Archive for October, 1996

The Nintendo 64

Tuesday, October 8th, 1996

(This column first appeared in the October 8, 1996 issue of PC Graphics Report)

The Purchase

In my Richter Scale column a few weeks ago, I mentioned that I would be buying the latest in 3D console gaming, a Nintendo 64, as soon as they came out, solely for research of course. Unlike our very own esteemed publisher, Jon Peddie, who is reported to have cajoled, harassed, and ultimately begged a toy store to sell him one, only to be met with derision, I had no problems picking up a complete Nintendo 64 (N64) system on the first day they were available. You see, I had done my advance planning by putting a deposit down on a system at the beginning of September, even before Nintendo’s PR effort tried to promote a rush for the machines with a self-fulfilling prophecy that the company wouldn’t be able to meet consumer demand. Plus, I scored a cool t-shirt and cheesy bag for my early planning (the N64 backpack I got at the E3 Nintendo press launch was far better than the one given with a paid deposit).

Nintendo had originally set September 30th as the launch date for the N64 in the U.S., but ended up moving it up a day, to Sunday, the 29th. Even so, as I interviewed the folks staffing my local Toys R’Us, they complained about Walmart and Kaybee Toys selling units even before that date. I’m not sure if these other companies pre-sold units as well, but the local Toys R’Us manager indicated they had a long line of hopeful N64 purchasers waiting outside the doors when they opened at 10:00 that morning, and by the time it was over, had deposits for machines all the way into late December. All of the 180 or so units already at the store had already been spoken for, leaving those in line wanting to buy an N64 on the spot yearning for foresight. Where I a spiteful person who delights in the misery of others, I could have said the following to those poor N64-deprived soles: “Nah-nah nah nah-nah – I have a Nintendo 64 and you don’t!” But I’m above that.

Of course, my now superior position in life didn’t come cheaply. After all was said and done, I had spent $349.96, not including sales tax since New Hampshire is blessed with prudent fiscal policies and doesn’t burden its citizens with such things. The total breaks down as follows:

Nintendo 64 Console $199.99
Super Mario 64 Cartridge $59.99
PilotWings 64 Cartridge $59.99
Additional N64 Controller in Blue $29.99

Now, an astute observer might notice that Toys R’Us actually charged me more than Nintendo’s MSRP on the console and controller (4 cents each more, to be exact), but sold the cartridge games for $9.96 less than their MSRP of $69.95. I suppose that’s a fair trade.

I should also point out that I have yet to come up with a real good reason for having bought the second N64 game input controller, since no shipping N64 game (i.e. the two I bought) supports more than a single controller. The only rationale I’ve up with is the fact that I wanted a blue controller (they come in 6 different colors) to play with instead of the more boring gray version the N64 console is supplied with. A side benefit is that the unused gray controller keeps my 15 month old daughter distracted, letting her think she’s playing with daddy’s toy too, while letting him do the real playing.

One item I did not buy was the Nintendo 64 Television Hook-Up ($29.95), which is basically just an RF modulator for converting the N64’s A/V output to a TV signal. Since all the TVs and monitors I was planning on using the N64 with have A/V input, I was able to just use the cables supplied with the N64.

Setting Up
Further proving that companies which market sub-$1000 electronics devices to the average consumer have a greater understanding of how great the lack of technical knowledge is among the masses, Nintendo’s installation manual for the N64 covers every imaginable configuration of TV, VCR, and console(s), and offers toll-free phone support for those folks who are beyond the help of mere instruction manuals. That said, the N64 was a piece of cake to set-up and get running (and I didn’t even have to call for help). Seriously, I did it all without referring to the manual once, just to prove I could. I feel obligated to add that PC hardware and software companies still have a long way to go before they make their products as simple to set-up as a game console device.

The Games

Some might question how viable it is to sell games for $50-80 a pop, much as Nintendo 64 games are and will be selling for. I suppose it all depends on how you rate game value. Nintendo, at their launch press conference a few months ago, termed it all in hours of enjoyable play, and figured that the average experienced gamer would get anywhere from 60-100 hours of enjoyment from a typical N64 game. So far, I’ve spent about 20 fun hours on Super Mario 64, and have gotten perhaps a tenth of the way through the game, so I think upping the enjoyable game time up to 120 hours on the high end wouldn’t be unreasonable.

