Has it really been ten years since dinosaurs flew and "The Fun Machine" came into our homes? The Nintendo 64 turns ten years old this month, and just like every other major game console or franchise that has celebrated a milestone this year, it's time for 1Up.com to take a look back at the beloved little machine that could, but never really quite did. It's a story of big promises and disappointments, but also of the occasional moments of genius.
Ten years later, the system is remembered fondly for the sublime perfection of its best software. It's also reviled for what some gamers see as choices that compromised gameplay for the sake of ill-conceived hardware experimentation. Both stances are based in plenty of evidence. The greatest games of the console are after all some of the best games of all time. And the machine did falter, both in ways that seems logical and in ways that defy conventional wisdom. But the real story behind N64 is a tale of what could have been. Vast resources were poured into games and innovations that never came to fruition. New technologies that seemed to have tremendous potential ironically became limitations. The console that stole so many childhood hours overreached and underperformed, a mere specter of what could have been.
My Nintendo 64 was a holiday gift in 1996. My parents had slightly encouraged that perhaps with the Super NES days coming to an end it might be a good time to move away from video games and into something else. As it turns out, that "something else" wound up being a severe attack of my chronic digestive illness, and after spending nearly two weeks in the hospital in early October, I was basically confined to my bed (and sofa) and unable to eat solid food for three months. Hours upon hours were spent with my Super NES, helping me escape from the stomach pains and fatigue that kept me out of high school for the immediate future. Imagine my surprise when Super Mario 64 turned up one December morning, courtesy of my parents. After all I'd been through it must have become rather obvious: for me, video games were here to stay.
After I recovered and was able to get back to my life there were still fun games to play, but they came few and far apart. I actually have more games for my Virtual Boy than I do for my Nintendo 64. After mastering Super Mario 64 (120 stars collected for all of the save files), I moved on to Mario Kart 64, Blast Corps, Star Fox 64 (gotta get that Rumble Pak!), Diddy Kong Racing (a gift from former friends attempting to buy back my friendship; I thanked them for the game and went on my merry way), Banjo-Kazooie, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (the only game I ever skipped school (with permission) to pick up and play), and the last game I bought properly at retail, Donkey Kong 64 (gotta get that Expansion Pak, although for what else I really did not know).
Around this time high school was ending and I was moving on to my own apartment, working every day, and starting college. Although the Nintendo 64 and Super NES remained hooked up to my television, they didn't see as much play after I left home. In early 2001 I bought a very cheap used copy of Banjo-Tooie from a Blockbuster Video clearance sale and then later traded an old DVD for The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, and while I certainly played around with both games, the Nintendo 64 experience just wasn't doing anything for me anymore. I read the news about the debut of the Game Boy Advance and the upcoming GameCube, and I hate to admit it, but the end of the Nintendo 64 era nearly saw me leaving video games behind. While the console could deliver great gaming experiences, it did so few and far between. It's hard to maintain an interest in something that only picks up twice a year, if that.
So what brought me back to gaming? Super Mario Sunshine for the Nintendo GameCube. The promise of the "second coming" of Super Mario 64 conjured up all those old memories of exploring the castle from 1996, and it wound up being something I just couldn't pass up. However, I find it interesting that I nearly left gaming behind twice during the Nintendo 64 era, once when the system launched and again later when it was on the decline. Sometimes I can't help but think that this means something somehow, but then I just put those thoughts aside and take another run through the Mushroom Kingdom castle. Great games may have been a rarity on the Nintendo 64, but the fact remains that they're still great games.