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The Weird, Weird Games of the Nintendo 64

When the system was announced, legendary developer Shigeru Miyamoto said, “We are going to make lots of weird games from now on.” And he wasn't lying.

by Daniel Montesinos-Donaghy
Sep 23 2014, 7:00am

Back when the Nintendo 64 was still known as the Ultra 64, Super Mario overlord Shigeru Miyamoto told the Japanese press: “We are going to make lots of weird games from now on.” And he wasn't lying.

Despite a comparative lack of product when compared with its competitors in the fifth-generation console wars, the N64’s seven-year lifespan offered many fascinating anomalies alongside the Zeldas, GoldenEye 007, and influx of Mario Party games. And in their own ways, all of the following titles were attempts to launch a gaming future that we now accept as the present—even if they were handled clumsily or marred by top-level corporate concerns.

As Nintendo inches towards fixing the reputation of the Wii U and forgetting a cataclysmic financial year, we look at a history of mismanaged N64 ambition.

HEY YOU, PIKACHU! (1998)

To this day, Nintendo has a cagey relationship with third-party developers. Its late president, Hiroshi Yamauchi, was notorious for charging outside companies license fees to create no more than five games a year. His business plan was meant to improve Nintendo’s quality of stock and give them the edge over their rivals. During the Sega-era console wars, this strategy allowed Nintendo to keep a stranglehold on third-party developers, but it also gave Yamauchi a dictatorial reputation. Speaking to Games Informer earlier this year, the author Blake J. Harris shared what these third-parties recalled: “Nintendo had you by the balls, and they knew it.”

These actions had long-lasting reverberations, and the company has since been trying to welcome these developers back into the fold. It may not be working. When the company suffered from the aforementioned fiscal disaster earlier this year, financial bodies pointed to the company’s lack of third-party support as a calamitous blunder. This comes with an extra dose of irony, with the Wii U leaving few outside developers interested in making games for the failing console. Ouch.

As the N64 rolled out in 1996 with little third-party support—a combination of sour grapes from jilted developers, overly complicated programming, and the rise of the CD format—Nintendo funded a development conglomerate with the HR company Recruit to fill the gap. The result was Marigul, an umbrella company that housed Nintendo’s personal third-party product line. At least that was the idea, with many of the Marigul games not crossing international waters, being hindered by delays, ultimately canceled or intended for the ill-fated 64DD add-on.

Despite Nintendo’s problems with other gaming companies, they had struck a goldmine in their own house—Game Freak’s series of Pokémon titles for the Game Boy were already undergoing a world takeover, which allowed for plenty of N64 tie-ins and a reason for the Transfer Pak (a Game Boy support app) to exist. One of the most ambitious Pokémon tie-in titles was Pikachu Anane, a.k.a. Hey You, Pikachu! in the West—a life-simulation game by the new developer Ambrella.

Hey You, Pikachu! gameplay

The hook behind Hey You, Pikachu! was that it allowed you to communicate with Nintendo’s latest mascot with a bulky microphone that attached to the N64 controller. This technology was called the Voice Recognition Unit (VRU) and was meant to recognize the human voice. You were able to talk to Pikachu and build a relationship with the digital sprite, taking on different tasks as its friend.

However, the game is mostly remembered as an example of Nintendo abandoning their most interesting technology, with Hey You, Pikachu! being only one of two titles that utilized the VRU. (The other was Densha de Go! 64, a train-driving simulation ported over from a popular arcade game concerning the country’s railways. Only in Japan.) It also ran into problems as Pokémon garnered worldwide attention, with international localization efforts taking longer than expected.

Despite receiving a Japanese release months before the Dreamcast’s similarly themed Seaman and a rise of console games reliant on voice-recognition software, Hey You, Pikachu! and the VRU soon lapsed quietly out of the public memory.

MORITA SHŌGI 64 (1998)

In the same year that Ambrella developed voice recognition, Nintendo was making moves into the online gaming market. But only in Japan. And via dial-up. With a board game.

Saikyō Habu Shōgi, released in 1996, was a virtual representation of shōgi, a strategy game colloquially known as “Japanese chess” that dates back to the 16th century. Developed by third-party journeymen SETA Corporation, it held the honor of being one of the N64’s Japanese launch titles alongside Super Mario 64 and Pilotwings 64, and featured as its “special guest” shōgi master Yoshiharu Habu.

Despite being available in the first days of the console, SETA’s arrival into fifth-generation gaming was a sales catastrophe, as you might expect of a game about Japanese chess, pushing only one copy per hundred N64s. In a 2009 blog for Wired, Chris Kohler found a retro videogame shop in Tokyo giving boxes of Saikyō Habu Shōgi away for free, unable to shift them for 50 yen each, or about 50 cents.

Nintendo’s SpaceWorld ’96 presentation

And yet—somehow—SETA had a sequel green-lit, which brings us to Morita Shōgi 64. Launched at Nintendo’s Japanese trade show Space World ’96, it was placed alongside the Rumble Pak and the 64DD add-on as an acknowledgement of the N64 as a forward-looking, evolving console. Morita Shōgi 64’s online capabilities were charmingly low-key: the bulging cartridge (one of the few to not have an Official Nintendo model number, fact fans) merely had a RJ-42 Modem Connection where players could place an ethernet cable that came with the game. Upon connecting to a server—most likely the Randnet server saved for the 64DD’s online roll-out—you could challenge players around Japan.

The result was a clumsy, if fascinating, choice to push into the online gaming age, something Nintendo appeared cautious about, particularly with the effort charged with setting up the Randnet network for the ill-fated 64DD. By the end of 1998, however, the 64DD was still unreleased and Sega’s Dreamcast was rolling out across Japan with a built-in modem.