In their announcement, Nintendo didn’t making comparisons to other forms of entertainment, let’s look a some other “bang for buck” comparisons:

Form of Entertainment Cost Hours of enjoyment Cost/Hour
Nice Dinner $20.00-$100.00 1-2 hours $10.00-$100.00
Movies (in a Theater) $6.00 1.5 hours $4.00
Movies (rented for home) $3.00 1.5 hours $2.00
Paperback Book $5.00 5-10 hours $0.50 – $1.00
Nintendo 64 Game $50.00-$80.00 60-120 $0.42 – $1.33

Based on this pretty coarse comparison, a Nintendo 64 game would appear to provide the same bang for buck that a decent paperback book does, albeit with the benefit of interactivity. However, as with all such things, your mileage may vary, in this case based on your skill level, how easily amused you are, and how easily you get frustrated by challenging games.

Perhaps the best thing Nintendo has done with its initial game roll-out for the N64 is not including any fighting games along the lines of Mortal Kombat, Toshinden, etc. While I know these games hold great appeal for prepubescent males, those of us part of a slightly older generation don’t find the games (and the accompanying myriad of bizarre button/joystick combinations) as entertaining as something that requires a bit of exploration and experimentation. By releasing Super Mario 64 and PilotWings 64 first, Nintendo has provided some non-violent interactive entertainment for families, positioning the N64 as the family game console machine instead of the console for teenage boys. My wife, who is obviously not a prepubescent, male or otherwise, agrees. She is also vastly amused by the twitching legs of the crashed hang glider pilots, who have plummeted to their doom because I keep accidentally slamming them into obstacles in PilotWings 64.

However, for those of you who are (or whose kids are) fighting game mavens, Killer Instinct Gold for the N64 will be out in late November. Also coming out later this year from Nintendo are WaveRace 64, Cruis’n USA, Tetrisphere, Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire, and Blast Corps. Several other companies also have titles planned for before Christmas, so be on the look-out.

The Technology
Okay, I’ll admit that I bought the Nintendo 64 because of the 3D graphics. Mind you, not just because 3D graphics are pretty, but because of the exponential increase in game experience that I’ve come to expect from PC 3D games.

Side scrolling games left me bored and annoyed long ago, and I swore off buying my own consoles after a disappointing purchase of what used to be the NEC Turbo Grafx. While always a fan of strategy games (Empire, Diplomacy, etc.) I got turned onto PC action games when Wolf 3D came out, followed soon thereafter by DOOM and its resulting spawn. I’ve played most of them, and continue to enjoy the new twists in plot, game play, and action the latest and greatest of the 3D action games provide. However, there’s a certain monotony that builds with yet blowing up yet another demon/monster/alien in a dank/dismal/ill-lit/scary/depressing environment, which is why some of the new N64 games are so refreshing.

While at the toy store, I also checked out Crash Bandicoot, Sony’s attempt at a PlayStation-based Super Mario 64 killer, and found that while 3D graphics, of sorts, were used in Crash Bandicoot, your character was limited in motion to fixed paths. No free form roaming around like in the two shipping N64 games is permitted, seriously bounding the game’s potential. I understand Sega has something similar for the Saturn, as well.

So, the N64’s 3D graphics hardware (which seems to perform quite nicely) combined with the N64 titles (i.e. the content), appears to be what makes this device so attractive to a previously self-avowed PC snob (me, in case that wasn’t obvious). An added attractive feature of the N64 (or any console for that matter) is that I can also pick up my entire system and move it to another TV or monitor in my house if I want to avoid bothering someone with my game playing (and TV screen occupying) obsession.

All the cool 3D stuff and portability aside, Nintendo has taken a lot of grief from all corners of the world because the N64 doesn’t have a CD-ROM, and instead uses “antiquated” cartridge technology. From my having played CD-ROM games on the 3DO, PCs, and elsewhere, I don’t see this as much of a drawback. On the 3DO (the first CD-ROM based console) in particular, I found the constant waiting for the CD-ROM to load new data for the game to be incredibly irritating. On PCs that cost many times what a console does, you still sometimes experience a pretty long wait for data retrieval. The simplicity of cartridge systems is that you pop a cartridge in, and seconds later you’re playing the game – a game that provides a lot of variety and game play potential. That, combined with the fact that the cartridges contain some non-volatile memory for saving game states, and you have a traditional CD-ROM console system beat hands down.

