For the gamer born post-2000, the landscape that the Nintendo 64 console launched into would be virtually unrecognisable. There have been drastic changes in the gaming world — today, video games are one of the world’s largest industries. Celebrity cross-promotions, major e-sports events and worldwide exposure are all commonplace, and the revenue involved is massive.

But in the mid-to-late 90s, it was a different situation. Video games were certainly an entertainment force to be reckoned with, but they were still dwarfed by other players in the media landscape. The overwhelming perception was that they were for children — or more unkindly, for “nerdy” teenagers and childish adults. Moral panics and controversies around titles like Mortal Kombat, Doom, Night Trap and Phantasmagoria had not really helped persuade John Q Public otherwise. Sure, games could certainly feature mature subject matter — but did they really handle it in a mature fashion?

Of course, it wasn’t all bad news and ill-informed talking heads, either. Sony’s PlayStation had pitched directly to the young adult Gen X market and helped chip away at the idea of games being solely for little kids or strange adults who needed to get out a bit more.

Yet one of the biggest weapons in the war to elevate games from amusing distraction to cultural phenomenon would come in an unlikely form — the Nintendo 64 console. The PlayStation might have outsold it by a considerable margin, but more than 25 years after its release, there’s a compelling argument to be made that the Nintendo 64 has been the far more influential machine.

The kid-friendly company

If Nintendo was one thing in the 1990s, it was safe. Ever since entering the video games market in the 1980s, Nintendo had fought to be aggressively family-friendly. Games appearing on platforms like the NES and SNES were routinely censored or edited for the American and European markets so as not to cause inadvertent offence. Many of the alterations made seem ludicrous in hindsight; altered logos, different dialogue and even character redesigns. Still, Nintendo had seen the controversies that dogged many of its competitors (not to mention the wider climate of weird 80s culture wars like the Satanic Panic) and sought to avoid issues wherever possible.

This approach had brought their hardware into homes around the world; even plenty of parents who didn’t care for video games or felt they had insidious influence had no real issue with Nintendo’s products.

But perhaps ironically, it also made them an easy target for rivals. In the early 90s, SEGA had memorably run an advertising campaign stating that “Genesis does what Nintendon’t”, effectively roasting their biggest rival in print and boosting their sales significantly in the process. The explicit message was that Nintendo really WAS for children, and you needed to look elsewhere if you wanted SERIOUS GAMING. It sounds ridiculous now — and frankly, was pretty cringy even at the time — but stuff like this turned into fodder for playground bullying and would have no doubt sparked many Twitter meltdowns had the platform existed at the time.

So as the SNES wound down its lifespan in the mid-90s and plans for a new machine developed, Nintendo found themselves at a crossroads. Would they opt for the edgy, zeitgeisty approach Sony had taken? Or would they double down on their seemingly wholesome approach? Both options had their merits, but could equally be disastrous.

Assessing their options, Nintendo discarded them all — and instead decided to forge their own path.

Betting big on the black box

Whether you loved it or hated it, you couldn’t deny that the Nintendo 64 console was unique when it landed. The console’s smooth ridges made it welcoming in spite of its black/grey colour scheme, and its three-pronged controller was somewhere between futuristic joy stick and alien sex toy. People didn’t know what to make of the thumbstick and the button layout was bizarre… but once you had it in your hands, it all worked remarkably well and avoided the hand cramps that often plagued PlayStation owners.

And as for the Nintendo 64 video games? They were a revelation.

But to understand them fully, you need to look all the way back to the NES. One thing that Nintendo’s critics have often failed to register is that their games have… well, kind of always been for adults, despite surface appearances suggesting otherwise. Titles like Super Mario Bros and The Legend of Zelda on the NES were some of the cutest things imaginable at the time — but go back and play it today, and they’re staggering accomplishments of balanced game design, along with requiring incredible skill. Smartly, Nintendo had long recognised that their “safe” image would also interest adults in their products — and in turn, they made games that delivered to an adult audience too.

Many Nintendo 64 video games simply leaned into this more extensively, while also offering graphics that looked better than most home PCs of the time. For all of Sony’s talk of power and 3D graphics, plenty of PlayStation games were ugly as sin — Nintendo recognised the limitations of the newly-burgeoning 3D gaming landscape and turned them into assets instead. Titles like The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Pilotwings 64, Mario 64 and Goldeneye offered experiences that couldn’t be replicated anywhere else at the time. It was a pinnacle for single and multiplayer experiences alike, and most of the flagship releases still have a distinct charm even now, almost three decades after their release.

The Legacy

This approach of placing game design first has had a tremendous impact on the modern gaming industry. Ask any 10 game designers what their favourite title was as a kid, and the odds are incredibly strong that at least 7 will answer “Ocarina of Time”. The other 3 will probably say Mario 64, or Banjo-Kazooie!

Accordingly, there’s no shortage of modern titles that exemplify this “design first” approach. Nintendo has not failed to notice this, either — though it would be unfair to call it solely a nostalgia machine, the Switch has a tremendous catalogue of retro and retro-inspired games that draw on Nintendo’s back catalogue and franchises. The future of Nintendo, it seems, lies rooted firmly in its past.

Today, fan interest in the Nintendo 64 console continues. It’s still relatively easy to build a great collection of Nintendo 64 video games, especially classic titles like Mario 64, Ocarina of Time and Conker’s Bad Fur Day. For many, it’s a private interest — but there’s also a substantial audience online for the console. Whether they’re collecting for blogs and Instagram, or to stream via services like Twitch, the Nintendo 64’s online future looks pretty secure.

In fact, it’s still a big inspiration to us here at Retro Sales — that’s why we stock original working consoles, sell parts, offer mods and can repair people’s sets from yesteryear to pass on the joy of retro gaming to the next generation. Whether you’re a big kid at heart or just want to recapture some old memories, you'll find yourself at home with the gaming enthusiasts at Retro Sales. Explore our full catalogue for a high-quality range of working, original consoles and a great selection of games. And if you’re after a specific item but can’t find it on the site, get in touch with us — you never know what we might be able to track down for you!

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