The , often abbreviated as N64, is Nintendo's third home video game console for the international market. Named for its 64-bit GPU, it was released on June 23 1996 in Japan, September 29 1996 in North America, March 1 1997 in Europe and Australia, September 1 1997 in France and December 10 1997 in Brazil. It is notable for being Nintendo's last home console to use cartridges to store games (with Nintendo switching to a proprietary optical format for the GameCube, then to standard DVD-sized media for Wii), and for being the first modern home console to come with a controller featuring an analog stick.
The N64 was released with two launch games, Super Mario 64 and Pilotwings 64, plus an extra one in Japan, Saikyō Habu Shōgi. The N64's suggested retail price was US$199 at its launch and it was later marketed with the slogan: "Get N, or get Out!" The N64 sold 32.93 million units worldwide.
The Nintendo 64 was the culmination of work by Nintendo, Silicon Graphics (SGI), and MIPS Technologies. The SGI-based system design that ended up in the Nintendo 64 was originally offered to Tom Kalinske, then CEO of Sega of America by James H. Clark, founder of Silicon Graphics. SGI had recently bought out MIPS Technologies and the two companies had worked together to create a low-cost CPU/3D GPU combo that they thought would be ideal for the console market. A hardware team from Sega of Japan was sent to evaluate the chip's capabilities and they found faults which MIPS subsequently solved. However, Sega of Japan ultimately decided against SGI's design. In the early stages of development, the Nintendo 64 was referred to by the code name "Project Reality". This moniker came from the speculation within Nintendo that the console could produce CGI on par with then-current supercomputers. In 1994, the console was given the name Nintendo Ultra 64 in the West. The console's design was shown for the first time in late Spring 1994. The first picture of the console ever shown featured the Nintendo Ultra 64 logo and showed a game cartridge, but no controller. The final console was identical to this, but with a different logo. When the system together with the controller was fully unveiled in a playable form to the public on November 24, 1995, the console was introduced as the "Nintendo 64" in Japan, contrary to speculation of it being called "Ultra Famicom", at the 7th Annual Shoshinkai Software Exhibition in Japan. Photos of the event were disseminated on the web by Game Zero magazine two days later. Official coverage by Nintendo followed later via the Nintendo Power website and print magazine. In February of 1996 Nintendo of America announced a delay of Nintendo Ultra 64 until September 1996 in North America. Simultaneously it was announced that Nintendo had adopted a new global branding strategy, calling the console Nintendo 64 everywhere. Subsequently the PAL introduction was further delayed, finally being released in Europe on March 1, 1997.
During this stage of development two companies, Rareware (UK) and Midway (USA), created the arcade games Killer Instinct and Cruis'n USA which claimed to use the Ultra 64 hardware. The hardware did have some notable changes; the arcade games used hard drives and TMS processors, although they were based on the MIPS R4600 CPU. Killer Instinct was the most advanced game of its time graphically, featuring pre-rendered movie backgrounds that were streamed off the hard drive and animated as the characters moved horizontally. Nintendo dropped "Ultra" from the name on May 1, 1996, just months before its Japanese debut, because the word "Ultra" was trademarked by another company, Konami, for its Ultra Games division. The console was finally released on June 23, 1996.
The system was frequently marketed as the world's first 64-bit gaming system. A few years prior, Atari claimed to have made the first 64-bit game console with their Atari Jaguar; however, the Jaguar actually only used a 64-bit RISC architecture "Object Processor" and a 64-bit RISC "Blitter" in conjunction with two 32-bit processors and a 16-bit Motorola 68000.
The official prefix for the Nintendo 64's model numbering scheme is "NUS-", a reference to the system's original name, Nintendo Ultra Sixty-Four.
The CPU has an internal 32 KiB L1 cache but no L2 cache. It was built by NEC on a 0.35 µm process and consists of 4.6 million transistors. The CPU is cooled passively by an aluminum heatspreader that makes contact with a steel heat sink above.
Nintendo 64's graphics and audio duties are performed by the 64-bit SGI co-processor, named the "Reality Co-Processor." The RCP is a 62.5 MHz chip split internally into two major components,the "Reality Signal Processor" (RSP) and the "Reality Display Processor" aka "Reality Drawing Processor" (RDP) . Each area communicates with the other by way of a 128-bit internal data bus that provides 1.0 GB/s bandwidth. The RSP is a MIPS R4000-based 8-bit integer vector processor. The RSP performs transform, clipping and lighting calculations, and triangle setup.
The RSP was completely programmable through microcode (µcode). By altering the microcode run on the device, it could perform different operations, create new effects, and be better tuned for speed or quality. However, Nintendo was unwilling to share the microcode tools with developers until the end of the Nintendo 64's life-cycle. Programming RSP microcode was said to be quite difficult because the Nintendo 64 µcode tools were very basic, with no debugger and poor documentation. As a result, it was very easy to make mistakes that would be hard to track down; mistakes that could cause seemingly random bugs or glitches. Some developers noted that the default SGI microcode ("Fast3D') was actually quite poorly profiled for use in games (it was too accurate), and performance suffered as a result. Several companies were able to create custom microcode programs that ran their software far better than SGI's generic software (e.g., Factor 5, Boss Game Studios, and Rare).
