After the successful launch of the Super Famicom back in 1990 (Japan), followed by the American release in 1991 and last but not least Europe in 1992, Nintendo of course began working on their next console project.
In 1993 the new project was officially presented as "Project Reality", later known as the Ultra 64 until it finally was announced as the Nintendo64 at Nintendo's 7th Shoshinkai exhibition in Japan, held on November 24th 1995.
Rumors say that the Ultra 64 name was dropped because Konami had trademarked the Ultra name back in the 1980's and Nintendo therefore was unable to use the name. If this is the real explanation to the change of the name or not, I don't really know, but that is how the story goes.
Anyway, the first visual appearance of the Ultra 64 happened in late spring of 1994, when Nintendo released an image of the Ultra 64 and the cartridge format used by the system.
The Ultra 64 was supposed to be released early on in 1995, but then several delays happened to the development, including the name change in November 1995 and the Nintendo64 release slipped past 1995 and didn't reach stores in Japan until June 23rd 1996. America followed on September 30th 1996. The Europeans however had to wait yet another 6 months after the American lanunch for their Nintendo64 version to be released, which then happened March 1st 1997.
The N64 was released with two launch games in the US, Super Mario 64 and Pilotwings 64. Japan had a third launch title, Saikyo Habu Shogi. In Europe the three launch titles were Super Mario 64, Pilotwings 64 and Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire
Nintendo had teamed up with Silicon Graphics for Project Reality, using a cost reduced version SGI's R4300i microprocessor and 3D graphics hardware, called Reality Co-Processor. The change of system name to Nintendo64 should reflect that the system hosted a 64bit processor and Nintendo promised "graphics of tomorrow".
The CPU used is a NEC VR4300, clocked at 93.75 MHz, making the Nintendo64 the most powerful in it's generation of consoles. However a lot of limitations were made in the design of the Nintendo64 hardware, which in return made it hard to develop games for the system.
One limitation caused a lot of blur in a lot of games. This can be seen especially in the early games from Acclaim. During the Nintendo64 lifespan developers managed to use tricks that would minimize blur though. But also the Z-buffer and the choice of RDRAM in the Nintendo64 caused headaches for developers.
While other systems released at the time were using CD-ROMs for games, Nintendo took a different approach and decided to stick with the use of ROM cartridges.
The ROM size of Nintendo64 cartridges is maximum 512mbits, which is no more than 64 megabytes. If you compare that to the space available on a CD-ROM, which at the time was 650 megabytes, it's clear to see that the CD based games had much more space available for games. This resulted is no motion video in Nintendo games, almost no speech or any other space consuming material, with the exception of a few games like Conker's Bad Fur Day though.
Another disadvantage to the use of cartridges was a much longer production time than those who used CD-ROMs. But Nintendo's president at the time, Yamauchi Hiroshi, told the press that he didn't believe it would be a problem, he went on to say the following "if users really want the software, they can wait" in an interview with "Asia Week" back in 1997. I am not trying to put Mr. Hiroshi in a bad light, but I doubt his attitude towards video gamers back in the day helped the Nintendo64 sales much.
It's no secret that the Nintendo64 was plagued by delays right from the start. At Shoshinkai in 1995 Nintendo had 11 titles planned for release on the Nintendo64, however only two were available at the exhibition in playable form.
One of the games demoed was Mario 64, which managed to change the future video games with its fantastic 3D world of true Mario gaming. Mario and the history surrounding Nintendo as being very family oriented of course helped the sales of the Nintendo64 among parents shopping for a videogame system for their kids.
Nintendo games were of course for the most part very sweet looking, if you look at Mario, Snowboard Kids, Daffy Duck and such, but the system actually also received a lot of fighting games, which for whatever reason were highly popular at the time the Nintendo 64 launched.
But also Resident Evil 2 found its way to the Nintendo64 when Capcom finally jumped the bandwagon and began releasing games for the system. Rare moved as far away from the kiddie genre as they possibly could with the release of Conker's Bad Fur Day, featuring a drunk squirrel who originally was supposed to star in… yes a kids game.
Conker's Bad Fur Day also featured a lot of (censored) cursing which I'm sure Nintendo wasn't fan of. In fact, while Nintendo did publish the game in the US, Nintendo of Europe decided not to publish it, and the rights went to THQ who did a somewhat limited release as the Nintendo64's lifespan was nearing an end.
