My first experience playing the Nintendo 64 is a memory that has stayed firmly etched in my mind for nearly twenty years now. I distinctly remember picking up that wacky three-pronged controller at a demo kiosk in Blockbuster video. Parenthetically, for those of you who may have already forgotten what Blockbuster video was, think RedBox, but an entire building filled to the brim with both old and new movies and video games.
Such beautiful optimism, but like many dreams of the 90s, this one would end in heartbreak come the 21st century.
The kiosk was showing off the system’s flagship launch title, Super Mario 64 and I could not have been more excited to finally play the game my friends and I had ogled in Nintendo Power for what had seemed like an eternity. I was not let down.
Playing Super Mario 64 was my first experience with a 3D game since neither I, nor any of my friends owned a Jaguar, PlayStation or PC capable of actually playing such games. So exploring Princess Toadstool’s (who was now called Peach for some weird reason) castle and jumping into its many paintings while waiting for my mom to pick out whatever Antonio Banderas vehicle middle-aged women were pining over at the time was a seminal experience for me.
This may as well have been a portal to the future.
It’s hard to describe what it was like to go from playing as Mario in his side-scrolling glory to controlling Mario in fully-realized 3D environments. It is the only time in my entire life that I truly felt like I was playing something that was actually going to change the future of video-gaming. This is a feeling I would have again and again. Super Mario 64 would set the bar for 3D platformers, Banjo Kazooie would raise that bar even higher. Goldeneye ensured that the First-Person Shooter remained relevant. Ocarina of Time set the standard for 3D adventure games and games like Super Smash Bros., Mario Party, and Mario Kart 64 would be unrivaled in their multiplayer goodness. In short, while other established franchises struggled to find their footing in the third dimension, Nintendo’s were soaring.
Of course we all know that, while the Nintendo 64 had an incredible library, it was not the dominant console of the 5th generation of consoles. Thanks to some smooth marketing, incredibly good relations with third-party developers, and brilliant cost-saving measures, the 32-bit Sony PlayStation would end up trouncing its competition despite its inferior specs.
That night when I jumped in to the picture of marching Bob-ombs, I could never had known that the Nintendo 64 would be the beginning of the end for Nintendo’s dominance over the gaming market. In fact, it would be the last video game system that would truly inspire awe in me. I don’t know if that’s because I was a teenager by the time the Xbox, PS2 and GameCube hit shelves, or if it’s because of diminishing returns of increased polygon counts.
Whatever the reason, the Nintendo 64 will forever hold a special place in my heart as the last console to feature games that consistently took my breath away. Now here we are 20 years after the Nintendo 64 was released in Japan. Systems have gotten more powerful, games have gotten bigger and prettier and we now sit on the precipice of VR and the exciting possibilities that opens up. By no means did gaming peak with the Nintendo 64, nor am I insinuating that the PlayStation and other 5th generation consoles did not offer their fair share of contributiuons to gaming history. I'm not that blinded by nostalgia, but there is no denying it served as a platform for some of the greatest leaps in gaming history, and for that I am forever grateful to Nintendo's charcoal console with an insane controller.