In 1996, Nintendo released their third home console to the market, the Nintendo 64, a system four times more powerful than the measly 16-bit Super Nintendo. We argued a lot about numbers a lot back in the day like we knew what we were talking about or it actually meant something. “The PlayStation’s only 32-bit, and the N64 is 64-bit. It’s twice as better, math doesn’t lie!” was I’m sure part of an actual conversation once upon a time, perhaps even one I was in.
The Nintendo 64 was part of the generation where game makers would largely leave 2-D software behind, instead turning their attention to the creation of fully 3-D worlds that players could explore. The general consensus among video game enthusiasts is that the first generation of 3-D games – titles that appeared on the Nintendo 64, Sony’s first PlayStation and Sega Saturn – have not aged well, and they’re not wrong. The visuals in these games for the most part certainly are tough to go back to, especially on a modern display, which is also true of the clunky controls and camera systems that make it uncomfortable to move around and see what you’re doing in this bold new dimension. For me personally though, I absolutely love early 3-D games and revisit them frequently.
To me, playing early 3-D games feels like what it must’ve been like for people who were around during the early days of the arcade and the Atari 2600. These were times when people were simply trying to figure out how to make a video game, and those playing them were simply fascinated by this new entertainment medium. When I play a game from the dawn of 3-D game, good or bad, I think about how equally scary and exciting it must’ve been for video game developers to create visions that were once impossible, but also having to essentially start over in a sense as what worked in 2-D didn’t always translate to 3-D. I look past what the game isn’t, and instead thinking about what was trying to be accomplished but couldn’t quite be achieved due to having to learn new technology and skills.
My first encounter with the Nintendo 64 was a demo that was set up at our local Wal-Mart for people to come in and play, conveniently placed right next to the door where you entered. I’ve seen videos where people recall not knowing how to properly grip the console’s unique three-pronged controller, but that wasn’t the case at all for me. Somehow I instinctively knew where to rest my left hand in the middle section for optimal movement controls, freeing up my right hand for the other buttons on the controller.
The game that was being shown off was Super Mario 64, the ground breaking launch title that showed many just what 3-D games could be capable of. It was also helpful in my early understanding of 3-D games as the opening areas where you run around taught you that those four, yellow buttons were used to adjust the camera, something that you didn’t have to concern yourself with on Nintendo’s prior consoles. From the opening moments of Super Mario 64 I knew it was something special and that I needed to own a Nintendo 64. The combination of the big, for the time, open levels, colorful environments and up beat music made it difficult to put down the controller and let other people play. From that point on it would be difficult to go back to the Super Nintendo. 1996 closed out with a few new SNES games like a new entry in the Donkey Kong Country franchise, but it was hard to get excited about such games once Nintendo 64 boxes with their multi-colored sides and striking red stripe on the right of the cover starting showing up on the shelves at our rental stores.
I knew that asking for an Nintendo 64 for Christmas that year would elicit a hearty laugh from my parents, and being a broke preteen, I couldn’t afford to buy one myself either. Luckily though my parents would allow me to rent the system from time to time over a few scattered weekends. The system would come in a gray briefcase like holding container, fastened tight with snaps on the front. The interior was lined with a foam egg crate interior, making it feel like the contents were on par with the nuclear launch codes. For me it might as well have been something as important.
There were many blissful nights had with a borrowed Nintendo 64, seeing how many stars I could accumulate in Super Mario 64 before I had to pack up everything and bring it back or bouncing on turbulent waters in the jet ski racing game Wave Race 64. My fondest memory of a rental period is in early 1997, shortly after Christmas, where my mom brought me to Marie’s Video to rent the console so I could play it with some friends who were staying over. Marie’s was one of the first places that got the debut title in the Star Wars franchise for the system, Star Wars: Shadow of the Empire. Shadows of the Empire opens strong with a first level recreating the iconic Battle of Hoth from Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. Super Mario 64 was something, but this was on another level. Piloting a rebel snowspeeder, tripping up imperial AT-AT’s with your crafts tow cables, all the while the score from the films played in the background just blew our collective minds. We managed to complete a few levels of the game, but we choose to keep playing the first level over and over again.
1997 was a big year for Newfoundland, especially in my hometown. That year was the Cabot 500 celebrations occurred in recognition of John Cabot arrived on the shores of North America in his vessel, The Matthew. All of the small communities, including my own, suddenly became bustling tourist locations as events were held off where a replica of the boat would find its way into any town that had a marina, and crowds came from all over to see it. There are times when you could go down on the main roads in Harbour Grace and barely see a car. During Cabot 500, the streets were so clogged you could barely cross the street. It was an energy I loved as it made our town feel like an important city.
