Take your pick between the Phony GreyStation, the Dreampants, and grey cartridges

Nintendo_64_Logo

Nintendo 64 (1996 / 1997)

My first experience with the Nintendo 64 console, way back when in Christmas ’97, was fairly inauspicious. For a start, I’m sure my older brother harboured some secret resentment about gettin gone, given that just about everyone else in his school peer group were getting or had already gotten PlayStations. And there is no section of society more judgmental, more better placed to finish you socially, then your schoolyard fellows. I wasn’t embarrassed at all, in fact I was chuffed. But what did set off some humiliation for me that fateful day was my quite literally ham-fisted attempts to hold the controller.

Ah yes, that controller. It was easily the most bonkers controller there had been, until it was knocked into second place by the Resident Evil 4 Chainsaw GameCube controller, and hammered further into third by the famous Patrick Starfish PS2 joypad (a conspicuous absentee from my collection). As I was six years old and therefore stupid, my first instinct wasn’t to grip the three-pronged Geiger-esque beast that was the N64 controller properly, by putting my tiny hands on the right and middle prongs.

No, I had graduated from the Super Nintendo and Sega Mega Drive, where it was legally mandated that your left hand always be touching a D-Pad. As a result, I tried the same with the N64 beast, not even going anywhere near the middle prong with its suspicious 3D Control Stick. My reliance on the D-Pad seemed destined to keep me from getting anywhere near competitiveness on Mario Kart 64, since I couldn’t steer, and that’s a bit of a problem in karting. So in order to manoeuvre the Control Stick towards fast laps and victory, I stretched my thumb across the controller, with my left-hand locked in a death grip near the precious D-Pad. I didn’t even know it had a Z-Trigger until GoldenEye came out, for God’s sake.

My brother gave up on gaming during the Nintendo 64 era. Probably I had something to do with it, since the tantrums I threw in the lead up to Christmas ’97 directly contributed to him not being able to play great games like Metal Gear Solid, Gran Turismo and – yes! – Devil Dice. You may laugh, but let me tell you, there was a genuine craze for that game for a mad six-week period in 1999. Mind you, since Ocarina of Time was the title that caused him to turn his back on games, perhaps the problem was with him.

That said, it was the Water Temple that made him run for non-interactive shelter. You may have rage quit from a game, you may even have resolved to never play a particular game again. I know I have – Mega Man X7 was terrible. But have you ever heard of a gamer being so disgusted by one particular section in a game that he retired there and then? No more games, ever?! He came out of his now 20-year-long sabbatical to play a bit of GTA5, alongside everyone else on the planet, but that was it.

It was slow times being an N64 gamer, I don’t mind telling you. I used to get the N64 magazines every month, see. I spoke before about the old official magazine, dripping with propaganda about how the Phony Greystation will rape your house and steal your family, but there was an also a 100% unofficial effort, imaginatively titled N64 Magazine, that I really underappreciated at the time.

Whatever about that, I had to hand it to the journos and editors for each publication because they didn’t have much to fill their inches each month, given how sparse the gaming lineup for the console was. By the time the N64 shuddered to a pretty undignified halt, browbeaten by the PS1, it had brought a mere 288 games to Europe. The PS1, by comparison, had brought over 1,400.

Now, of course there was likely a far higher percentage of shovelware (known as ‘clag’ back then) on the PS1, but that wasn’t the point. Especially if you were a kid – I’ve lost count of how many people I know who loved Rugrats for PS1 back when they were nippers. If they’d had the misfortune of playing Rugrats Scavenger Hunt for N64, would they have thought the same?

I sometimes fashion myself as a game collector. Keep in mind that this is a very expensive and extravagant hobby, and it doesn’t exactly mesh well with my status as a raving pennypincher. However, I thought that in terms of collecting a full set of games, the beleagured N64 would be a good target to home in on. Even the most expensive games don’t tend to be that much of a wallet killer really. There are no EarthBounds, put it that way, much less Stadium Events, Nintendo World Championships. Or that one Xbox game that came with a full mech-interface as a controller, complete with a need to eject immediately after destruction under penalty of having your file deleted if you weren’t quick enough, fire hydrant with honest-to-God foam inside, and breakable glass hiding a switch for emergencies.

At the moment, I’m at about 105 N64 games, but then common sense took over and I told myself that I’d better stop paying €65 for some generic racing game called San Francisco Rush 2049 (actually an immense deal, believe it or not) and maybe focus on buying a house instead, or a holiday or something that I might not immediately regret after taking a photo of it and showing anyone who might even half-care.

I want to come back to that controller, specifically its Control Stick. I don’t think it was the first ever analogue stick, but it was the first one any of us casual fools had experience with, given the PS1 and Sega Saturn (the Sega what?) conspicuously lacked this innovation. Well, as they always do, Sony copied Nintendo’s idea without shame, except this time they made it better, with their Dual Analog controller. The N64 Control Stick was amazing Day 1, and still worked great Day 2. Day 3 to what must be about Day 7500 and the stick is shown up for what it really was – a barely responsive, fragile, spiteful piece of plastic fashioned out of dead skin.

If you look underneath the Control Stick, you’ll find this nasty kind of analogue dust under there. What’s that about? I know I used to wrench the Control Stick back and forth trying desperately to coax some grip out of my wildly out of control machine in F-Zero X, but come on. It’s a dreadful pity when your old controllers start to become a bit worn and unresponsive in places, but in the N64 controller’s case, it’s guaranteed wear right at the business end of things, and you’re pushing the stick forward with all your might just to make Link break into a run.

As for the games, most everyone will have the same 7 or 8 and then a few naff third party ones. The essentials are as follows: Super Mario 64, which is aging a little bit badly but still good fun to do 120 Star runs through, and a phenomenal experience at the time; GoldenEye, a game that I won’t admit is aging but was also one of the greatest multiplayer jaunts ever; Mario Kart 64, a weird experience compared to the rest of the series, but still the best multiplayer one in the eyes of many.

Then you’ve got the rest of the Rareware offerings, who really kept the console alive at crucial times – namely Banjo Kazooie, who you’ll be seeing in Smash Bros very soon; Donkey Kong 64, which gets some flak but I love it; Jet Force Gemini, which I don’t think is so hot; and Diddy Kong Racing, which is near faultless.

And the N64’s best game? For me, it’s a toss up between Ocarina of Time and Perfect Dark. It’s a bit like deciding how many Chicken McNuggets you want, isn’t it? Would you like 6 frames per second, or 9? Or maybe go the whole hog, and go for 20? Let’s see the Phony PantsStation match that.

3 September 2019

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