The Nintendo 64 Era: Gaming’s Red-Headed Stepchild

From retro classics like the NES and the original Game Boy to newer consoles such as the Wii and the Xbox 360, I’ve played a lot of video games over the years. And like any games enthusiast, I like to, on occasion, revisit the best games of days gone by. You know, a round of Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! here and there, a quick run through Megaman 2, a delightful romp through Hyrule as seen in A Link to the Past … that sort of thing. Unfortunately, there’s one generation of games that is rather difficult to go back to and play again …

The N64: The uncle you don't want to visit anymore.

The N64: The alcoholic uncle you thought was cool, but don't want to visit anymore.

It’s not the NES. Sure, it had some downright terrible games, but the true classics from that generation have passed the test of time. No, gaming’s “red-headed stepchild” is the generation that witnessed the original leap to 3D — the Nintendo 64 and Sony PlayStation (and whatever awful console Sega was producing at the time, I suppose).

While these systems may have reigned supreme at one point in history, they’ve aged about as gracefully as a beauty queen turned meth addict. That is to say, not very well at all. So what happened since the mid-1990s? What makes the games from this once-great generation so damned miserable to play through once again?

Is it the graphics? Well, I’m no graphics whore — I don’t own an HDTV and the Nintendo DS is my current platform of choice — but I’d be lying to you if I said that the blurry, smeary, low-res, low-poly graphics of the time don’t have something to do with it. While we may forever hold titles such as GoldenEye, Mario Kart 64, and Ocarina of Time close to our hearts, have you actually played any of these games recently? It’s enough to make your eyes vomit.

Wow! It's like San Francisco has come to my living room!

Wow! It's like San Francisco has come to my living room!

Really, how anybody could look at the screenshots for these games back in 1997 and truly believe they were “cutting edge” and “state of the art” is beyond me. They looked like shit back then, and they look like decades-old fermented shit now.

There's low-poly, and then there's this guy.

Polygons rule!

In my opinion, one of technology’s greatest crimes is the fact that it forced us to trade in the gorgeous hand-drawn sprites of the SNES years for blurry textures and characters that looked like they were made up of about 24 polygons each (and that’s being generous). It was one step forward, two giant steps back for video game aesthetics.

But what about the 8-bit systems, you ask? The NES had its fair share of terrible looking games, right? Well, yes, but it’s a different kind of horrible.

You see, looking at old-school games such as Bubble Bobble, Final Fantasy, Ice Hockey and hundreds of other NES titles is like looking at a really awesome Lego sculpture. You know that it’s Lego, and as such, you expect it to be blocky, jagged and pixellated — but at the same time, you can appreciate the simplicity in its design and how the artist was able to adapt to the constraints of the medium itself to capture a unique artistic vision. The games of this generation had a certain charm that still holds up to this day.

Now take a look at N64-era atrocities such as Turok: Dinosaur Hunter, Shadows of the Empire, or Cruisin’ USA. While the graphics on the NES are certainly outdated, they don’t look as appallingly hideous or grotesque as the early 3D attempts of the N64 and PlayStation. Although gameplay should always be paramount, it’s easy to get turned off by a game when you’re wading through blurry textures and pea soup fog to mask its piss-poor draw distance.

Did you know that Turok took place in England? True story.

Did you know that Turok took place in England? True story.

I think the overall problem with the games of this generation is that the developers tried to do too much with too little, refusing to make the most of what they actually had to work with. Tantalized by the 3D temptress, they tried their damnedest to make ultra-realistic worlds, but their delusions of grandeur were ultimately derailed by limited power and resources. As a result, the games weren’t really optimized for the medium like they were on the NES — instead, gamers received a dumbed-down version of what was actually going on inside the developer’s mind. It’s like a painter trying to recreate a Monet with nothing but crayons and macaroni — the intent is there, but the results will never be anywhere near satisfactory.

Even the games that were once considered godly are not immune to the ravages of time. GoldenEye was the king of the N64, but it’s practically unplayable these days due to its clumsy controls, blocky graphics, and retarded AI.

That's an interesting shooting position you got there, soldier.

That's an interesting shooting position you got there, soldier.

And while I know deep down that Ocarina of Time is still a great game with a fantastic soundtrack and expertly designed dungeons, it’s still damn hard to even consider playing it again, simply because the N64 wasn’t up to par with what the game was trying to accomplish. It wasn’t until Twilight Princess came along that we got the true, definitive version of a 3D Hyrule — instead of the empty field with a couple of trees and fences that we found on the N64. It’s as though Ocarina was the beta version of Twilight Princess — so why play it again now that the final version has been released?

