5 Games: Nintendo 64 in 1996

Posted in Kulturecade by - January 27, 2017

       Hello, my name is Derek McLeod, and while you may or may not have read some of my articles for the Kulturecade from the past month, I feel it may be time for a formal introduction: I am a Nintendo fanboy. On the wall directly to my left at this very moment is a Super Mario Bros. calendar with Thursday, January 12th circled violently in red Sharpie. Throughout 2015, when friends, family, or clientele asked if Playstation 4 or Xbox One was the better console, I predictably responded by telling them to purchase a Wii U.

   The basis for my undying devotion to Nintendo lies in my love of the Nintendo 64. Now, contrary to most people’s story about their favorite console, the N64 was not the first system I ever played or owned — it was, however, the first console I viewed as “mine” after receiving it for Christmas in 2001 (ironically, immediately after it had been replaced by the GameCube). While I didn’t manage to hold onto my original console by that point in time, I purchased the system again in 2011, along with Banjo-Kazooie, Mario Party, and Mortal Kombat Trilogy, which is where my current collection began. Sometime in April of 2015, if memory serves me, I had around 75 games for the system. On August 6, 2016, I received my copy of Worms: Armageddon in the mail, and the set was complete — I had obtained all 296 North American games for the system.

   I would be disappointed in myself, however, if I merely had a full set to have one and be done with it. My N64 Quest has closed its first chapter, but continues on with the mighty task of playing these games, and chronicling my experience and, well, knowledge of them in whatever way seems appropriate. I am currently in the process of playing each of these games in chronological order or release date (so as to space similar games apart from each other while following a set path). With each game, I record at least some gameplay and commentary on Twitch and YouTube, and I do my best to produce content from them.

   In accordance with my chronological approach, I have attempted to chronicle by year the highlights of the Nintendo 64 system via its library of games, and voice my opinion of the must-own games from that year. The inaugural year’s library of the N64’s lifespan is admittedly slim, with only two games available on day one, and only a handful of titles released by the end of the year — a Playstation 3-esque issue that actually led to many dismissals of the console and secondhand systems available from frustrated early adopters. And yet, each of the eight games released between September 29th, 1996 and the end of the year is oddly noteworthy, and, for the most part, a fairly integral part of the system’s identity, so much so that even knocking away three of them is much easier said than done. Regardless, I can confidently say that each of the five games listed here should be acknowledged as a staple of the Nintendo 64’s library.

Super Mario 64

    Naturally, this was the easy one. It’s legitimately difficult trying to come up with new ways to laud praise on the “OG” of 3D platforming. The level design (including the overworld), sense of control, music, and the way in which it showcases the technology at its disposal are just a few things it does as good as anything else before or since. It’s perhaps rivaled by Banjo-Kazooie, but plenty of BK’s best features, such as a sprawling and diverse hub world, still appeared in Super Mario 64 first. Anyone looking to experience the wonder of the Nintendo 64 should start right here

Pilotwings 64

    The second and oft-forgotten US launch title, the Pilotwings franchise was again trotted out to showcase the capabilities of the Nintendo 64 (as if Super Mario 64 didn’t already do that), much like it had on the Super Nintendo several years earlier. But being overshadowed by Mario doesn’t mean that Pilotwings isn’t also a great title that should be in your N64 library. Vehicles like the Rocket Belt and Birdman suit are especially fun to use with smooth control and cool mechanics, and the game’s environments still look lovely and are fun to explore. It’s likely that the Pilotwings games get passed over for their lack of action — as if good flight mechanics are only half a game without dogfighting or the like — but Pilotwings 64 does all it sets out to do and is easy to appreciate even if it might take the right mood to get started.

Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire

    The cream of the third-party crop until the release of Turok: Dinosaur Hunter in February 1997, this action-adventure title based on an excellent expanded universe storyline begins with one of the most iconic scenes on the N64: taking down Imperial Walkers in the Battle of Hoth. While most agree overall that this opening is the game’s pinnacle, the remaining chapters make up a varied, action-packed adventure starring Star Wars’s coolest cat from outside the main series: Han Solo-esque mercenary Dash Rendar. Platforming, shooting, boss fights, and space battles (sullied only by one awkward racing sequence) tell a great Star Wars tale that keeps things fresh, challenging, and entertaining, potentially even for non-fans (not that I could tell you myself).

 

Wave Race 64

    Perhaps an unique licensing agreement at the time between Nintendo and Kawasaki, real life jet skis and billboards promoting the brand were one aspect of the graphical quality displayed in Wave Race 64. Still one of the prettiest games of the era, Wave Race 64 also boasts beautiful water graphics and a presentation that highlights fun, sun, and sand, not unlike those from Pilotwings or found much later on in Wii Sports Resort. It’s more than just graphics, though, of course, as the early champion of the racing genre on the N64 due to great controls and an impressive sense of feel produced by the physics of the water and the individual stats that make the vehicles customizable to each player’s taste. Far more advanced and replayable than Cruis’n USA, Wave Race would be the de facto racing title until Mario Kart’s inevitable release, and even then, Wave Race always offers a nice change of pace.

Wayne Gretzky’s 3D Hockey

    Maybe not everyone’s first idea of a great N64 title, but Wayne Gretzky’s 3D Hockey manages to beat out the other titles of 1996 due in large part to one very important feature: four-person multiplayer. For a system that’s typically remembered for its fantastic multiplayer abilities, four-player was a noticeably underutilized feature amongst early releases, with Mario Kart eventually being the biggest title to fill that void in early 1997. Until then, Gretzky 3D was the only title around, though its quality extends far beyond this one aspect. An arcade-style hockey game directly inspired by NBA Jam had been done shortly before with 2-On-2 Open Ice Challenge, and Wayne Gretzky’s 3D Hockey would be the next step for the series with lightning-fast, high-scoring three-on-three action in full 3D. It’s truly addicting for the same reasons as its predecessors in NBA Jam and others, and something that absolutely deserves a try.

 

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He is a video game staff writer and dreamed of being a video game as a young boy. Then somebody told him that you can't really do that, so he compromised by doing a bunch of stuff related to that, playing video games, reading about video games, writing about video games, working at a video game store, and all those good nerdy things. Aside from video games, he's also a dork of all trades, with an interest in heavy metal music, wrestling, sports, and Magic the Gathering.
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