I’ve always felt that video games, much like comic books, never really got their due when it came to artistic merit. You see, I was raised on Mattel Intellevision and Atari and I’m in awe of the beauty of a well-crafted video game (and their hardware). I can still sit down to play a game of Break Out on an old Atari and find solace in its simplistic gameplay and color scheme. In 1986, I harassed my parents relentlessly until they caved and purchased a NES.
Atari’s Break Out
The original NES had a whopping 8 bits of power! No longer did you have to squint and fool your brain into thinking those small blocks represented, oh let’s say He-Man. Now you could make out the actual character. And they had moving arms and legs too! The NES taught us we didn’t need to use THAT much imagination in our video games.
Mattel’s Masters of the Universe
And now I want to tell you about another water shed moment in gaming. Actually, THE water shed moment. In 1996, I was just a lowly Army grunt stationed in Hawaii. One summer night I finished my shift on base and sped to my nearest mall. I had pre-paid for the newest Nintendo system and I wasn’t going to be late! I was ready for Nintendo’s much ballyhooed Nintendo 64 (or N64, for short). I had pre-ordered it at a local toy store and for months, I read everything I could find on it (in actual magazines, no less).
You see, Nintendo was promising us the moon with this system. This new home system was going to let gamers actually play games… in 3D! We would be able to go in any direction we wanted on our television screen. Remember though, home video game systems (and even arcade games) pre-1996 offered little in the way of 3D gaming. There were a small handful of games that tried to give the experience of three dimensional immersion. Games like (the still excellent) Bayou Billy on the original NES offered different levels that would alternate between shooting, driving, and side-scrolling beat ’em up. The technology simply wasn’t there to let the player do all three at once. Games like our beloved national pastime GTA wouldn’t come along until much later.
Konami’s The Adventures of Bayou Billy for NES
The Nintendo 64 kick started the revolution.
And it changed EVERYTHING.
It began as a prototype developed by a small upstart company called SGI. SGI created the core of the system and even labeled it “Reality Immersion Technology”. They then partnered with some other big name Japanese companies like Toshiba to develop the software required to utilize the new hardware that would become the N64’s “engine”. Sega and Nintendo entered into a bidding war over the technology. And in the end, Nintendo won the rights.
The N64’s controller was a modified SNES controller that used an analog joystick (they brought back freaking joysticks!) and the infamous Z trigger. My Army buddies and I were all to ready to test drive the newest games. Games now considered classics by most gamers: Goldeneye, Killer Instinct, WaveRace 64, Super Mario 64, Star Wars Shadows of the Empire, Zelda, Rogue Squadron, Star Wars Pod Racer, WWF No Mercy, Paper Mario, and the list goes on forever.
Now instead of getting from point A to point B, gamers had the choice to get to their objectives in any way they chose. They now had the option to NOT pursue an objective and just skip it altogether. Strategy became incredibly more important to gamers because game designers were now giving us games that weren’t a uniform experience. Goldeneye is the perfect example to illustrate my argument. Goldeneye lets you decide who you want to kill, and how. And because you’re James Bond, or at least a pixelated version of the Pierce Brossnan version of James Bond, you have tons of options.
If this was a standard shooter on SNES or Genesis, our options would be far more limited. Games like Robocop or True Lies evolved up to this point. Metal Gear on the original NES is an excellent waste of time for a couple of hours. Goldeneye would take MONTHS off the calendar. Add the ability to play head to head and “hide” from your opponent (even though the guy was sitting 4 feet away from you and you could literally just look at his half of the screen and figure out where he was), and this is the dawn of Call of Duty online play.
To call the N64 the pound for pound champion of home gaming consoles isn’t even fair to other consoles. But in 2019, graphics (and games for that matter) have improved exponentially. It led you to your precious Playstation 4 Spider-Man. It’s where Red Dead Redemption really started. Younger generations of gamers may not have even seen a N64.
But if you spot one at some guy’s garage sale this weekend and you don’t ante up the $5 his wife wants for it, do me a favor- Salute that little hunk of plastic in all of its wired rat’s nest glory.
It deserves that much.
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