Blog EntryNintendo 64Oct 27, '07 8:30 PM
for everyone

The Nintendo 64 (ニンテンドー64 Nintendō Rokujūyon?), often abbreviated as N64, is Nintendo's third home video game console for the international market. Named for its 32/64-bit processor, it was released on June 23, 1996 in Japan, September 29, 1996 in North America, March 1, 1997 in Europe and Australia, and September 1, 1997 in France (the system also saw a release in South America, in partnership with Gradiente Eletrônica S/A).

It was released with two launch games (Super Mario 64 and Pilotwings 64) plus one in Japan (Saikyō Habu Shōgi). The N64's suggested retail price was US$199 at its launch and it was later marketed with the slogan: "Get N, or get Out!"

Development and introduction

Nintendo 64 was the culmination of work by Nintendo, Silicon Graphics, and MIPS Technologies. The SGI-based system design that ended up in the Nintendo 64 was originally offered to Tom Kalinske, then CEO of Sega of America by James H. Clark, founder of Silicon Graphics. SGI had recently bought out MIPS Technologies and the two companies had worked together to create a low-cost CPU/3D GPU combo that they thought would be ideal for the console market. A hardware team from Sega of Japan was sent to evaluate the chip's capabilities and they found some faults which MIPS subsequently solved. However, Sega of Japan ultimately decided against SGI's design, apparently in part due to internal problems between Sega of Japan and Sega of America.[3]

The "Ultra 64" logo from Cruis'n USA
The "Ultra 64" logo from Cruis'n USA

In the early stages of development the Nintendo 64 was referred to by the code name "Project Reality".[4] This moniker came from the speculation within Nintendo that the console could produce CGI on par with then-current supercomputers. In 1994 the console was given the name Nintendo Ultra 64 in the West. The console design was shown for the first time in late Spring 1994. The first picture of the console ever shown featured the Nintendo Ultra 64 logo and showed a game cartridge, but no controller. The final console was identical to this, but with a different logo. When the system together with the controller was fully unveiled in a playable form to the public on November 24, 1995, the console was introduced as the Nintendo 64 in Japan, contrary to speculation of it being called Ultra Famicom,[5] at the 7th Annual Shoshinkai Software Exhibition in Japan. Photos of the event were disseminated on the web by Game Zero magazine two days later.[6] Official coverage by Nintendo followed a few weeks later via the Nintendo Power website and print magazine. In February 1995 Nintendo of America announced a delay of Nintendo Ultra 64 until September 1996 in North America. Simultaneously it was announced that Nintendo had adopted a new global branding strategy, calling the console everywhere Nintendo 64. Subsequently the PAL introduction was further delayed, finally being released in Europe on March 1, 1997.

During this stage of development two companies, Rareware (UK) and Midway (USA), created the arcade games Killer Instinct and Cruis'n USA which claimed to use the Ultra 64 hardware. In fact, the hardware had very little in common with what was finally released; the arcade games used hard drives and TMS processors, although they were based on the MIPS R4600 CPU. Killer Instinct was the most advanced game of its time graphically, featuring pre-rendered movie backgrounds that were streamed off the hard drive and animated as the characters moved horizontally. Nintendo dropped "Ultra" from the name on May 1, 1996, just months before its Japanese debut, because the word "Ultra" was trademarked by another company, Konami, for its Ultra Games division. The console was finally released on June 23, 1996.

