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Nintendo didn't drag their feet with the system this time, and released the Nintendo 64 as their entry into the fifth generation to compete with the struggling Sega Saturn and the newbie PlayStation.
The N64 was a big hit in its early life, but it lost many key franchises, especially JRPGs, because of Nintendo's reluctance to use CDs (which offered more storage space, especially for videos and voice acting) after the fiasco with Sony and Phillips on the CD add-on for the SNES. While Nintendo's first-party games on the N64 were as awesome as ever, there simply weren't enough of them to go around, especially with promised installments of the Nintendo Wars, Fire Emblem and MOTHER series never materializing on the system. The system launched with two games total, and it only had about one new release a month. So if you were tired of playing Super Mario 64 for the umpteenth time, your choices in early 1997 were Pilotwings and Cruis'n USA. That was pretty much it. The Nintendo 64 gained something of a reputation for releasing three unique and groundbreaking games a year, and absolutely nothing else. Nintendo's focus on local multiplayer party games began around this time.
This wasn't helped by Nintendo's general ham-handedness regarding third parties during the SNES period only getting worse. Third-party companies such as Atlus, Capcom, Jaleco, Namco, Bandai, Squaresoft, Sunsoft and Tecmo, which had steadfastly supported the NES and SNES, were now releasing most of their games for the PlayStation and Sega Saturn rather than the N64. One big selling point of the N64 hardware was custom microcode, but Nintendo never released information on how to use it, fearing it would be copied by their rivals. Among other groin-punches, they also patented using the N64 pad's C-buttons to control an in-game camera, meaning every non-Nintendo game had a shitty camera system. Nintendo also continued in their usual habit of forcing developers to Bowdlerise in-game content to be more 'family friendly' (although bowdlerization was not as frequent on the N64 as it was on the NES, SNES, or Game Boy); for example, forcing Perfect Dark's "Adrenaline Pills" to become "Combat Boosts", and Duke Nukem 3D's steroids powerup to become "Vitamin X."
Nintendo's adherence to bulky, expensive cartridges instead of the far-cheaper-to-produce CD-ROM format appears to have been in part to be a fear of piracy (Nintendo's early experiment with floppy disks, the Famicom Disk System, resulted in rampant piracy). Instead, Nintendo adopted a proprietary rewritable magneto-optical disk format as a high-capacity storage medium for console video games. The 64DD add-on drive had huge potential and was massively hyped in the system's early days/pre-release, but was a commercial failure when it was finally released in December 1999, and never made it to the West. The company's fear hurt everyone else: not only did multi-platform developers have to chop out features and add fogging so a game would fit on an N64 cartridge (as well as map controls to the system's unique controller), but the consumer typically paid at least $10-20 more than Saturn, Playstation, and Dreamcast titles.
The CPU, a MIPS R4300i (the 64-bit version of the R3000 in the PlayStation, hence the name) runs at 93.75 MHz and has an internal 64-bit word size, but it also has a 32-bit mode. This was mainly used by the games because A) the bus is only 32 bits, B) the 64-bit mode uses twice as much memory and bandwidth, and C) until high definition graphics, anything more than 32 bits was actually redundant for 3D graphics.note Incidentally, Nintendo 64 games have had ports and remakes on the Nintendo DS and 3DS, which are both 32-bit, with the latter being much more powerful than the Nintendo 64. So, in other words, the "64" in the name was mostly for marketing, even if the processor actually was technically capable of running 64-bit code (at least, it delivered more than the Atari Jaguar, which was also touted as a 64-bit console three years before the N64's launch).
Besides, like most systems so far, the graphics are mainly handled by the GPU, called the "Reality Co-Processor." It runs at 62.5 MHz.
It has a Vector Unit built into, to handle special programming, called "Microcodes."
These offered even more system control than vector units today, but (perhaps) fears of abuse kept Nintendo from directly sharing their codes with developers. Some had to make their own, and they often made superior codes than Nintendo's anyway. Factor 5 was such a developer.
