Soapbox pieces give our writers the chance to voice personal opinions that aren't necessarily the voice of the site. In this piece, N64 blogger and collector Martin Watts argues that there's more to enjoying the system today than simply playing its best games.
Over 25 years later, the N64 remains a divisive system among retro gamers and Nintendo fans, and it's easy to see why; Nintendo seemingly got as many things right with the console as it did wrong.
The N64 gave us landmark games such as Super Mario 64 and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. It popularised four-player split-screen gaming with the likes of Mario Kart 64 and GoldenEye 007. And better yet, it loads every single game with lightning efficiency – but it was also difficult to develop for. It used expensive cartridges at a time when the industry was moving forward with the cheaper, more viable CD format. It has a very small software library. And it never gained the mainstream cultural appeal of its biggest competitor, the Sony PlayStation, which outsold it by more than three to one.
I think this storied history – both good and bad – is what makes the N64 so interesting to play and collect today.
For the past five years, I've been running N64 Today – a blog for people who still play Nintendo's 64-bit console. It's been a great opportunity for me to revisit the system's games, embrace the world of modding, and assess just how well the system actually holds up.
It's made me realise that to get the most out of the N64 – or any retro system for that matter – you have to do more than simply play its best titles.
Exploring The Good, The Bad And The Ugly
I love the N64. It has some cracking games that I find myself playing over and over again. But I also know it isn't a perfect machine and that there's a lot of dross and failed promises in its software library. As weird as this may sound, I think it's partly why I find the system so alluring.
Like other consoles of its era, the N64 is a time capsule of the games industry's successful but awkward transition from 2D to 3D. Nintendo made some interesting design decisions with the N64, such as sticking with cartridges over CDs and opting for an incredibly small texture cache. The consequences of these choices are reflected in the system's software, which varies hugely in quality outside of Nintendo's own output.
Yes, it’s always fun to revisit the system's bona fide classics. But what I find really interesting is exploring the games that weren't as good or that no one played at the time.
Even a truly dreadful game can be an intriguing experience. Witnessing Superman 64's laughable gameplay firsthand will certainly give you a greater appreciation for the console's top-tier games. Playing a game that missed the mark, such as Hybrid Heaven, is a fascinating experience with the benefit of hindsight. How did this massively hyped game end up falling so flat upon release? There’s fun to be had in finding out for yourself.
The N64 also represents an experimental time in gaming, somewhat akin to today's thriving indie scene. With the move to 3D, developers explored new ideas and created unique games. Quirky terraforming puzzler Wetrix came to be because a developer wanted to represent water as a volume of dynamic fluid in a game. DMA Design's Body Harvest is an early example of the now oversaturated open-world genre. And then there's WinBack: Covert Operations, a clunky third-person cover shooter that influenced games like Kill Switch and Gears of War.
If you only limit yourself to the best or most popular N64 games, then you're missing out on the fun that comes with discovery. Treat each game like a museum exhibit and see for yourself what the developers did and didn't achieve with the technology at the time. You may be surprised.
Small Library, Small Challenge
Compared to most other video game systems, the N64 has a very small software library of just under 400 games. Back in the day, this was considered a bad thing. Today, it's very appealing to collectors because getting your hands on a complete set feels achievable.
This is certainly the case if you opt for a cartridge-only collection. Those sturdy little carts are perfectly fine without their packaging, and they stack neatly onto shelves. I just wish Nintendo had included end labels, although thankfully you can get custom-made ones online.
However, going for a complete-in-box collection is a completely different story. Obscure, ultra-rare titles, such as ClayFighter: Sculptor's Cut and Stunt Racer 64, will set you back a pretty penny. Recently, a Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask Limited Edition Adventure Set – one of only a thousand copies – sold for over £7,000 on eBay.
So, you may need to set your sights lower. But that doesn't mean you won't get a ton of enjoyment and satisfaction out of collecting boxed N64 games. Admiring the box art and flicking through the included manuals and promo leaflets is half the fun.
Lots Of Japanese Exclusives
A whopping 94 N64 games (including 64DD titles) were never released outside of Japan. That's almost a quarter of the overall N64 games catalogue that most people never got to play.
Thankfully, Japanese N64 games tend to be more affordable nowadays, and you'll find that many sellers will have already done the importing for you. They're also easily playable using a flashcart such as an EverDrive 64 (although you may find that morally dubious). Now is a great time to discover these games, if you haven't done so already.
The N64's Japanese library does contain a lot of text-heavy games that you may not be able to play fully. But it's home to accessible cult classics like Sin & Punishment, Bakuretsu Muteki Bangaioh, and the Virtual Pro Wrestling series.
It's also where you'll find delightful curios. Did you know there's a train simulator game called Densha de Go! 64, which has its own bespoke controller? What about Dance Dance Revolution Disney Dancing Museum, the N64's only dance mat game? There's even the plainly named Tetris 64, which supports the quirky N64 Bio Sensor peripheral, a device that speeds up the gameplay based on your heart rate. (Spoiler: it's not very good).
And, of course, there's the elusive 64DD ("Disk Drive") add-on. Nintendo massively overhyped this device in the years prior to its launch in 1999, only to internally give up on it long before then and doom it to a very limited and underwhelming local release. As a result, you've got more chance of getting a whale up your bum than finding one of these in the wild. Thankfully, it's possible to play every 64DD game on an original N64 console using only an EverDrive 64.
There's a whole other history to the N64 that many of us never got to experience. It's great that it's now much easier and, in some cases, more affordable to do so.
An Active Modding Community
The N64 has a strong and dedicated modding community, which is consistently breathing new life into the aging system. These individuals are creating everything from simple bug fixes and cosmetic changes to full English-language translations and brand-new games. Better yet, many of these mods work on an original console when using a flashcart.
For example, there's Goldfinger 64, a total game conversion of GoldenEye 007 that offers a whole new campaign mode with new weapons, locations and characters. Another mod lets you play through Super Mario 64 co-operatively with another player in split-screen.
Many modders are also taking modern game concepts and de-making them into N64 games. Cooking Princess is a mod that recreates the gameplay of 2016's Overcooked within Paper Mario – a combination I'd have never dreamt of. Others are focused on improving the technical performance of games like Super Mario 64, which can now run at up to 60 frames per second on the console in some mods.
It's exciting to see new ideas and improvements come to life on old technology and another reason to enjoy your N64 all these years later.
Get N or Get Out
As fun as I've tried to make it all sound, I should caveat that playing N64 today isn't without some frustrations.
Connecting your console to a modern TV isn't as simple as you'd think. If it does work, it'll probably look awful (HDMI and RGB mods exist, but they're pricey). There's also the issue of the N64 controller's joystick, which is prone to becoming loose over time. And don't even get me started on repro cartridges flooding the market, and the sellers who advertise them as "authentic".
But most of these issues aren't unique to the N64 – it's just the reality of using old tech today. Besides, there are things you can do to get around these problems.
So why not pick up that three-pronged pad and find out more about what the N64 has to offer? Go in with an open mind, and you might find enjoyment where you thought there was none.