What do you remember about the Nintendo 64? Ask any gamer who was alive through the ‘90s this question and the answer is likely to be along the lines of “that weird controller”, followed by “seriously, three handles? Who was it made for, sewer mutants?” It’s a shame that the legacy of the console that was the powerhouse of its generation is little more than latent consternation over an oddly-shaped lump of plastic.
As a result, we at Power Up Gaming have decided to take some time out to think back on our strongest memories of the N64, and the games that brought them into being. Today, associate editor Owen Atkinson reflects on five of his most memorable titles for the system. This is not a list of the most popular games, or even games that were necessarily all that good. Because in the end, nobody’s going to remember what looked the best, or sold the best – only what gave us the best memories to look back on and smile.
Banjo Kazooie (1998)
There was a lot to love in this colourful adventure about a honey bear and his obnoxious bird, but what I loved most was the music. After all, who could forget the charming and catchy band intro? This—combined with the second level of Earthworm Jim—fostered an appreciation for the banjo that remains with me to this day. From the mischievous “Teddy Bear’s Picnic”-esque hub world theme, to the sun-drenched joy of Treasure Trove Cove, each song perfectly matched the location’s theme, creating the exact right atmosphere for the occasion. Banjo Kazooie went one further, however; as you traveled around a level, the musical arrangement would seamlessly change to match the subtleties of wherever you happened to be. Developers Rare didn’t have to do this, but the fact that they did spoke volumes about their commitment to storytelling and giving gamers a fuller experience.
Super Smash Bros. (1999)
Pitting the characters from one series against another is nothing new in video games; just look at any of the Marvel vs Capcom or King of Fighters games. What made Super Smash Bros. special was that the characters in question—while no strangers to some degree of G-rated violence—were not from fighting games, so I for one had never expected them to cross paths. No longer did we have to simply imagine what Kirby would look like if he inhaled Samus’s powers, or if cuddly little Pikachu could take Link and his Master Sword in a fight. Now we could just go and find out. It was shocking and hilarious and we wanted it bad.
I also remember being surprised by how alive some of the stages felt. The spontaneously rising acid of Planet Zebes had me camping out on the highest platform in paranoia, ironically making me easy prey for other fighters attacking from below. Similarly, the random Pokemon attacks of Saffron City introduced an element of chaos that I had really not been prepared for. In my experience, fighting game stages were always flat and only differed cosmetically. Jumping for any purpose other than to deliver a flying kick was a completely foreign concept to me, as was the idea that I might be killed not by my opponent, but by the stage itself. Super Smash Bros. opened my eyes to new ways for games to be, outside of the rigid genres I expected.
Mortal Kombat 4 (1998)
While the Mortal Kombat series had always fascinated me, its punishing difficulty meant that my memories of the first three games have largely coalesced into a homogeneous blob of frustration. However, upon playing Mortal Kombat 4, I found its more forgiving AI (due largely to the removal of infinite combos and uppercut chains, the bane of my gaming existence) made it an excellent entry point into the series. The new additions of 3D movement and usable weapons—while not in the same league as Soul Calibur—seemed incredible at the time, opening up new tactics and setting it apart in my mind from all the other fighting games I’d played.
The gore had also been amped up since the 2D Mortal Kombats. Blood exploded from wounds like the fighters had dye packs for fists. Arm and knee breaks became standard fare, with characters roughly forcing their bodies back into joint as they kept fighting. Fatalities eschewed the earlier games’ humorous deaths—such as dropping an arcade machine on your opponent’s head or turning them into a screaming baby—in favour of more spine rips and dismemberments than you could shake a torn-off femur at. Even the Continue screen after a lost fight showed your character impaled at the bottom of a well if you didn’t keep playing. I don’t remember whether my unsuitably young mind appreciated this theatre of the macabre or not, but I don’t think I’ll ever forget it.
Donkey Kong 64 (1999)
Two words: “Ooh, BANANA!” The way the mesmerised voice delivered this line whenever a golden banana was revealed had me in stitches every time, and is still something I imitate any time I see a bowl of fruit. Donkey Kong’s falling scream was almost as hysterical, and I was delighted to hear its inclusion in the Gameboy Advance version of Donkey Kong Country. While the loss of these features wouldn’t have made the game any less fun, they are what I remember most fifteen years later. On the other hand, the game’s much derided DK Rap still gets stuck in my head from time to time, too.
Donkey Kong 64 was also one of the first games I’d played that let (or forced, depending on your stance on backtracking) me experience each level from the points of view of not one, not two, but five different protagonists. While it wasn’t like each Kong learned different parts of a complex narrative puzzle, re-entering a familiar area with a different set of capabilities completely altered the way I saw it, and kept me on the lookout for items or areas that my other characters would be able to exploit later on.
Star Fox 64 (1997)
Ostensibly an on-rails shooter with only about a dozen levels, Star Fox 64 at first looks like something you’ll play just once in between bouts of Mario Kart 64. And yet, the experience has stuck with me more than a hundred kart races combined.
This was partly due to the game’s surprisingly strong cast of characters, many of which I’m still not sure if I loved or hated. From the cute but annoyingly helpless Slippy, to the very French Leon, every character feels like their own person (grating as that person could sometimes be). I remember deliberately toying with Fox’s rival Star Wolf in dog fights, repeatedly looping over him just to hear him say, “What the heck?” over and over.
Every level felt unique, no mean feat considering that at least three were set in the cold vacuum of space (navigating the silent chaos of an asteroid field was downright harrowing). It was also the first game I played with branching storylines and multiple endings, encouraging repeat playthroughs like nothing else ever had.
ClayFighter 63⅓ (1997)
How many games let you beat up Frosty the Snowman as a sumo wrestler Santa Claus? Outrageous and wish-fulfilling in a similar way to Super Smash Bros. but without the polished mechanics to back it up, this entry in the Clayfighter series earns double memory points for allowing me to fight as Earthworm Jim.
F-Zero X (1998)
Speed and aggression were the name of the game in this futuristic gravity-defying racer. With no respawn on death, stakes were higher than in any other racing game of the time. This also meant that systematically eliminating every one of your twenty-nine competitors was a viable—and very fun—strategy. The pumping rock soundtrack has stayed with me much better than the sequel’s electronic offering.
Join us next time for more of our favourite and most fondly-remembered N64 games. In the meantime, it’s your turn. What are your memories of the Nintendo 64?