A Tribute To The N64 On Its 20th Anniversary


Today marks a very special day in gaming history. It is the 20th anniversary of one of the most beloved consoles in gaming history. The Nintendo 64 launched in North America on September 26th, 1996. 20 years later its popularity still amazes me. If you keep up to date with the current prices of retro video games, then you know that N64 games can be pretty pricey. Its for good reason. The good 64 games still hold up great, and are as fun to play as ever.

So for this monumental occasion I’ll be paying tribute to this treasured console with some historical gaming facts, classic commercials, and cool retro ads. Hope you enjoy!

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The Nintendo 64, stylized as NINTENDO64 and often referred to as N64, is Nintendo’s third home video game console for the international market. Named for its 64-bit central processing unit, it was released in June 1996 in Japan, September 1996 in North America, March 1997 in Europe and Australia, September 1997 in France and December 1997 in Brazil. It is the industry’s last major home console to use the cartridge as its primary storage format, although current handheld systems (such as the PlayStation Vita and Nintendo 3DS) also use cartridges. While the Nintendo 64 was succeeded by Nintendo’s MiniDVD-based GameCube in November 2001, the consoles remained available until the system was retired in late 2003.

Code named Project Reality, the console’s design was mostly finalized by mid-1995, though Nintendo 64’s launch was delayed until 1996. As part of the fifth generation of gaming, the system competed primarily with the PlayStation and the Sega Saturn. The Nintendo 64 was launched with three games: Super Mario 64 and Pilotwings 64, released worldwide; and Saikyō Habu Shōgi, released only in Japan. The Nintendo 64’s suggested retail price at launch was US$199.99 and it was later marketed with the slogan “Get N, or get Out!”. With 32.93 million units worldwide, the console was ultimately released in a range of different colors and designs, and an assortment of limited-edition controllers were sold or used as contest prizes during the system’s lifespan. IGN named it the 9th greatest video game console of all time; and in 1996, Time Magazine named it Machine of the Year.

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At the beginning of the 1990s, Nintendo led the video game industry with its Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). Although the NES follow-up console, the Super NES (SNES), was successful, sales took a hit from the Japanese recession. Competition from long-time rival Sega, and relative newcomer Sony, emphasized Nintendo’s need to develop a successor for the SNES, or risk losing market dominance to its rivals. Further complicating matters, Nintendo also faced a backlash from third-party developers unhappy with Nintendo’s strict licensing policies.

Silicon Graphics, Inc. (SGI), a long-time leader in graphics visualization and supercomputing, was interested in expanding its business by adapting its technology into the higher volume realm of consumer products, starting with the video game market. Based upon its MIPS R4000 family of supercomputing and workstation CPUs, SGI developed a CPU requiring a fraction of the resources—consuming only 0.5 watts of power instead of 1.5 to 2 watts, with an estimated target price of US$40 instead of US$80–200. The company created a design proposal for a video game system, seeking an already well established partner in that market. James H. Clark, founder of SGI, initially offered the proposal to Tom Kalinske, who was the CEO of Sega of America. The next candidate was Nintendo.

The historical details of these preliminary negotiations were controversial between the two competing suitors. Tom Kalinske said that he and Joe Miller of Sega of America were “quite impressed” with SGI’s prototype, inviting their hardware team to travel from Japan to meet with SGI. The engineers from Sega Enterprises claimed that their evaluation of the early prototype had uncovered several unresolved hardware issues and deficiencies. Those were subsequently resolved, but Sega had already decided against SGI’s design. Nintendo resisted that summary conclusion, arguing that the reason for SGI’s ultimate choice of partner is due to Nintendo having been a more appealing business partner than Sega. While Sega demanded exclusive rights to the chip, Nintendo was willing to license the technology on a non-exclusive basis. Michael Slater, publisher of Microprocessor Report said, “The mere fact of a business relationship there is significant because of Nintendo’s phenomenal ability to drive volume. If it works at all, it could bring MIPS to levels of volume [SGI] never dreamed of”.

James Clark met with Nintendo CEO Hiroshi Yamauchi in early 1993, thus initiating Project Reality. On August 23, 1993, the two companies announced a global joint partnership and licensing agreement surrounding Project Reality, projecting that the yet unnamed eventual product would be “developed specifically for Nintendo, will be unveiled in arcades in 1994, and will be available for home use by late 1995 … below $250”. This announcement coincided with Nintendo’s August 1993 Shoshinkai trade show.