[edit] Hardware

Nintendo 64 chipset: CPU, RCP, RDRAM
Nintendo 64 chipset: CPU, RCP, RDRAM

The CPU powering Nintendo 64 is a MIPS R4300i-based NEC VR4300.[7] The CPU is clocked at 93.75 MHz and connects to the rest of the system through a 32-bit data bus. VR43045 is a RISC 5-stage scalar in-order execution processor with an integrated floating point unit. It is a 64-bit processor, in that it has 64-bit registers, a 64-bit instruction set, and 64-bit internal data paths. However, the cost-reduced NEC VR4300 CPU utilized in the console only has 32-bit buses whereas more powerful MIPS CPUs are equipped with 64-bit buses.[7] (In this respect the N64 CPU is like the 32-bit Motorola 68000 which is considered a 16-bit architecture, due to its bus limitation.) Many games took advantage of the chip's 32-bit processing mode as the greater data precision available with 64-bit data types is not typically required by 3D games. Also 64-bit data uses twice as much RAM, cache, and bandwidth thereby reducing the overall system performance.[8] This was later taken advantage of by emulators such as the UltraHLE and Project64 that had to run on 32-bit Intel systems. These emulators performed most calculations at 32-bit precision, and trapped the few OS subroutines that actually made use of 64-bit instructions.

The CPU has an internal 32 KiB L1 cache but no L2 cache. It was built by NEC on a 0.35 µm process and consisted of 4.6 million transistors. The CPU is cooled passively by an aluminum heatspreader that makes contact with a steel heat sink above.

Nintendo 64's graphics and audio duties are performed by the 64-bit SGI co-processor, named the "Reality Co-Processor". The RCP is a 62.5 MHz chip split internally into two major components, the "Reality Drawing Processor" (RDP) and the "Reality Signal Processor" (RSP). Each area communicates with the other by way of a 128-bit internal data bus that provides 1.0 GB/s bandwidth. The RSP is a MIPS R4000-based 8-bit integer vector processor. It is programmable through microcode, allowing the chip's functions to be significantly altered if necessary, to allow for different types of work, precision, and workloads.[9] The RSP performs transform, clipping and lighting calculations, and triangle setup.

The RSP, as said, also frequently performs audio functions (although the CPU can be tasked with this as well). It can play back virtually any type of audio (dependent on software codecs) including uncompressed PCM, MP3, MIDI, and tracker music. The RSP is capable of a maximum of 100 channels of PCM at a time, but this is with 100% system utilization for audio. It has a maximum sampling rate of 48 kHz with 16-bit audio. However, storage limitations caused by the cartridge format limited audio size (and thus quality).

The RDP is the machine's rasterizer and performs the bulk of actual image creation before output to the display. Nintendo 64 has a maximum color depth of 16.8 million colors (32,768 on-screen) and can display resolutions of 256 × 224, 320 × 240, and 640 × 480 pixels.

RCP 3D features:

The RCP also provides the CPU's access to main system memory via a 250 MB/s bus. Unfortunately, this link does not allow direct memory access for the CPU. The RCP is cooled passively by an aluminum heatspreader that makes contact with a steel heat sink above.

The final major component in the system is the RAM. Nintendo 64 was the first console to implement a unified memory subsystem, instead of having separate banks of memory for CPU, audio, and video, for example. The memory itself consists of 4 MiB of RAMBUS RDRAM (expandable to 8 MiB) with a 9-bit data bus at 500 MHz providing the system with 562.5 MB/s peak bandwidth. RAMBUS was quite new at the time and offered Nintendo a way to provide a large amount of bandwidth for a relatively low cost. The narrow bus makes board design easier and cheaper than the higher width data buses required for high bandwidth out of slower-clocked RAM types (such as VRAM or EDO DRAM). However RDRAM, at the time, came with a very high access latency, and this did cause some grief for the game developers and limited hardware performance.

Nintendo 64 games were cartridge-based. Cartridge size varied from a tiny 4 MiB (32 Mbit) (i.e., Automobili Lamborghini) to 64 MiB (512 Mbit) for Resident Evil 2. The cartridge dimensions were 10.23 × 7.48 × 2.87 inches (260 × 190 × 73 mm) W×D×H. Some of the cartridges included internal EEPROM or battery-backed-up RAM for saved game storage. Otherwise game saves were put onto separate memory cards.

