Nintendo’s Wii U is only days away from kicking off the next generation of high definition consoles, so to celebrate, Word of the Nerd Online is taking a look back on Nintendo’s history with a Nintendo hardware retrospective.
In case you missed part one, click here to catch up on the history of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) and its successor, the aptly named Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES). This week will be a look into Nintendo’s step into 3D worlds.
Although Sega’s CD-based add-on for the Sega Genesis was considered by many to be a failure, it did not stop them from releasing a console based solely around CD media. The Sega Saturn launched in Japan on November 22, 1994, however one day earlier Nintendo released Donkey Kong Country on the SNES.
As part of the marketing for Donkey Kong Country Nintendo Power magazine issued a VHS cassette called ‘Donkey Kong Country: Exposed’ a 15 minute mini-documentary/marketing ploy for the game. Through the video there is a recurring theme of how “ahead of its time” the game was. With the looming Sega Genesis and the Sony PlayStation not far behind, Nintendo had to prove that the now aging SNES hardware could still compete. Nintendo of America showed off the inner workings of the 32-bit Donkey Kong Country cartridge, which they claimed was the largest game ever at the time. They also showed off the 3D models and animation they rendered for the game, which were highly impressive for 1994. Finally they hit it home by reinforcing that no new hardware or add-ons were required to play the new cutting edge game. The video concludes with a sizzle reel of gameplay interspersed between black backgrounds with white text reading; “Where you gonna find it? Not on 32 bit. Not on 32X adapters. Not on CD-Rom. Not on Sega. It’s 16 bit. And it’s only on Super NES.”
One year after Donkey Kong Country was released, Nintendo revealed the Nintendo Ultra 64 at the Shoshinkai Software Exhibition in Japan. Also announced was the new controller, a bizarre looking three-pronged input with a stick in the center, the classic directional pad on the left, six face buttons, two shoulder buttons and a trigger on the reverse side of the controller. At the time, Nintendo committed to an April 1996 release date, but it would not actually make it to North America until the following September.
The most shocking thing about the Nintendo Ultra 64, which would later be renamed Nintendo 64 (N64), was while Sega and Sony had adopted the CD format for their consoles, Nintendo committed to cartridges. There were seemingly three major reasons for this; first Nintendo was concerned about load times. Cartridges had virtually no pauses to load data but due to CD-Roms having slow read rates at the time, loading data would often result in long pauses. Secondly was the concern of piracy. CDs were easily copied so Nintendo preferred the proprietary cartridges, being much more difficult to copy and pirate. Finally saved data could be recorded to cartridges without the need of additional save cards, although memory cards were still used for select N64 games to save cartridge space in some larger games.
However, cartridges were more expensive to produce and restricted developer’s access to the higher quality sound and full motion video available in CD-based games. As a result many developers that were prominent in the SNES era moved development to the up-and-coming PlayStation, a console that, in 1995, most did not expect to make much of a splash in the industry. As a result many high profile games such as Final Fantasy VII moved development to the PlayStation because the manufacturing costs of CDs was lower and had few memory limitations. As a result most of the N64’s high profile releases ended up being developed by Nintendo and their second-party development studios such as Rare Ware, who created Goldeneye 007, Banjo Kazooie and Donkey Kong 64.
Of course, just like their first two consoles, Nintendo had the ace up their sleeve, a new Mario game. In this case, a Mario game that was unlike anything released on a console before, a full 3D world to freely explore with seemingly no limitations. The name of the game was Super Mario 64.
Just like the original Super Mario Bros. on the NES created the ground work for how to develop side-scrolling adventure games, Super Mario 64 set the stage on how to create three-dimensional games. Much like the Wii U gamepad is an important element for allowing for new types of game experiences, the N64 analog equipped controller was essential for creating games like Super Mario 64. The flimsy looking stick allowed the player full control over the in-game avatar. A light tilt would have Mario tiptoe past sleeping piranha plants while pushing the stick to its extreme would send him in a full sprint. Today the notion of releasing a console with no analog stick is absurd, but in 1996 it was a radical idea. In fact, even the PlayStation, also featuring full 3D graphics in many of its games, launched with no analog input.
In addition to the innovation of analog control, Nintendo pioneered another modern video game standard with the rumble pack. In June of 1997 Nintendo released Star Fox 64, which came bundled with a controller add-on, a heavy little grey block that vibrated to emulate the shock of the Arwing cockpit being jolted around by enemy fire. Sony would incorporate these innovations into their new DualShock PlayStation controller, released in Japan later in 1997 followed by a North American release the following year. The DualShock controller featured two, wider and sturdier, analog sticks and a built-in rumble feature. It would become the standard design for all of Sony’s future consoles.
The controller was not the only component of the N64 that was designed for add-ons. The N64 had several add-on ports, including an expansion port on the bottom of the console and an interchangeable RAM cart on the top. In May of 2000 Perfect Dark shipped with a RAM expansion pack that would replace the current N64 RAM pack to give it a four megabyte boost. It may not sound like much in the age when even phones pack gigabytes of RAM, but the boost was enough to enable high resolution textures and more sophisticated environments for games like Donkey Kong 64 and The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask.
The Expansion pack also had another purpose, the extra RAM was originally meant to supplement a disc drive add-on to combat the now prominent disc media used by the competition. The 64 Dynamic Drive (64DD) was a bulky disc add-on that attached to the bottom expansion port of the N64. Unlike the PlayStation and Saturn it did not use CDs, instead using Magnetic Discs (MD). Unlike CDs, MDs are encased in a hard outer shell, making them more durable than exposed CDs. The MDs themselves were said to have a storage capacity of up to eight times that of the Super Mario 64 cartridge. In addition to having the high capacity discs, the 64DD also had a built-in modem that allowed for N64 consoles to be networked together online.
Sadly the 64DD never saw release outside of Japan due to the commercial failure of the peripheral. A major contributor to its lackluster sales is likely its unusual distribution method. Rather than selling the 64DD in stores, it was sold through mail-order only. Consumers paid a monthly subscription that got them the expansion pack, the 64DD itself and a set of games shipped to them on a bi-monthly basis. In total only 11 games were ever published for the 64DD.
The 64DD may have been a failure, but it would not cause Nintendo to shy away from disc-based media. In fact, the N64 would be the last time Nintendo would use cartridges for a console. Keep following Word of the Nerd Online for the Nintendo retrospective finale in the days leading up to the launch of the Wii U this weekend.