The Nintendo 64 (Japanese: ニンテンドー64 Hepburn: Nintendō Rokujūyon?), stylized as NINTENDO64 and often referred to as N64, is Nintendo’s third home video game console for the international market. Named for its 64-bit central processing unit, it was released in June 1996 in Japan, September 1996 in North America, March 1997 in Europe and Australia, September 1997 in France and December 1997 in Brazil. It is the industry’s last major home console to use the cartridge as its primary storage format, although current handheld systems (such as the PlayStation Vita and Nintendo 3DS) also use cartridges. While the Nintendo 64 was succeeded by Nintendo’s MiniDVD-based GameCube in November 2001, the consoles remained available until the system was retired in late 2003.
Code named Project Reality, the console’s design was mostly finalized by mid-1995, though Nintendo 64’s launch was delayed until 1996. As part of the fifth generation of gaming, the system competed primarily with the PlayStation and the Sega Saturn. The Nintendo 64 was launched with three games: Super Mario 64 and Pilotwings 64, released worldwide; and Saikyō Habu Shōgi, released only in Japan. The Nintendo 64’s suggested retail price at launch was US$199.99 and it was later marketed with the slogan “Get N, or get Out!”. With 32.93 million units worldwide, the console was ultimately released in a range of different colors and designs, and an assortment of limited-edition controllers were sold or used as contest prizes during the system’s lifespan. IGN named it the 9th greatest video game console of all time; and in 1996, Time Magazine named it Machine of the Year.
“At the heart of the [Project Reality] system will be a version of the MIPS(r) Multimedia Engine, a chip-set consisting of a 64-bit MIPS RISC microprocessor, a graphics co-processor chip and Application Specific Integrated Circuits (ASICs)”. “The product, which will be developed specifically for Nintendo, will be unveiled in arcades in 1994, and will be available for home use by late 1995. The target U.S. price for the home system is below $250”. “For the first time, leading-edge MIPS RISC microprocessor technology will be used in the video entertainment industry [and already] powers computers ranging from PCs to supercomputers”.
—SGI press release, August 23, 1993
At the beginning of the 1990s, Nintendo led the video game industry with its Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). Although the NES follow-up console, the Super NES (SNES), was successful, sales took a hit from the Japanese recession. Competition from long-time rival Sega, and relative newcomer Sony, emphasized Nintendo’s need to develop a successor for the SNES, or risk losing market dominance to its rivals. Further complicating matters, Nintendo also faced a backlash from third-party developers unhappy with Nintendo’s strict licensing policies.
Silicon Graphics, Inc. (SGI), a long-time leader in graphics visualization and supercomputing, was interested in expanding its business by adapting its technology into the higher volume realm of consumer products, starting with the video game market. Based upon its MIPS R4000 family of supercomputing and workstation CPUs, SGI developed a CPU requiring a fraction of the resources—consuming only 0.5 watts of power instead of 1.5 to 2 watts, with an estimated target price of US$40 instead of US$80–200. The company created a design proposal for a video game system, seeking an already well established partner in that market. James H. Clark, founder of SGI, initially offered the proposal to Tom Kalinske, who was the CEO of Sega of America. The next candidate was Nintendo.
The historical details of these preliminary negotiations were controversial between the two competing suitors. Tom Kalinske said that he and Joe Miller of Sega of America were “quite impressed” with SGI’s prototype, inviting their hardware team to travel from Japan to meet with SGI. The engineers from Sega Enterprises claimed that their evaluation of the early prototype had uncovered several unresolved hardware issues and deficiencies. Those were subsequently resolved, but Sega had already decided against SGI’s design. Nintendo resisted that summary conclusion, arguing that the reason for SGI’s ultimate choice of partner is due to Nintendo having been a more appealing business partner than Sega. While Sega demanded exclusive rights to the chip, Nintendo was willing to license the technology on a non-exclusive basis. Michael Slater, publisher of Microprocessor Report said, “The mere fact of a business relationship there is significant because of Nintendo’s phenomenal ability to drive volume. If it works at all, it could bring MIPS to levels of volume [SGI] never dreamed of”.
James Clark met with Nintendo CEO Hiroshi Yamauchi in early 1993, thus initiating Project Reality. On August 23, 1993, the two companies announced a global joint partnership and licensing agreement surrounding Project Reality, projecting that the yet unnamed eventual product would be “developed specifically for Nintendo, will be unveiled in arcades in 1994, and will be available for home use by late 1995 … below $250”. This announcement coincided with Nintendo’s August 1993 Shoshinkai trade show.