The new controller included with Nintendo 64 consisted of 1 analog stick, 2 shoulder buttons, 1 digital cross pad, 6 face buttons, a 'start' button, and one digital trigger (Z). It beat the Sega Saturn's analog controller to market by approximately one month.

[edit] Architecture and software development

The central processing unit (CPU) was primarily used for game logic, such as input management, some audio, and AI, while the "reality co-processor" (RCP) did everything else. The RCP was a customized processor that performed the majority of audio and visual tasks within the Nintendo 64. The chip is split into two main units, the "reality drawing processor" (RDP) and the "reality signal processor" (RSP). It also provides the system's interface with the RDRAM. The RDP component basically just read a FIFO buffer and rasterized polygons. The RSP was a DSP, based around a MIPS R4000 core, designed to work with 8-bit integer vector operations.[9]

In a typical N64 game, the RSP would do transforms, lighting, clipping, triangle setup, and some of the audio decoding.[9] Nintendo 64 was one of the few consoles without a dedicated audio chip so these tasks fell on the RSP and/or CPU. It was relatively common to do audio on the main CPU to increase the graphics performance.[9] Workload on the Nintendo 64 could be arranged almost in any way the programmer saw fit. This created a system that was quite flexible and malleable to the game's needs, but it also assumed the programmer would be able to properly profile the code to optimize usage of each part of the machine.

The RSP was completely programmable, through microcode (µcode). 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 µcode 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") was actually quite poorly profiled for use in games (it was too accurate), and performance suffered as a result. Several companies were able to create custom microcode programs that ran their software far better than SGI's generic software (e.g., Factor 5, Boss Game Studios, and Rare).

Two of the SGI microcodes[9][12]

  • Fast3D microcode: < ~100,000 polygons per second
  • Turbo3D microcode: 500,000–600,000 polygons per second with lower quality. Nintendo never allowed this code to be used in shipping games.

The Nintendo 64 had some 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 KiB.[12] This made it extremely difficult to load anything but small textures into the rendering engine, especially textures with high color depth, and was the primary cause of blurry graphics. The small texture limitation caused blurring because developers would stretch these small textures to cover a surface and then the console's bilinear filtering would blur them even more. To make matters worse, because of how the renderer was designed, if mipmapping was used the texture cache was effectively halved to 2 KiB. To put this in perspective, this cache could be quickly filled with even small textures (a 64×64 4-bit/pixel (bpp) texture is 2 KiB and a 128×64 4 bpp texture is 4 KiB). Modern video cards and consoles (2006) frequently deal with 1024 x 1024 8 bpp and larger textures, and have a more flexible texture cache (not always larger). Towards 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. Conker's Bad Fur Day is possibly the best example of this ingenuity. Games would often also use plain colored Gouraud shading instead of texturing on some 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 fillrate.[9] Thus, for maximum performance, managing the z-depth of objects, so things would appear in the right order and not on top of each other, was put on the programmer instead of the hardware. Most Nintendo 64 games were actually fill-rate limited, not geometry limited, which is ironic considering the great concern for Nintendo 64's low ~100,000 polygon per second rating during its time. In fact, World Driver Championship was one of the most polygon-intense Nintendo 64 games and frequently would push past Sony PlayStation's typical in-game polygon counts. This game also used custom microcode to improve the RSP's capabilities.

The unified memory subsystem of Nintendo 64 was another critical weakness for the machine. The RDRAM had very high access latency and this mostly canceled out its high bandwidth advantage. A high latency memory subsystem creates delays in how fast the processors can get the data they need, and how fast they can alter this data. Game developers also said that the Nintendo 64's memory controller setup was fairly poor, and this magnified the situation somewhat. The R4300 CPU was the worst off component because it had to go through the RCP to access main memory, and could not use DMA (the RCP could) to do so, so its RAM access performance was quite poor. There was no memory prefetch or read under write functionality either.

Despite these drawbacks, the Nintendo 64 hardware was architecturally superior to the PlayStation.[13] It was, however, more challenging to program and thus difficult to reach peak performance/quality.

