Ye Olde Nintendo 64

I fixed up a Nintendo 64 this past weekend. People of a certain age affectionately refer to it just as “the 64,” though to me, “the 64” refers to a computer with 64K of memory introduced in 1982. I have an inherent bias against almost anything that reminds me of 1997, but in spite of my biases, I found a number of things to like about the system after spending a few hours with it.

First, let’s talk about that “fixed up” bit. This unit had a problem with its memory expansion unit and needed to have it reseated. If you’re getting just a black screen with no video when you plug in a cartridge and turn it on, this might be your problem. First, power down the unit. Unplugging it would be a pretty good idea too. On the top of the system, there’s something that looks like a battery cover. Open that up and gently pry out the piece underneath with a small flat-bladed screwdriver. Take a look at the copper contacts on the unit. If they’re dirty, clean them with rubbing alcohol (91% isopropyl is best; 70% will do in a pinch). Let it dry, then plug the unit back in. Make sure it seats snugly. Replace the cover, and you’re done.

The only other thing that typically goes wrong with these is the controllers wearing out. It’s possible to repair them, either by tinkering with the analog joystick portion of the controller, or buying a replacement part and swapping it out entirely. But replacements are cheap enough and easy enough to find, so just replacing the whole controller is usually easier.

The games themselves generally have a late-’90s feel to them. The graphics were nearly mind-boggling then, but that was 15 years ago. They aren’t as quaint as the graphics from earlier systems like the NES, Super NES or Sega Genesis (let alone the Atari 2600) so they don’t have as much retro-appeal. And if you’re used to the graphics from a modern system, they won’t look all that impressive.

But there’s a certain appeal to the games too. This morning as I drove to work, I heard a DJ talk about a certain song being off the Halo 2 soundtrack. Video games today are big Hollywood productions, much like movies. The Nintendo 64 and Sega Dreamcast were the last two systems that were largely free of this, so the games have an innocence to them that you don’t usually see today.

Being the very last cartridge-based system, the games load instantly. I wonder sometimes how it is that kids who won’t keep the TV on one channel for more than 4 seconds will sit and wait nearly a minute for video games to load. So cartridge games have that appeal to them. I’m trying to decide whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing.

As for the games themselves, while there were plenty that were rated “M” for mature, the majority of them have lots of family appeal. My wife and I played a couple of rounds of Wheel of Fortune together and enjoyed it. Diddy Kong Racing and Mario Kart 64 are two games that are fun for pretty much all ages, and they’re common enough that they’re inexpensive.

Try as I might, I just can’t figure out Super Mario 64. Making it 3D adds a layer of complexity, and I can’t figure out what I’m supposed to do. Maybe the problem is that I don’t have a copy of the instruction manual. Maybe the problem is that I’ve only played Super Mario 2, 3, or World a couple of times. Maybe it’s both. I don’t know. It was really popular though, so I guess someone managed to figure it out.

I remember seeing a comedian live back in 1998 or so. I think it was Buzz Sutherland. He asked, “OK, how many of you in the audience can play Nintendo 64 or Playstation really well?” About half a dozen people raised their hands. I wasn’t one of them. He talked about playing with his nephew and getting pounded. Then he got out his Atari. “Alright punk, let’s see what you can do with one button!”

I can’t remember whether he said he won or his nephew won.

Games were definitely more complex in 1997 than they were in the 8-bit era. I don’t know if they’re more complex now, or if I’m just a bit more familiar with the N64 games because I’ve seen them a few more times.

But at any rate, it’s a good system. Cartridges are far more durable than optical discs. Clean the cartridges every once in a while, and they’ll work pretty much forever. You don’t have to worry about them getting scratched up. The system itself is a lot more durable than modern systems. It’s all solid state, with no moving parts, and by the time the N64 came out, Nintendo had about a decade to learn from the mistakes of the NES and SNES (both of which really only had one mechanical flaw anyway–aside from the cartridge connectors, they were both very well-built systems). The drives in newer CD- and DVD-based systems can get misaligned or break, and the N64 is immune to that. So although any system you can buy today will be at 4-11 years old (it entered production in late 1996 and the last new title for the system was released in August 2002), the life expectancy should be pretty high.

The only drawbacks to the system are the cabling. Rather than use an industry-standard AC adapter, it used something that plugs into the back with an odd connector. The resulting system looks more elegant, but if something happens to the power supply, a replacement will be harder to find and more expensive. Additionally, the video cable is proprietary. At least they had the decency to use the same cable on the SNES and the Gamecube, so replacements are pretty readily available, but it would have been nice if it had plain old RCA jacks on the back so you could use the same cables you use for a VCR or DVD player, which you can buy practically anywhere for a few dollars.

Still, any other system released in 1996 or later has essentially the same flaws, and doesn’t necessarily have the strengths. The N64 is a good system, especially for kids, and will remain one.

The N64’s patents should expire in another couple of years, so it will be interesting to see if clones end up emerging then, the same way inexpensive clones of the NES and SNES are available now. If that happens, the system could see something of a resurgence then.

One thought on “Ye Olde Nintendo 64

  • May 3, 2011 at 6:43 am

    Yeah, I have a lot of memories of the N64 from when my old friends owned them back in the late ’90s. I never really took to playing it myself (sadly) because I don’t seem to do well with 3D gaming in general (using polygons, etc.). It kind of messes with my visuo-spatial senses and I even get a bit dizzy (especially with an earlier 3D console like the N64). It was a nice console though and its use of the Silicon Graphics R4400 CPU kind of gets me misty-eyed for some reason. ; )

    I fear that preservation of optical media-based game consoles will be much more difficult without the use of quality software emulators. I know the XBOX family of consoles use Nvidia graphics systems, which are quite complex and not very conducive to being easy to reverse engineer (just as the open source world has yet to succeed doing this with the Nouveau project). Lots of fun memories though!

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