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The History of the Nintendo 64

The Gauntlet

August 23, 1993. Nintendo announced a collaboration with Silicon Graphics (SGI) to create "a truly 3D, 64-bit Nintendo machine for home use," codenamed Project Reality. SGI would design the device while Nintendo licensed the technology. Project Reality technical specifications indicated that games on the new machine would run faster, show more colors, look smoother, and play more realistically than any 16- or 32-bit system. The proposed price-point for this mythic Nintendo machine would be, somehow, below $250, scheduled for release in late 1995. According to vice president of Nintendo of America Howard Lincoln, "our work with SGI enables us to actually skip a generation by diving straight through to 64-bit, 3D video entertainment."

Needless to say, Nintendo's competitors were less than pleased. Sega's, and later, Sony's 32-bit systems (Sony announced PlayStation's development three months later in November) had proposed prices near $500. And a successful 64-bit system for half that price could kill their chances for any sort of market share. Skeptics of Project Reality were quick to point out that Nintendo tended to "write checks it can't cash," and Silicon Graphics would "put itself out of business...who's gonna buy a $50,000 box when they've shown you can do it for 250 bucks?" Project Reality's feasibility was doubtful at best.

Nevertheless, the challenge had been given, and the coming months would determine the strength of Nintendo's commitment.

The Dream Begins

In late March 1994, Rare Ltd. (UK) and Williams sign on with Project Reality as software partners. These two made up the first two members of what would be known as Nintendo's "Dream Team," a select group of developers and publishers developing for this new machine. Rare would develop arcade games based on the Project Reality hardware and Williams would market them under the Midway title. The first title would be Killer Instinct, a fighting game a la Mortal Kombat, except characters would be modeled and animated by Silicon Graphics machines. By proving Project Reality's viability as an arcade level game hardware, Nintendo could clearly demonstrate its superiority over 32-bit systems, which required a great deal of compromises for arcade conversion. Also, this enabled Nintendo to create a stable of popular arcade games it could hand down to the home system with little effort.

Next, DMA Design Ltd. signed on in May 1994 as Project Reality's second developer. Although DMA's name was relatively obscure in the industry, their product was not. DMA had developed the original Lemmings, a classic puzzle game dealing with the misadventures of blissfully suicidal rodents, for Psygnosis.

Although Rare and DMA would eventually develop worthwhile games for Nintendo, they were relative unknowns in an industry based on hype and volume. Nintendo's selection made little sense to the press, and the company gave no explanation regarding the reasons for its selection. This marked the beginning of Nintendo's disturbing tendency to attach no-name companies to Nintendo 64.

Ante up! - Nintendo's Cartridge Decision

May 5, 1994. Nintendo announced that Project Reality would use a standard cartridge format with an effective memory size of 100 Mbits. The official explanation was "we don't believe that, as yet, the public has been convinced CDs can deliver the sort of games that they want...we will make a move when CDs fulfill one of two criteria: Either we can deliver a drive at the right price which plays games at the right speed, or there is a demand for products that simply don't require speed."

Of course, Nintendo was exaggerating slightly. In 1994, CD-ROM technology and multimedia were the hottest things since sliced bread. Second-generation CD-ROM games (The 7th Guest, Rebel Assault) were hitting the market and popular enough to appear in evening news segments. Various methods, from adding RAM to CD optimization, could speed up access time to acceptable levels. The demand and the means to make it fast enough existed at reasonable prices.

Industry speculation suggested three possible explanations. One, Nintendo saved roughly $100 by forgoing the CD-ROM drive. Fewer moving parts and a smaller case design enabled the company to cut costs and compensate for the higher than expected prices of the SGI computer chips. The result was a cheaper base unit but more expensive software. Two, by using cartridges, Nintendo retained its hold on licensees, as Nintendo would be the only supplier. Third, Nintendo might have been planning yet again to develop a global network by which it could distribute its software by cable. If true, then this would be the third time that Nintendo had tried to skip the distributors and deliver games directly.



Certainly, the game publishers were less than enthused. For many already involved in 16-bit systems, the change from Super NES or Genesis to Ultra 64, as it was now called, was much less attractive than the switch to either 32-bit CD-ROM systems. Staying with cartridges would mean the same profit margin, since manufacturing costs were measured in dollars, whereas CD-ROM printing was only cents. It would be more than a month before the first Super NES publisher made a firm commitment. And yet again, the company wasn't on the industry's "A" list. Acclaim, a company best known for its sheer number of bad movie license games, was going to develop Turok: Dinosaur Hunter for Ultra 64. Needless to say, this sounded like bad news at the time.

Homing In - Hit or Miss?

