Nintendo 64 in 1997: 5 Staples
1997 is possibly the strangest year in the lifespan of the Nintendo 64. The sparse release schedule that had plagued the system since its launch in the back half of 1996 carried over through the first few months of the new year, with the impending arrival of each new game hanging over consumers’ heads for weeks at a time, beginning with a month-long holiday lull over December 1996. Despite periods throughout the year where a game could be released with hardly any competition for several more weeks, most of the year’s releases either weren’t ready or were voluntarily pushed back until the last quarter of the year for yet another slew of holiday releases.
But even then, the oddest thing about the N64’s appeal by the end of its first full year on the market isn’t the lack of games, but the lack of variety among those games. While the N64’s selection on say, RPGs, would never be particularly robust, the system would become synonymous with and beloved for its adventure games, platformers, and even sports titles, the year of 1997 is noticeably lacking in each of those areas, instead having its library defined by a slew of fighters, racing games, and first person shooters, with many of the more creative and unique releases coming, unsurprisingly from Nintendo and Rare.
Also worth noting as a milestone for the year of 1997 is the system’s eventual release in Europe on March 1, nearly six months after its US release and eight months after it first hit the market in Japan. While this launch was almost inexcusably late, even by mid-’90s standards, the launch lineup itself was admirably strong, even with only six releases out of a possible 13 released in the west, including the recently released FIFA 64 and Turok: Dinosaur Hunter, which made for a particularly well-rounded set of titles, all things considered.
With a greater array of titles to consider than my previous look at the N64’s launch window, it would be far too simple and narrow-minded to limit the story of the Nintendo 64 to merely five games a year. However, while the system’s history is traced largely by the titles that have come to define it, typically for the better, no system truly exists solely on its flagship releases, which is why my future chronicles of the system I so dearly love will be twofold - first by the staples, and then by the hidden gems from each year. So without further ado, here are the five defining titles of the Nintendo 64’s first full year, straight from the guy who’s played them all, and has the video evidence to prove it.
Mario Kart 64
I actually considered forcing Mario Kart to share its place on this list with Diddy Kong Racing, due to their equally definitive places in the kart racing genre. My main reason for keeping them separate, however, is more than just due to their distance apart from each other, with their releases essentially bookending the 1997 catalog for the N64. While I may personally enjoy Diddy Kong Racing a bit more than everybody’s favorite kart racer, it’s a bit of an apples to oranges comparison: even though they are both in the same very specific genre, Mario Kart’s greatest strength is as a multiplayer game, while DKR is a much better single player option (which I will elaborate on later).
The reason Mario Kart 64 remains one of the most purely enjoyable titles on the system to this day stems mainly from its tight, refined (from the SNES original, at least) gameplay, and unequivocally endearing track design. Few games outside the Mario Kart series truly offer the same kind of accessible-yet-deep control and feel that would come to light with this second entry in the still-burgeoning series, which meant that any number of players could sustain night after night of endless racing.
Even though the graphics aren’t exactly pushing the system to its limits, the clever use of 2D sprites on 3D environments has held up better than many unrefined full-3D titles from the time. And the case for its track design is simply this: of the 16 tracks and four battle arenas in Mario Kart 64, all but one track (Wario Stadium) and one arena (Double Deck) have been recreated as legacy tracks in more recent entries. As the second-best selling game on the console with nearly 10 million copies sold, Mario Kart 64 still defines the Nintendo 64 as a multiplayer powerhouse, arguably more than any other game, two full decades later.
Diddy Kong Racing
The yin to the Mario Kart yang, Diddy Kong Racing excels in every area that might leave players wanting after a few rounds with its Mushroom Kingdom foil, namely a feeling of depth when flying solo. The adventure mode provides a sense of progression and dynamic gameplay even hours into it with the same character.
There's a sense when playing it that it's actively trying to be different than Mario Kart, but it succeeds because it takes its remaining influence not from other successful racing titles from the period, but the absolute most successful game - Super Mario 64, which gives players a sprawling overworld that encourages exploration, and a focus on collecting items to proceed. These concepts would form the foundation for Rare’s future hits, such as Banjo-Kazooie and Donkey Kong 64. Other exciting features like boss races and air and water based racing to complement the standard kart fare only further the sense of individuality. And while the cast of characters may not be as iconic as in Mario Kart, Rare offers up some of the best music in the system’s library with no fewer than a dozen of the system’s catchiest melodies to round out a robust set of tracks - yet again setting the bar for Rare Ltd.
