Changing the System: How Nintendo 64 revolutionized 3D game design

Shacknews celebrates the 20th anniversary of Nintendo's 64-bit machine by looking back on the good, the bad, and the blurry.

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In October 1985, Nintendo's NES single-handedly resurrected the games market following the crash of 1983. Nearly 11 years later, Miyamoto and his cadre of pioneering designers took the industry back to the drawing board yet again with the release of the Nintendo 64 on June 23, 1996, in Japan.

Over its five-year lifespan, the N64 popularized 3D gaming on consoles and heralded design methodologies that continue to inform contemporary games and hardware. Despite its many accomplishments, it was not without faults. I reached out to a few developers to reflect on Nintendo's "Ultra"-sized third home console.

It's-a Me, Three-dimensional Linguistics!

While 3D games existed prior to June 1996, there was no template for designers and players to follow. Implementations of camera controls and movement were ill-defined at best and slipshod at worst. Super Mario 64 formalized those elements and more in much the same way that Super Mario Bros. acted as a compass for 2D platformers in its day.

"My earliest memory [of Nintendo 64] is the day I got the console," said David D'Angelo, a designer and programmer at Shovel Knight studio Yacht Club Games. "I actually had a bunch of friends over, and we were going to play basketball, but the N64 arrived that day so I totally ignored them all to play Super Mario 64. It was the best day ever."

For any other game, D'Angelo's snub might have cost him several friendships. But Mario 64 cast a spell over everyone who played it, and that was largely due to how naturally the Nintendo 64's controller enabled players to move in the polygonal manifestation of the Mushroom Kingdom.

Built around three grips, the N64 gamepad resembled a lowercase 'm.' The center grip had an analog stick meant for controlling characters in 3D, and was designed alongside Super Mario 64—a clear and powerful example of Nintendo's chicken-and-egg doctrine that software and hardware should be created in tandem.

"The controller seemed quirky at first, but after playing just briefly, I could see that it was used really well for the game and everything made sense," said Diablo II designer Stieg Hedlund. "In that moment, I knew the game and the console would be huge successes—it felt awesome just to move around and explore the world."

To play Mario, players held the middle grip in their left fist and moved Mario by rotating the analog stick with their thumb. Tapping four yellow buttons on the face of the controller, each marked 'C' (short for camera) with a compass direction, swung the camera to different perspectives. The blue A button made Mario jump, and he could throw punches by tapping B.

What really blew minds was Mario's range of movement. Tilting the stick forward just a bit caused him to tiptoe; a little more pressure, and he'd speed up to a walk. Going full tilt sent the mustachioed mascot into a sprint. Whether sidling against walls to sneak past sleeping piranha plants or dashing across the sunny fields that comprised the bulk of Super Mario 64's zones, Mario responded instantly and effortlessly to player input. Spending hours running, leaping, flipping, and climbing in the Princess Peach's garden outside her castle was just as enjoyable as completing objectives in levels.

"It was the first game to really get 3D platforming exactly right," said Tom Hall, co-founder of id Software and creative director of Commander Keen, Wolfenstein 3D, and Doom. "So much of the 3D level language, platforming language was realized in this game. The camera occasionally was dodgy—expected from such a pioneering game—but the gameplay was great, varied, joyful, explorative, clever, fun, smart.... Pretty much came out of the gate with the best game on the system, and one of the best games of all time."

"Before its arrival on the scene, platformers in particular had a lot of trouble figuring out how to define a path and allow player to navigate it," Hedlund added. "Any designer worth their salt working in 3D recognized that Super Mario 64 was the shape of things to come and absorbed as much as they could from it."

"It made leaps and bounds in the industry, and even today, it still stands out as completely unique. There are extremely few games that give you pure joy of movement like Mario 64," said D'Angelo.

In some instances, Mario 64 was perhaps too addictive. "I remember when working on Duke 3D, Allen Blum and Dirk Jones had a TV between their desks with an N64 and Mario 64," recounted 3D Realms co-founder and Duke Nukem 3D designer George Broussard. "For a while, every time I walked into the office, they'd be playing Mario 64 [instead of] working on Duke. It was a problem, but we chalked it up to 'research.'"

