Nintendo 64 and the Transition to Mainstream 3D Gaming
The jump from 2D to 3D game development was a crazy time in the game industry. It was a time when companies chased after technology that worked on the furthest cutting edge of anything that had ever been seen before. Programmers were now forced to explore the possibilities and solve the problems of a creating a world and filling it with characters that could move and do more in that space. It was a new frontier for the game industry and one in which many sank or swam. When Nintendo 64 entered the market, it was hard not to pay attention to the company that was once an untouchable juggernaut in the industry. It was today in 1996 that North American players were invited to join in Nintendo’s leap to the next dimension of gaming.
The need for a new game console wasn’t an immediate priority of Nintendo, but rather one that grew out of a changing market. In the early 1990s, Japan had gone into recession, Sega became the first competitor to realistically challenge Nintendo for control of the industry and sales on peripherals and add-ons for the Super Nintendo were simply not what the company needed to stay dominant. Furthermore, a failed dealing with Sony to create a CD-ROM based add-on to the SNES prompted Sony to create their own console and enter the market with the PlayStation. The days of Nintendo sitting untouched at the top of the industry were over. They needed a new revolutionary product to keep up with the competition, but 3D gaming was a space that they were unfamiliar with. They needed outside help.
As it turned out, a graphics and central processing unit developer known as Silicon Graphics Inc. was working on a new and cheaper type of CPU and wanted to develop a video game console that would use it. That said, Silicon Graphics wanted to partner with someone already well established in the industry. Proposals were originally sent to Sega and Sega of America CEO Tom Kalinske was interested in the technology, but ultimately it was Nintendo that would gain rights to the chip set. Although debated, it is rumored that Sega engineers saw deficiencies in the technology that turned them off to it, although Nintendo claims that it was Sega’s demand for exclusive rights to the chip set that made Nintendo the better business partner in the end.
Silicon Graphics and Nintendo signed a deal to co-develop their console together in 1993, dubbing it “Project Reality”. First developing the platform for arcades in 1994, they would slowly work towards a home console over the course of the next couple years. In the meantime, Nintendo teased and advertised the system while also approaching third-parties in hopes of creating new, better relationships. Specifically, Nintendo worked with Midway, allowing them to use Project Reality hardware to create a few games in return for home console exclusivity. This deal would produce the original arcade versions of both Killer Instinct and Cruis’n USA and bring about their exclusive release on Nintendo home consoles.
The Nintendo 64 was the last home console to utilize games in cartridge format and that limitation would catch up to it later, notably in the creation of games like Perfect Dark. In anticipation of this, the controller and the console were designed to allow certain packs to be connected, such as the Expansion Pak. In this way, although the Nintendo 64 faced many limitations in its design, it was also adaptable in a multitude of ways.
The Nintendo 64 was finally released in 1996 following a delay to allow chips to be redesigned from the arcade set to better perform on a home console, as well as allowing third-party developers more time to create a larger library for the system. Despite a very limited early library, the system was hugely demanded. The aforementioned limitation would eventually catch up to the N64, due in no small part to the fact that its chief competitor, the PlayStation, hardly had to deal with the same limitation working on CD-ROM. Still, the Nintendo 64 produced some of the most influential titles in early 3D gaming. Games like The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time set the stage for open-world 3D adventure titles and games like GoldenEye 007 gave home consoles a leg in the first-person shooter market, previously dominated by PCs. With such influential titles produced in its life cycle, the N64’s effect on the industry reaches well beyond its active period.