A mere 19 years ago today, Nintendo released the Nintendo 64 in Japan and while a ton of gamers think back fondly at the console itself, how many know the story behind it? With this in mind, let’s look back at the creation of Nintendo’s first-ever 3D console.
The year was 1993 and after many years of making 2D games, Nintendo was looking to jump into the third dimension. On April 1993, Nintendo announced that they were partnering up with Silicon Graphics to make a new 64-bit console. They code-named the new console “Project Reality” and according to Did You Know Gaming the then-President of Nintendo America, Howard Lincoln, was quoted as saying:
“Our work with Silicon Graphics enables us to actually skip a generation by diving straight through to 64-bit, 3D video entertainment.”
Around this time, gaming was moving away from cartridges and into CD-ROM technology. This technology allowed for developers to make longer games at the cost of longer load times, but Nintendo decided to stay with cartridge based games for the N64. According to Nintendo, the reason for this was because games run better on cartridges and that “Project Reality” graphics would run too slowly on a disc. It just so happens that by keeping to cartridge based games, Nintendo managed to knock $100 off the production costs.
That being said, Nintendo had originally planned to go into CD-based games with an attachment for the Super Nintendo called the Super Disc. This attachment was originally being developed by Sony, but it was scrapped after both companies parted ways. Sony would later use this technology to help them develop their own console, the PlayStation.
On June 23rd, 1994, Nintendo revealed that the name of “Project Reality” console was the Ultra 64. Around the time they announced the Ultra 64, Nintendo unveiled the first two games. These two titles were ports of arcade titles called Killer Instinct and Cruising USA and Nintendo claimed that they will look the exact same on the Ultra 64 as they did in arcades.
Unfortunately, Nintendo had to change the name of the console from the Ultra 64 to the Nintendo 64 because Konami had a trademark on the name Ultra Games.
Developers found it hard to develop for the N64 and part of the reason for this was because while the console was still being made, developers had to make games using estimated specs. An example of one of these games includes Goldeneye, although to Rare’s surprise, the N64 was actually faster than the estimated specs, although they still had to lower the texture quality of the game by half. The team behind Super Mario 64 had to deal with a similar problem, but they managed to get a hold of a machine that was much closer to the N64’s specs earlier on in its development.
This difficulty continued after the release of the N64 and caused many games such as Final Fantasy 7 to be released on the PlayStation instead. Part of the reason why developers moved to the PlayStation was because the Nintendo 64 had a pretty limited 4KB texture cache. This meant that N64 textures looked blurrier than those on the PlayStation.
When commenting on the Nintendo 64’s pixel quality, Super Mario 64 coder Giles Goddard said that Silicon Graphics were more interested in the quality of the system’s pixels instead of the speed. As he put it:
“The PlayStation, speed-wise, it was much faster, but the pixels were dreadful. That was what SGI aimed for from the outset: Quality of pixels over Speed.”
Nintendo delayed releasing the N64 so many times that when it was eventually released, the SEGA Saturn and the PlayStation had already been released. However, the amount of time that Nintendo spent on it also worked to their advantage, as the hype surrounding the release of the N64 was huge, thanks in part to Nintendo’s advertising. This, and the console’s lower price, meant that gamers were willing to wait for its release despite the fact that there were two other new consoles out.
The demand for the N64 was so large that even celebrities wanted one and some like Matthew Perry and Steven Spielberg went as far as calling Nintendo to get preferential treatment. The day the Nintendo 64 came out, industry analyst David Cole said, “You have people fighting to get it from stores.”