In 1996, the video gaming world was in a state of flux. The previous two years saw the releases of the Sega Saturn and Sony Playstation, two systems that quietly ushered in the end of cartridge-based gaming. However, Nintendo decided to give one last push for cartridges with the Nintendo 64. Premiering in 1996 with a price of $199 ($300 adjusted for inflation) with two measly launch titles (“Pilotwings 64” and a little game called “Super Mario 64”), the Nintendo 64 had to come out swinging due to previously unprecedented competition. This was the first generation of gaming for Nintendo that wasn’t at least partially based off of the Nintendo Entertainment System, released over 10 years prior.
I would continue playing that original NES well into 2000, when I was gifted an N64 and three games (“Donkey Kong 64,” “Star Fox 64” and “Super Smash Bros.”) for Christmas. All of eight years old, I’m sure that my reaction more than resembled the infamous “N64 Kid” of later internet lore. Something about the bizarre controller and vastly greater graphics confirmed that this was a system for the future, a system For All Time. In my own way, that turned out to be true. Sixteen years later, that same N64 is plugged in right next to my PS3 for ease of use. No matter what serious “adulting” I’m embarking on with friends, booting up the N64 and playing a quick game of “Mario Kart 64” or “Super Smash Bros.” or even “NFL Blitz 2000” is never too far away. The mark of a good purchase is how much mileage you can get out of it, and if that’s the case, the N64 has paid for itself multiple times over. In honor of its 20th anniversary, let’s take a look at some of the most impressive games from the cartridge’s last stand.
NOTE: This is by no means a list of the best the system had to offer, simply some of the most titles indicative of what the N64 had to offer: multiplayer fun mixed with bizarre ideas and playability.
Super Smash. Bros
Watch this commercial and try not to feel something.
From personal experience, after that commercial dropped, every kid at school wanted this game. “Super Mario 64” changed the video game industry immensely, but “Super Smash Bros.” unlocked something in people that is felt today with each new iteration of the series. To boot, there are still intense tournaments dedicated to a game that came out in 1998. It seems so simple in hindsight: take characters that everyone loves, incorporate a fighting style that anyone can pick up within minutes and go. In the intervening years, everyone from “Sony All-Atars” to the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” have tried to replicate that initial success with no luck whatsoever.
By 2000, Mario had already been a tennis player, typing teacher, golfer, gambler, painter, inventor, party starter, kart racer, Tetris savant, doctor, boxing referee, picross enthusiast, hotelier and all-around hero to the masses. “Paper Mario” followed the lead of the underrated “Super Mario RPG” four years earlier and expanded on the gameplay while also serving as the perfect entrypoint for young players interested in the RPG format. Even if you find yourself adverse to anything with the mustachioed plumber, “Paper Mario” is as fresh today as it was 16 years ago.
The World Is Not Enough
Time to get controversial. Sure, “Goldeneye” came first and is lauded (as it should be) for its definitive first-person multiplayer. Even today “Goldeneye” runs like a dream. However, “The World is Not Enough” was a quiet improvement, bumping up graphical quality and adding a wide range of James Bond villains from past movies. Also, you don’t get the amazing snow castle/snow resort level in “Goldeneye.” Though mostly forgotten today, “The World Is Not Enough” proved that the movie was at least good for one thing.
Star Wars: Rogue Squadron
Long before “Rebels” or “Rogue One,” “Star Wars: Rogue Squadron” allowed a peek into the rarely seen in between of Star Wars: the average missions of the Rebel Alliance. Chronologically set between Episodes IV and V, you get to live out the fantasy of flying various Rebel starfighters (including, uh, a 1969 Buick Electra 225?) and taking down the Empire. And if you were a little 8-year-old shithead, like someone I know, you could actually level the entire city of Mos Eisley in the first level. But why would you do that?
F Zero X
The Playstation may have had its “Crazy Taxi” and “Twisted Metal,” but one of the 64’s best known hidden weapons was its catologue of racing games. For squares, there was a trustworthy run of NASCAR games. However, “F Zero X” is where racing on the N64 really shines. Now known primarily as where Captain Falcon comes from, F Zero X built upon the original SNES game and multiplied the madness by tenfold. This is a game where you can drive upward of 600 mph and bump your opponents into true oblivion, all the while being accompanied by a certifiably bonkers Japanese speed metal soundtrack. There are stronger racing titles on the system, but none as completely insane. Speaking of…
Where to begin? Set in an alternate-timeline ’70s where the world has suffered an oil crisis and the land is run by whoever has the most explosions dropping out of their car, “Vigilante 8” is peak dumb fun for the Nintendo 64. A classic of a time when all you really needed was three more friends, “Vigilante 8” has you picking between a string of vehicles all containing the necessary firepower to blow up said-friends and NPCs. There is a storyline, but I promise it’s not important other than the WTF of it all.
Iggy’s Reckin’ Balls
Sometimes, it is clear as day to see a stand-alone game that was intended as a launch title for multiple sequels. “Iggy’s Reckin’ Balls” is one such game. Probably one of the strangest games in the N64 library, “Iggy” finds you picking between various ridiculous ball-shaped characters and outlasting/outracing your opponents. It is technically a racing game, in that you want to get to the finish line first, but the tracks find you going up, down, backwards, diagonal and forward in order to win. Though it has certainly not aged well, it’s still fun to dig out and gawk at with friends.
Donkey Kong 64
As with history, Donkey Kong is always the ape-shaped shadow behind Mario. Released in 1999, the only “Kong” entry on the Nintendo 64 is possibly the biggest game memory-wise on the system outside of a “Legend of Zelda” or two. Throughout the game, you play as a revolving door of five Kongs and collect golden bananas, musical instruments, crystals, fairies, snapshots and upgrades, all the while trying to beat down baddies on your way to King K. Rool. This is to say nothing of the multiplayer addition, which pokes gentle fun at first-person shooters by having the Kongs shoot coconuts, grapes and feathers at each other. “Donkey Kong 64” is a massive game and a forefather to current-gen games that keep players thirsty for “100% Completion” trophies.
Ah, the days when there were only 151 Pokemon to worry about catching. After the initial success of the Pokemon games for the Game Boy, it was obvious to everyone involved that there should be some sort of tie-in on the Nintendo 64. “Stadium” not only allowed you to play with full 3D sprites of your favorite Pocket Monsters, but allowed you to play Pokemon’s Red, Blue or Yellow on your TV with the help of a controller add-on. That, coupled with ingeniously simple mini-games and a certain Mewtwo awaiting you at the end of your gym journey made “Pokemon Stadium” a “must nag Mom to drive to Hollywood Video and rent” at the very least.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time/The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask
Look, this last spot could have gone to any number of favorites, like “Star Wars Episode 1: Racer” or “Mario Tennis” or “Mario Kart 64” or “Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards” or even “Army Men: Sarge’s Heroes.” But there had to be a “Legend of Zelda” appearance somewhere, right? Twenty years on, there has been enough words written on both “Ocarina of Time” and “Majora’s Mask” to a thousand of these posts, but that’s for a good reason. Both games elevated the concept of “video games as art” exponentially with beautifully crafted levels, a masterful symphonic soundtrack and gameplay that was easy to pick up but difficult to master. Even in 2016, phrases like “Water Temple” and “Hey, LISTEN!!” and “Tingle” all incite powerful emotions in gamers, though usually on the side of rage. These are games to lose whole afternoons and nights to, even when you couldn’t and ESPECIALLY when you shouldn’t. There really isn’t that much left unsaid about the series, so why not blow the dust off of these strange looking cartridges, these bizarre antiquated controllers, this weird rounded black rectangle…and live a little bit.