Battle for Naboo's draw distance
Battle for Naboo's draw distance

One of the best examples of rewritten µcode on Nintendo 64 was Factor 5's N64 conversion of the Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine PC game. In this game the Factor 5 team decided they wanted the game to run in high resolution mode (640×480) because of how much they liked the crispness it added. The machine was taxed to the limit running at 640×480 though, so they absolutely needed to scrape every last bit of performance they could out of Nintendo 64. Firstly, the Z-buffer could not be used because it alone consumed a huge amount of the console's texture fillrate. To work around the 4 KiB texture cache the programmers came up with custom texture formats and tools to help the artists make the best possible textures. The tool would analyze each texture and try to choose the best texture format to work with the machine and look as good as possible. They took advantage of the cartridge as a texture streaming source to squeeze as much detail into each environment, and work around RAM limitations. They wrote microcode for real-time lighting, because 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 (quite a feat) and unsurprisingly, was one of the most advanced games for Nintendo 64.[14]

Factor 5 also showed ingenuity with their Star Wars games, Star Wars: Rogue Squadron and Star Wars: Battle for Naboo, where their team again used custom microcode. In Star Wars: Rogue Squadron the team tweaked the microcode for a landscape engine to create the alien worlds. Then for Star Wars: Battle for Naboo they took what they learned from Rogue Squadron and pushed the machine even farther to make the game run at 640×480, and implement enhancements for both particles and the landscape engine. Battle for Naboo enjoyed an impressive draw distance and large amounts of snow and rain even with the high resolution, thanks to their efforts.[15]

[edit] Color variations

Nintendo 64 in Atomic Orange
Nintendo 64 in Atomic Orange

The standard Nintendo 64 was dark gray, nearly black. A Jungle Green color was first available with the Donkey Kong 64 bundle. The Funtastic Series used brightly-colored translucent plastic. Nintendo released a 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, was a special silver controller in the United States. It is the only official Nintendo 64 controller to feature all black buttons. The first ever gold controller was released by a contest from the Nintendo Power magazine as part of a drawing. One was also released with shorter "arms" that for most made it hard to use. A gold Nintendo 64 controller was packaged along with the GoldenEye 007 console pack in the United Kingdom. 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, and the expansion port is covered. It also shipped with a unique blue Pokémon controller, and orange in Japan. It is believed that the Limited Edition Star Wars bundle, which was available only during time of release of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace and came bundled with Star Wars: Episode I Racer, and had what seemed like a differently colored dark black version of the Nintendo 64. But it is actually the exact same dark gray color as the regular Nintendo 64, and the "Limited Edition" on the box refers to the bundle itself, not the console.

Cartridges were usually gray in color, but sometimes they were in different colors as well. Perfect Dark, Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 3, Rally Challenge 2000, WWF No Mercy, WWF WrestleMania 2000, Rugrats in Paris, Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six, Madden NFL Football 2002, Road Rash 64 and Turok 2: Seeds of Evil had black cartridges; Rayman 2, Battletanx: Global Assault, and Army Men: Sarge's Heroes 2 had a green one (in North America only); Donkey Kong 64, Earthworm Jim 3D, and Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2 had yellow ones; Rocket: Robot on Wheels and NFL Quarterback Club 2001 had red cartridges; Pokémon Stadium 2 had a gold-and-silver cartridge; The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (Collector's Edition) and The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask had a gold one; and Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, Hydro Thunder, Bassmasters 2000, The World Is Not Enough, WCW Backstage Assault and Madden NFL 2001 had a blue one.

[edit] Cartridge-copy counter-measures

Each Nintendo 64 cartridge contains a so-called lockout chip (similar in spirit to the 10NES) to prevent manufacturers from creating unauthorized copies of games, and to 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 a real cartridge, Nintendo produced five different versions of the chip. During the boot process the N64 would compute the checksum of the boot code and verify it with the lockout chip in the game cartridge, failing to boot if the check failed. Some games, such as Banjo Tooie, perform additional checks while running.

