By 1996, Nintendo’s suit of armor was tarnished. Dented, but not broken. Sega’s fortunes with the Genesis surprised the company who quickly rallied back with the SNES which came out, and was temporarily trounced, in 1991.
Sega’s own missteps later with the Sega CD, the 32X, and then the Saturn damaged the progress made by Tom Kalinske and his team when they were at Sega of America among other reasons. But Sony’s disruptive entry into the Japanese market in 1994 (1995 for mostly everyone else) was a call to Nintendo that it was time to raise the bar yet again or risk losing their place as THE place to be for gaming.
There were others that fought to wrench a piece of the pie from the intense rivalry between Sega and Nintendo leading up to 1996 — NEC with the TurboGrafx, the 3DO from Trip Hawkins, and Atari boasting its own “64-bit” system in the Jaguar. But none of them could keep up with either powerhouse or the library of games that amassed in their arsenals. But now Sega was waning, and Nintendo was smelling blood in the water.
The future, Nintendo felt, was 64-bits and it needed bleeding edge graphics. Its closest rivals, the PlayStation and the Sega Saturn, were 32-bit machines, so the impression and the technical benchmark that going to 64-bits wouldn’t be lost to players when marketing had its way with the numbers. It also wasn’t merely PR snuff, either.
Basically, in simplest terms, it went that the more bits you had, the more complex and, technically, the more powerful your apps can potentially be. A 64-bit CPU “brain” was more capable at doing neater tricks than a 32-bit one, so it goes. Why process shorter instructions when you can cram twice as much through? The trick was always on figuring out the best way to harness that power, but first, you needed the hardware that programmers could finesse in order for that to happen.
There are a lot of “what-ifs” in history. What if Nintendo and Atari had worked out a deal back in the 80s for the Famicom? What if Tom Kalinske had said no to Nakayama in Hawaii? And what if Silicon Graphics instead became the Nvidia of our time?
Silicon Graphics, Inc., or SGI, was a high-end manufacturer of extremely bleeding edge graphics hardware that started up in the 80s. If you wanted CG SFX, high end CAD work, or anything else that needed vertices crunched at lightning speed back then, an SGI workstation was the way to go. Exorbitantly expensive but engineered to do one thing extremely well (these would be terrible as gaming machines, but if you wanted something rendered, ’nuff said), SGI’s supercomputing workstations had engineering and CG production pipeline markets in its corner.
SGI started looking towards the consumer market churning in the throes of a 3D revolution in the mid 90s thanks to games like id Software’s Quake. 3D accelerator cards were starting to make inroads into the psyche, and budgets, of hardcore PC gamers which trickled down into the console world as Sony’s PlayStation and the Sega Saturn demonstrated. SGI had the tech with MIPS Technologies which they had purchased in 1992 and whose processors they were using for several years prior to that in their products. And now they wanted to build a game system of their own. But how could they make it work on a consumer level without the high end costs?
In an interview with Sega-16 in 2006, Tom Kalinske (former president of Sega of America during its Genesis years), talks about being contacted by SGI about a chip the company felt would be great for a game system. It was part of an anecdote describing how both the Japanese and American sides of Sega could often not see eye to eye.
Apparently, as the story goes, Kalinske asked for Sega’s hardware team from Japan to come in and review the hardware which seemed really good. They came, took some issues with a few of its features, and then left seemingly unimpressed. SGI, to its credit, acted on their concerns and modified the hardware. When they came back for another look, this time with Sega of Japan’s president, Nakayama, with them, they still stuck to their belief that it wasn’t for them and left. SGI, stuck with an engineering solution that Sega apparently didn’t want, asked Kalinske what to do with it. He suggested there were other companies that might be interested in what they had. And one of those companies happened to be Nintendo.
However, other at the time had also suggested that SGI decided on Nintendo because of licensing rights for the chip. Sega wanted exclusivity, but Nintendo was willing to license it out. In any case, SGI’s tech ended up in Nintendo’s hands beginning Project Reality as far back as 1993 with an arcade offering in 1994 and targeting 1995 as the launch window for the home version. SGI supercomputers were purchased to approximate the environment that would exist on the new console, to give developers a leg up on what they could do with the technology at Nintendo.
As “Project Reality”, Nintendo’s mystery system had its own secret codename with like an agent sneaking behind enemy lines which, in any industry, a new product in the planning stages had to in order to keep the opposition guessing. Even though it could take years for a design to be finalized and made ready for prototyping, any leak revealing their hand to their competitors could be disastrous. According to Gumpei Yokoi (father of the Nintendo Gameboy) in an interview with Next Generation for his Virtual Boy in April, 1995, he noted that R&D3 was working on the “Ultra 64” as the new console was being called with Genyo Takeda leading the project.
