PlayStation vs Nintendo 64 Was the Last Console War That Mattered

Today's systems are so alike that boasts of power are purely hollow. But back in the 1990s, things were different.

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20 March 2015, 9:57am

The Nintendo 64 (photo via)

Have you seen the latest advertising for the PlayStation 4? "The world's most powerful console," it boasts (not for the first time), chest puffed out, pair of socks stuffed brazenly down its trousers. But while this claim may be technically true from a numbers perspective, it's also a little misleading. The Xbox One is hardly a wheezing Citroën 2CV compared to Sony's Hummer, is it? This isn't David and Goliath, or George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley. There isn't, in all honesty, much disparity between the two. You might get to play Battlefield Hardline in 900p on PS4 as opposed to the Xbox's 720, but is this a gulf in output worth losing sleep over? Not unless you're extremely precious about things that don't actually matter, or you're twelve.

This generation's "console war" is built on the untruth that there's a fundamental difference between the Big Two. Bar a few exclusive titles, there isn't. It was the same with the last generation. And the one before that. In fact, the last console war that really mattered – the one in which a choice meant siding with one of two fundamentally different approaches to what a console should be – happened all the way back in the mid-to-late 1990s, in a world of Kappa jackets, TFI Friday and Britpop's inexorable, crusty nosed decline.

Though it still enjoys a devoted set of fans, the Sega Saturn never really put up much of a fight with Sony's original PlayStation when they both launched in late 1994. Despite its ostensible similarity to the PS, the Saturn was expensive, underpowered, under-gamed and comparatively unfashionable. Nights into Dreams and Panzer Dragoon Saga were amazing, and both systems shared huge early hits like Tomb Raider and Resident Evil. But Sony's strategy of a lower price, easier and cheaper development tools and the subsequent superior library of titles placed Sega's bollocks inside the Big Black Book of Hubris and firmly slammed it shut. This particular console war was over fairly quickly. Yet there was a giant lurking in the wings.

Back in 1988, with one eye on the future, Sony and Nintendo agreed a deal to develop a CD add-on for the SNES, much like the ill-fated Mega-CD. This snappily titled SNES-CD eventually became a standalone device called the Play Station. But due to a falling out over the ownership rights of software produced for the system, the two companies acrimoniously parted ways, leaving Sony to develop the console alone. It was released, minus the space in its name, as the PlayStation. Meanwhile, Nintendo had a change of heart regarding the CD format and began work on the cartridge-based Ultra 64, which would be released in Japan in the summer of 1996 as the Nintendo 64.

By the time the N64 came out in the UK, in March 1997, the Saturn was already on its arse, and the PlayStation was gambolling off to the horizon. Priced at a frankly unreasonable £249.99 without a game, meaning early adopters had to shell out a further £60 for Super Mario 64 (Turok: Dinosaur Hunter weighed in at a fairly twattish £70), the N64's bungled launch looked like an own goal, giving the PlayStation another easy scalp. But just two months later, and in a huge slap across the face for anyone who'd shelled out for the console earlier, Nintendo dropped the price of its new machine to £149.99. The war was on.

Consumers without the necessary funds for both systems – everyone who wasn't a minor royal or a footballer, basically – faced a huge choice, and not simply, as with now, one between the odd exclusive title and speck of superior online functionality. No: this was a choice between one entire ethos and another. A choice with considerable costs and rewards either way.

Yes, we know this isn't an original PlayStation pad

The PlayStation's use of CDs as a storage format afforded it many advantages, not least of which was the extra available megabytes affording its games CD-quality audio and swish full-motion-video sequences. In a time when recorded speech, proper, actual music tracks and video in games were thrilling technological advances, this was a huge selling point. The Chemical Brothers and Orbital provided music for the PlayStation's UK launch title Wipeout. This, coupled with the ability to play audio CDs in the system, awarded Sony's grey box the kind of cool points Nintendo would have dreamed of, had it any notion of the existence of cool points as an abstract concept.

The infinitesimal memory on the N64's cartridges meant even its flagship title GoldenEye 007 conveyed speech with soundless text and moved the story along with clunky in-engine cutscenes. CDs weren't perfect, though: they needed to load, like Spectrum or Commodore 64 games did from cassettes. N64 owners balked at this inconvenience like spoiled seventeenth century fop using a lace handkerchief to wave away unsatisfactory hors d'oeuvre. And CDs scratched easily, while N64 cartridges were the steel-plated, megaton-resistant cockroaches of the information age.

