Thursday, November 10, 2011

Ranking Nintendo's Systems: Part 3

We continue our look at Nintendo's best and worst systems. Part 1 and part 2 can be found here.

7. Nintendo 64

History: Nintendo and Sony were flirting quite a bit during the Super Nintendo years. It got serious enough that Nintendo started wearing Sony's class ring, and Sony even got to third base with Nintendo this one time at a party. Nintendo abruptly called off the relationship when Sony started getting a little too handsy. The rest was history. Sony went off to make their disc-based Playstation, which launched to rave reviews. Nintendo had to make due with the cartridge-based Nintendo 64.

Results: Nintendo started strong, but ended up stumbling to the finish line at the end of the generation. Sony ended up selling 100 million Playstations, while Nintendo finished with 30 million Nintendo 64s. That was still good for second place compared to the limp Sega Saturn, but not what Nintendo was hoping for.

What Went Right: While other companies were fumbling around with 3D games, Nintendo had it figured out right from the get-go. Super Mario 64 still plays and looks great 15 years later. Other companies struggled for years afterwards with camera placement and movement, while Nintendo had it perfected with Zelda: Ocarina of Time.

The Nintendo 64 also became a party console pretty quickly, due to having four controller inputs and a crapload of great multiplayer games. Goldeneye was the first great console shooter, Mario Kart 64's battle mode still gets play years later, and Mario Party showed people what's it's like to get raped by a computer.

They also took the lead on adding force-feedback rumble to controllers. It's now to the point that if a controller doesn't have rumble, we laugh at it. It's that integral to the gaming experience.

What Went Wrong: Nintendo was absolutely terrified of piracy and was terrified that the coming wave of CD burners would make their system a free-for-all. Releasing a cartridge-based system made sense to them at the time, but it hurt them in the long run.

Cartridge technology had a few benefits over discs, such as minimal loading times and a much more difficult copying process, but they were far more expensive to make and produce. That meant that Sony could drop prices on their games after a fashion, while Nintendo was stuck selling their cartridges for the same prices permanently.

Game sizes quickly became bigger and bigger too, and cartridges, with their limited storage capacity, couldn’t handle it. Companies such as Square simply walked away from developing for Nintendo and ran to the open arms of Sony. In turn, that meant that one of the flashpoint games of the generation, Final Fantasy VII, never touched a Nintendo console and became a Sony exclusive. It was arguably that game that made Sony's Playstation into a monster hit, and Nintendo could have had it had they not stubbornly insisted on using cartridges over discs.

Besides, Nintendo 64 emulators quickly caught up. UltraHLE hit in 1999 and quickly brought Nintendo 64 emulation to computers. To reiterate: Before the Nintendo 64's lifespan was over, there was a Nintendo 64 emulator capable of playing these games on any computer with a halfway-decent graphics card, despite Nintendo's best efforts to stave off piracy.

In fact, what made piracy so attractive at the time was the small size of the cartridge ROMs. Mario 64's ROM was only 8MB in size. Even over a dialup connection, that's something you can download with ease. Compare that to the 650 MB held on a CD-ROM, and it's clear that Nintendo made entirely the wrong call by going with cartridges.

The quality of games for the Nintendo 64 was beyond reproach. The quantity of them was another matter. Owing to the high cost of making cartridges, games were few and far between. It came to the point that there was one high-profile release every six months, and the rest of the time there was nothing. Quite literally, nothing.

That's not exaggeration, either. The Nintendo 64 had 287 games released in all regions during their 7 year history. The Playstation had 2,418. So while the Playstation had a steady stream of decent-to-great games to keep gamers interested, the N64 had about 20 games total in their 7 year history that were worth playing at all. But when the games were good, the games were capital-G Good.

Lessons Learned: Nintendo knew they had to back away from cartridges for their next system, but they also wanted to continue avoiding piracy. They selected a disc-based system using minidiscs that were difficult to copy but still provided the benefits of a disc-based system.

They also knew they had to reach out to third-parties more in order to keep a steady stream of gamers interested. They brought companies like Capcom back in to the fold and encouraged Square to make games for their new system.

It also made sense to keep Nintendo’s consoles as multiplayer havens, so Nintendo kept the four-controller layout for the Gamecube. However, as we discussed in the previous article, it wasn’t enough. Even with the harsh lessons they learned, they couldn't quite capitalize. The lessons Nintendo learned wouldn't quite be fully realized for another generation.

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