Two of the SGI microcodes
The RSP also frequently performs audio functions (although the CPU can be tasked with this as well). It can play back virtually any type of audio (dependent on software codecs) including uncompressed PCM, MP3, MIDI, and tracker music. The RSP is capable of a maximum of 100 channels of PCM at a time, but this is with 100% system utilization for audio. It has a maximum sampling rate of 48 kHz with 16-bit audio. However, storage limitations caused by the cartridge format limited audio size (and thus quality).
The RDP is the machine's rasterizer and performs the bulk of actual image creation before output to the display. Nintendo 64 has a maximum color depth of 16.8 million colors (32,768 on-screen) and can display resolutions of 256 × 224, 320 × 240, and 640 × 480 pixels. The RCP also provides the CPU's access to main system memory via a 250 MB/s bus. Unfortunately, this link does not allow direct memory access for the CPU. The RCP, like the CPU, is passively cooled by an aluminum heatspreader that makes contact with a steel heat sink above.
The majority of Nintendo 64 game cartridges were gray in color, however some games were released on a colored cartridge; Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 3, Rally Challenge 2000, WWF No Mercy, WWF WrestleMania 2000, Rugrats in Paris, Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six, Madden NFL 2002, Road Rash 64, Armorines: Project S.W.A.R.M. and Turok 2: Seeds of Evil had black cartridges; Rayman 2, Turok 2, Battletanx: Global Assault, and Army Men: Sarge's Heroes 2 had green ones (in North America only); Donkey Kong 64, Earthworm Jim 3D, and Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2 had yellow ones; Rocket: Robot on Wheels, Spider-Man (2000 video game), All Star Baseball 2001, and NFL Quarterback Club 2001 had red cartridges; Pokémon Stadium 2 had a half gold, half silver cartridge; The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (Collector's Edition) and The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask had gold ones; and Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, Hydro Thunder, Bassmasters 2000, The World Is Not Enough, WCW Backstage Assault, and Madden NFL 2001 had blue ones.
There were other challenges for developers to work around. Z-buffering significantly crippled the RDP's fillrate. Thus, for maximum performance, managing the z-depth of objects, so objects would appear in the right order and not on top of each other, was put on the programmer instead of the hardware. Most Nintendo 64 games were actually fill-rate limited, not geometry limited, which is ironic considering the great concern for Nintendo 64's low ~100,000 polygon per second rating during its time. In fact, World Driver Championship was one of the most polygon-intense Nintendo 64 games and frequently would push past Sony PlayStation's typical in-game polygon counts. This game also used custom microcode to improve the RSP's capabilities.
The unified memory subsystem of Nintendo 64 was another critical weakness for the machine. The RDRAM had very high access latency, and this mostly canceled out its high bandwidth advantage. In addition, game developers commented that the Nintendo 64's memory controller setup was poor. The R4300 CPU was severely limited at memory access because it had to go through the RCP to access main memory, and could not use DMA to do so. There was no memory prefetch or read under write functionality.
One of the best examples of custom microcode on the Nintendo 64 was Factor 5's N64 port of the Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine PC game. The Factor 5 team aimed for the high resolution mode (640×480) because of the crispness it added to the visuals. The machine was taxed to the limit running at 640×480, so they needed performance beyond the standard SGI microcode. Firstly, the Z-buffer could not be used because it alone consumed the already-constrained texture fillrate. To work around the 4 KB texture cache, the programmers came up with custom texture formats and tools to let the artists use the best possible textures. Each texture was analyzed and fitted to best texture format for performance and quality. They took advantage of the cartridge as a texture streaming source to squeeze as much detail as possible into each environment and work around RAM limitations. They wrote microcode for real-time lighting, because the SGI code was poor for this task and they wanted to have even more lighting than the PC version had used. Factor 5's microcode allowed almost unlimited real-time lighting and significantly boosted the polygon count. In the end, the game was more feature-filled than the PC version, and unsurprisingly, was one of the most advanced games for Nintendo 64.
Factor 5 also showed ingenuity with their Star Wars games such as Star Wars: Rogue Squadron and Star Wars: Battle for Naboo, where their team again used custom microcode. In Star Wars: Rogue Squadron the team tweaked the microcode for a landscape engine to create the alien worlds. For Star Wars: Battle for Naboo they took what they learned from Rogue Squadron and pushed the machine even farther to make the game run at 640×480, also implementing enhancements for both particles and the landscape engine. Battle for Naboo enjoyed an impressive draw distance and large amounts of snow and rain, even with the high resolution.
The selection of the cartridge for the Nintendo 64 was a key factor in Nintendo's being unable to retain its dominant position in the gaming market. Most of the cartridge's advantages did not manifest themselves prominently and they were ending up nullified by the cartridge's shortcomings, which turned off customers and developers alike. Especially for the latter, it was costly and difficult to develop for ROM cartridges, as their limited storage capacity constrained the game's content.
