23 years of 64 bits: a look back on the N64

Illustration by Lauren Johnson

Jonah Schuhart, Contributing Writer

Nintendo fans rejoice — Sept. 29 marked the 23rd anniversary of the Nintendo 64. The console sold more than 32 million units over the course of its six-year lifespan. That sounds like a huge number but, believe it or not, the console that gave us classics like Super Mario 64 and the original Super Smash Bros. isn’t even in the top 15 highest-selling consoles of all time, according to IGN. This is surprising, considering the amount of influence the N64 had on video games during its own era as well as going forward.   

The mid ’90s held some major technological advancements for video games. Consoles could now be made powerful enough to display 3D graphics and environments instead of being (mostly) limited to 2D pixel-art. The development of CD-ROMs meant that it was now more possible to mass-produce and store these new, more complex games. 

The PlayStation was the first console to break into the gaming market with both of these conventions, but it had some problems when it came to how its controller worked with 3D games. It had the face buttons, triggers and directional pad — without an analog stick, it was tricky to design a 3D game without making movement in 3D environments a huge pain.

Nintendo fixed this problem by making the N64 the first controller ever to have an analog stick. Despite its odd, three-handled design, the N64 controller definitively proved the analog stick was almost a necessity for moving in 3D games with precision. 

Without an analog stick, N64 titles like Super Mario 64 would never have been made because using a D-pad — like many PS1 games did — would’ve made jumping at precise angles nearly impossible. This is especially important because Mario 64 is the game that laid the groundwork for all 3D platforming games (games revolved around jumping around game levels on platforms) to follow, and continues to set the standard for how creatively a platformer can be played (thanks to its dedicated speedrunning community).

But even without counting platformers, the N64 boasted a heavyweight game lineup. Its two Legend of Zelda titles, Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask, pioneered the 3D adventure game format. This went on to directly influence popular games such as Dark Souls, God of War and pretty much everything else. 

Even some games made by developers other than Nintendo cemented themselves as landmark titles. The English development studio Rare was especially known for its games on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, or SNES, and the N64. 

Their James Bond game, 007: Goldeneye, is one of the earliest first-person shooter games on console, and is basically the grandfather of Halo. Other Rare games such as Banjo Kazooie and Conker’s Bad Fur Day followed in Mario 64’s footsteps with amazing, open-ended platforming games. 

What this amounts to is that the N64 was at the forefront of its time. It carried one of the most acclaimed game lineups of all time, introduced the world to an entirely new way of controlling games and did it all using obsolete cartridge games instead of CDs. So, given all of that, it seems like a no-brainer that the N64 would easily be in the top 10 highest-selling consoles of all time, and yet it isn’t.

But it is obvious that the N64 influenced later consoles that would eventually outsell it, especially when looking at other Nintendo properties. The company still keeps that same approach to console design by evolving the hardware in new ways. They’ve done everything from putting an analog stick on a three-handled controller, to making an entire console focused on motion-controls with the Wii, eventually creating the first home-handheld hybrid console with the Switch. 

That same influence is still obvious in Nintendo’s newer games as well. Super Mario Odyssey and Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild for the Switch upheld the reputations of their N64 predecessors. 

Each of them took what made their original 3D counterparts so amazing — such as Mario 64’s tight movement controls and Ocarina of Time’s open-world game design — and expanded on it. 

Even if the N64 isn’t as popular as one might expect, it’s impossible to ignore just how much influence the system and its games had on the consoles and games we play today. 

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