September 26th, 1996.
In limited release, Nintendo launched their first ever three-dimensional console that defined how games would be played in this bold new perspective, thanks to games like Super Mario 64, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Rare’s Goldeneye 007, the latter of which showed developers how first-person shooters, a genre that exploded in the next console generation, could be done right on something other than the PC and the power of local multiplayer. When people think of the N64, most will naturally tell stories about their favourite first-party Nintendo games, or those of its at the time second-party studio, Rare, and rightfully so, but it’s also interesting to reflect on how the console’s library taught us to think differently about comic book themed games.
In the days prior to the release of the Nintendo 64, most comic book games, with the exception of titles like Dinosaurs for Hire and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series, were inspired by the most popular properties from the “Big 2”: Batman, Spider-Man, Superman, X-Men, etc.. However, of the small library of games that had their roots in comics that were released on the Nintendo 64, nine in total, eleven if you count Spider-Man being unlockable in Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 and Wolverine of the X-Men providing a similar role in THPS3, the Marvel and DC offerings were flat-out terrible or the worst version of across all platforms.
The only game based on a Marvel Comic property released on the Nintendo 64 was Activision’s Spider-Man, a port that was released months after the PlayStation version with no improvements other than the lack of load times and the fact that it came in a snazzy red cartridge. The game of course is still good, and if you only have an N64 or are just infatuated with the machine, it’s very much worth playing, but it lacks the FMV cut-scenes found in the PlayStation game, has poorer voice quality and still lacks the iconic webbing on the title characters costume. Given the output Marvel’s major competitor, DC Comics, had on the N64, they would’ve gladly traded places any day to only have the worst version of an otherwise good game.
DC Comics had double the output of comic book games on the N64 over Marvel, though their quantity doesn’t triumph their quality. The first game based on a DC Comics character arrived close to three years into the consoles life cycle, and is a little game you might have heard of called Superman 64, or perhaps you know it from its other title, one of the worst video games ever released. Another corner of DC’s Trinity, at least a version of him anyway, Batman, also made an appearance on the N64 in a game based on the still well-regarded direct-to-video animated feature Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker. That game didn’t fare much better than Superman 64, getting an average score of about 1.0 in Electronic Gaming Monthly across the PSOne and N64 versions. In the blurb for the PSOne game in their 2001 buyers guide, it reads, well, see for yourself:
What’s interesting about two-thirds of the Nintendo 64’s comic book game output, is that firstly, mostly people probably didn’t know they were even based on comics and secondly, they all came from one publisher: Acclaim. With most third-parties abandoning Nintendo for Sony’s CD based PlayStation, one of the few that did support the N64 with a healthy library of games was Acclaim, with some of their most critically, pardon the pun, acclaimed games being based on properties they had purchased to turn into multimedia franchises. The first debuted in early 1997 and went on to spawn one of the Nintendo 64’s best exclusive third-party franchises: Turok.
The N64 was no stranger to first-person shooters, housing the above mentioned Goldeneye 007, its pseud-sequel Perfect Dark, as well as versions of famous PC titles like Doom as well as Quake, but it was the first Turok: Dinosaur Hunter that beat them all to the punch as the debut FPS on the console. It went on to sell over a million copies and was inaugurated into one of Nintendo’s “Players Choice” line-up alongside games like Star Fox 64 and Super Mario 64. Turok: Dinosaur Hunter spawned two sequels: 1998’s Turok 2: Seeds of Evil and 2000’s Turok 3: Shadow of Oblivion, as well as a multiplayer only spin-off, Turok: Rage Wars. While the first two games made their way to PC, those who played video games exclusively on consoles who wanted to play Turok had to do so on Nintendo’s platform.
Though they didn’t share Turok’s exclusivity to the N64, Acclaim also tried to create two new franchises based off of comic book properties in 1999. The big fall game for the year was Armorines: Project S.W.A.R.M, a game that used Turok’s engine and control scheme, but was little more than a wannabe Starship Troopers that didn’t make much impact nor hasn’t aged particularly well. Arriving months before it in the late Summer of 1999 was a game that spawned one sequel on Sony’s PlayStation 2, and was arguably the best comic book games Acclaim released on the Nintendo 64: Shadow Man.
One of the big selling points for the N64 was seeing fan-favourite Nintendo franchises in 3-D for the first time, and if you’re like me, you were sold the second you demoed Super Mario 64 in a department store and saved up your money to play it and the at once titled “Zelda 64” which would go on to be renamed The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. One franchise that was noticeably absent from the Nintendo 64, save a character appearance in the first ever Super Smash Bros., but would make an amazing comeback on the GameCube was Metroid. Fans who craved the exploratory, doors and pathways locked behind tools and upgrades gameplay found in Metroid found solace in Konami’s Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, however that was locked to Sony’s PlayStation and wasn’t the 3-D revolution of the idea in the same way Mario 64 and Ocarina of Time were.
While it doesn’t get a lot of credit for really doing so, Shadow Man was really the first time a developer really tried the ida of 3-D Metroid-esque gameplay on the Nintendo 64. The sci-fi trappings were gone, instead replaced with a dark, supernatural voodoo culture inspired theme, but the player was still thrust into an open-world, given no direction, and unlocked more of the map as more upgrades were discovered, just as players once did when exploring planet’s Zebes and SR388. It also helps that despite having a few problems such as no map and sometimes confusing level design, Shadow Man is a game that still holds up even today.
One of the negative things that is often brought up when discussing the Nintendo 64 is its overall lack of games, especially compared to the company who overtook their number one spot in sales that generation, Sony. As someone who grew up playing games at the time of the release of Nintendo’s first 3-D console and choose it over the PlayStation and Saturn, I was one of the people who found this drought troublesome, yet I found a silver lining in that it made me experiment with games I would normally not have because they were simply the new games out at the time. I was not, and still am not really, a fan of first-person shooters but spent many hours renting all the Turok games, as well as Shadow Man, even trying my hand at playing Superman 64 on more than one occasion. Twenty years later and the N64 will be remembered for a lot of things, but for me, I’ll always be grateful for introducing me to some great comic book games from properties I didn’t even now existed that I still enjoy playing today.