo planned to compensate for increased RAM demands through add-ons to the to ROM cartridges such as I/O hardware and support chips (such as co-processors), as was done on some SNES games (including Star Fox, using the Super FX chip).
The cartridges are also far more durable than compact discs, the latter which must be carefully used and stored in protective cases. It also prevents accidental scratches and subsequent read errors. While the cartridges are more resistant than CDs to physical damage, they are sometimes less resistant to long-term environmental damage, particularly oxidation (although this can be simply cleaned off) or wear of their electrical contacts causing a blank or frozen screen, or static electricity.
ROM cartridges are difficult and expensive to duplicate. Due to a complex manufacturing processes, cartridge-based games were more expensive to manufacture than their optical counterparts, as well as leaving less flexibility for game publishers who had to forecast demand for their titles. The selection of the cartridge for the Nintendo 64 was a controversial decision and a key factor in Nintendo losing its dominant position in the gaming market. Most of the cartridge's advantages did not manifest themselves prominently and they were nullified by the cartridge's shortcomings, which disappointed customers and developers alike.
As fifth generation games became more complex in content, sound and graphics, it pushed cartridges to the limits of their storage capacity. The N64 cartridges had a maximum of 64 MB of data, whereas CDs held over 650 MB. Games ported from other media had to use data compression or reduced content to be released on the N64. Extremely large games could be made to span across multiple discs on CD-based systems, while cartridge games had to be contained within one unit as using an additional cartridge was prohibitively expensive (and was never tried). Due to the cartridge's space limitations, full motion video was not usually feasible for use in cut scenes, with the exception of Resident Evil 2. The cut scenes of some games used graphics generated by the CPU in real-time.
Most third-party developers switched to the PlayStation, such as Square and Enix, whose Final Fantasy VII and Dragon Warrior VII were initially pre-planned for the N64, while some who remained released fewer games to the Nintendo 64. Konami was the biggest example of this, releasing only thirteen N64 games but over fifty on the PlayStation. New Nintendo 64 game releases were infrequent while new games were coming out rapidly for the PlayStation. Most of the N64's biggest successes were developed by either Nintendo itself or by second-parties of Nintendo, such as Rare. Despite the difficulties with third-parties, the N64 still managed to support popular games such as GoldenEye 007, giving it a long shelf-life. Much of this success was credited to Nintendo's strong first-party franchises, such as Mario, which had strong name brand appeal.
The era's competing systems from Sony and Sega (the PlayStation and Saturn, respectively) used CD-ROM discs to store their games. These discs are much cheaper to manufacture and distribute, resulting in lower costs to third-party game publishers. As a result, game developers who had traditionally supported Nintendo game consoles were now developing games for the competition because of lower production costs, greater space, and better audio quality. Cartridges took longer to manufacture than CDs, with each production run (from order to delivery) taking two weeks or more.
By contrast, extra copies of a CD based game could be ordered with a lead time of a few days. This meant that publishers of N64 titles had to attempt to predict demand for a game ahead of its release. They risked being left with a surplus of expensive cartridges for a failed game or a weeks-long shortage of product if they underestimated a game's popularity.
The cost of producing an N64 cartridge was far higher than producing a CD. Publishers had to pass these higher expenses to the consumer and as a result, N64 games tended to sell for higher prices than PlayStation games. While most PlayStation games rarely exceeded US$50, N64 games could reach US $79.99, such as the first "pressing" of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Games in Sony's line of PlayStation Greatest Hits budget line retailed for US$19.95, while Nintendo's equivalent Player's Choice line retailed for US$29.95. In the United Kingdom, N64 games were priced £54.95 at their time of release, while PlayStation games were priced at £44.95. In the United States games were priced around $49.99 at the time of their release.
Each Nintendo 64 cartridge contains a lockout chip to prevent manufacturers from creating unauthorized copies of games and discourage production of unlicensed games. Unlike previous versions, the N64 lockout chip contains a seed value which is used to calculate a checksum of the game's boot code. To discourage playing of copied games by piggybacking on a real cartridge, Nintendo produced five different versions of the chip. During the boot process, and occasionally while the game is running, the N64 computes the checksum of the boot code and verifies it with the lockout chip in the game cartridge, failing to boot if the check fails.
The standard Nintendo 64 is dark gray, nearly black, and the controller is light gray (later releases in America included a bonus second controller in Atomic Purple). A Jungle Green colored console was first available with the Donkey Kong 64 bundle. The Funtastic Series used brightly colored, translucent plastic with six colors: Fire Orange, Grape Purple, Ice Blue, Jungle Green, Smoke Gray and Watermelon Red.
Nintendo released a yellow banana-like Nintendo 64 controller for the debut of Donkey Kong 64 in the United States The Millennium 2000 controller, available exclusively as part of a Nintendo Power promotional contest in the United States, was a silver controller with black buttons. A gold controller was released in a contest by Nintendo Power magazine as part of a raffle drawing. In late 1997 through 1998, a few gold Nintendo 64 controller packages were released worldwide; in the United Kingdom there was a limited edition GoldenEye 007 console pack which came with a standard gray console and a copy of GoldenEye. Also, a limited edition gold controller with a standard gray console were released in Australia and New Zealand in early 1998, endorsed by an advertising campaign which featured footage of N64 games including Top Gear Rally and ended with Australian swimmer Michael Klim wearing the gold controller as a medal around his neck.
Nintendo released a gold controller for the debut of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time in Japan. Soon after, bundle packs of the game, controller, and gold Nintendo 64 were released for the US and PAL markets. The Pokémon Edition Nintendo 64, with a Pokémon sticker on the left side, included the "Pokémon: I Choose You" video. The Pokémon Pikachu Nintendo 64 had a large, yellow Pikachu model on a blue Nintendo 64. It has a different footprint than the standard Nintendo 64 console, features redesigned switches (a Pokéball for the power switch and Pikachu's foot is the reset button) and the power light is modified to be Pikachu's cheeks - when powering up the console, these flash ten times before becoming solid. It also shipped with a blue Pokémon controller; orange in Japan.
A Limited Edition Star Wars bundle, available during the time of the release of the film Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace came bundled with Star Wars Episode I: Racer and a standard gray console. Nintendo released some special edition consoles and controllers that were sold only in specific stores. There were two other Japan only consoles that were exclusive to specific stores. One was the Daiei Hawks which was only sold in Daiei Hawks stores, and the other was the Jusco 30th anniversary, which was only sold in Jusco stores. The Daiei Hawks featured an orange translucent top, and a black translucent bottom, very similar to the Fire Orange and Smoke Black Nintendo 64, although not the same. The Jusco 30th anniversary, featured a very light violet-translucent color on the top, and white translucent on the bottom. These two consoles were released with a controller that matched with their console.
The Daiei Hawks and the Jusco 30th anniversary also sold separate controllers. Nintendo also released a black (top) and grey (bottom) controller that was bundled with Mario Kart 64, only sold in Japan. A similar controller to the Mario Kart 64, was only sold in Hello Mack stores, and the controller featured a Hello Mack picture on the top of the controller. In America, Toys "R" Us released their own series of store exclusive products. The Extreme Green, Extreme Green console bundle, Gold Controller bundle, and a very limited Gold Nintendo 64 which was bundled with two gold controllers.
The majority of Nintendo 64 game cartridges were gray in color; however, some games were released on a colored cartridge. Fourteen games had black cartridges, while other colors (such as green, blue, red, yellow and gold) were each used for six or fewer games. Several games, such as The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, were released both in standard gray and in colored, limited edition versions.
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