For better or worse, Nintendo has always done things their own way. The Nintendo 64 is a good example. In an era when multimedia was king and CD-ROM was not only the wave of the future but had been well established, Nintendo decided to stick with cartridges for one more console generation. This is a little surprising given that Nintendo had worked with both Phillips and Sony to develop a CD-ROM add-on for the Super Nintendo (the latter famously leading to the development of the PlayStation). However, at the end of the day, Nintendo felt that CD-ROM just did not have the performance characteristics they desired.
The cartridge format has its advantages and disadvantages. The big advantage of course is speed. Accessing game data from solid state memory is far faster than reading it off of a CD. This meant virtually no load times. The disadvantages are price and memory limitations. While a CD costs pennies, ROM cartridges were far more expensive. A single CD could hold 650 to 700 MB whereas Nintendo 64 cartridges were limited to 64 MB primarily for cost reasons. These limitations led to there being only 388 games released for the N64 during its lifetime. By comparison there were around 1,100 games released for the PlayStation and close to 600 for the Sega Saturn. Both the NES and SNES had well over 700 games. However, despite the lower game count, the N64 still outsold the Saturn in the U.S. and the expense of producing cartridges meant that developers had to be much more careful with what they released, something that Nintendo tended to enforce to one degree or another over the years anyway. The average game quality was much higher on the N64 than other systems and a number of very influential games came from that system, including Mario 64, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, GoldenEye 007 and a number of others. Ironically, Nintendo has come full circle by eliminating optical media and supporting a ROM cartridge format on the Switch (though digital distribution is also supported).
The Nintendo 64 had very impressive hardware for its time and was essentially based on a super computing platform. It’s use of the NEC VR4300 running at 93.75 MHz made it the first truly 64-bit game system (despite Atari’s math with the Jaguar). Perhaps more impressive was the “Reality Coprocessor” which was a derivative of the MIPS R4200 and was developed by SGI. It ran at 62.5 MHz and it’s main strength was the vector processing capability it provided. 4 MB of Rambus RDRAM (or 8 MB with the Expansion Pak) rounded out the package. All in all, pretty impressive for 1996 when it was released.
I didn’t have a Nintendo 64 when it was first released choosing to go with the PlayStation instead. However, the N64 is an often underrated console and is the favorite Nintendo console of many. It’s hard to fault Nintendo for their choice of the cartridge format as it was a good fit for this system but it would be nice to see what kind of games would have come along if there had been a CD add-on. Nintendo did design the 64DD which was a rewritable magnetic disk based add-on. However, it was significantly delayed and only ended up being released in Japan where it was a failure. It also only held 64 MB of data (the same max as the typical cartridge) and I suspect the disks were significantly more expensive than CDs.
The Nintendo 64 is definitely a game system every video game aficianado should try. There are relatively few games compared to other systems but there are still tons of great titles. Like most systems, the N64 has also been emulated fairly well at this point but its never the same as playing on original hardware. And for the collector, cartridges have always been more fun to collect than discs :).
What were your favorite Nintendo 64 games? While I didn’t have the system until after its commercial life was over, I’m still fond of Mario Kart 64, Paper Mario, GoldenEye and Cruisn’ Exotica among others.