[edit] Cartridges vs. discs in home game consoles

The Nintendo 64 was the last mainstream home video game console to use masked ROM cartridges to store its games (although the last cartridge based system to have still continued production was actually SNK's Neo Geo hardware until 2004).

[edit] Advantages

Nintendo cited several advantages for making the N64 cartridge-based:

  • ROM cartridges have very fast load times in comparison to disc based games, as contemporary CD-ROM drives rarely had speeds above 4x. This can be observed from the loading screens that appear in many Sony PlayStation games but are typically non-existent in N64 versions. ROM carts are so much faster than the 2x CD-ROM drives in other consoles that developers could stream data in real-time off them. This was done in Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine, for example, to make the most of the limited RAM in N64.[14] One could describe the ROM as an additional amount of slow RAM, similar to virtual memory in a modern operating system. One Nintendo magazine ad placed a Space Shuttle (cartridge) next to a snail (a CD) and dared consumers to decide "which one was better".
  • ROM cartridges are difficult and expensive to duplicate, thus resisting piracy, albeit at the expense of lowered profit margin for Nintendo. (Nintendo had likely weighed the trade-offs and concluded that reducing losses from piracy would offset higher cartridge production costs.) While unauthorized interface devices for the PC were later developed, these devices are rare when compared to a regular CD drive and popular mod chips as used on the PlayStation. Compared to the N64, piracy was rampant on the PlayStation.
  • It is possible to add specialized I/O hardware and support chips (such as co-processors) to ROM cartridges, as was done on some SNES games (notably Star Fox, using the Super FX chip).
  • Most first-party cartridges store individual profiles and game progress on the cartridge itself, eliminating the need for separate memory cards. Though storing data on NES and SNES game paks required SRAM and a cartridge battery whose energy would diminish over time (though the battery generally lasted for many years), few N64 titles used this method. In previous consoles the SRAM was also utilized for increasing performance. On the N64, this was negligible and it was not implemented in that way. The N64 game library started with EEPROM saves and in some subsequent games SRAM and FlashRAM were used instead.
  • ROM cartridges are far more durable than CD-ROMs. It is extremely difficult to damage a cartridge, whereas compact discs must be carefully used and protected in cases. This makes the cartridges better for children who do not know how to take care of CD-ROMs. It also prevents accidental scratches even by adult owners, and subsequent read errors from these inevitabilities.
  • It was also a frequent occurrence for the mechanisms of early CD-ROM drives to fail. There are no moving parts with a ROM cartridge system.

[edit] Disadvantages

  • While game cartridges are more resistant than CDs to mechanical damage, they are sometimes less resistant to long-term environmental damage, particularly oxidation or wear of their electrical contacts. (The cartridge contacts for Nintendo's earlier NES system were particularly notorious for this.)
  • Console cartridges are usually larger and heavier than optical discs and hence take up more room to store.
  • More complex manufacturing processes meant games were usually more expensive than their optical counterparts (some titles were US$74.99 in price.)
  • Cartridges store significantly less data than CDs. As fifth generation games became more complex in content, sound, and graphics, it pushed cartridges to the limits of their storage capacity.
  • Games ported from other media had to use data compression or reduced content in order 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 since using an additional cartridge was prohibitively expensive (and was never tried).
  • Because of a cartridge's space limitations, full motion video was not usually feasible as on CDs (although the N64 version of Resident Evil 2 did feature full motion video) for use in cut-scenes.

[edit] Graphics

Screenshot of Super Mario 64, showing limited texture detail and Gouraud shading (Mario himself). The trees are two dimensional and always facing the camera.
Screenshot of Super Mario 64, showing limited texture detail and Gouraud shading (Mario himself). The trees are two dimensional and always facing the camera.