There are only two areas in which CD-ROMs are better than cartridges: Cost – they are far easier and less expensive to manufacture than cartridges (N64 in particular have an estimated cost of over $30); and Multimedia Content – CD-ROMs can obviously hold much more information, especially in terms of graphics and sound, although the number of console CD-ROM titles that truly take advantage of this benefit are few and far between.

I won’t bore you with the list of special silicon and hardware Nintendo has made public, but will state that the only part of the N64 system I’m not wild about is the input controller. As far as I’m concerned. The controller, shaped kind of like a blend of a exaggerated banana and the letter “E”, offers lots of different controls – see the diagram below.

On the left is a directional digital control pad (M) like that used in side scrolling games and in the middle section is a small analog joystick (J) used for 3D games (although it’s still only a 2D joystick). There are buttons galore – a “Start” button (S) in the middle for starting games; two action buttons (A & B) slightly to the right of the Start button for controlling game action; four camera control buttons (C) in a diamond array which allow you to move the viewing position in 3D games; special toggle buttons (D) on the front of the controller (top in diagram below), and a trigger button (Z -not shown) on the bottom.

What I don’t like about the controller is that the analog joystick is too small and not sensitive enough for my big hands. Also, the A & B action buttons are a bit too close to the camera control buttons. But, I’ve managed to cope. After all, the controller comes in six different colors to make up for its minor annoyances.

Nintendo 64 Controller

Super Mario 64

I have to admit that Super Mario 64 is probably the most fun non-violent 3D game I’ve ever played. Then again, I can’t recall have played any 3D games that were anything but violent. Seriously, Super Mario 64 (SM64) is a lot of fun, and quite enchanting. When you start up (I can’t get myself to call a less then 5 second start-up process “booting”) the N64 with the SM64 cartridge in place, you are almost instantly greeted by a big 3D Mario head, which cheerfully announces “It’s me, Mario!”. For those of you not familiar with the annals of console-dom, Mario is an animated plumber that has become the Nintendo mascot, appearing in numerous Nintendo titles on everything from GameBoy to the Super Nintendo, and now the N64. Rumor has it he was named after the landlord of one of Nintendo’s buildings in the U.S. There has even been a Mario movie featuring Bob Hoskins.

The 3D Mario head continues to hang out and look around, and using the controller, you can spin it around, zoom in and out, and even tweak various parts and stretch them. My daughter was mesmerized by the latter, as I made Mario into Pinocchio by pulling on his nose, and then yanked on his ears, mustache, and cheek in quick succession. I had inadvertently discovered that SM64 made a great visual pacifier for grumpy toddlers.

Moving on, you are given the choice of restoring one of four saved games, which then launch you to a 3D world featuring a castle. Mario’s goal is to capture stars, discover secrets, and free the Princess of the castle from a villain called Bowser. You do this by moving your little Mario character around each 3D world you travel to (and there are over a dozen) and solving problems to find the stars. Some of the problem solving involves significant finger dexterity on the controller, but mostly you need good observation skills and quick wit. Among the various actions Mario can perform are power stomps, back flips, high and long jumps, triple flips, crawling, and tip toeing. If you stop moving Mario for a while, he’ll even take a nap, muttering mock-Italian words in his sleep.

A number of newspapers reported last week that some people have found Mario to be too difficult to use, and I suspect it’s a result of the transition from 2D games to a free form 3D game. Once you can get people to visualize spaces in three dimensions, they’ll have an easier time navigating and playing 3D games (and dealing with things like VR, for that matter). The problem is, we’ve spent much of the last century forcing people to think in 2D, starting with crayons on paper, and evolving to TV (a reasonably flat medium) and 2D console and PC games. Only recently have the tools to let people work and think in 3D become available. But I digress…

Super Mario 64 is a blast, and I encourage all of you to pop into a local toy store and play the demo unit, if you can get to it. If not, just intimidate the prepubescents hogging the game with your adult presence. Ask them why they’re not in school. That should do it.

