Arwings and Ocarinas

Nintendo’s Evolution From Mode 7 to N64

Welcome back to our in-depth look at the development and evolution of graphics and gameplay in digital media. Today we’re examining the triumphs and tumbles of first wave next gen consoles like the Nintendo 64.


For long-time fans of Nintendo, the ’90s were an exciting time. Toward the end of the cycle for the Super Nintendo, a system with a legendary game library that is still played to this day, everyone was anxiously waiting for the release of the next, powerful console. The Nintendo 64 promised a lot just with its name: 64-bit graphics, something not yet seen in the home. The four controller ports also promised a future of multiplayer games in the home that were previously not possible, with older consoles only having two ports for a total of two players. Franchise titles such as Super Mario and Legend of Zelda were already completed and ready to be played for launch day. Those who follow the internet hype machines of the modern day are likely familiar with this feeling; the anticipation of more powerful hardware, and the bigger and better games it portends. 

We also know that, often, some games just can’t live up to the hype of the new system. This could be a fault of rushed production to meet the projected release date, it could be a lack of understanding the of new system’s capabilities, or it could be an attempt at a cash grab with no concern for the fidelity of the game. The result is that there are some games that don’t quite match up to modern standards of play, nor the standards of graphic ability of the time, but there are also games from this generation, and the N64 in particular, that hold up well graphically even today. We’re going to look at a few examples of these and see what went right, or wrong, and how one could make a game that better crosses the generational gaps.

High Flying: Starfox 64 and Pilotwings 64

Flight simulators have been a long-standing genre across all gaming platforms. So, naturally, a new platform will likely mean new flight sims to go with it. Pilotwings 64 [ 1 ], the successor title to the Super Nintendo game of the same name, is a flight sim with some odd flavor to it. The game consists of several sections where the player will run flight courses to earn certifications in various flying equipment, such as a hang glider, a rocket belt, and a gyro-copter. The flight courses are done across several islands and increase in difficulty as the game goes on.

Pilotwings 64, much like its younger brother on the Super Nintendo, is one part flight simulator, one part tech demo, providing clear examples of how powerful the N64 was in comparison to older consoles.

This game is, unfortunately, an example of poor implementation of visual ideas. Right from the first hang-glider course, we see that there is just too much going on [ 2 ]. This screen clutter slows down everything around it, as the system tries to process the individual movements of the various set pieces. There is the signature chugging as the player navigates toward several moving objects, then the expected pick up of game speed as they pass them, putting them out of rendering view and freeing up more processing power. The other issue with so many moving parts on screen is the lack of detail that can be put into each individual piece. As impressive as the N64 was for its day, it still had hard limits [ 3 ]. The result is a lot of busy screen that just don’t look very good. On top of this, every type of vehicle has its own control scheme, which can lead to some odd disconnects when trying to navigate the game world. Combining all of these faults may end up frustrating players who are battling as much against the hardware limitations as they are the in-game obstacles and restrains on time. It’s one thing to fail an objective based on personal skill, but no one wants to fail because the game chugged so hard that they couldn’t make the proper turn or landing. You are relying entirely on visual information to complete your objectives quickly, and when that information isn’t quick enough to make itself known to the player, it makes meeting tasks so much harder.

As mentioned, this game is a sequel to a Super Nintendo game of almost the same name, Pilotwings [ 4 ]. This game set the foundations for this sort of variety flight sim, featuring different sections of flying a propeller plane, using a hang glider, a rocket pack, and skydiving. Each section in this game, just as with its sequel, scored you on performance by how well you were able to complete objectives within the allotted time. The biggest difference between this older game and its sequel is how much smoother it plays. The developers of the original seemed to have a much better grasp of the capabilities of the SNES and kept in mind its limits so they could offer a smooth gameplay experience with a consistent frame rate that allows the player to always take advantage of their skill in the game. It would have behooved the developers of the sequel to emulate this experience more closely to the original. It’s clear that they had a strong vision for what the game should include, and the type of graphics they could implement for it, but the overcrowding of the screen with these graphics brought down the whole experience. On a final note, the original game has something the sequel distinctly lacks—a story. In the original, you have limited interactions with various flight instructors and, if your performance scores are high enough, the head instructor will task you with flying an attack helicopter into hostile territory to rescue hostages. This happens on two occasions, the midway point and endpoint of the game, and can only occur if your personal score is high enough. This sort of motivation to improve at the game, while not absent from the new game, is more lacking. It’s not that you couldn’t enjoy a simple game of beating your own high scores, but that added tidbit of more game hidden behind this skill barrier is quite tantalizing.

Contrasting this is the now long-running and fan-favorite franchise Starfox, namely Starfox 64 [ 5 ]. The predecessor to this will be covered in another article, but needless to say, it brought something unique to the flight sim genre that allowed it to become a long-standing franchise. The game plot follows the Star Fox fighter team, who travel the galaxy carrying out missions against the evil Andross and his forces.