In November, 1995, a playable version of the console was finally revealed to the world at the 7th Annual Shoshinkai Software Exhibition in Japan. Although it had gone under the name of the Nintendo Ultra 64 before, it was now branded as the Nintendo 64.
And on paper, the N64 was powerful. It boasted the kind of architecture that could theoretically move rendered mountains better than anything out there at the time. The cachet of having SGI hardware under its hood elicited excitement from many quarters from technical trades to gamers.
But it wasn’t perfect. For one thing, it still used cartridges which the CD-ROM revolution in the 90s were quickly phasing out. The shift trickled down from PCs which were replacing stacks of floppies with plastic platters,and now consoles were being pulled into the same movement.
The spacious CD-ROMs allowed developers to cram more data, and technically, larger and better looking worlds, onto each one. Orchestrated soundtracks, reams of digitized speech and movies, all complimenting the game that was there — it had its own good and bad points as Siliwood had demonstrated repeatedly on the PC side, but the potential was never in doubt.
Nintendo’s argument was that cartridges had zero load times — which was technically true — compared to CD-ROMs which couldn’t be read as quickly. Even on PCs at the time, applications and games often offered the choice to install part or all of a program on the hard drive to reduce those load times. But others have also argued that Nintendo’s insistence on quality control, stemming from their NES and SNES days, contributed to the decision to stick to this proprietary format for their games.
The choice of format would prove damaging in the long run as third-parties slowly parted ways with Nintendo to develop games on Sony’s PlayStation which was exclusively CD-ROM based. Even Squaresoft, a long time ally of Nintendo via its JRPG library, went over to Sony’s camp with PR later running ads for FFVII poking fun at the limitations of cartridge-based games.
But the N64 ruled the roost with a solid selection of quality titles, many of which were from Nintendo itself and its developers close to it. Compared to the quantity over quality blitzkrieg that the PlayStation stormed stores with, the N64’s library seemed to boast a greater concentration of groundbreaking titles.
Super Mario 64 and Pilotwings 64 were among its launch titles. For die-hard Nintendo fans that couldn’t get enough of Mario or Zelda, the N64 was the only console these series would be on.
But it was also home to innovative titles like Rare’s GoldenEye 007, the FPS adaptation of the James Bond film of the same name. Not only did it follow the film but embellished its world with expanded missions and locales turning a simple adaptation into something special. Another big point – local, four-way deathmatch with different modes and maps to extend the fun well after you’re done saving the world.
The N64 ultimately sold well in North America, eventually pushing past both Sony and Sega in 1997 in terms of sales. Unfortunately, its decision to stick with cartridges nipped the surge when the libraries for competing systems, especially that of Sony’s, grew quickly compared to the relatively anemic pace that the N64 appeared to afterwards. It would ultimately get 388 games, though it paled in comparison to the Sony PlayStation’s library of 1,100 or even the NES and the SNES which had 768 and 725 games available in the States, respectively.
In Japan, it actually fell behind the Sony PlayStation. Even more surprising, it fell behind the Sega Saturn there. In the end, it sold 32.93 million units worldwide before ending its manufacturing run. In comparison, the Sony PlayStation would go on to sell 102.49 million systems before being discontinued.
As for SGI, the company withered in the face of increasing competition from Wintel machines and cheaper alternatives to their expensive workstations. Others had caught up, providing the same solutions for a much lower premium. When SGI attempted to compete with those, such as Dell, the move was a disaster. Why pay such high prices for their hardware when a Wintel workstations or AMD render farms were just as good for far cheaper?
Nintendo was ultimately relegated to second place behind the Sony PlayStation having clearly lost their dominance by the end of the 90s. Many third party developers continued to flock to the PlayStation having left the Nintendo 64 behind, creating a surge of games — and shovelware — that deluged stores and gamers.
Although the N64 was still home to incredible titles, the PlayStation library’s admittedly diverse selection with titles ranging from the Final Fantasy series, Tomb Raider, and even PC games such as Diablo and Command & Conquer created an extremely strong competitive front that seriously challenged Nintendo in a way that Sega was unable to with the Saturn, ironically proving Hiroshi Yamauchi’s belief that software was the key to driving hardware.
Even with a solid library behind the Nintendo 64, Nintendo’s previously unrivaled domination of the video game market was shattered against the beachhead created by Sony’s PlayStation invasion. For many, however, the N64 would remain one of the most memorable platforms for the games it brought to the table and the engineering that went into making miracles such as FMV for Capcom’s port of Resident Evil 2 work from a cartridge. It made us see Mario in a 3D world and fight giant poo with Conker’s Bad Fur Day, and it still kept Nintendo in the game for years to come with the kind of magic it was known for.