Most third-party developers switched to the PlayStation (such as Square and Enix, whose Final Fantasy VII and Dragon Quest VII were initially pre-planned for the N64), while some who remained released fewer games to the Nintendo 64 (Capcom, with only 3 games; Konami, with 13 N64 games and over 50 to the PlayStation), and new game releases were few and far between while new games were coming out rapidly for the PlayStation. Most of the N64's biggest successes were developed by Nintendo itself or by second-parties of Nintendo, such as Rareware.
Despite the controversies, the N64 still managed to support popular games such as GoldenEye 007 and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, giving it a long life run. Much of this success was credited to Nintendo's strong first-party franchises, such as Mario and Zelda, which had strong name brand appeal yet appeared exclusively on Nintendo platforms. The N64 also secured its share of the mature audience thanks to GoldenEye 007, Nightmare Creatures, Perfect Dark, Doom 64, Resident Evil 2, Shadow Man, Conker's Bad Fur Day, Duke Nukem 64, Duke Nukem: Zero Hour, Mortal Kombat 4, and Quake II.
In 2001, the Nintendo 64 was replaced by the disc-based Nintendo GameCube.
Nintendo cited several advantages for making the N64 cartridge-based. For example, ROM cartridges have very fast load times in comparison to disc-based games, as contemporary CD-ROM drives rarely had speeds above 4x. This can be observed from the loading screens that appear in many Sony PlayStation games but are typically non-existent in N64 versions. ROM carts were so much faster than the 2x CD-ROM drives in other consoles that developers could stream data in real-time off them. This was done in Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine, for example, to make the most of the limited RAM in the N64. Also, ROM cartridges are difficult and expensive to duplicate, thus resisting piracy, albeit at the expense of lowered profit margin for Nintendo. While unauthorized interface devices for the PC were later developed, these devices are rare when compared to a regular CD drive and popular mod chips as used on the PlayStation. Compared to the N64, piracy was rampant on the PlayStation. The cartridges are also far more durable than compact discs, the latter which must be carefully used and stored in protective cases. It also prevents accidental scratches and subsequent read errors. It is possible to add specialized I/O hardware and support chips (such as co-processors) to ROM cartridges, as was done on some SNES games (notably Star Fox, using the Super FX chip).
ROM cartridges also have disadvantages associated with them. While game cartridges are more resistant than CDs to physical damage, they are sometimes less resistant to long-term environmental damage, particularly oxidation or wear of their electrical contacts causing a blank or frozen screen, or static electricity. Console cartridges are usually larger and heavier than optical discs and hence take up more room to store. They also have a more complex manufacturing processes, which meant that games were usually more expensive than their optical counterparts. The cartridges held a maximum of 64 MB of data, whereas CDs held over 650 MB. As fifth generation games became more complex in content, sound, and graphics, it pushed cartridges to the limits of their storage capacity. Games ported from other media had to use data compression or reduced content in order to be released on the N64. Extremely large games could be made to span across multiple discs on CD-based systems, while cartridge games had to be contained within one unit since using an additional cartridge was prohibitively expensive (and was never tried). Because of a cartridge's space limitations, full motion video was not usually feasible for use in cut-scenes. The cut-scenes of some other games used graphics generated by the CPU in real-time.
Graphically, results of the Nintendo cartridge system were mixed. The N64's graphics chip was capable of trilinear filtering, which allowed textures to look very smooth compared to the Sega Saturn and the PlayStation; neither could provide better than nearest neighbor interpolation, resulting in textures that were highly pixelated compared to the N64.
However, the smaller storage size of ROM cartridges limited the number of available textures, resulting in games which had blurry graphics because of the liberal use of stretched, low-resolution textures, which was compounded by the N64's 4096-byte limit on a single texture. Some games, such as Super Mario 64, use a large amount of Gouraud shading or very simple textures to produce a cartoon-like look. This fit the themes of many games, and allowed this style of imagery a sharp look. Cartridges for some later games, such as Resident Evil 2 and Sin & Punishment: Successor of the Earth, featured more ROM space, allowing for more detailed graphics.
Cartridges took much longer to manufacture than CDs, with each production run (from order to delivery) taking 2 to 3 weeks (or more). By contrast, extra copies of a CD based game could be ordered with a lead time of a few days. This meant that publishers of N64 titles had to attempt to predict demand for a game ahead of its release. They risked being left with a surplus of expensive cartridges for a failed game or a weeks-long shortage of product if they underestimated a game's popularity.
The cost of producing an N64 cartridge was far higher than producing a CD: one gaming magazine at the time cited average costs of twenty-five dollars per cartridge, versus 10 cents per CD. Publishers had to pass these higher expenses to the consumer and as a result, N64 games tended to sell for higher prices than PlayStation games did. While most PlayStation games rarely exceeded $50, N64 titles could reach $79.99, such as the first pressing of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Sony's line of PlayStation Greatest Hits retailed for $19.99 each, while Nintendo's Player's Choice value line had an MSRP of $39.99. In the United Kingdom, prices around the time of introduction for N64 cartridges were £54.99, and PlayStation games at £44.99 for new titles.