Starfox 64 benefits from the sleek design cues set by its predecessor, as well as the foresight of the developers to put the game into a mostly linear format. Unlike the very open world in Pilotwings 64, the player follows a linear path in each stage, dealing with enemies and obstacles as they come. This linear format means that more processing power is freed up, since there isn’t too much happening on screen at once, with one notable exception in the Independence Day finale-styled level, where you fly around a circular area with dozens of other enemy ships and a giant, enemy mothership. That one spot aside, there is never too much on screen at once, allowing the player to easily navigate the path in front of them with swift maneuvers, and it keeps the system itself from chugging overly much as new object pass into view and old ones out of view. It’s not that it never chugs, as there are few sections where the camera shifts perspective and the processing power is overtaxed, but it’s not enough to detract from the overall game experience.

A truly masterful update to the SNES version of Starfox, the 64-bit version on the Nintendo 64 innovated and iterated in ways that made it one of the most entertaining games for the console.

This approach also means the player can miss some opportunities to grab items or complete special interactions in the game space, but that too is an intentional part of the design, which encourages replay of each level in order to maximize performance on each individually. The graphic style is also somewhat mixed, with high definition being reserved for the main character’s ships, while enemy ships and vehicles take up fewer less resources with lowered detail, apart from the boss battles. This is a very clever design trick, as most foes won’t be on screen long enough for their minute details to matter, the player blasting them away with laser bursts or a charged blast. Add into this the tight control scheme, and you have a recipe for success, and longevity. 

This is not to say Starfox 64 is a perfect game—far from it. It does have slow-down issues when some explosion animations come on-screen or extra special effects like smoke billowing from the now-exploded arm of a boss mecha. You could also criticize the animation of the faces that appear in the communication boxes, with their mouths just rapidly flapping in one dimension, but that’s more comedic than an overall negative. Still, you can pick this game up today and have a great time with it, despite its graphical age.

We should note there are some similarities between Pilotwings 64 and Starfox 64, the most obvious being that both games are flight sims of a sort, but also both have more than one vehicle to pilot. We’ve briefly gone over the list in Pilotwings 64, with the hang glider, rocket belt, and gyro-copter. Each one handled slightly differently in terms of vertical lift, speed, and overall aerodynamic balance. In Starfox 64, we have the traditional star fighter, Arwing, the tank Landmaster, and the submarine Blue-Marine. While the Landmaster lacked the ability to change its vertical axis (which I hope is obvious), these three vehicles otherwise operated almost the same way. You moved them with the joystick, fired with the same trigger buttons, and followed a linear path through the level. With a design like this, it is a lot simpler to pick up and play with one of these other vehicles in Starfox 64, compared to Pilotwings 64 where the emphasis is on improving individual skill with each one. This isn’t to say that one approach is superior to another, but that Starfox 64 simply implemented its multiple-vehicle system better for its design.

Wave Race 64: Beach Time Fun

Another popular genre of games is racers. Racing itself is a sport as old as recorded history, so it naturally would find its way into video games. When thinking of racing games and Nintendo, most people would likely bring Mario Kart to mind, and indeed Mario Kart 64 was a great game of this era; however, there is another racing game that takes a lot of cues from that fun franchise and puts its own spin on things: Wave Race 64 [ 6 ]. This is a jet ski racing game, as the name might imply, and it naturally features several different areas of beachfront and islands around which to race.

The various game maps feature several different tracks, all with their own set of obstacles to overcome, such as tight turns, jumps, buoys, and so forth. The graphic fidelity is about on par with any of the various “kart”-style games. While it does try to emulate some form of water physics and motion, it doesn’t attempt to achieve full realism, saving some precious processing power in doing so. Instead, the water has simple colors to it, is non-reflective, and uses simple particle effects to create the wakes of the jet skis. 

The graphics of the game, overall, are not very detailed. It makes use of simple polygon shapes with flat colors to represent the jet skiers and forgoes complicated shadows in favor of smoother frame rates. The jet skis bounce and turn in a semi-realistic way, or at least in a way that is intuitive enough to control well. The designers also kept the maximum racer count at four, which both align with the maximum controller ports on the N64 and prevent the system from being overly taxed.  And while the riders and skis aren’t super detailed, they convey enough visual information to be properly interpreted by the viewer.

This is a kind of middle-of-the-road game of these old titles. It has interesting mechanics and gameplay, with the ability to choose different jet ski models with different specs, and its graphic style, while not realistic, is detailed enough to portray everything clearly. It has a lot of bright colors and flashing lights, so anyone who is seizure prone may want to steer clear, but this game otherwise is a decent entry in the N64 library and could still be enjoyed today despite some graphic disappointment.

