Changing the System: How Nintendo 64 revolutionized 3D game design

In October 1985, Nintendo's NES single-handedly resurrected the games market following the crash of 1983. Nearly 11 years later, Miyamoto and his cadre of pioneering designers took the industry back to the drawing board yet again with the release of the Nintendo 64 on June 23, 1996, in Japan.

Over its five-year lifespan, the N64 popularized 3D gaming on consoles and heralded design methodologies that continue to inform contemporary games and hardware. Despite its many accomplishments, it was not without faults. I reached out to a few developers to reflect on Nintendo's "Ultra"-sized third home console.

While 3D games existed prior to June 1996, there was no template for designers and players to follow. Implementations of camera controls and movement were ill-defined at best and slipshod at worst. Super Mario 64 formalized those elements and more in much the same way that Super Mario Bros. acted as a compass for 2D platformers in its day.

"My earliest memory [of Nintendo 64] is the day I got the console," said David D'Angelo, a designer and programmer at Shovel Knight studio Yacht Club Games. "I actually had a bunch of friends over, and we were going to play basketball, but the N64 arrived that day so I totally ignored them all to play Super Mario 64. It was the best day ever."

For any other game, D'Angelo's snub might have cost him several friendships. But Mario 64 cast a spell over everyone who played it, and that was largely due to how naturally the Nintendo 64's controller enabled players to move in the polygonal manifestation of the Mushroom Kingdom.

Built around three grips, the N64 gamepad resembled a lowercase 'm.' The center grip had an analog stick meant for controlling characters in 3D, and was designed alongside Super Mario 64—a clear and powerful example of Nintendo's chicken-and-egg doctrine that software and hardware should be created in tandem.

"The controller seemed quirky at first, but after playing just briefly, I could see that it was used really well for the game and everything made sense," said Diablo II designer Stieg Hedlund. "In that moment, I knew the game and the console would be huge successes—it felt awesome just to move around and explore the world."

To play Mario, players held the middle grip in their left fist and moved Mario by rotating the analog stick with their thumb. Tapping four yellow buttons on the face of the controller, each marked 'C' (short for camera) with a compass direction, swung the camera to different perspectives. The blue A button made Mario jump, and he could throw punches by tapping B.

What really blew minds was Mario's range of movement. Tilting the stick forward just a bit caused him to tiptoe; a little more pressure, and he'd speed up to a walk. Going full tilt sent the mustachioed mascot into a sprint. Whether sidling against walls to sneak past sleeping piranha plants or dashing across the sunny fields that comprised the bulk of Super Mario 64's zones, Mario responded instantly and effortlessly to player input. Spending hours running, leaping, flipping, and climbing in the Princess Peach's garden outside her castle was just as enjoyable as completing objectives in levels.

"It was the first game to really get 3D platforming exactly right," said Tom Hall, co-founder of id Software and creative director of Commander Keen, Wolfenstein 3D, and Doom. "So much of the 3D level language, platforming language was realized in this game. The camera occasionally was dodgy—expected from such a pioneering game—but the gameplay was great, varied, joyful, explorative, clever, fun, smart.... Pretty much came out of the gate with the best game on the system, and one of the best games of all time."

"Before its arrival on the scene, platformers in particular had a lot of trouble figuring out how to define a path and allow player to navigate it," Hedlund added. "Any designer worth their salt working in 3D recognized that Super Mario 64 was the shape of things to come and absorbed as much as they could from it."

"It made leaps and bounds in the industry, and even today, it still stands out as completely unique. There are extremely few games that give you pure joy of movement like Mario 64," said D'Angelo.

In some instances, Mario 64 was perhaps too addictive. "I remember when working on Duke 3D, Allen Blum and Dirk Jones had a TV between their desks with an N64 and Mario 64," recounted 3D Realms co-founder and Duke Nukem 3D designer George Broussard. "For a while, every time I walked into the office, they'd be playing Mario 64 [instead of] working on Duke. It was a problem, but we chalked it up to 'research.'"

Nintendo engineered its N64 gamepad with more than just Mario in mind. Taking the peripheral by the left and right grips let players hold it like a traditional controller, complete with a d-pad on the left and six face buttons plus two triggers, ideal for 2D games like Mortal Kombat 4.

