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The Nintendo 64 at 27

In 1996, all the signs were that Nintendo was going into a slow decline. The video games giant, which had dominated the industry worldwide with the SNES a few years earlier, was falling behind competitors such as Sony and Sega. Both companies had overtaken Nintendo in the world of three-dimensional games, while launching huge catalogues. But one game console helped Nintendo weather the storm, and that was the Nintendo 64, which took the world by storm when it was released by departing from the developer’s typical cartoony approach to games and embracing realism.

27 years ago, the Japanese mega-company was looking for something of a turnaround, but they were already very much into something very new… Back in 1993, Nintendo and Silicon Graphics announced a strategic alliance to develop the Nintendo 64. NEC, Toshiba and Sharp also contributed to the console’s technology and it was released as one of the first consoles designed with 64-bit architecture. As part of an agreement with Midway Games, the games Killer Instinct and Cruis’n USA were first adopted for the console. Although the Nintendo 64 was planned for 1995, the developers’ production schedules were ultimately delayed, and the console was released only in Japan in June 1996, the United States in September, and Europe in March 1997. By the end of production in 2002, some 33 million Nintendo 64 consoles had been sold worldwide, making it one of the most successful video game systems in history. At its launch, President Hiroshi Yamauchi believed in quality over quantity. When asked about facing up to the Sega and Playstation libraries, Yamauchi said that “those who believe that ‘the more games the better’ simply don’t know the actual market situation”. In hindsight, however, the volume was not to be complained about either: by 2002, a total of 388 games had been made for the Nintendo 64, some of which – notably Super Mario 64, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and GoldenEye 007 – are still considered among the best of all time.

The console delivered relatively powerful internals for the time (although it was difficult for developers to master) and the N64 controller made the analogue stick controller popular. These factors combined to produce ground-breaking titles, with Super Mario 64 being hailed as a shining example of the successful transition of 2D franchises to 3D. In any case, the biggest drawback of the N64 was Nintendo’s insistence on using cartridges, which resulted in lightning-fast load times compared to the PS1, but a significantly smaller game size. The largest N64 cartridges were 64 MB, whereas the PS1 offered 700 MB (!) CDs at the same time, and developers could cram a lot of game content and multimedia onto one of those CDs compared to a cartridge. No wonder, then, that the PS1 ended up badly ahead of the N64 in terms of global sales.

In 2001, two new Nintendo consoles were launched: the Game Boy Advance, designed by Gwénaël Nicolas, and the GameCube. By the end of the production cycle in 2010, more than 81.5 million Game Boy Advance consoles had been sold worldwide. The GameCube had more modest sales: even with distinctive features such as the miniDVD format and the internet connectivity of some games, it sold only 21.7 million units worldwide in the six years of its production, which meant that in 2003 the company made its first loss since going public in 1962.