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 Sega Saturn and the Sony PlayStation; neither could provide better than nearest neighbor interpolation, resulting in textures that were highly pixelated.

However, the limited storage size of ROM cartridges limited the number of available textures, resulting in games which had blurry graphics because of the liberal use of stretched, low-resolution textures, which was compounded by the N64's 4096-byte limit on a single texture. Some games, such as Super Mario 64, use a large amount of Gouraud shading or very simple textures to produce a cartoon-like look. This fit the themes of many games, and allowed this style of imagery a sharp look while hiding the texturing limitations of the machine.

Later cartridges such as Resident Evil 2 featured more ROM space, which demonstrated that N64 was capable of detailed in-game graphics when the media permitted, though this came at an expense.

[edit] Production

At that time, competing systems from Sony and Sega (the PlayStation and Saturn, respectively) were using 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 many game developers which had traditionally supported Nintendo game consoles were now developing games for the competition because of the higher profit margins found on CD based platforms.

Cartridges took much longer to manufacture than CDs, with each production run (from order to delivery) taking 2 to 3 weeks (or more).[16] 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: one gaming magazine at the time cited average costs of twenty-five dollars per cartridge, versus 10 cents per CD. Publishers had to pass these higher expenses to the consumer so N64 games tended to sell for higher prices than PlayStation games did. While most PlayStation games rarely exceeded $50, N64 titles could reach $79.99.[17] Sony's line of PlayStation Greatest Hits retailed for $19.99 each vs. Nintendo's Player's Choice value line at $39.99 each. In the United Kingdom, prices around the time of introduction for N64 cartridges were £54.99, and PlayStation games at £44.99 for new titles.

Nintendo was later fined £100 million for price fixing in Europe. Along with seven other UK based distributors, they were found guilty of maintaining artificially high prices for games from the period 1991–1998.[18]

[edit] Outcome

The election of the cartridge for the Nintendo 64 was a key factor in Nintendo's being unable to retain its dominant position. Most of the cartridge's advantages did not manifest themselves prominently and they were ending up nullified by the cartridge's shortcomings, which turned off customers and developers alike. Especially for the latter, it was costly and difficult to develop for ROM cartridges, as their limited storage capacity constrained the game's content.

Most third-party developers switched to the PlayStation (such as Square and Enix, whose Final Fantasy VII and Dragon Quest VII were initially pre-planned for the N64), while some who remained released fewer games to the Nintendo 64 (Capcom, with only 3 games; Konami, with 13 N64 games and over 50 to the PlayStation), and new game releases were few and far between while new games were coming out rapidly for the PlayStation. Most of the N64's biggest successes were developed by Nintendo itself or by second-parties of Nintendo, such as Rareware.

Despite the controversies, the N64 still managed to support many popular games, giving it a long life run. Much of this success was credited to Nintendo's strong first-party franchises, such as Mario and Zelda, which had strong name brand appeal yet appeared exclusively on Nintendo platforms. The N64 also secured its share of the mature audience thanks to GoldenEye 007, Nightmare Creatures, Perfect Dark, Doom 64, Resident Evil 2, Shadow Man, Conker's Bad Fur Day and Quake II.

In 2001, the Nintendo 64 was replaced by the disc-based Nintendo GameCube, although even with this system they refused to use mainstream CD/DVD technology, opting for the DVD-based but incompatible GameCube Optical Disc, which is much smaller than standard-sized CD/DVD media. This was not only to deter piracy but it also reduced the form factor, making it the most compact and portable console of its respective generation.