Quality Over Quantity

Nintendo engineered its N64 gamepad with more than just Mario in mind. Taking the peripheral by the left and right grips let players hold it like a traditional controller, complete with a d-pad on the left and six face buttons plus two triggers, ideal for 2D games like Mortal Kombat 4.

Unfortunately, few games took full advantage of the controller due to other technical decisions that struck many as antiquated. "Cartridges were a terrible idea and were very expensive to produce; game publishers had to invest huge sums of money into pre-buying inventory from Nintendo," Broussard said. "If a game sold poorly, or slowly, it could bankrupt people. This limited third parties from taking risks. Nintendo got away with it because they were Nintendo and still number one in consoles, but there's a reason the PS1 took off and essentially stole the crown from Nintendo."

It wasn't atypical for N64 cartridges to sell for $70 to $80, an unfortunate side effect of high production costs. As a result, games were few and far between: players became accustomed to waiting months for the next big thing while retailers were flooded with new PS1 titles priced in the $30 to $40 range and unfettered by Nintendo's heavy hand.

"Back in the N64 days, Nintendo were still very much control freaks when it came to content and what they allowed on their system," Broussard said. "They were very slow to realize that not everyone who played games was 10 years old. I recall having to change 'Steroids' in Duke Nukem 3D to 'Vitamin X' for the N64 port. Things like that were annoying."

"Nintendo being unable to get third-party support was definitely a huge problem during the N64 era," D'Angelo admitted.

On the other hand, sticking with cartridges offered benefits over CD-ROM. Few N64 games exhibited any load time thanks to the near-instant access speed of cartridges. Meanwhile, PlayStation was limited by the speed of its CD drive.

Other aspects of sticking to cartridges were pragmatic. "A bunch of us took an RV to GDC or E3 one year, and we had the great, non-shakable media of the N64 to play as we drove," said Hall. "I kept one in my SUV for years just for that reason. They could also augment games with extra hardware because they did this," he continued, referring to Nintendo's capability to effectively upgrade the N64 by engineering cartridges with different chips to add new technical capabilities. Conker's Bad Fur Day and Resident Evil 2 boasted more space than other games, and their developers took advantage by packing their carts full of multi-layered textures.

Independent of special cartridges, the N64 had more sophisticated graphical hardware than competitors, allowing for advanced techniques like trilinear filtering—the first console to feature the technique—to smooth out textures. Although N64 titles could look as blocky as any other primordial 3D game on other platforms, PS1 and Saturn were noticeably more pixelated in comparison.

The biggest advantage the N64 had was, of course, Nintendo itself. As more and more developers ditched cartridges for the greener (and cheaper) pastures of optical media, Nintendo and second-party devs like Rare bolstered the N64's library with hit after hit, many of which expanded the lexicon of 3D game development that Mario all but wrote. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time introduced a lock-on mechanic, giving designers a surefire method of helping players aim at characters. Goldeneye's control scheme, intricately crafted campaign objectives, and abundance of multiplayer modes paved a path for console shooters like Halo and Call of Duty.

"I do recall thinking when Goldeneye shipped that it was the best FPS to date on most any platform," Broussard told me. "That was an amazing achievement."

The N64's ability to carve TV screens into four sectors to accommodate multiple players without too severe a dip in fidelity was a nontrivial feature in an age before online multiplayer came standard in consoles. Stieg Hedlund reminisced over dozens of hours spent playing Mario Kart 64 with his colleagues at Blizzard North. "The smart use of the controller in a crazily competitive four-player experience with tons of strategy and reversal possibilities is one of my favorites on any platform ever. At Blizzard North it was our go-to for a long time."

Diablo and Diablo II composer Matt Uelmen gained a reputation around the office as the team's most devilish player. "Of all of my lifetime of gaming memories, the absolute top of the list as real-life group play goes would have to be occupied by the N64 Mario Kart sessions circa late '97 at Blizzard North," Uelmen said. "The best part of it was the way the game's physics and character design represented the ids of the main players involved. [Artist] Ben Haas tended to stick with Donkey Kong and the occasional Wario. Stieg, intellectual despite his Viking appearance, would go with Toad; [artist] Patrick Tougas would often go with Luigi, and I, of course, couldn't resist the speed and demure mockery of Princess Peach. There was nothing sweeter than hearing her coo 'Peach has got it' as I crossed the finish line in victory. Such great game design, and great memories of what was a golden time at Blizzard North."