Star Fox 64
Star Fox 64 is the bearer of many an accolade, including being the first game on the N64 to use the Rumble Pak (which came included with the game), bearing arguably quotable and meme-worthy sound bites than any other game, and, of course, being my personal favorite game of all time (it’s been perfectly content to share its spot with Resident Evil 4). Potentially the most important design change in from the world’s most enjoyable tech demo, the original Star Fox for SNES, was changing the potential paths through the game from a static choice at the start of a playthrough to a dynamic set of possibilities and branching routes that depended on the player’s actions and skill rather than how saucy they were feeling at the outset of the game.
This feature alone creates one of the most instantly rewarding, yet immeasurably replayable experiences on the console, but of course what many will remember Star Fox 64 for are the characters and the set pieces. The impressive amount of recorded audio (remember, this is a 12 MB cartridge) does wonders for the way players perceive the game, including not only from Falco, Peppy, and Slippy, but the Star Wolf team and even minor characters like Katt and General Pepper. And most importantly, tight and immersive shoot-em-up gameplay (in both corridor and all-range mode!) is highlighted by varied and exciting levels that are capped off by simply awesome boss encounters.
Many people seem to acknowledge that the N64 boasted plenty of racing and adventure titles, but while no one will forget its most famous successes in the FPS genre, the considerable amount of first person shooters in the system’s library isn't a point that gets brought up often, a fact that only reinforces GoldenEye 007’s status as “The Great Innovator” of the console FPS. Of course, much like the Mario Kart/Diddy Kong duality I discussed earlier, my fifth and final pick for 1997’s defining titles, Turok: Dinosaur Hunter, ensures that GoldenEye doesn't claim the mountain entirely to itself, but there’s plenty about it to suggest why it's so often remembered that way.
To put it simply, GoldenEye, much like Mario Kart 64, is a multiplayer dream. It's those two games, in fact, that collectively remain the best and most popular multiplayer games that created and maintained that identity for the Nintendo 64. Its bevy of modes, arenas, and character models create an exciting dressing around simple, fast-paced, and adrenaline-pumping gameplay that hardly ever gets old.
Of course, GoldenEye 007 isn't about to let anybody down in the campaign department, either, with a single-player mode packed with memorable moments and intriguing gameplay. GoldenEye’s campaign is essentially defined by how it chooses to be different. Instead of simply blazing through each level guns blazing to reach the end and move on, Rare really puts you into the James Bond role, with unique objectives and badass gadgets that require attention to detail and critical thinking to complete, along with a deadeye shot as well, of course. Using your watch magnet to grab a set of keys off a jail cell wall makes for a truly memorable moment, while mowing down enemies can be saved for multiplayer, where it's personal.
Turok: Dinosaur Hunter
While first person shooters were hardly in short supply during the early period of the Nintendo 64, the first FPS to land on the console was still highly noteworthy for a few reasons besides simply being a new game. Despite being published by Acclaim, it remained an exclusive for the N64, giving it a similar boost in legitimacy as Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire a few months prior. And as it was the first FPS on the system, it laid the groundwork for games of its ilk to utilize a split control scheme, taking advantage of the freeform control of the analog stick. The game turned out to be a huge success for Acclaim, who were relying heavily on it after a lengthy development cycle and heavy investment of resources.
Due to a lack of multiplayer, it can hardly compete with GoldenEye in the grand scheme of things, but its massive full 3D levels, badass boss fights (including a cyborg T-Rex and a massive praying mantis), and cool, creative weapons make for a great experience that really shows off what the system can do, as well as the direction the genre would take as technology permitted. Interestingly, Turok: Dinosaur Hunter is also one of the earliest titles I have noticed to employ an approach that would become commonplace in the N64’s future library of adventure titles by focusing heavily on exploration and collecting, to the point that the game is not excessively hard, but demands a lot of your ability to navigate its levels and acquire copious amounts of items to reach the end of the game. Super Mario 64 may not have been particularly demanding in this regard, but the labyrinthine maps of Turok: Dinosaur Hunter would become a common bearer of frustration, along with Banjo-Kazooie’s near-perfect item total requirements, or the way Majora’s Mask and its constant time limit add anxiety to the fold as your toughest enemy of all.