[edit] Accessories

[edit] First party accessories

  • Nintendo 64 controller – an 'm'-shaped controller with 10 buttons (A, B, C-Up, C-Down, C-Left, C-Right, L, R, Z, and Start), one analog stick in the center, a digital directional pad on the left hand side, and an extension port on the bottom. Initially available in six colors (gray, yellow, green, red, blue and black) and later in transparent version of such colors (except gray).
    A Nintendo-brand Controller Pak
    A Nintendo-brand Controller Pak
    The N64 pad's analog stick is notorious for becoming very worn. Also, the analog stick would become uncalibrated if not centered properly when the system was booted up; if the stick was aimed in the wrong direction, which would be set as the default for the game, causing, for example, Mario to march off in the wrong direction without being told to do so. Because this may not be discovered until the player enters the game, a universal software recentering method is printed in every manual (simultaneously hold the L, R, and START buttons for three seconds). Early titles such as Wonder Project J2 would lose calibration if you moved the cursor while accessing the Controller Pak save.
  • Controller Pak – a memory card that plugged into the controller and allowed the player to save game progress and configuration. The original models from Nintendo offered 256 KB Flash RAM, split into 123 pages with a limitation of 16 save files (Notes)but third party models had much more, often in the form of compressed memory. The number of pages that a game occupied varied (sometimes, it used the entire card). A Controller Pak was initially useful or even necessary for the earlier N64 games. Over time, the Controller Pak lost ground to the convenience of a back-up battery (or flash memory) found in some cartridges. Games by Konami often required the Controller Pak for saves, even though the games could have easily contained three or more save-slots (such as in the case of Holy Magic Century).
  • Jumper Pak – a filler that plugged into the console's memory expansion port. It serves no functional purpose other than to terminate the RAMBUS bus in the absence of the Expansion Pak. This is functionally equivalent to a continuity RIMM in a RAMBUS motherboard filling the unused RIMM sockets until the user upgrades. Early Nintendo 64 consoles (prior to the Expansion Pak's release) come with the Jumper Pak included and already installed. Jumper Paks were not sold individually in stores and could only be ordered individually through Nintendo's online store.
The 4 MB memory Expansion Pak
The 4 MB memory Expansion Pak
  • Rumble Pak – an accessory that plugged into the controller and vibrated during game play. It has (since its release in 1997 alongside Star Fox 64) become a built-in standard for the previous and current generation console controllers.
Transfer Pak
Transfer Pak
  • Transfer Pak – an accessory that plugged into the controller and allowed the Nintendo 64 to transfer data between Game Boy and N64 games. Pokémon Stadium and Pokémon Stadium 2 are games that rely heavily on the Transfer Pak. Both versions of Mario Golf & Mario Tennis used it, as well. Rare's Perfect Dark was initially going to be compatible with the Transfer Pak in order to use pictures taken with the Game Boy Camera in the game, but this function was scrapped, and the Transfer Pak was usable only in combination with the Game Boy Color version of Perfect Dark for unlocking bonuses.
  • The Wide-Boy 64/Advance – a series of adapters similar to the Super Game Boy and was able to play Game Boy games; however, it was only released to the developers and the press. Third party adapters allowed regular consumers to do the same.
The N64 Disk Drive
The N64 Disk Drive
  • 64DD – The official N64 Disk Drive attachment was a commercial failure and was consequently never released outside of Japan. It featured networking capabilities similar to the SNES Satellaview.
  • VRU (Voice Recognition Unit) – This device is packed in and required to play Hey You, Pikachu!. It consisted of a ballast that connects into controller port 4 of the system, a microphone, a yellow cover for the microphone and a clip for clipping the microphone to the controller. Players would hold the L or Z button on the controller and talk to Pikachu. One major drawback is the fact that the VRU is only calibrated to high pitched voices like that of a child as stated in the manual, so older children and adults will have problems issuing commands.
  • Cleaning Kit – Nintendo released a first party cleaning kit for the Nintendo 64. It contained everything required to clean the connectors of your control deck, controllers, game paks, Rumble Paks and Controller Paks.
  • RF Switch & RF Modulator – This accessory set allows the Nintendo 64 and model 2 SNES (redesigned after the launch of the N64)to hook up to the television through RF. It was primarily intended for customers with older televisions that lack AV cable support. Since the Nintendo 64 and model 2 SNES lack built in RF compatibility the modulator acts as a special adapter that plugs into the Nintendo 64's AV port to give the Nintendo 64 RF compatibility. The RF switch itself is identical in every way to the RF switches released for Nintendo's prior systems (the NES and the SNES) and can be interchanged if needed. This identical set was later re-released for the Gamecube to also give it RF compatibility, and additionally, the connectivity cables intended for the GameCube will fit the N64.