As with most of the computing industry, Nintendo had limited experience with 3D graphics, and worked with several outside companies to develop the technology comprising the console. Some chip technology was provided by NEC, Toshiba, and Sharp. SGI had recently acquired MIPS Computer Systems, and the two worked together toward a low-cost realtime 3D graphics hardware system. SGI and its subsidiary MIPS Technologies were responsible for the R4300i microprocessor and the 3D graphics hardware used in the Nintendo 64.
The initial Project Reality software development platform was developed and sold by SGI in the form of its US$100,000–US$250,000 Onyx supercomputer loaded with the namesake US$50,000 RealityEngine2 graphics boards and four 150 MHz R4400 CPUs, and with early Project Reality application and emulation APIs. By purchasing and developing upon this graphics supercomputing platform, Nintendo and its select game developer partners could fully prototype their games according to SGI’s estimated console performance, prior to the finalization of the console hardware specifications. That software-based console prototype platform was later supplanted by a workstation-hosted console simulation board, representing the finalized console hardware. SGI’s performance estimates based upon their RealityEngine supercomputing platform were ultimately reported to be fairly accurate to the final consumer console product.
The console’s design was publicly revealed for the first time in late Q2 1994. Images of the console displayed the Nintendo Ultra 64 logo, a ROM cartridge, but no controller. This prototype console’s form factor would be retained by the product eventually launched as Nintendo 64 due to a legal issue with Konami. Having initially indicated the possibility of utilizing the increasingly popular CD-ROM if the medium’s endemic performance problems were solved,:77 the company now announced a much faster but space-limited cartridge-based system, which prompted open analysis by the gaming press. The system was frequently marketed as the world’s first 64-bit gaming system, often stating the console was more powerful than the first moon landing computers. Atari had already claimed to have made the first 64-bit game console with their Atari Jaguar, but the Jaguar only uses a general 64-bit architecture in conjunction with two 32-bit RISC processors and a 16/32-bit Motorola 68000.
Later in Q2 1994, Nintendo signed a licensing agreement with Midway’s parent company which enabled Midway to develop and market arcade games using the Project Reality hardware and formed a joint venture company called Williams/Nintendo to market Nintendo-exclusive home conversions of these games. The result is two arcade games, Killer Instinct and Cruis’n USA, which boasted their upcoming release on the arcade branch of the Nintendo Ultra 64 platform. Compared to the console branch of Ultra 64, the arcade branch uses a different MIPS CPU, has no Reality Coprocessor, and uses onboard ROM chips and a hard drive instead of a cartridge. Killer Instinct features pre-rendered character artwork, and CG movie backgrounds that are streamed off the hard drive and animated as the characters move horizontally.
The completed Nintendo 64 was fully unveiled to the public in a playable form on November 24, 1995, at the 7th Annual Shoshinkai Software Exhibition in Japan. Nintendo’s next-generation console was introduced as the “Nintendo 64” (a name given by Shigesato Itoi), contrary to speculation that it would be called “Nintendo Ultra 64”. 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 the lead up to the console’s release, Nintendo had adopted a new global branding strategy, assigning the console the same name for all markets: Nintendo 64. Previously, the plan had been to release the console as the Ultra Famicom in Japan and as the Nintendo Ultra 64 in other markets. Nintendo said that trademark issues were not a factor, and the sole reason for the name change was to establish a single worldwide brand and logo for the console. The prefix for the model numbering scheme for hardware and software across the Nintendo 64 platform is “NUS-“, a reference to the console’s original name, “Nintendo Ultra Sixty-four”.
The console was originally slated for release by Christmas of 1995. In May 1995, Nintendo pushed back the release to April 1996. The prospect of a release the following year at a lower price than the competition lowered sales of competing Sega and Sony consoles during the important Christmas shopping season.:24 Electronic Gaming Monthly editor Ed Semrad even suggested that Nintendo may have announced the April 1996 release date with this end in mind, knowing in advance that the system would not be ready by that date.
In its explanation of the delay, Nintendo claimed it needed more time for Nintendo 64 software to mature, and for third-party developers to produce games. Adrian Sfarti, a former engineer for SGI, attributed the delay to hardware problems; he claimed that the chips underperformed in testing and were being redesigned. In 1996, the Nintendo 64’s software development kit was redesigned as the Partner-N64 system, by Kyoto Microcomputer, Co. Ltd. of Japan.
To counter the possibility that gamers would grow impatient with the wait for the Nintendo 64 and purchase one of the several competing consoles already on the market, Nintendo ran ads for the system well in advance of its announced release dates, with slogans like “Wait for it…” and “Is it worth the wait? Only if you want the best!”