The GPU can also process sound, but it took away processing power for other stuff like lighting effects, or system bottlenecks kept getting in the way.
Memory is where the N64 runs into trouble. Just about everything about the system's memory tends to have some limitation on performance, called a "Bottleneck."
Chris Sutherland of Rare Ware gave an example of the headaches the N64 memory handicaps gave in an interview discussing the original Banjo-Kazooie;
"From a software perspective, we pushed the memory of the system very hard. As you move the camera around the map in Banjo Kazooie, the machine is constantly throwing out of memory things you can't see and pulling in the scenery that appears into view. This gave us major memory fragmentation issues. We used a proprietary system that "reshuffled" memory continuously as you played to eliminate the fragmentation. I'd doubt many N64 games of the time did anything like that—overall it meant we could dedicate a higher number of polygons to the characters and backgrounds than many other games at the time managed."
Super Mario 64 is a classic example of how N64 games were able to use programming tricks to work around limitations on graphic memory, sometimes obviously, sometimes discreetly—things such as trees or the bodys of a bob omb are square polygons with a flat sprite/texture applied to them that is always fixed and roating with the camera. If Mario is walking around the Castle Hub, the other rooms will only load when Mario is absolutely near them and the door (and they load almost instantly). If Mario runs into the distance far enough with a fixed camera, his model will automatically switch to a lower polygon model (Mario has 752 polygons in his default model). Levels gradually load things in and out discreetly (i.e. Dire, Dire Docks disables the background textures once it loads the inner level up ahead, the trees and chain chomp in Bob Omb Battlefield vanish when you're up on the mountain), and sometimes it uses downright ingenious, subtle tricks, such as disabling collision detection on objects Mario isn't near (i.e. the spinning rock platforms in Bowser in the Sky). The game also had an object limit per level (c. 230-240 objects), crashing the game if it ever exceeded that limit by even one number (even if it's a small effects object like the dust from Mario running or a Bob-Omb fuse) and the game would drastically slow down if it would even get close to that limit.
There are 4 MB of RAM, which is "unified." The system can use any amount it wants for main, video, and audio. Unfortunately, Nintendo chose Rambus DRAM for the system. It has a high clock speed and well over twice the bandwidth of the Playstation memory, but the latency is so slow those advantages are negated.
Ironically, RDRAM is great for playing FMV, and the one game that used those (a port of Resident Evil 2) showed them pretty well despite the heavy compression.
The CPU also doesn't have direct access to the memory. Not that the bus went through the GPU, as a lot of systems do that, but those systems use direct memory access to allow smooth access through processors, and the N64 doesn't allow the CPU to do that.
Just as bad, the system can hold as many textures as it needs in the RAM, but the buffer for textures to pass though during rendering is just 4 KB. Not only did that mean no single texture could be larger than that, if they were all that large, they would have to go through one at a time. Combined with the slow latency of the RAM, and this would slow the system to molasses of there wasn't some sort of compromise.
Nintendo's method was to use textures only for objects that were the least animated, which included backgrounds. Anything more complex, like the player character, was instead detailed by gouraud shading, which is basically filling in a single color over one or more polygons. The blade of the Master Sword in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is a good example — it is not textured, but is colored in with a bright silver color and a reflection effect. This does lose some detail up close, but it allows complex animations without clogging the texture buffer.
Rareware came up with a clever solution for the texture issues for the first Banjo-Kazooie; the backgrounds had a very large number of textures, but in many cases they were actually very big textures cut into several 64*64 pieces (the largest texture size the n64 could draw) which allowed them to avoid tiling textures everywhere. They also had a decal technique that allowed them to blend areas of textures into one another.
Another solution was to limit the polygon count in order to have complex textures over every object, for example GoldenEye — the textures are over almost every object, but the draw distance suffers and characters look goofy up close.
A third solution was to use greyscale textures. GoldenEye used this, and only added colour through vertex painting. This doubles the potential resolution, but also doesn't allow for more then one colour per texture.