[edit] Third party accessories

  • Bio Sensor – An ear-clip that plugs into the Controller Pak slot of the N64 controller to measure the user's heart rate. Released only in Japan and compatible only with Tetris 64 where it will slow down or speed up the game depending on how fast the player's heart is beating.
  • Dex Drive – Made by Interact, allowed the player to upload data from their memory cards and either store the files on your computer, or send via the internet.
  • GameShark – A cheat device made by Interact. Two versions were made. The first version had a LED display that would count down 5 seconds upon turning the system on. The period in the display would be lit while playing to show that the unit was functioning. There is a slot on the back of the unit for an expansion card that was never made. The second version (known as the 'Pro' series, versions 3.2 and up) had a SCSI or parallel port on the back for connecting to a computer for downloads. It also featured a cheat search function as well as being able to find the name of the game for you. It also had a LCD display that counted down 5 seconds when started and the period in the display would be lit while playing to show that the unit was functioning. This feature was removed in version 3.3.
  • Sharkwire Online – An Interact Game Shark with modem and PC style serial port for keyboard. Allowed emailing and Game Shark updates through the now discontinued dial-in service.
  • GB Hunter – Like the Super Game Boy, connects to the N64's Cartridge slot and requires N64 boot cartridge plugged into its back, and allows you to play Game Boy and Game Boy Color games on it, without games sound, instead GB Hunter's theme is played over and over during the game.
  • High Rez Pack – Mad Catz own version of the Expansion Pak. Performs the same job for less money, though there were reports of overheating due to inadequate cooling/venting, and generally inferior quality.
  • N64 Passport – Adapter and cheat device allowing players to play games from different regions on their model N64, with a few exceptions.
  • Memory Card Comfort by Speed-Link – A sort of Controller pak with four separate memory areas, 123 pages each, selectable via a small switch.
  • Battery-free Rumble Paks (3rd party) – Late in the N64's run, a few 3rd party companies made rumble paks that, instead of requiring batteries to work, drew power from the system.

[edit] Notable games

See also: List of Nintendo 64 games and Player's Choice

The Nintendo 64 game library included a number of critically acclaimed[19] and widely sold games. These included:

Super Mario 64 Mario Kart 64 Star Fox 64
Diddy Kong Racing GoldenEye 007 The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
Banjo-Kazooie Jet Force Gemini Super Smash Bros.
Banjo Tooie Perfect Dark Donkey Kong 64
F-Zero X Paper Mario Conker's Bad Fur Day
The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask Yoshi's Story 1080° Snowboarding

The last Nintendo 64 game to be released was Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 3 on August 14, 2002.[20] It should be noted that 1998's The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, is widely considered by fans and industry experts alike to be the greatest video game ever made. Its release was exclusive to the Nintendo 64 system, and it was later re-released on the Nintendo GameCube and Wii systems.

[edit] Market share

The Nintendo 64 was unsuccessful in recapturing the preceding SNES's market share and by the fifth generation the market lead was taken over by Sony's PlayStation. The PlayStation would eventually tally sales of 100 million units worldwide,[21] the N64 came second with 32.93 million units sold,[1] and the Sega Saturn in third with 10 million.[22] The North American launch on September 29, 1996 (which was actually preceded by an unofficial launch on the 26th) was a success with 500,000 N64 units sold in the first four months.[23] Benimaru Itoh, a developer for Earthbound 64 and friend of Shigeru Miyamoto, speculated in 1997 that the N64's lack of popularity in Japan was due to lack of role-playing video games.[24]

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