The Nintendo 64 turns 20 today

Image Credits: Yvonne Hemsey / Getty Images

It was on June 23, 1996 that the Nintendo 64 made its debut — in Japan, that is. We wouldn’t see it on this side of the Pacific for another three months. But today is its proper birthday, and 20 years is a significant enough anniversary that we should probably just take a moment to remember just how awesome this console was — and is.

I remember reading about “Project Reality,” AKA the Ultra 64, in Nintendo Power (I still have the issue); the glossy renderings of 3D worlds seemed so futuristic that even as a kid I was skeptical. After all, this was the era of Doom, of Mode 7, of SuperFX — 3D so simple it barely deserved the name.

It’s hard to overstate, then, the revelation that was Super Mario 64. The size of the worlds! The density of objects and enemies! The countless hidden paths and stars!

And it still holds up today in a big way. See if you can get your hands on a copy and give it a whirl — Nintendo miraculously, or more likely through a huge amount of hard work, nailed the controls so well that they are still considered by many to be the gold standard in 3D movement.

Coincidentally, the N64 was “born” only a day after id’s Quake, which would be the other game to bring true 3D movement to the mainstream. It too holds up — and it’s still scary as hell. Co-creator John Romero posted a nice little retrospective yesterday on his blog.

If Mario 64 proved that 3D games could be great, the rest of the N64’s lineup showed that 3D could be used in surprising and powerful ways.

Wave Race 64 brought phenomenal water physics that wouldn’t be surpassed for years. Mario Kart 64 brought depth and verticality to madcap racing (though I still prefer the original). Ocarina of Time had you exploring a world almost too huge and complex to comprehend.

And what can I say about GoldenEye 007? That it was perhaps the biggest after-school timesink of the era? That I was terrible at it? That you could tell who your friends were because they would gang up on whoever picked Odd Job before turning on each other? That it set new standards for level design? That it was the probably the best movie-to-game adaptation ever? That you could tilt the cartridge and make the NPCs dance?

The N64 came at a time when games were still considered kid stuff, even though games like Doom were raising red flags among parents and opportunistic pundits and legislators. Nintendo, with its commitment to family friendly gaming (generally speaking… 007 and Conker’s Bad Fur Day excepted), was the choice of millions for that reason and because the SNES had been such a huge success.

But despite its bright colors and kid-friendly sensibilities, the N64 was a rock-solid platform that not only made a lot of us very happy for years and years, but also did important work in the history of gaming. It brought us classic titles that pushed the boundaries of what was expected of games, and made 3D worlds fundamental and integral with gameplay ideas rather than set dressing.

Do you still have an N64 lying around? Take it out, blow off a cartridge or two, and give it a play tonight — that is, if your TV still has RCA in or, even less likely, an RF adapter for coax. The games might not be quite as eye-wateringly gorgeous as you remember them, but they’re still fantastic.

Call over some friends, crack open a few cold ones (you can drink now! No more root beer) and play some License to Kill on Facility, or 4-player battle mode on Block Fort in Mario Kart 64. If you don’t have a good time, well, you’re a goomba.

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