Though cartridges felt like a distinct step backwards technologically, the superior grunt of the N64 itself, plus the revolutionary controller's analogue input, meant there were N64 games that simply could not exist on PlayStation. This, from launch title Super Mario 64 onwards, was what Nintendo were selling: new, unique experiences. Wave Race 64's water physics. Turok 2's Expansion Pak-aided hi-res environments. Perfect Dark's near PC-quality visuals. Banjo-Kazooie's buffed, vibrant sheen. Ocarina of Time's game-changing, well, everything.

Meanwhile, the PlayStation had strengths of its own. Though outgunned, it used its storage capabilities and some canny programming to amass a repertoire of classics that were beyond the reach of the N64 – a collection at which Nintendo-siders peered at covetously. A huge coup for Sony was securing Final Fantasy VII that, at three discs in size, would have required, ooh, a billion N64 cartridges to house. Likewise for Metal Gear Solid's reams of recorded speech and the Resident Evil series' FMV, voice acting (such as it was) and pre-rendered backgrounds. Tony Hawk's Pro Skater's soundtrack oozed class, while Gran Turismo's vast catalogue of memory-hungry car models made its rivals' on the N64 – which, arguably, never had a truly great racing sim – look fairly paltry.

The differences in each system's game selections weren't simply due to mechanical limitations, either. Both had contractual exclusives that made their opposite number envious in the extreme. Nintendo had the then-untouchable Rare in its garage toiling away; Sony had Hideo Kojima and Square. Sony had cannily marketed itself at the teen and young adult market: intense, mature adverts showcased games with gore, swearing, and lots of exciting violence.

Nintendo saw itself as more of a good-clean-fun family company, and such things in its games were tightly controlled. Duke Nukem 64 was heavily censored, and the risible Carmageddon 64 featured zombies instead of humans, while Sony was happy to release Grand Theft Auto to a huge public outcry, selling a massive number of PlayStations in the process. Its console was seen as the dangerous bit of rough. Each system's library of games differed hugely from its opponent's, and cross-platform releases were the exception rather than, as it is now, the norm. You had to choose. And choosing one side meant missing out on a hell of a lot from the other.

As time went on, both consoles would inevitably become increasingly homogenised. Sony released an analogue controller in 1997, bringing it in line with the N64's (though it's worth noting that the decomposing Saturn beat Sony to the punch with this, bundling Nights into Dreams with its 3D Control Pad). Nintendo would eventually relax its iron grip on taste, signing off on god know how many uses of the word "fuck" in Conker's Bad Fur Day. And cartridge technology would advance to the level that Resident Evil 2 saw an N64 release in all its FMV splendour. Four-player games – Nintendo's trump card – became available on PlayStation with the Multitap, albeit never to the giddy heights of GoldenEye's majestic, friendship-ending free-for-alls. The N64's syrupy visuals would remain the connoisseur's choice, while the PlayStation's endless pool of games and pirate-friendly software format would make it the everyman's. Arguments between fans would continue.

Some choice scenes from the N64's 'Conker's Bad Fur Day'

In each successive console generation since then, the choice hasn't mattered as much. PS2 and Xbox? Basically the same, with the odd exclusive each, leaving the GameCube or Dreamcast as interesting if thankless secondary options. PS3 and Xbox 360? Basically the same, again with some appealing exclusives, leaving the Wii as the option your nan likes if she's pissed. PS4 and Xbox One? You can see where this is going.

With the PlayStation and N64 you were either in one camp or the other. Blur or Oasis. Ribena or Vimto. Weed or whizz. Sony's cheeky James Hunt or Nintendo's meticulous Niki Lauda. Either way, you were right and, like Newton's Third Law, equally wrong. If you're old enough to have made a decision at the time, chances are you'll defend it to this day, and still secretly worry that it was the wrong one.

It was gaming's last great rivalry. Not being able to play Bloodborne on an Xbox just isn't the same.

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Control pad photography by Brandon Allen, from his Deconstructed series – see the full set of shots at his website, here.

@lukeholland01

Previously:

This Was the Week in Video Games

How Sonic the Hedgehog Helped Me Beat Cancer

Celebrating the Super Weird With Austin's Indie Gaming Champions