As with most of the computing industry, Nintendo had limited experience with 3D graphics, and worked with several outside companies to develop the technology comprising the console. Some chip technology was provided by NEC, Toshiba, and Sharp. SGI had recently acquired MIPS Computer Systems, and the two worked together toward a low-cost realtime 3D graphics hardware system. SGI and its subsidiary MIPS Technologies were responsible for the R4300i microprocessor and the 3D graphics hardware used in the Nintendo 64.

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The initial Project Reality software development platform was developed and sold by SGI in the form of its US$100,000–US$250,000 Onyx supercomputer loaded with the namesake US$50,000 RealityEngine2 graphics boards and four 150 MHz R4400 CPUs, and with early Project Reality application and emulation APIs. By purchasing and developing upon this graphics supercomputing platform, Nintendo and its select game developer partners could fully prototype their games according to SGI’s estimated console performance, prior to the finalization of the console hardware specifications. That software-based console prototype platform was later supplanted by a workstation-hosted console simulation board, representing the finalized console hardware. SGI’s performance estimates based upon their RealityEngine supercomputing platform were ultimately reported to be fairly accurate to the final consumer console product.

The console’s design was publicly revealed for the first time in late Q2 1994. Images of the console displayed the Nintendo Ultra 64 logo, a ROM cartridge, but no controller. This prototype console’s form factor would be retained by the product eventually launched as Nintendo 64 due to a legal issue with Konami. Having initially indicated the possibility of utilizing the increasingly popular CD-ROM if the medium’s endemic performance problems were solved, the company now announced a much faster but space-limited cartridge-based system, which prompted open analysis by the gaming press. The system was frequently marketed as the world’s first 64-bit gaming system, often stating the console was more powerful than the first moon landing computers. Atari had already claimed to have made the first 64-bit game console with their Atari Jaguar, but the Jaguar only uses a general 64-bit architecture in conjunction with two 32-bit RISC processors and a 16/32-bit Motorola 68000.

Later in Q2 1994, Nintendo signed a licensing agreement with Midway’s parent company which enabled Midway to develop and market arcade games using the Project Reality hardware and formed a joint venture company called Williams/Nintendo to market Nintendo-exclusive home conversions of these games. The result is two arcade games, Killer Instinct and Cruis’n USA, which boasted their upcoming release on the arcade branch of the Nintendo Ultra 64 platform. Compared to the console branch of Ultra 64, the arcade branch uses a different MIPS CPU, has no Reality Coprocessor, and uses onboard ROM chips and a hard drive instead of a cartridge. Killer Instinct features pre-rendered character artwork, and CG movie backgrounds that are streamed off the hard drive and animated as the characters move horizontally.

The completed Nintendo 64 was fully unveiled to the public in a playable form on November 24, 1995, at the 7th Annual Shoshinkai Software Exhibition in Japan. Nintendo’s next-generation console was introduced as the “Nintendo 64” (a name given by Shigesato Itoi), contrary to speculation that it would be called “Nintendo Ultra 64”. Photos of the event were disseminated on the web by Game Zero magazine two days later. Official coverage by Nintendo followed later via the Nintendo Power website and print magazine.

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In the lead up to the console’s release, Nintendo had adopted a new global branding strategy, assigning the console the same name for all markets: Nintendo 64. Previously, the plan had been to release the console as the Ultra Famicom in Japan and as the Nintendo Ultra 64 in other markets. Nintendo said that trademark issues were not a factor, and the sole reason for the name change was to establish a single worldwide brand and logo for the console. The prefix for the model numbering scheme for hardware and software across the Nintendo 64 platform is “NUS-“, a reference to the console’s original name, “Nintendo Ultra Sixty-four”.

The console was originally slated for release by Christmas of 1995. In May 1995, Nintendo pushed back the release to April 1996. The prospect of a release the following year at a lower price than the competition lowered sales of competing Sega and Sony consoles during the important Christmas shopping season. Electronic Gaming Monthly editor Ed Semrad even suggested that Nintendo may have announced the April 1996 release date with this end in mind, knowing in advance that the system would not be ready by that date.

In its explanation of the delay, Nintendo claimed it needed more time for Nintendo 64 software to mature, and for third-party developers to produce games. Adrian Sfarti, a former engineer for SGI, attributed the delay to hardware problems; he claimed that the chips underperformed in testing and were being redesigned. In 1996, the Nintendo 64’s software development kit was redesigned as the Partner-N64 system, by Kyoto Microcomputer, Co. Ltd. of Japan.

To counter the possibility that gamers would grow impatient with the wait for the Nintendo 64 and purchase one of the several competing consoles already on the market, Nintendo ran ads for the system well in advance of its announced release dates, with slogans like “Wait for it…” and “Is it worth the wait? Only if you want the best!”

