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.