Almost a year later, the "Dream Team" revealed the fruits of their labor behind closed doors at the summer CES (Summer Consumer Electronics Show). Rare had nearly finished Killer Instinct and Williams' Cruis'n USA was ready to go. General "oohs" and "ahs" peppered the air while viewers watched Orchid slice Chief Thunder from groin to neck with energy staves in 16.7 million-color glory. Howard Lincoln felt confident enough to say, "Game players will be able to play these same games with no compromise in graphics, sound, or gameplay next year at home when Ultra 64 is launched." Wisely, he didn't mention that Cruis'n USA was actually running off Williams' own game hardware, not the Ultra 64. Now that the Ultra 64 had proved itself to be a capable machine, Nintendo was ready to take back the offensive.

November 21, 1994. On the night before the Sega Saturn's Japanese introduction, Nintendo steals some of Sega's thunder by announcing Shigeru Miyamoto's involvement with Paradigm Simulation to produce an Ultra 64 game. The upshot was that one of the world's best game designers and a bleeding-edge simulation company were getting together to create a 3D game. That game became PilotWings 64. Even better, the buzz hinted that the game would be a pack-in for Ultra 64's release.

Nintendo then attempted to quash the CD/cartridge debate by partnering with GTE Interactive Media to deliver "network gaming and interactive service delivery." Earlier speculation regarding Nintendo's networking plans proved right. Ideally, distribution over cable or telephone lines would enable Nintendo to sell games directly to the user, without the extra cost of cartridges and packaging. Potentially cheaper than CD-ROM, the Nintendo network was the path to beating cheaper Saturn and PlayStation CDs. An interesting step, but the industry wanted to see if Nintendo could overcome lack of fast network infrastructure or provide equal content over slow 9600-28,800 bps lines.

Despite many licenses, the Ultra 64 project had produced few results. Nintendo's high-profile fanfare was just that: noise. A lack of concrete or satisfactory results from their software developers gave rise to industry speculation that Ultra 64 would never see the light of day, that it was the next best thing to vaporware. As a result, everyone was stunned when Nintendo announced it was right on schedule.

SGI Chips Fresh and Crispy

January 5, 1995. Hot on the heels of the Saturn and PlayStation introduction, a press release came from SGI. Ultra 64 chips were completed. On schedule. The final specifications came very close to the original proposals. This dismayed Sega and Sony to no end. At worst, the two 32-bit systems had less than a year each to grab a large enough marketshare that Nintendo didn't take everything. For Nintendo, all it had to do was wait for the two to duke it out and step in before the dust settled. Even though it seemed unlikely that Nintendo could keep the $249 price tag on N64, there wasn't much to worry about, as both 32-bit platforms still retailed near $300. The Ultra 64's work was cut out for it.

This was the last piece of good news Nintendo would get for quite some time.

Broken Arrow - Ultra 64 crashes to Earth

May 5 1995. The Ultra 64's introduction got pushed back to the November Shoshinkai in Japan and a possible Japanese release for December 1. U.S. and Europe releases got rescheduled for April 1996. The news arrived at the worst time possible, six days before E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo). This gave Sega and Sony more than enough time to prepare a response. On May 10, Sony announced the American release of the Sony PlayStation for September 9, at a price of $299. On May 11, Sega one-upped Sony with the surprising declaration that the Saturn hit North America the day before. Suddenly, the next-generation race had only two contestants, Nintendo trailing so far behind it was almost irrelevant. PlayStation broke the $300 price-point and Sega, to remain competitive, matched that price by late 1995. With Ultra 64 almost a year behind, Nintendo had missed a critical launch window, in danger of losing ground before it even entered the market.

What happened? The delay "was a quality issue...we needed more time to get the quality level to the point where we were satisfied," said Howard Lincoln. That was as close as Nintendo would get to admitting it had made some mistakes with its "Dream Team." The companies Nintendo picked for their "Dream Team" software developers troubled the industry from the very start. Where Sony and Sega had hundreds of developers, Nintendo had chosen only 10. With the exception of Paradigm (which would develop PilotWings 64, with Miyamoto leading its development team), none of them were obvious choices. Williams was primarily a coin-op arcade game company. Spectrum Holobyte and Sierra Online were computer game developers, with little cartridge programming experience. DMA and Rare were unknowns. Gametek had no stable of hits. GTE Interactive Media and Angel Studios had never produced a game. And Acclaim was known for its high volume of lackluster, movie-licensed games for 16-bit systems. Either Nintendo knew something about them the competition did not, or the pool of Ultra 64 applicants was considerably smaller than predicted. The new November introduction date suggested the latter.

