For 13 years Nintendo consoles had dominated the video game landscape. The Famicom hoisted the industry from the pit into which it had been cast by Atari’s calamitous business decisions in the early 1980s, while its successor had allowed developers around the world to make their fortunes – and swollen Nintendo’s coffers through steep licensing cuts. In creative terms the company’s internal teams, particularly Shigeru Miyamoto’s EAD division, had helped perfect the art of 2D video game design, maturing those styles of play stumbled upon by the medium’s American pioneers and embellishing them into ever more complex, expressive permutations.
But familiarity breeds contempt and Nintendo’s ongoing market dominance meant that crucial mistakes were made in approaching its next generation of video game hardware. For one, a high-profile snub to Japanese electronics giant Sony in 1991, whom Nintendo was supposed to be partnering with in creating a CD-ROM drive for the Super Famicom, sowed a seed of revenge from which the PlayStation, the system that would eventually usurp Nintendo’s position as market leader in the 1990s, would grow.
Moreover, Nintendo’s confidence in its Super Famicom deadened any sense of urgency for a successor, which, combined with delays to launch title Super Mario 64, ensured the system’s launch lagged behind that of its rivals. The decision to opt for cartridge-based games instead of CD-ROM- based media would prove costly, both in terms of manufacturing, and the way in which Sony was able to step in with its vastly cheaper disc-based games. Finally, Nintendo’s high percentage cuts from other companies’ games released for its systems had driven a slew of Japanese developers fed up with the Kyoto-based publisher’s tall demands into Sony’s arms – factors that combined to muffle the success of a console that was host to some of its era’s strongest games.
Development of the console began in 1993, when Nintendo partnered with Silicon Graphics, a California-based maker of computer hardware and software whose workstations had been used to generate CGI animations in films such as Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park. ‘Project Reality’, as it was then known, saw the two companies partner to create a low-cost real- time 3D graphics system, its name a statement of intent to create a console whose visuals were indistinguishable from reality.
Two years later at the Shoshinkai Software Exhibition in Japan, Nintendo unveiled the fruits of its partnership, a console now dubbed the Nintendo Ultra 64. Eleven games were shown; two were in playable form. The demos were enough to convince most attendees that the delays had been justified. In particular, the system’s controller, designed by Genyo Takeda, appeared to represent a paradigm shift for the bridge between player action and on-screen reaction. The controller’s primary novelty was in the introduction of an analogue stick positioned on its centre prong, an invention that would change the way in which console games were played in crucial ways.
In the next six months, the planned April 1996 release date was missed, reportedly so Shigeru Miyamoto could spend additional time perfecting launch title Super Mario 64, while pressure from game developer Konami saw the console’s name changed to, simply, Nintendo 64. When the system finally launched in June, Sony’s PlayStation had been on the market for 18 months. The launch line-up was eerily similar to that of its predecessor, with one Mario title, a Pilotwings title and a Shogi game, giving the launch a sense of familiarity that perhaps translated to consumer ennui. Until the US launch of the system, not a single other title was released for the Nintendo 64. For all Super Mario 64’s startling brilliance, one title cannot carry a system, and this paucity of releases would come to define the N64’s life.
By the end of the system’s life just 387 games had been released. Conversely, more than 1,000 games were available for Sony’s PlayStation, revealing how Sony had convinced third-party developers to defect from Nintendo with its open-publishing model.