PilotWings 64
I found this game interesting, but not as fun as SM64. The premise is that you are one of six characters (you can pick which one), each of which has certain characteristics pertaining to flying. You learn to fly a hang glider, a jet pack, and a one-person “Gyro Copter”. You get scored for points on flying through targets, bursting ballons, and landing,  all in various real-time rendered 3D geographies. As you advance to new stages, the flying and tasks get harder, and incorporate some unusual tasks, like taking pictures of certain events, and blowing up targets. As a bonus, you get to also be shot out of a cannon, as well as fly like a bird.

The game is visually captivating, and gets quite challenging very quickly. I especially like the serenity of gliding with the hang glider, taking advantage of thermals to gain altitude. But I still have problems landing without crashing (hence my wife’s amusement at the twitching limbs of crashed glider pilots). There’s one mode you can even fly across a miniature USA, complete with Mount Rushmore (of sorts).

The Promotion
Nintendo did a great job of getting all the wire services and national and local media involved in their launch, which is why there were lines of people waiting to buy the promise of a Nintendo 64 delivery later in the year at toy stores around the country. They aren’t stopping there, however.

Blockbuster Video stores will be carrying rental N64s ($16.99 for three nights with one game), Nickelodeon will be airing spots (literally) of red during certain shows which people who pick up free red game pieces at Blockbuster can use to see if they won something.

Also, to make sure the breakfast crowd isn’t missed, boxes of Kellogg’s Frosted Mini-Wheats, Corn Pops, Apple Jacks, Frosted Flakes, and Rice Krispies Treats cereals will include game pieces. The game pieces are set up so that one in 64 boxes has a winning piece, with prizes ranging from N64 phone cards and hologram watches, to your very own Nintendo Block Party. See http://www.kelloggs.com for details.

Conclusion
As you might be able to tell from my comments above, I really like my Nintendo 64 and the games I got with it. Even though the price to initially play two games is a little steep, I fully expect to be getting more N64 games, as well as Nintendo’s planned (but not publicly discussed) Internet connection solution when it comes out, so I can surf the Net on my TV, from the comfort of my couch.

In terms of a comparison to existing and future PC technology, I think the PC has a ways to go before it provides the benefits a console system like the N64 provides. I’d number those benefits as follows:

  1. Ease of use. This includes instant access to the game and portability of the system.
  2. Ruggedness. My daughter already managed to pull the N64 off of a coffee table, resulting in nothing worse than my having to restart the game I was in. No moving parts means less to go wrong, especially in a living room with lots of traffic.
  3. Start-up cost. Again, while the initial investment for two games is a little high, it doesn’t compare to what it costs to get a PC. Granted, you can do many other things on a PC, but if you’re buying it for playing games, that’s a really huge investment.
  4. Great games and graphics. The games are top notch in terms of quality and entertainment value, and the 3D graphics are on par with most of what I’ve seen so far on a PC. Only the 3Dfx Voodoo Graphics seems to offer better looking game graphics, and Voodoo Graphics-based boards cost as much, if not more, than an N64 console.
  5. Family oriented. A PC is by nature anti-social (unless you’re playing Berkeley’s You Don’t Know Jack), mainly because its usual placement in a room by itself, but also because screens tend to be small and not invite others to sit around and watch. Console systems, since they usually connect to the larger family room TV, and, in the case of the N64, offer a wide range of games safe for all ages, are therefore more family oriented.

So, will the N64 take away PC market share? Probably not nearly as much as the N64 will compete with the up and coming breed of consumer NCs once the N64’s Internet solution becomes available. The N64 will then offer entertainment and connectivity, assumedly at a very competitive price. The PC sales most likely to suffer are second or third systems for households.

Will the N64 hurt the 3D graphics hardware business? In the short term, I suspect it will hurt 3D add-in board sales somewhat, since the price points are comparable. A more serious concern is that the N64 will set consumer (and possibly business) expectations of what the bare minimum of 3D capability should be on a PC. After all, why go out of your way to buy mediocre 3D on a PC that doesn’t even compare to a mere $200 game system? It also puts a stigma on all the PC systems folks currently advertising 3D graphics capabilities which turn out to not meet users’ expectations.

I think that’s a good thing. PCs should be able to do better 3D graphics than an N64, without a major price premium for that capability. But I don’t think that’ll happen broadly enough until late next year. And who knows what enhancements Nintendo will have out by then…