Unfortunately, few games took full advantage of the controller due to other technical decisions that struck many as antiquated. "Cartridges were a terrible idea and were very expensive to produce; game publishers had to invest huge sums of money into pre-buying inventory from Nintendo," Broussard said. "If a game sold poorly, or slowly, it could bankrupt people. This limited third parties from taking risks. Nintendo got away with it because they were Nintendo and still number one in consoles, but there's a reason the PS1 took off and essentially stole the crown from Nintendo."

It wasn't atypical for N64 cartridges to sell for $70 to $80, an unfortunate side effect of high production costs. As a result, games were few and far between: players became accustomed to waiting months for the next big thing while retailers were flooded with new PS1 titles priced in the $30 to $40 range and unfettered by Nintendo's heavy hand.

"Back in the N64 days, Nintendo were still very much control freaks when it came to content and what they allowed on their system," Broussard said. "They were very slow to realize that not everyone who played games was 10 years old. I recall having to change 'Steroids' in Duke Nukem 3D to 'Vitamin X' for the N64 port. Things like that were annoying."

"Nintendo being unable to get third-party support was definitely a huge problem during the N64 era," D'Angelo admitted.

On the other hand, sticking with cartridges offered benefits over CD-ROM. Few N64 games exhibited any load time thanks to the near-instant access speed of cartridges. Meanwhile, PlayStation was limited by the speed of its CD drive.

Other aspects of sticking to cartridges were pragmatic. "A bunch of us took an RV to GDC or E3 one year, and we had the great, non-shakable media of the N64 to play as we drove," said Hall. "I kept one in my SUV for years just for that reason. They could also augment games with extra hardware because they did this," he continued, referring to Nintendo's capability to effectively upgrade the N64 by engineering cartridges with different chips to add new technical capabilities. Conker's Bad Fur Day and Resident Evil 2 boasted more space than other games, and their developers took advantage by packing their carts full of multi-layered textures.

Independent of special cartridges, the N64 had more sophisticated graphical hardware than competitors, allowing for advanced techniques like trilinear filtering—the first console to feature the technique—to smooth out textures. Although N64 titles could look as blocky as any other primordial 3D game on other platforms, PS1 and Saturn were noticeably more pixelated in comparison.

The biggest advantage the N64 had was, of course, Nintendo itself. As more and more developers ditched cartridges for the greener (and cheaper) pastures of optical media, Nintendo and second-party devs like Rare bolstered the N64's library with hit after hit, many of which expanded the lexicon of 3D game development that Mario all but wrote. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time introduced a lock-on mechanic, giving designers a surefire method of helping players aim at characters. Goldeneye's control scheme, intricately crafted campaign objectives, and abundance of multiplayer modes paved a path for console shooters like Halo and Call of Duty.

"I do recall thinking when Goldeneye shipped that it was the best FPS to date on most any platform," Broussard told me. "That was an amazing achievement."

The N64's ability to carve TV screens into four sectors to accommodate multiple players without too severe a dip in fidelity was a nontrivial feature in an age before online multiplayer came standard in consoles. Stieg Hedlund reminisced over dozens of hours spent playing Mario Kart 64 with his colleagues at Blizzard North. "The smart use of the controller in a crazily competitive four-player experience with tons of strategy and reversal possibilities is one of my favorites on any platform ever. At Blizzard North it was our go-to for a long time."

Diablo and Diablo II composer Matt Uelmen gained a reputation around the office as the team's most devilish player. "Of all of my lifetime of gaming memories, the absolute top of the list as real-life group play goes would have to be occupied by the N64 Mario Kart sessions circa late '97 at Blizzard North," Uelmen said. "The best part of it was the way the game's physics and character design represented the ids of the main players involved. [Artist] Ben Haas tended to stick with Donkey Kong and the occasional Wario. Stieg, intellectual despite his Viking appearance, would go with Toad; [artist] Patrick Tougas would often go with Luigi, and I, of course, couldn't resist the speed and demure mockery of Princess Peach. There was nothing sweeter than hearing her coo 'Peach has got it' as I crossed the finish line in victory. Such great game design, and great memories of what was a golden time at Blizzard North."

For all its warts, the Nintendo 64's influence on modern games cannot be understated. From first-party juggernauts like Super Mario 64 and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, to the advent of new technologies like analog sticks and force feedback, Nintendo's 64-bit machine has earned its place among the pantheon of gaming platforms and technologies.

"I think its biggest contributions were mastering 3D gameplay design and implementation," said D'Angelo. "But they also mastered or invented new technologies like rumble and the control stick. Without the N64, who knows where 3D would be right now?"


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