Get N or Get Out

For all its warts, the Nintendo 64's influence on modern games cannot be understated. From first-party juggernauts like Super Mario 64 and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, to the advent of new technologies like analog sticks and force feedback, Nintendo's 64-bit machine has earned its place among the pantheon of gaming platforms and technologies.

"I think its biggest contributions were mastering 3D gameplay design and implementation," said D'Angelo. "But they also mastered or invented new technologies like rumble and the control stick. Without the N64, who knows where 3D would be right now?"

Long Reads Editor

From The Chatty

  • reply
    June 23, 2016 4:15 PM

    David Craddock posted a new article, Changing the System: How Nintendo 64 revolutionized 3D game design

    • reply
      June 23, 2016 4:23 PM

      20 years of 3D consoles, crazy.

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      June 23, 2016 4:41 PM

      I loved my 64. Just not Superman64.

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        June 23, 2016 4:48 PM

        Definitely the ET of that generation of games.

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        June 23, 2016 4:54 PM

        Dr. Mario 64 was a "fun" drinking game.

        Vodka followed by whiskey was a bad choice.

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      June 23, 2016 5:24 PM

      Favorite non-Nintendo, non-Rare N64 games?

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        June 23, 2016 5:27 PM

        The wrestling games.

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          June 23, 2016 5:41 PM

          I am left befuddled that those games have not been copied since Day of Reckoning for the Gamecube. 80% if the reason WWE2k16 sucks is because the controls/gameplay are hot garbage compared to the simple systems from the late 90s.

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          June 23, 2016 5:43 PM

          Yyyyep

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          June 23, 2016 6:01 PM

          I always had a soft spot for them and I don't even like wrestling.

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          June 24, 2016 5:08 AM

          Which one was your favorite?

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            June 24, 2016 5:29 AM

            Probably No Mercy, which I think was the last one? By that point, they had the design down and added tons of features and different modes.

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          June 24, 2016 5:33 AM

          I remember I worked at a Babbage's in 1999 when "WWF Attitude" was the wrestling game about to come out. I swear to God we got like fifty calls a day asking if we had it in, except it kept getting delayed. It got delayed once due to the death of Owen Hart but it got delayed a few more times so I think they just blamed a delay on needing to put a tribute to him in the game.

          My guess would be that when they announced the next wrestling game it would start over again but I had quit by then.

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        June 23, 2016 5:33 PM

        All Star Baseball

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        June 23, 2016 5:33 PM

        err...trying to think...

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        June 23, 2016 5:37 PM

        NFL Blitz and NFL Blitz 2000

        FIFA

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        June 23, 2016 5:45 PM

        Mystical Ninja!

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        June 23, 2016 5:46 PM

        NFL Quarterback Club '98

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        June 23, 2016 5:47 PM

        Mortal Kombat 4 (arcade-perfect port), and... I can't believe I'm going to admit this... I liked Quest 64. It was a fun time sink during the long, loooong wait for Ocarina of Time.

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        June 23, 2016 6:00 PM

        NBA Hangtime

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        June 23, 2016 6:30 PM

        Turok 2. Game was fucking awesome. BEWAREOBLIVIONISATHAND

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        June 23, 2016 6:37 PM

        SAN FRANSISCO RUSH

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        June 23, 2016 6:53 PM

        Blast Corps... oh wait.

      • gmd
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        June 23, 2016 7:49 PM

        Shadows of the Empire

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        June 23, 2016 7:57 PM

        Extreme-G maybe? Its hard to go back to even the Nintendo/Rare N64 games, so its really slim pickings once you get outside of that.

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          June 23, 2016 8:07 PM

          THIS. i miss the extreme g games.

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          June 24, 2016 6:38 AM

          that's my favourite as well. The tracks were awesome, except the lava one. Fuck no road boundaries. That was what kept me from ever winning the hardest GP with all 1st-places

          I didn't like the 2nd (bought that on PC) and the 3rd game was alright. I think there was a 4th game on GameCube, I need to hunt that down at some point as well.