What eclipsed the excitement of the opening ceremonies for me though is that my parents told me something I wasn’t expecting to hear that day: they were giving me the money to buy an Nintendo 64. They had also landed me my first ever job too, helping out someone who had a merchandise booth set up selling t-shirts and other things. I enjoyed the job, there was a nervous excitement about the responsibility I was given, and of course I was thinking of all the carts I could fuel my new system with the money I was going to earn. The next day when I showed up ready to man the booth, I was given a handful of balloons and told to walk around and sell them. As someone who had just turned thirteen, I could tell that this person didn’t quite want me around. Between the balloons that would slip out of my hand and soar into the sky and the many turned off parents who were puzzled that I was charging money for them, in my final act of defiance I let them all go, not very environmentally friendly in hindsight, and headed home to play with my console.
I didn’t earn enough money to buy an Nintendo 64 game from my meager two days of work, but I had enough money to at least catch up on all the games I had missed like Turok: Dinosaur Hunter, a “Doom Clone” or what’s now commonly known as a first-person shooter where you play as a Native American equipped with a deadly arsenal of weapons used to hunt dinosaurs and other dangerous enemies. My brother would pick up his own controller that we would use for multiplayer sessions in games like Mario Kart 64 or the recently released Star Fox 64, the follow-up to the SNES game that I adored and the game I wanted above all others. There were days of riding my bike down to First Stop video and bugging whoever was behind the counter to see if Star Fox 64 had come in yet. The whole summer was more or less like this as I would see commercials for new games on TV like GoldenEye 007, a shooter game based on the film of the same name that was easily one of the most popular games on the system.
Something that caused the Nintendo 64 to have a low volume of games was that the software delivery method was still cartridges like the other Nintendo consoles that came before it. This was in contrast to competing consoles like Sony and Sega that embraced compact discs which were much cheaper to produce. Because of this, many companies chose to abandon Nintendo in favor of Sony’s PlayStation. In my first year of Nintendo 64 ownership, I quickly exhausted with little games there were on the system and because games were close to a hundred dollars after tax, some even one-fifty before taxes, I didn’t own a game until Christmas of that year. That game? Mortal Kombat Mythologies: Sub-Zero, a spin-off of the Mortal Kombat series that was a close to the wire find. We managed to find it at a Zellers, a sadly defunct Canadian department store chain, for a sticker price of $99.99.
Mortal Kombat Mythologies: Sub-Zero is a bad video game, and there’s plenty of videos on YouTube from popular personalities that breakdown its many shortcomings. As I’ve already dedicated a chapter explaining my deep love of the lore of the Mortal Kombat series, you can understand why, for me at least, it was such a desired piece of software. Bad game or not, it was the one I had, and over the course of many days and night off of school, I finished that game from back to front on the highest difficulty.
During the Nintendo 64 console generation, it was the only system I had until the year 2000 when I got a PlayStation after it was adorably shrunken down and sold under a new name, the PSOne. Something I appreciated about the lack of games that came to the N64, especially compared to the PlayStation, is that you became so starved for games that you would give anything a try. Sometimes this would mean you would get a low rent Super Mario 64 knockoff that understood little of what made that game so special, but other times you would walk down to the video store and rent out a quirky game like Mischief Makers, a rare 2-D game that had charm to spare that I would’ve otherwise skipped.
While the Nintendo 64 lacked in fewer releases, it made up for in multiplayer games that kept you engaged with them for months, even years, at a time. Four controller ports on the front of the machine meant that the only barrier to entry to playing party games like Super Smash Bros., incredible wrestling games and hundreds of matches in GoldenEye 007 were a few extra controllers and friends away. The problem for me though was friends were few in number and didn’t quite share my enthusiasm for gaming. While everyone else in their teen years was leaving video games behind in favor of team sports and discovering alcohol, I was embracing video games perhaps more than ever in my life and still got excited to browse the toy aisle at Wal-Mart. When you’re in a small town, the kid who had a zero batting average with the opposite sex and had a Spawn t-shirt they loved wearing to school becomes an easy target for bullies, so waking up every morning at the thought of going to school was pretty sickening to me. It’s one of the reasons I get frustrated with how people on social media gate keep the video game playing hobby instead of welcoming people with open arms regardless of the games they like to play. I would’ve given anything to have more people to share my love of video games back then.