The best method took a few years to develop. It was to program the textures to steadily stream through the buffer. It wasn't as easy as it sounds, but developers like Rare and Factor 5 got the most advanced graphics from the N64 through this method.
The frame buffer had a problem in that the default Z-buffering, which told the system which texel is supposed to be in front of the other, would slow down the fill rate, which is how fast the frame buffer can draw the graphics on the screen. Custom z-buffering through the microcodes did get around this.
The N64 had an optional cart that could be swapped for the Expansion Pak, which added an extra 4 megabytes of RDRAM in addition to the internally included 4MB. Unfortunately, since this was still the Rambus DRAM it still had the tiny texture buffer. So it could have increased texture detail, but not by much. Its main use was increasing the screen resolution and draw distance. Notably, three N64 games absolutely required it to be played (Zelda: Majora's Mask and Donkey Kong 64, and while Perfect Dark could technically work without it, it was barely playable otherwise), and the 64DD needed it to work as well. There are 62 N64 games total that, while not requiring the Pak, could still use it to optimize their graphics. Unfortunately, it also tended to cause framerate issues with games not made for it, so the old RAM pack had to be swapped back in.
Once through all that, the system supported a maximum cartridge capacity of 64 MB. At first glace, this doesn't seem so bad, but the reality was that larger capacity carts cost more to produce, so most developers had to make due with smaller sizes. When developers did opt for these larger carts, they passed the heightened onto consumers, resulting in games that were often $20-30 more expensive than those on competing systems.
For reasons only known to Nintendo, they decided not to implement RGB scart or S-video output on PAL region N64 consoles. European gamers were stuck with composite cables which gave a poorer, less sharper picture. This is insane marketing when you realise that the superior RGB video standard was being supported heavily in Europe. Even the PAL SNES supported RGB scart. Even more maddening, is that NTSC machines have S-video support, and can be easily modded to support RGB.
Although the system would have poorer performance if not coded properly, it did have a few features built in, that worked no matter the coding.
It was also the first to have tri-linear filtering, which removes the blocky look of textures.
The system can actually push 500,000 polygons in real time, five times what the Playstation and Saturn can do...yet that required a code that was never released before the system was discontinued. Some codes could still push the system up to 180,000 polygons, but only one or two games went that far. Most N64 games just pushed 100,000 polygons or slightly lower.
In addition to the above effects, the N64 did have probably the best effects of the 5th generation, including real-time lighting in a few games.
Add-Ons and Expansions
Aside from the aforementioned memory expansion module, Nintendo and other companies released several other expansion modules that could be plugged straight into the system's controller.
The Controller Pak (a removable storage medium which could be used to save in-game progress).
The Rumble Pak (which, packaged with Star Fox 64, made the N64 the first home system on the market to support force feedback, a feature which Sony would eventually incorporate into their own Dual Shock controllers).
The Transfer Pak (let players plug in their Game Boy cartridges for gameplay benefits, such as being able to use Pokémon caught in the Game Boy titles in Pokemon Stadium).
The Bio Sensor (made by SETA, for use with Tetris 64's Bio Tetris mode, where the pace of the game increases to the beat of your heart).
The Mouse, bundled with Mario Artist: Paint Studio, usable with the entire Mario Artist series and StarCraft 64.
The 64DD, a disk drive that could be attached to an N64, allowed players to play games off of larger magnetic disks, access the RANDnet service and also increased the system's memory capacity.
The Modem Cartridge, The Phone Cable and The RANDnet Browser Disc, used for browsing the internet.
The Keyboard, usable only with the RANDnet software, for browsing the net and typing messages.
The Capture Cartridge and The Microphone, they were bundled with Mario Artist: Talent Studio and used as input method for pictures, video and audio.