TETRIS 64 (1998)

Judging from their gameography, SETA were an unremarkable company, developing Japan-only simulations like their shōgi titles and golf games like the GameCube’s Legend of Golfer. However, they were able to present innovative and downright odd takes on the N64’s technology: they developed the Aleck64 arcade hardware around the N64’s inner workings, releasing arcade-only games like creepy nudie title Vivid Dolls, and found a way to place a Bio Sensor into Tetris 64.

Famicom Dojo’s Vinnk comes across a Bio Sensor

The Bio Sensor is a fascinating anomaly in the N64’s lifespan, an accessory that would read the player’s heartbeat via an uncomfortable-looking clip attached to his/her earlobe. The faster the heart, the faster the blocks fell, and the harder the game became to play. It is an odd but fascinating concept for a gaming accessory, albeit one that Nintendo still can’t wrap their heads around to this day: the Wii Vitality Sensor, using sensory technology similar to the Bio Sensor, was announced in 2009 and canceled in 2013 after failing tests.

PERFECT DARK (2000)

Nintendo’s most loyal outside developer was Rare, the development house that had previously handled Super Nintendo hits Killer Instinct and Donkey Kong Country. In due time, the console's commercial prospects appeared to rest on their laurels. Enter Perfect Dark: meant to even the scales in the fifth-generation console wars, acting as Rare’s semi-sequel to GoldenEye 007, a progressive leap for the console, an ambitiously top-notch shooter that would move the entire genre forward.

Like many of Rare’s successes, it was hit by frequent delays. The first-person shooter had a lot riding on it as the console’s latest killer app. Sony’s PlayStation continued to control the market, believed to be the coolest console about. The Dreamcast was starting a run across the world, and despite its eventual ill fate for Sega, it was exciting to the casual gamer with its promises of online gaming and those long-awaited Sonic escapades in 3-D. Like every Nintendo console before and after it, the N64 was considered a kid’s machine and therefore sneered at by some adult gamers.

The delays were understandable—Rare’s track record was reason enough to trust that they were in control. Rome wasn’t built in a day, after all. Rare’s developers pushed the N64 to its limit with Perfect Dark, and it showed: The game demanded the console’s recently released 4MB Expansion Pak to get the most from it, and despite the help of additional memory, there was too much happening onscreen for fluid gameplay.

Perfect Dark gameplay

Yet the game’s PerfectHead application was one of the most intriguing ideas cooked up at Rare. After the success of GoldenEye 007’s multiplayer option—its flawless design arguably copied by almost every console shooter since—it was time for the company to revolutionize the medium again. Making use of the N64’s Transfer Pak, it allowed a player to apply photos of family and friends (taken with the Game Boy Camera add-on) onto playable multiplayer characters. It was revolutionary in that it would have been the first time a game let you shoot your mum's head off with a rocket launcher.

As an opportunity to shift Nintendo product, PerfectHead was savvy and somewhat ruthless—it handily offered a non-Pokémon Stadium reason for buying the Transfer Pak and gave legitimacy to the Game Boy Camera peripheral. As a glimpse into a more interactive future of console gaming, it was scintillating—players were now able to insert themselves into the game, occupying a digital space. Much of the game’s pre-release press excitedly focused on this feature; publications unrelated to gaming culture even registered their excitement at the face-mapping possibilities. SPIN magazine previewed the game in their December 1999 issue, flippantly talking about using the face-mapping options to cathartically “blow [jocks] off of buildings with lasers."

It was a joke that cut too close to the bone. Earlier that year in April, the students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold went on a shooting spree at Columbine High School, killing 13 students before turning their guns on themselves. In a state of shock, the news media embarked on a witch hunt to find who and what to blame the slayings on. Bullying! Anti-depressants! Goths! The duo’s predilection for first-person shooters—particularly Doom, which Harris infamously programmed levels for—helped to turn video games into the focal point of outraged media outlets overnight.

In early 2000, the PerfectHead feature was quietly dropped from the final game. Ken Lobb, a Development Manager for Nintendo, claimed it was removed for “technical difficulties," saying that it would crash any time the player-made avatars entered play environments. However, in response, Gamespot reported that Rare removed the feature “to avoid controversy."

Despite the promise and hype surrounding PerfectHead, the feature remains inaccessible and has not been revived for any other Nintendo title—instead, the cartoonish Mii avatars and 2011’s 3DS port of The Sims 3 are the closest the company dares to come to PerfectHead. In 2006, Ubisoft’s Rainbow Six: Vegas would take on something similarly photo-based to the abandoned feature, this time free from the moral panic surrounding videogames and real-life crime.

NINTENDO’S FIRST TASTE OF FAILURE

The N64 boasted multiple killer games—Super Mario 64, The Legend Of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, GoldenEye 007 et al.—but it arguably represents the first time that Nintendo’s ambition began to turn to folly. The cartridge format cost too much to grab solid third-party support, while the much-ballyhooed 64DD arrived and whimpered away in the space of 14 months, and Sony gobbled up the market. The GameCube would follow, arguably becoming Nintendo’s first cult console merely by being overshadowed by its competitors, setting up the Wii as the company’s comeback story. And as for the Wii U, its slow start might not be its undoing, but it needs games, and it needs them fast.

Despite Nintendo’s rough-and-tumble record following the fifth-generation console wars, they have been responsible for some of the most innovative and downright weird approaches to console gaming. Their ongoing existence seems like a left brain/right brain struggle, with their savvy and business-minded corporate side flailing against their ingrained mad scientist. Years on, the N64’s failures fall somewhere between the amusing and the utterly crazy, but they also feel daring, admirable even. Miyamoto did warn us, of course—there was going to be a lot of weird games.

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