The Nintendo 64 defined the ’90s – a time when TV remotes monopolised wireless technology, HD meant hunky dory, and an Xbox wasn’t something talked about in polite society.
I decided to revisit the N64 to see how it stacked up against the world of gaming today. How would it compare to games boasting stunning virtual landscapes, advanced character development, in-depth plotlines, and budgets rivalling Hollywood feature films? The verdict: like a fine wine improving with age, the Nintendo 64 is better now than it was 20 years ago. This Penfolds Grange of gaming consoles manages to deliver the same blast of unadulterated (albeit pixelated) fun – I’d even go so far as to say it trumps the graphic masterpieces of today.
Why exactly then, is the Nintendo 64 still so great? What is the appeal, in 2016, of playing games with graphics that could potentially be entered into a modernist art gallery? I would argue that it is not in spite of the N64’s outdated technology that its games are still so enjoyable, but because of it.
Developers in the 1990s weren’t as concerned with gritty realism or spectacular virtual worlds. Games were designed to be above all else, fun. Ironically, it’s as if graphic constraints sharpened developers’ impressions of what constitutes engaging gameplay. The result was simple games, with a timeless element, that one suspects the latest Call of Duty lacks. To demonstrate this point, let’s fire up some of the old titles. Mario Kart 64, for example, is still a blast to play despite its out-dated graphics. Map designs may not be as colourful as modern iterations, but their simplicity enhances rather than detracts from the fun, leading to more nail-biting finishes and placing more emphasis on well-timed tortoise shells and strategically placed bananas.
Another classic is Golden Eye 007, a game that kicked arse in ’97 and continues to do so. The contrast between Golden Eye and modern shooters by way of features is striking. The latter boast air strikes, vehicles, gadgets, and customisable weapons. The former makes do with a gun and letting you run loose. But this simplicity means greater emphasis is placed on skill, accuracy and timing compared to modern-day shooters. The strategy necessitated by Golden Eye’s naked split-screen multiplayer, is infinitely more immediate and thrilling than COD’s hectic and at times chaotic landscapes.
Other memorable moments of N64 gameplay that have survived the test of time include blowing teddy bears to smithereens in Conkers Bad Fur Day, disintegrating your racer a dozen times before finishing a race in Star Wars Episode I Racer, and learning the melodies of Zelda Ocarina of Time by heart – purely a result of many, many lost hours of gameplay. You just don’t grow as attached to today’s titles.
In trying to outdo each other in the visual stakes, today’s games sacrifice substance for style. For what real gaming feels like, blow the dust out of your old N64 cartridges and fire up the ol’thang! Developers take note!