The road to Shoshinkai was an exercise in damage control. Nintendo had to move forward in the most visible ways possible to ensure the public progress they were making progress. Three new developers signed on, most notably LucasArts Entertainment, which would develop a high-profile Star Wars title, and Electronic Arts, to create a badly needed sports game for the new platform.

The first development Ultra 64's reached the "Dream Team" in August. Along with their arrival came hints that the controller was truly revolutionary, producing unprecedented control over new game elements. Also piquing the public's interest was the "storage accessory for the Ultra 64...not a CD."

By the time November had rolled around, Nintendo felt confident enough to hype Ultra 64, "displaying [in Japanese department stores] 100 64-bit machines and 10 kinds of software we plan to sell initially. We will release the new model within the year." The comment suggested the December Japanese release was looking good. Despite a seemingly irrepressible flood of either nonpositive or actual negative press, Ultra 64 seemed to be back on track.



The response at Shoshinkai was positive, if reserved. Attendees were thrilled to see the introduction of Miyamoto's new 3D Mario game and cheered to see the Force back in action with Lucas' Shadows of the Empire. The general consensus on the new controller was that it was as cool as promised. Also, Nintendo set the Japanese release date for April 21 instead of December 1, a move which everyone expected. Both American and European releases were slated for end of April. The official message Nintendo sent across was one of readiness.

Video gaming veterans saw it differently. While Nintendo's statements confirmed previous dates, attendees questioned the company's ability to deliver adequate Nintendo 64s (the name change from Ultra to Nintendo was announced at Shoshinkai) to all three regions and the availability of completed games. Only two of the 11 demoed games were playable and both were less than 50% complete. One attendee put it best: "I expected to see games closer to completion at Shoshinkai. There's no doubt about the quality of the games, but the timing has to be questioned."

Once again, the skeptics were right. Something had to give, and did. On February 1, Nintendo delayed the North American release until September 30, 1996. In March, the Japanese release got moved back to June 23. What was the excuse this time? NCL claimed difficulties in manufacturing enough units for simultaneous distribution. While there was truth in that matter, the opportunity also gave Nintendo a chance to finish at least some of the Nintendo 64 games without having to divert resources into translation and localization.

Sony and Sega were more than pleased. Sony's Psygnosis purchase paid off big-time with a series of highly rated games including Wipeout and Destruction Derby, while AM3's Sega Rally Championship proved to be an amazing arcade port and AM2's Virtua Fighter 2 turned into Saturn's killer app. By this time, Nintendo loomed over the horizon like a hot air balloon: great visibility but little substance. The race for market share was still hot between Sony and Sega, as the two 32-bit systems were already embarking on their second-generation of games.

Endgame - Mario Saves the Day?

In spite of, or perhaps due to, Nintendo 64's problems, the industry immediately turned Shigeru Miyamoto's Super Mario 64 into headline material. Even at 50% completion at Shoshinkai, SM64 wowed the crowds with their favorite Italian plumber interacting with the world's first entertaining fully-realized 3D, "virtual world." One critic went so far as to say "Nintendo has a classic on its hands with Super Mario 64, and Shigeru Miyamoto has once again proved himself as the king of gameplay."

Whether or not that was true, Nintendo ran with it. Super Mario 64 previews ran in just about every game magazine on the face of the planet in the coming months, receiving almost universal acclaim (Next Generation's claimed it to be the greatest videogame ever in its August issue). Criticism of N64's troubles were conveniently forgotten or diminished under the positive press, and Nintendo used the cover to churn out more N64s for June 23.

As Miyamoto continued to progress on Super Mario 64, reviews kept getting better and better, to the point where it looked like just this one game could sell the system. By June, the Nintendo 64 was no longer a hot air balloon over Sega and Sony's turf. Instead, it had transformed into a cruise missile in red and blue coveralls.

Nintendo had taken the advantage back. In connecting the world's most recognizable mascot with N64, the new machine inherited a legacy of fun and great gameplay associated with all of the previous Mario titles. A 64-bit Mario game could spur sales ways no amount of sexy hardware could. Mario would be the point-man for the next generation.

Mario worked. On June 23, despite a meager three-title selection (Super Mario 64, PilotWings 64, and Shogi Chess), Nintendo sold 300,000 N64s, equal to the first day sales for Saturn and PlayStation combined. The game that everyone bought along with those 300,000 units? Super Mario 64.

Epilogue

Hot on the heels of its Japanese success (in which by September 9 more then 1 million SM64s had been sold), Nintendo dropped N64's American price to $199 (so compete even more fiercely with Saturn and PlayStation), moved up the release date to September 29, and shipped more than 500,000 units of the most powerful videogame console for sale on the first day. The entire first shipment was accounted for.