Games and Series:
64 Hanafuda: Promise of an Angel
64 Professional Sumo Wrestling
64 Professional Sumo Wrestling 2
64 Trump Collection - Alice's Exciting Trip to Trump World
Neon Genesis Evangelion (The first—and, to date, one of the only—Evangelion-licensed games to actually allow players to control the titular mechas, known for pushing the limits of the Nintendo 64's hardware. Sadly, it was only released in Japan.)
Book Ends: Super Mario 64, the first game for the console, begins (at least gameplay-wise) with Mario coming out of a pipe in the front lawn of Peach's castle... and in Mario Party 3, the last major game for the console, after the end credits, Mario and the other playable characters are seen relaxing in the front lawn of Peach's castle.
Damn You, Muscle Memory: One thing nobody misses about the console is its highly impractical controller. It's been speculated that it's intended for someone with three hands.
Digital Piracy Is Evil: The Nintendo 64 is collateral damage in the war against piracy, as Nintendo's choice of lower capacity but harder-to-copy cartridges over CDs limited game development, resulting in a dearth of third-party games as opposed to the CD-based PlayStation and consequently lower sales of Nintendo's console.
The console had a "Limited Edition" only for sale in Daiei Hawks stores in Japan with a transparent orange top and a transparent black bottom. The controller with a transparent orange top and a black bottom that came with the console was also sold separately.
The console had a "Jusco 30th Anniversary Edition" only for sale in Jusco stores in Japan to commemorate the 30th Anniversary of the Jusco chain of stores with a transparent light gray top and a transparent white bottom. The controller with a transparent light gray top and a transparent white bottom that came with the console was also sold separately.
The controller with a black top and a gray bottom had two variants:
One sold only in Hello Mac stores in Japan with a lion emblem on top.
One sold only in Toys Я Us stores in Japan with a Geoffrey the Giraffe emblem on top.
64 Professional Sumo Wrestling came with a Controller Pak.
Choro Q 64 came with an assemblable toy car.
Disney's Tarzan came with a Tarzan figurine.
Densha de Go! 64 has a "Driver Pack"that came with a Voice Recognition Unit microphone.
Extreme-G has a "Special Edition" in Germany that came with a music CD.
Gauntlet Legends came with a Warrior miniature.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
It has a "Collector's Edition" in America and Australia that came with a Gold Cartridge.
It has a "Limited Edition" in Germany that came with a Strategy Guide and a shirt (possibly unlicensed).
The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask
It has a "Collector’s Edition" in America that came with a cartridge that had a holografic label.
It has a "Limited Edition Adventure Set" in Europe limited to 1000 pieces that came with a shirt, a watch, a 2 CD soundtrack, a poster, a sticker and 2 pin badges.
The New Superman Aventures has a "Collector's Edition" that came with a tie-in comic book.
Pokemon Stadium has a "Battle Set" in Europe that came with a Nintendo 64 with a blue top with yellow Reset button, Power button, dust tray and bottom
Rampage 2: Universal Tour
It came with a Rampage Baby, one of three possible plush keychains of George, Lizzie, and Ralph.
It came with a shirt.
World Driver Championship came with a shirt.
Loads and Loads of Loading: Deliberately averted, as Nintendo cited the long load times of CDs as one of the reasons for the cartridge medium. Unfortunately, CDs' loading times were a small problem compared to the painfully restrictive amounts of storage offered by carts.
Really, the cartridges were less about loading and more about preventing piracy, which Nintendo feared from the last time it had used a standardized storage system, the Famicom Disk System, where piracy was rampant.
Tonka Tough: Nintendo 64s are built like tanks, and are guaranteed to last you for decades. One TV show even tried to destroy one, and it took two whacks from a large mallet before any visible cracks appeared!
Averted, sadly, with the Nintendo 64 joystick. It was built in such a way that the plastic quickly wore itself down from the rotation, resulting in a stick with excessive center play. By contrast, it uses optical encoders instead of the potentiometers that later Nintendo controllers use, which are more durable and precise due to their contactless nature. Too bad the gimbal/pivot parts of the joystick can't hold up compared to the sensors.