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        June 23, 2016 7:58 PM

        RUSHrush

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          June 23, 2016 8:09 PM

          the time I rented rush 2 with my cousin and we spent hours farting around on that stunt track is one of my fondest video game memories

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        June 23, 2016 8:56 PM

        WCW. vs. NWO (or any of those AKI wrestling games)

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        June 23, 2016 8:58 PM

        Waverace
        1080 Snowboarding
        Turok


        Uhhh

      • reply
        June 23, 2016 10:29 PM

        Rogue Squadron!

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        June 24, 2016 6:01 AM

        4 player NBA jams! We played this so much in college.

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        June 24, 2016 6:59 AM

        Duke Nukem 64 was great

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          June 24, 2016 7:15 AM

          Duke64 is actually my favorite version of the game. Bots in multiplayer coupled with some of the new weapons made the game new all over again.

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            June 24, 2016 7:16 AM

            Yeah and coop was also great!

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              June 24, 2016 7:44 AM

              In high school, a friend and I would team up against two bots set to the highest difficulty. They were ruthless, and you couldn't actually form teams; all the Dukes looked the same, so my friend and I would call out where we each were--too preoccupied with hunting bot Dukes to look at each other's half of the screen, I suppose--to make sure we didn't "accidentally" frag one another.

              We stayed up until 5 or 6 in the morning playing Red Light District over and over and over. So much fun.

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        June 24, 2016 7:42 AM

        The New Tetris, a game I continue to play to this day.

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        June 24, 2016 7:58 AM

        Was gonna say Blast Corps and then realized Rare made that too.

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        June 24, 2016 8:17 AM

        Body Harvest made by DMA Designs... the studio that eventually became Rockstar North.

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        June 24, 2016 8:59 AM

        Tony Hawk, Gauntlet Legacy, and NBA Showtime were good ones.

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      June 23, 2016 5:42 PM

      Great article, btw. Good content and very well written.

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        June 23, 2016 7:00 PM

        That's like $7000 in games.

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        June 23, 2016 8:59 PM

        On a CRT, too. That's fantastic!

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          June 24, 2016 9:10 AM

          No other way, really. N64 looks like the asshole of a dog's corpse on an HDTV or emulators.

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            June 24, 2016 10:09 AM

            It sure does. I have mine hooked up to a 32" LCD and it looks like I'm playing through a screen window.

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        June 23, 2016 9:55 PM

        Can I come over and play?

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          June 24, 2016 1:06 AM

          Shit yeah. I need an excuse to pick up BattleTanx anyway.

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        June 24, 2016 8:50 AM

        I just came.

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      June 23, 2016 6:34 PM

      Love this kind of content. Thanks Dave.

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      June 23, 2016 6:45 PM

      Has anyone here ever owned a 64DD, the disk-based add on that snapped onto the bottom? It only came out in Japan, it only had like eight titles, and most of the games slated for it were either squeezed onto cartridges or canceled outright.

      Not sure if it would even work with a USA-based N64 but I've always thought it would be neat to have one for show.

      The "Master Quest" version of Ocarina of Time was going to be a 64DD-based expansion pack called Ura Zelda ("Another Zelda") but it got canceled and didn't see the light of day until the 2002 pre-order bonus disc for Wind Waker (it's also in the 3DS port of OOT)

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        June 24, 2016 5:14 AM

        I was so fucking hyped for the 64D, probably because Nintendo Power told me to be and sold me on the amazing games it would enable. Them it just kind of faded away...

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        June 24, 2016 5:31 AM

        Master Quest was really fun way to mix up the game after playing it a hundred times.

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          June 24, 2016 5:36 AM

          I think it's the best version of the game, and the base game is one of the best ever made.

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      June 23, 2016 8:05 PM

      Great article!

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      June 23, 2016 10:22 PM

      Great writeup. I bought mine when Zelda came out. I'd been PC-only since the end of the SuperNES, but while I was astounded at Mario64 on the Toys R Us display, it was Zelda that really made me say 'I need this thing now'

      Minor quibble, you've got Mario Kat in one of the later paragraphs.

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      June 24, 2016 5:40 AM

      David, I'm really glad you're writing for this place.

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      June 24, 2016 10:17 AM

      Great article! I really do believe that when you combine GLQuake and the N64, which both came out within a year of each other, the impact they both had on gaming was huge. It was basically the revolution of 3D gaming we had been longing for.

      Looking back on the last 20 years and the impact they both had is incredible.