What's worth to remember about the Nintendo64 though is that it for the most part had great game releases, sure crap such as Knife Edge and Armorines exists, but companies most likely couldn't afford to release bad games for the system, given the high production cost for cartridges which had to be paid to Nintendo up front.
So from third party developers the Nintendo64 expanded it's amazing library of games with titles such as International Superstar Soccer (Konami), the highly popular Turok series (Acclaim), Top Gear Rally/Hyperbike/Overdrive series (Kemco), Ogre Battle 64 and Snowboard Kids (Atlus), Wetrix (Ocean) and finally but definitely worth mentioning, the impressive but limited release of Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine (Lucas Arts).
Then there's of course the first and second party games that really made the difference, like Mario 64 of course, but also Banjo-Kazooie (and Tooie), 1080 Snowboarding, Diddy Kong Racing, Perfect Dark, Goldeneye, Mario Tennis and Golf, Waverace 64… and so on…
During the late Nintendo64 era a lot of games were released as Blockbuster exclusives in the US. It all began years earlier though with a Blockbuster version of Clayfighter 63 1/3 called "Sculptor's Cut" which then was followed by a few other games that eventually received a limited release in stores, such as Transformers Beast Wars Transmetals and International Track & Field.
Then Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine followed with a limited retail release which only was available through Lucas Arts' website. Later exclusives such as Razor Freestyle Scooter and Stunt Racer 64 arrived. Both were only available as rentals.
The Nintendo64 was designed by Togomachi Yoshimura and my personal opinion is that the Nintendo64 by far is the coolest looking console ever made by Nintendo, and I'm not just saying this because I'm a huge fan of the system, but because of it's futuristic and yet simple look. It was also the first console to feature 4 joystick ports.
During the late period of the Nintendo64 lifespan the console was released in other colors than the original black console and also different color variations in the various regions. The console was also completely redesigned into a Pokemon console with a gigantic Pikachu figure on it, go figure but I'm sure kids loved it!
Just like all the Nintendo consoles previously released, the Nintendo64 featured an expansion port at the bottom of the console. This port would be used for the 64DD (Disk Drive) add-on, a magnetic disk drive using ZIP disk like "cards" which could contain 512mbit each. The 64DD name was originally "Dynamic Drive".
The 64DD add-on managed to see a somewhat limited release in Japan 1999, launching on December 1st, even though it was planned for a worldwide release at the same time as the actual console launched. But once again, due to heavy delays and poor sales, the release didn't happen in other regions.
Furthermore the software available was extremely sparse, in fact there was really no high profile title released that could help make the 64DD a success. An update of Mario 64 as well as a Disk version of Zelda and even a new Earthbound game was planned. These announced quality titles did help sell the disk drive, but as the release of either of them never happened I'm sure some 64DD owners must've felt pretty bad for wasting money on the device.
Rumors even say it that Nintendo disbanded the production of 64DD disks a lot earlier than Randnet had planned. Prior to the release of Japan Pro-Golf Tour 64 and Doshin the Giant 2, Nintendo had announced (unofficially) that it would refuse to make any more disks.
Randnet "DD" was in charge of the user network available to the 64DD owners, a community where people could read about upcoming releases, reviews, sneak peaks, head to head battles and much more. The 64DD version of Zelda called "Ura Zelda" was supposedly finalized and was to be displayed at Spaceworld 2000 at RandNET's booth. But Nintendo cancelled the release of Ura Zelda and on February 28th 2001 RandnetDD was also history.
So the Americans really had no use for the expansion port, as the 64DD went unreleased in their territory. Well okay not really, a Hong Kong based company called Bung Enterprises went on and released their Doctor V64 device sometime in 1997. The Doctor V64 was a so-called backup device disguised as a VCD player.
Not only would the Doctor V64 allow users to backup the ROMs from Nintendo64 game cartridges to a PC, but also allow for ROMs to be played on a Nintendo64 using the Doctor V64 by either uploading a ROM to the device if it was connected to a PC, through the parallel port, or better yet, ROMs could be loaded from a CD-ROM in almost no time while the parallel port transfer was rather slow.
Nintendo of course wasn't happy about the existence of such a device and after a years of battling Bung Enterprises, they were finally able to put the final nail in the coffin and shut down Bung for good sometime in 2000. However Bung continued their operations under the name "Mr. Flash" for a short period thereafter.