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Popular Electronics called the launch a “much hyped, long-anticipated moment”.

The console was first released in Japan on June 23, 1996. The Nintendo 64 was first sold in North America on September 26, 1996, despite having been advertised for the 29th. It was launched with just two games in the United States, Pilotwings 64 and Super Mario 64. In 1994, prior to the launch, Nintendo of America chairman Howard Lincoln emphasized the quality of first-party games, saying “… we’re convinced that a few great games at launch are more important than great games mixed in with a lot of dogs”. The PAL version of the console was released in Europe on March 1, 1997.

Originally intended to be priced at US$250, the console was ultimately launched at US$199.99 to make it competitive with Sony and Sega offerings (Both the Saturn and PlayStation had been lowered to $199.99 earlier that summer). Nintendo priced the console as an impulse purchase, a strategy from the toy industry. The price of the console in the United States was further reduced in August 1998.


To boost sales during the slow post-Christmas season, Nintendo and General Mills worked together on a promotional campaign that appeared in early 1999. A television advertising campaign cost $5 million. The advertisement by Saatchi and Saatchi, New York began on January 25 and encouraged children to buy Fruit by the Foot snacks for tips to help them with their Nintendo 64 games. Ninety different tips were available, with three variations of thirty tips each.

Nintendo advertised its Funtastic Series of peripherals with a $10 million print and television campaign from February 28 to April 30, 2000. Leo Burnett, Chicago, was in charge.

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Critical reception

The Nintendo 64 received generally positive reviews from critics. Reviewers generally praised the console’s advanced 3D graphics and gameplay, while criticizing the lack of games. On G4techTV’s (now G4’s) Filter, the Nintendo 64 was voted up to No. 1 by registered users.

In February 1996, Next Generation magazine called the Nintendo Ultra 64 the “best kept secret in videogames” and the “world’s most powerful game machine”. It called the system’s November 24, 1995 unveiling at Shoshinkai “the most anticipated videogaming event of the 1990s, possibly of all time”. Previewing the Nintendo 64 shortly prior to its launch, Time magazine praised the realistic movement and gameplay provided by the combination of fast graphics processing, pressure-sensitive controller, and the Super Mario 64 game. The review praised the “fastest, smoothest game action yet attainable via joystick at the service of equally virtuoso motion”, where “[f]or once, the movement on the screen feels real”.

At launch, the Los Angeles Times called the system “quite simply, the fastest, most graceful game machine on the market”. Its form factor was described as small, light, and “built for heavy play by kids” unlike the “relatively fragile Sega Saturn”. Showing concern for a major console product launch during a sharp, several-year long, decline in the game console market, the review said that the long-delayed Nintendo 64 was “worth the wait” in the company’s pursuit of quality. Nintendo’s “penchant for perfection” in game quality control was praised, though with concerns about having only two launch titles at retail and twelve expected by Christmas. Describing the quality control incentives associated with cartridge-based development, the Times cited Nintendo’s position that cartridge game developers tend to “place a premium on substance over flash”, and noted that the launch titles lack the “poorly acted live-action sequences or half-baked musical overtures” which it says tend to be found on CD-ROM games. Praising Nintendo’s controversial choice of the cartridge medium with its “nonexistent” load times and “continuous, fast-paced action CD-ROMs simply cannot deliver”, the review concluded that “the cartridge-based Nintendo 64 delivers blistering speed and tack-sharp graphics that are unheard of on personal computers and make competing 32-bit, disc-based consoles from Sega and Sony seem downright sluggish”.

Time named it their 1996 Machine of the Year, saying the machine had “done to video-gaming what the 707 did to air travel”. The magazine said the console achieved “the most realistic and compelling three-dimensional experience ever presented by a computer”. Time credited the Nintendo 64 with revitalizing the video game market, “rescuing this industry from the dustbin of entertainment history”. The magazine suggested that the Nintendo 64 would play a major role in introducing children to digital technology in the final years of the 20th century. The article concluded by saying the console had already provided “the first glimpse of a future where immensely powerful computing will be as common and easy to use as our televisions”.

Popular Electronics complimented the system’s hardware, calling its specifications “quite impressive”. It found the controller “comfortable to hold, and the controls to be accurate and responsive”.

Developer Factor 5, who created some of the system’s most technologically advanced games along with the system’s audio development tools for Nintendo, said, “[T]he N64 is really sexy because it combines the performance of an SGI machine with a cartridge. We’re big arcade fans, and cartridges are still the best for arcade games or perhaps a really fast CD-ROM. But there’s no such thing for consoles yet [as of 1998]”.

