The Nintendo 64 console, released 20 years ago today, is now regarded as something of a misstep for a company that had come to be synonymous with games. (During the NES and SNES era, people would literally say, “I played Nintendo after school,” instead of, “I played games after school.”) The N64’s reliance on expensive and clunky cartridges helped to ensure that Sony’s upstart CD-based PlayStation console ate its lunch, attracting more developers and selling three times as many units.
But in many ways, the N64 blazed trails for the era of console dominance that would follow, when even PC-centric genres like the first-person shooter would find a home on living room TV screens. The N64’s innovative controller – with its analogue thumbstick designed for navigating 3D environments – created a template that all subsequent console makers would embrace. Meanwhile, classic titles like the groundbreaking Super Mario 64 and later Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and GoldenEye established a framework for 3D game design that many future franchises made their own.
But the N64 also gave us several titles that made a first attempt at implementing innovations that would later become commonplace, and that laid the groundwork for other far more successful future games. Here’s a sampling.
Rocket: Robot on Wheels – Realistic Physics
Mario’s infamous leap is literally gravity-defying, a gymnastic feat that is carefully designed to afford the player an optimal level of control as they clamber around ice levels and desert stages. Rocket: Robot on Wheels, on the other hand, obeyed the laws of physics. This 1999 platformer, the inaugural release from Sucker Punch Productions (best known today for the Sly Cooper and Infamous games on PlayStation), is noteworthy for being the first console game to use a realistic physics engine. The storyline isn’t particularly noteworthy – you’re a robot helping to round up all of the escaped creatures from a futuristic zoo – but the play experience felt real and natural in a way that was unprecedented at the time. Throw an object, and it will bounce around and roll to a stop. Many of the puzzles and challenges required players to use their innate real-world understanding of gravity, friction and inertia. Nowadays, many console games in a variety of genres invite players to have fun with physics.
Body Harvest – Free-roaming Sandbox Gameplay
On the surface, this 1998 title from DMA Design is about repelling a planetary invasion by time traveling aliens intent on gobbling up mankind. But peel back that sci-fi layer, and you’ll see a clear precursor to the violent free-roaming sandbox gameplay of 3D Grand Theft Auto. Body Harvest was made by the studio that would go on to make the main installments in Rockstar’s blockbuster series (DMA Design was later acquired by Take-Two Interactive and became a subsidiary of Rockstar Games where it was rebranded Rockstar North.) The N64 title lets players wander around on foot, or hop into various automobiles and airplanes they encounter, blasting everything in sight and generally causing a level of chaos worthy of Trevor Philips from GTA V. All that’s missing is being able to flip on the car’s radio and listen to “The Lazlow Show.”
Winback – Cover-based Shooters
N64 titles like GoldenEye and Turok laid the cornerstone for how shooters with a first-person perspective would work on consoles. This 1999 game from the Omega Force team at Koei (Dynasty Warriors) did the same for third-person shooters – games where you can see the entire body of the character you’re controlling. Players take on the role of the unfortunately named Jean-Luc Cougar, a member of the equally unfortunately named Special Covert Action Team (SCAT). In order to foil the plans of a group of terrorists who have seized control of a satellite laser weapon or whatever, you must shoot a bunch of people, ducking behind cover and popping out to lock on and fire. Its approach to third-person combat – particularly the cover system and the laser sight weaponry – would influence more prominent games like Resident Evil 4 and the Gears of War franchise.
Hey You, Pikachu! – Voice Recognition
In late 2011, Apple released Siri, which let people issue simple voice commands to their iPhone’s digital assistant. Back in late 1998, Nintendo released a game that let kids issue simple voice commands to a chubby rodent with a wicked electrical attack. This innovative title, which was packaged with a microphone peripheral, had you take home a creature from the popular Pokémon franchise, domesticate it and then return it to the wild, saying an emotional “good-bye” as it returns to its natural habitat, presumably now unable to fend for itself and addicted to human table scraps. The voice recognition sometimes failed to understand what you were saying (but hey – so does Siri). The game appeared six months before the debut of Seaman on Sega’s rival Dreamcast console, which was a more bizarre and less kid-friendly take on the idea of a voice recognition pet simulator. In many ways, Hey You, Pickachu! feels like a dry run for Nintendogs, a franchise for the DS handheld that let players rear and train puppies using voice recognition as well as touchscreen. (The intimacy and directness of the control scheme probably helped that series sell almost 25 million units to date.)
Shigesato Itoi’s Number 1 Bass Fishing Definitive Edition – Force Feedback
This 2000 title, which mixed a realistic 3D fishing simulation with cute 2D animals, didn’t make much of a splash. A remake of a SNES game, it appeared late in the N64’s life cycle, and it was never released outside of Japan. (The titular Shigesato Itoi, who also created the classic Earthbound franchise, seems to be cursed when it comes to scoring Western localizations.) But the game had a profound effect on the console industry – it’s the reason why most controllers today vibrate and throb in your hands. Nintendo wanted to recreate the feel of a tug and a pull on a fishing line, which would alert you that you had hooked in a fish in a naturalistic way. This germ of an idea eventually led to the Rumble Pak, a battery operated add-on attachment that could make the N64 controller vibrate in your hands at predetermined moments. Soon after the Rumble Pak debuted, Sony embedded a similar rumble feature in their Dual Shock controller for the PlayStation, and “force feedback” became a standard feature in the next console generation.