Other Nintendo64 copiers appeared over the years, such as the Wild Card 64, CD64, V64jr (E64) which also was made by Bung and finally the "Mr. Backup" Z64 which is considered to be the best of the Nintendo64 copiers available. Only the Doctor V64 and CD64 make use of the Nintendo64's expansion, while the other copiers use the cartridge slot.
These game copiers were probably the worst threat against Nintendo in the Nintendo64 days. Bootleg Nintendo64 cartridges do exist but due to the lockout system in Nintendo64 cartridges, which is rather difficult to copy, most of these bootleg carts didn't work unless a special adapter was used, so that the lockout could be deactivated from an original cartridge.
Later though, bootleg cartridges actually managed to contain a circuit that would defeat the Nintendo64 lockout, but the cartridges never really reached the masses and the bootlegs carts are extremely rare, though Brazil would probably be one of the places to search for such carts.
Another expansion port on the top side of the Nintendo64 console hosts the possibility of a memory expansion. The Nintendo64 is born with 4 megabytes of RAM which could be upgraded with the release of the "Expansion Pak", that happened sometime during 1999. The Expansion Pak contained another 4 megabytes of RAM, so the total became a whopping 8 megabytes.
Some games like Donkey Kong 64 and The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask required the presence of the Expansion Pak to be able to play the games and the Expansion Pak was even offered as a Pack-in with Donkey Kong 64. Other games would just offer better resolution and such if the expansion was present. StarCraft 64 is said to unlock parts of the Blood War StarCraft expansion if the Expansion Pak is present.
Nintendo64 games for the most part used various "on cart" save features. But another option was available, in the shape of the Controller Pak, which could be inserted into a slot at the bottom side of the Nintendo64 controller. This little device would allow for games to be saved if the cartridge did not offer "on cart" saving.
The original Controller Pak offered 256 kilobits (32 Kilo Bytes) of SDRAM which was presented to gamers as 123 pages of save space. While some games used only a few pages for saving, other games required a complete Controller Pak for its game saves. A maximum of 16 game saves can be stored on the 123 pages.
A lot of third party Controller Pak's were released with space from the 256 kilobits to 8 megabits, Nintendo however only released one type, the 256 kilobits version. The high capacity Controller Pak's were actually divided into sections of 123 pages each, featuring a small button or switch to toggle between the various sections of the memory. One company however, Datel, managed to release Controller Pak's without having to toggle between sections.
The idea behind the Controller Pak was that gamers could exchange save data with each other, Nintendo however didn't do much to make that happen with anyone but friends, as in access to the same Nintendo 64. Datel and Interact Accessories on the other hand decided to release something called the DexDrive, a small Controller Pak reader which either would save an entire Controller Pak into one file or selected saves to separate files. These files could then be shared over the internet.
A few company actually made use of the possibilities the DexDrive provided, THQ released a few extra tracks for their Penny Racers game (Choro-Q in Japan) and Midway provided season updates for one of their football games.
When Starfox 64, aka. Lylat Wars in Europe, was released in 1997, Nintendo released something called the Rumble Pak which would offer force feedback (vibrations) in games when for example a spaceship was hit. The Expansion was bundled with Starfox but could also be bought separately and third party developers also released their share of Rumble Pak clones. The original device required two AAA batteries to run and uses the same port on the Nintendo64 controller as the Controller Pak.
Even later in the Nintendo64's lifespan, Nintendo released yet another controller add-on called the Transfer Pak to be used with Pokémon Stadium to transfer data between Gameboy and Nintendo64 cartridges. This gadget wasn't used much by developers and it's probably the most useless Nintendo64 controller add-on if you ask me.
Many people may say that the Nintendo64 has been the least successful Nintendo console of all time, but fact is, no matter what people say, that the Nintendo64 had an outstanding software library but the Nintendo64's problem was that people at the time had gotten used to, at the time, impressive full motion videos in PlayStation games, something the Nintendo64 was unable to provide.
But I am pretty sure that if you compare the extremely large PlayStation game library to the one for the Nintendo64, I'm sure the PlayStation has a larger percentage of games not worth playing, but no one ever seems to draw that comparison.
Fact is that no PlayStation game has been able to compete with the amazing game quality provided by Nintendo64 games such as Super Mario 64, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Conker's Bad Fur Day, Banjo-Kazooie, just to name a few.
In my opinion a video game system is cartridge based, and I loved the Nintendo64 for being cartridge based, but success wise, it probably would've been better if the Nintendo64 had used CD-ROMs.
Long live the Nintendo64! :-)