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The Nintendo 64 was in heavy demand upon its release. David Cole, industry analyst, said “You have people fighting to get it from stores.” Time called the purchasing interest “that rare and glorious middle-class Cabbage Patch-doll frenzy”. The magazine said celebrities Matthew Perry, Steven Spielberg’s office, and some Chicago Bulls players called Nintendo to ask for special treatment to get their hands on the console.

During the system’s first three days on the market, retailers sold 350,000 of 500,000 available console units. During its first four months, the console yielded 500,000 unit sales in North America. Nintendo successfully outsold Sony and Sega early in 1997 in the US; and by the end of its first full year, 3.6 million units were sold in the United States. BusinessWire reported that the Nintendo 64 was responsible for Nintendo’s sales having increased by 156% by 1997.

After a strong launch year, the decision to use the cartridge format is said to have contributed to the diminished release pace and higher price of games compared to the competition, and thus Nintendo was unable to maintain their lead in America. The company would continue to outsell the Sega Saturn throughout the generation, but would trail behind the PlayStation.

In Japan, the console was not as successful, failing to outsell the PlayStation and even the Sega Saturn. Benimaru Itō, a developer for EarthBound 64 and friend of Shigeru Miyamoto, speculated in 1997 that the Nintendo 64’s lower popularity in Japan was due to the lack of role-playing video games.

Nintendo reported that the system’s vintage hardware and software sales had ceased by 2004, three years after the GameCube’s launch; as of December 31, 2009, the Nintendo 64 had yielded a lifetime total of 5.54 million system units sold in Japan, 20.63 million in the Americas, and 6.75 million in other regions, for a total of 32.93 million units.

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The Nintendo 64 remains one of the most recognized video game systems in history and its games still have impact on the games industry. Designed in tandem with the controller, Super Mario 64 and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time are widely considered by critics and the public to be some of the greatest and most influential games of all time. GoldenEye 007 is one of the most influential games for the shooter genre.

The Aleck 64 is a Nintendo 64 design in arcade form, designed by Seta in cooperation with Nintendo, and sold from 1998 to 2003 only in Japan.


A total of 388 games were released for the console, though there were a few that were exclusively sold in Japan. For comparison, rivals PlayStation and the Sega Saturn received around 1,100 games and 600 games respectively, while previous Nintendo consoles such as the NES and SNES had 768 and 725 games released in the USA. However, the Nintendo 64 game library included a high number of critically acclaimed and widely sold games. Super Mario 64 is the best selling game of the generation, with 11 million units sold and beating the PlayStation’s Gran Turismo (at 10.85 million) and Final Fantasy VII (at 9.72 million) in sales. The game also received much praise from critics and helping to pioneer three-dimensional control schemes. GoldenEye 007 was important in the evolution of the first-person shooter, and has been named one of the greatest in the genre. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time set the standard for future 3D action-adventure games and is considered by many to be one of the greatest games ever made.

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The most graphically demanding Nintendo 64 games that arrived on larger 32 or 64 MB cartridges are the most advanced and detailed of the 32-bit/64-bit generation. In order to maximize use of the Nintendo 64 hardware developers had to create their own alternate bespoke custom microcode. Nintendo 64 games running on custom microcode benefited from much higher polygon counts in tandem with more advanced lighting, animation, physics and AI routines than its 32-bit competition. Conker’s Bad Fur Day is arguably the pinnacle of its generation combining multicolored real-time lighting that illuminates each area to real-time shadowing and detailed texturing replete with a full in game facial animation system. The Nintendo 64’s graphics chip is capable of executing many more advanced and complex rendering techniques than its competitors. It is the first home console to feature trilinear filtering, which allowed textures to look very smooth. This contrasted with the Saturn and PlayStation, which used nearest-neighbor interpolation and produced more pixelated textures. Overall however the results of the Nintendo cartridge system were mixed and this was tied primarily to its storage medium.

The smaller storage size of ROM cartridges limited the number of available textures. As a result, many games which utilized much smaller 8 or 12 MB cartridges are forced to stretch textures over larger surfaces. Compounded by a limit of 4,096 bytes of on-chip texture memory, the end-result is often a distorted, out-of-proportion appearance. Many titles that feature larger 32 or 64 MB cartridges avoided this issue entirely, notable games include Resident Evil 2, Sin and Punishment: Successor of the Earth, and Conker’s Bad Fur Day as they feature more ROM space, allowing for more detailed graphics by utilizing multiple, multi-layered textures across all surfaces.

Happy 20th B-Day Nintendo 64!

Has It Really Been 20 Years Already?

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About Phil Williams

Founder & President of GameTraders USA.

“Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.”
-Dr. Seuss

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