I think my parents sensed my loneliness and offered more opportunities to go to places like Bay Roberts and Spaniards Bay to rent some of the harder to find games that our local stores didn’t get. It was around that time that my older brother would also get his license so renting farther away was pretty much a win for the entire family. I got a game, my brother got to drive, and my parents just got to sit back and relax. It was because of this that I got to experience the many games I was beginning to learn about in the pages of Nintendo Power.
Whether it had to do with how isolated I felt, it was the Nintendo 64 generation where my love of video games evolved from something that I shared with other hobbies to a full on obsession. I wasn’t just interested in playing games, I wanted to read about the people who made them and discuss why I did and didn’t like certain types of games. I wouldn’t start writing about the video game industry in any capacity until 2007, but the roots of that passion were very much planted during the back half of the ‘90’-s. Whatever allowance money I got from my parents was used to buy Nintendo Power magazine that I would read from cover-to-cover the moment I got a new issue. Unlike my childhood days where I had an issue here or there, suddenly I amassed a stack of issues that would equip me with the knowledge of what games to look forward to and which to avoid. I’m pretty sure I became pretty obnoxious to store clerks when I would ask if they had games they never even heard of.
Not only did a I have magazines though, I had a new weekly television program to watch: The Electric Playground. In 1997 our town for the first time in a very long time got new television stations, including one that was dedicated to sci-fi content called Space. It was on this channel that I discovered The Electric Playground, a show created by Victor Lucas – who still produces the show today on YouTube today – who with a rotating cast of hosts including famed video game composer Tommy Tallarico would interview people in the video game industry. Every episode would cap off with a segment called “Reviews on the Run” where Tommy and Victor would review games, Siskel & Ebert style, from a random location.
If you watch early episodes of The Electric Playground for the first time now, they can come off as cheesy with some awkward jokes and sketches, but the reason for its longevity is that it was produced and starred people with a genuine passion for the video game medium. As someone who was starting a journey to learn more about the behind the scenes aspects of the industry, the program couldn’t of landed at a better time.
The year 1998 was a big one for the Nintendo 64, as it was within that year that one of the games that defined the console, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time would get released. This was one of the most anticipated games for the system and one where you would just stare at a single still image of in Nintendo Power just to imagine what it would be like when you actually got your hand on it. That year was a big one for our family, but not exactly in a good way.
It was early into the summer and not long after my birthday that my mom revealed that she was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a form of cancer. I will skip to the end and say that my mother triumphantly beat the disease and is still with us today, but it was a very hard time for us. My brother and I didn’t see our parents for long stretches at a time when she was undergoing treatment and spent a lot of time staying at our grandmother’s house. When we did get to see mom, it was hard to see her so sick, barely able to walk a few feet without gasping for air. We were assured that the survival rate for this particular type of cancer is high, but the thought never leaves the back of your mind that the worst can happen.
It was hard to answer the question “what do you want for Christmas?” from my parents that year as you couldn’t help but feel guilty and selfish asking for anything during a time like that, but my parents insisted that this disease was not going to cancel the holiday. The only thing I said I wanted was a copy of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, something I didn’t think I would actually get and frankly wouldn’t be disappointed if I didn’t given the circumstances. The game was in such high demand that even our local Wal-Mart were taking pre-orders, a concept foreign to me up to that point. Given all of the struggles and turmoil they were going through, my parents came through with a copy for me. I don’t know if I ever told them how thankful I was, but it was maybe one of the best presents I ever got and still one of my favorite games of all time.
My anticipation with Zelda was so high that I couldn’t wait until Christmas to play it, so I started calling around to my local video stores to see if any of them had purchased a copy I could rent. I struck gold when Family Video in Carbonear informed me that they had a copy, but it was reserved for the Friday night rental period but luckily not Saturday night so I got my name in.
That Saturday was an excruciatingly long day as I hovered close to the phone, waiting for Family Video to call and say that Zelda had been returned and it was available for my to pick up. 6PM came, but there was no call. I started calling on regular intervals asking where the game was as it was supposed to be returned. They stated that they were trying to reach the person who had the game out but had no luck. It wasn’t until 9PM that evening when I finally sat down to play the game. I was furious at the unnamed person who had robbed me of precious hours with the game I was dying to play.
I would meet that person close to one year later during a weekend retreat at our local high school where I verbally expressed my still lingering resentment over them not bringing the game back on time. This person is one of the few people I keep in regular contact with from high school, and we broke the ice over a mutual love of another video game phenomena that took over the world in 1998.