Sorry, Ocarina ... but time has passed you by.

Sorry, Ocarina ... but time has passed you by.

Of course, not all games from this generation are entirely unplayable. StarFox 64 can still be fun to blast through from time to time (the hilarious voice acting makes it an entertaining ride from start to finish), and they still haven’t made a wrestling game that matches the awesomeness of WCW/nWo Revenge or WWF No Mercy.

For the most part, though, I think we should leave these games to the good graces of nostalgia, because they simply don’t fit in with today’s gaming scene — not retro enough to be cool, but not advanced enough to be anything more than a stark reminder of the growing pains gaming had to go through to get to where it is today.

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4 Responses

  1. What are you on about boy? The N64 is a truly great game console and judging it mostly on graphics alone is retarded.

    “Clumsy controls” for Goldeneye!? Are you stupid? I bet you’re one of thoe NES generation guys who considers anything later than the SNES to be absolute shite.

  2. Goldeneye did have very clumsy controls. The fields of Hyrule for OoT were empty. Graphics were inferior to the PSX. This is all true. But the N64 gen had something no one else had. Balls. Big big big balls. Mario 64, Doom 64, SW: Shadows of the Empire, Donkey Kong 64, Conker’s Bad Fur Day. Nintendo was pushing the limits of the definition of Platformer and putting out games that made us think during the lifespan of that console. Not just about puzzles and stuff like that, but about the evolution of the mythology of our favorite franchises, not to mention starting plenty of new ones. Also, I’ve found that N64 games had a higher quality of gameplay (in both length and attentiveness) than MOST present day games. Not all, I gotta admit. But C’mon. I spent longer playing Perfect Dark than I did Assassin’s Creed (and I got MOST of those damn flags). I had MORE fun playing Super Mario 64 than playing FFXII or Blue Dragon. I still go back and play Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask every couple of months (along with every other Zelda game).

    N64 was underestimated, and no one wanted to see this spunky system for what it was, just because of inferior graphics. Revolutionary. I mean, FFVII is still heralded for its brilliance, and those graphics were PAINFUL to see. Sure most 3rd party games were crap, but that’s true even today. Nintendo dared to make the most out of the end of cartridge-based console gaming, and they did not disappoint. You gotta admit that. Sure, with better hardware, we could have seen MORE in our overworlds, and the C-buttons and analog stick were clumsy at first. But once we knew how to hold the controller properly for each game, it was a piece of piss. I STILL have scars on my hand from the blisters given by playing the tug-o-war minigames in Mario Party. I seriously have a daily reminder of how awesome that game is (not was). You can’t get that from anywhere else.

    • No doubt about it, there were plenty of classics on the N64. I played the hell out of Super Mario 64 and GoldenEye 007, got a kick out of the hilarious voice acting in Star Fox 64 (“My Emperor … I’ve failed yoooooouuu ….”), and games such as WWF No Mercy and the original Super Smash Bros. made living in residence at university somewhat tolerable.

      Still, I find it extremely hard to get all misty-eyed about that generation of games, especially when compared to what came before and after. It was a transitional period for gaming as a whole — the awkward teenage years of the video game industry, if you will. And while everybody has some great memories from that time period, do we really want to go back to high school again?

  3. That’s a fair enough comparison. Afterall I really wish I could forget Superman 64 and the SPAWN game, just as much as I wish I could forget that time I accidentally ripped a huge fart in the middle of U.S. History. I guess the only REAL consolation is that PSX had just as many lemons (Dragon Ball GT: Final Bout) to go along with their epic titles (Vagrant Story…..drool).

    While it’s in my head, WTF!! DBGT Final Bout sucked SO hard! Everyone made it out to sound so badass because of how rare it was, and then it was mass released directly into the cheap bins at stores across the world! Once people actually played it, we realized the game was terrible and felt bad for not only WANTING the game for so long, but also for having spent the 10 or 15 dollars on it in the first place! Way to go, Sony. Perfect way to wrangle customers in.

    Now that that little tirade is past me, I think I do have to agree with you. Chrono Trigger is and always will be the trump card for the SNES. I’ve never played a game as much as I’ve played that one. and Resident Evil 4 brought new life and possibilities to survival horror games. Halo was quickly established as one of the most successful franchises (why is beyond me…I hate the game, except for the ghosts. I’ll hop on multiplayer just to ride around in a ghost), and FFX reinvigorated RPG games. If there is one thing that the N64 lacked it was RPG games. There just weren’t enough of them. Harvest Moon, no. Quest 64, not a chance. Aidyn Chronicles, not that good. Need I go on (not that I really can)?

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