I’m sure it won’t come as a surprise to anyone that I have a bit of a soft spot for Nintendo. I own every Nintendo system, every Mario platformer, and nearly all of the Legend of Zelda, Metroid, and other classic franchise games; not to mention countless Nintendo related tchochkies. (My family is so proud.) My love for Nintendo is fueled not just by nostalgia, but also by admiration. Whether “X-bots” or “Sony fanboys” want to admit it, their favorite systems owe more than they realize to Nintendo’s innovation, in particular, the Nintendo 64.
The N64 was one of the first home consoles built from the ground up with 3D gaming in mind. 3D games before the N64 were usually (though not always) a novelty. Practical applications of polygons were mostly limited to space shooters and racing games. While certainly 3D games were inevitable, Nintendo was the first to bank on it. Super Mario 64 single-handedly changed the way games are made, and was the first 3D platformer to achieve commercial and critical success. If you want to talk about influential games, would we have ever seen console-specific first-person shooters like Halo, Call of Duty, or Resistance if it hadn’t been for the precedent set by GoldenEye 007?
But let’s forget about the software for a moment, and take a look at the controller. Nintendo had already pioneered several aspects of the game controller — the control pad, shoulder buttons, diamond shaped button layout, a curved, ergonomic design — all of which have been incorporated into most game controllers that followed. The N64 added three elements that have carried over into almost all of its successors’ and competitors’: analog controls, accessory ports, and force feedback.
The first element, analog control, is what revolutionized 3D gaming on consoles. While PC games could achieve it to some degree with a mouse or trackball, the N64 controller gave us the first stationary, handheld, one-handed solution to precise analog controls. It worked so well that Sony redesigned the PlayStation’s standard controller to include, not one, but two analog joysticks .
Another innovation lifted from the N64 controller has been force feedback. Even though “rumble” was not a standard feature of the N64 controller, it quickly became a defining feature, and the Rumble Pak became one of Nintendo’s most successful after market peripherals, due in part to it being packed in with every copy of Star Fox 64, and supported by almost every game that followed, including GoldenEye. After the Rumble Pak, almost every game controller for every system had force feedback built-in; the exceptions being the Dreamcast, and the PS3’s Sixaxis, the latter of which took a lot of flack for its lack of a rumble feature.
The Rumble Pak was made possible by another act of foresight by Nintendo: the expansion port on the controller. Originally meant for storing and accessing the mostly superfluous Controller Pak, the port allowed for more useful peripherals like the aforementioned Rumble Pak, and the Game Boy Transfer Pak. Though not widely utilized, the Transfer Pak may have inspired Sega’s VMUs. While proprietary ports on controllers are a thing of the past, modern consoles carry on the tradition via USB and Bluetooth devices.
Finally, there is what I consider the biggest industry changer of them all: four controller ports. Almost every system made after the N64, with the inexplicable exception of the PS2, has supported four controllers out of the box (at least). This feature revolutionized gaming by turning it into a far more social experience than ever before. Friends and family members would pile into living rooms, dorm rooms, and break rooms for hours at a time to play Mario Kart 64, GoldenEye 007, Mario Party, Super Smash Bros., Aki’s wrestling series, and many other multiplayer gems of the day.
(On a special, VIP tour of Disney’s animation studio in Florida, I witnessed a group of artists sitting in an office playing on an N64 during a break. A background artist at the now defunct studio informed me that Bomberman 64 and GoldenEye were their favorites. Imagine if Nintendo hadn’t put four controller ports on the N64. Would Mario Kart and GoldenEye have been the immensely popular party games they became? Would other game system designers have considered multiplayer as important as they do now? Sony certainly didn’t.)
So criticize the N64, if you will, for its “blurry textures,” pervasive “fog effect,” and use of cartridges (the former two problems I never understood when the PlayStation’s 3D textures were always blocky and jagged, and short draw distance and polygon pop-up were pretty much standard), but you can’t deny the fact that it contributed more good ideas to the gaming industry than any console prior or since. Video game systems today are in its debt.