Zelda 64, Ocarina of Time: The Most Hyped Thing in the Universe

So, yes, I’m covering old ground here, but I would ask you to indulge me as I’m taking this game from a different angle this time around. Ocarina of Time is a classic game that is nearly universally loved. It is not without its own issues, but most people can overlook those issues and appreciate it for what it is. I’d say I’m among that crowd, but since my intent here isn’t simply praise, we’re going to look at what this game does right—and wrong—with its graphical representation.

Anyone who has played this game knows how revolutionary it was for the series, but for the uninitiated, Ocarina of Time brought the Legend of Zelda franchise from two dimensions into three and did so with gusto. The expansive world was unlike anything that had ever come before it, and the story was among the most loved in video game history. With all that said, it didn’t do everything correctly with its graphics. The primary offenders here are the castle-town of Hyrule and the Temple of Time exterior. These two areas are both static images, like background matte paintings, with the town having one section of transition before its main area. On top of this, these locations have fixed camera angles, making their navigation annoying at times. There are no other places in the game world that are like this, with every other important town or location being open-world format, and the camera, for the most part, follows behind Link in typical third-person perspective. While one can understand the reasoning, such as limited cartridge space, it nonetheless breaks the flow of the game to have these two major areas be so at odds with the rest of the game’s aesthetic.

What this game does right, in a major way, is keep the number of moving parts on the screen to a minimum. Or, if there were lots of moving parts, it kept them at a low enough resolution as to not cause the game to chug, or at least not chug very much. One might notice a bit of graphic lagging when trying to ascend Death Mountain in the section where giant boulders are raining down from the sky, as our hero is forced to run for his life up a steep hill in order to reach one of the Fairy Fountains. One might also notice chugging inside the Fire Temple, with so many lava textures moving around at once. In the majority of other cases, this game keeps a consistent frame rate, and you won’t notice much slowdown. This philosophy is the same in combat, with the screen—at most—featuring four foes at once. The difficulty of foes is balanced around this limitation, though it does tend to make the player more reactive than proactive.

Other than those few points, I can’t fault the game for much. The Z-Targeting system can contribute to failure at times when combined with tight corners and unfortunate camera angles, but that can be worked around. The controls otherwise are quite good, and while the graphics are obviously dated, they are nonetheless easy on the eyes, and portray the fantasy world of Hyrule quite nicely. The townsfolk have fun little animations and quirks to them that make them stand out from one another and the use of specific polygon shapes gives them easy visual recognition. And, of course, this game is still tons of fun to play [ 4 ].

Legendary Shooters: GoldenEye 007 and Perfect Dark

If you had ever been in close proximity to an N64, you most likely have played at least one of these two legendary first-person shooters. GoldenEye 007 was the first of these two to be released on the system, back in 1997 [ 7 ]. Shooters had been on console before, but notably lacking a Z-axis. Obviously moving into a three-dimensional space was the next big leap when it came to FPS on home consoles, allowing for players to look up and down, taking full advantage of terrain in order to overcome virtual foes with superior planning. Indeed, there are many sections in the single-player campaign of GoldenEye that require the player to find higher ground where they can take sniper shots at several foes from a safe distance, or to crawl through an air duct and aim downwards an unaware soldier, taking him out with a silenced pistol. The control scheme here featured movement with the D-pad, and aiming with the joystick, which was quite tough to master, but ultimately a lot of fun once you got the hang of it. 

The FPS that started it all, at least on the console era. The built-in multiplayer for GoldenEye 007 kept many a group of teenagers up well into the night. Lord help the player that chose OddJob as their avatar.

Graphically, this game looks about as good as an N64 game can, meaning it’s quite blocky and the texturing is very rough, but you can differentiate the in-game elements well enough, and for the time something like this was quite impressive. While the game had a tendency to chug at times, the frame rate dipping significantly if there was too much action on screen, the entertainment value of it was more than enough to make up for this shortfall. The single-player mode loosely followed the plot of the movie of the same name, and they were fun and challenging missions, but the real meat of this game was in its multiplayer. I personally recall many home multiplayer matches using the more interesting weapon rule sets, like the Golden Gun, which featured several regular small arms and the aforementioned Gun, which only fired one bullet at a time before needing to be reloaded, but that single shot would kill an opponent instantly. Or the very explosive Rockets setting, which provided the Rocket Launcher alongside other small arms.

GoldenEye set the standard for FPS on the N64, and matching that standard was quite difficult. There were very few FPS on the system at all, and each one had to borrow a little bit from the lessons learned in GoldenEye to make a decent attempt at matching that sort of success. Enter Perfect Dark, created by Rare, the same company behind GoldenEye, it was only natural to expect greatness from this game, which could be seen as somewhat of a spiritual successor to GoldenEye—which is weird because that is very specifically a James Bond franchise game, but it is none the less a true statement, since Perfect Dark runs on an enhanced version of the GoldenEye engine [ 8 ]. The single-player missions follow Joanna Dark, our super-spy protagonist in the far-off year of 2023 (whoops). Joanna is out to uncover a complex conspiracy involving the dataDyne Corporation and will have to use all of her wits and every piece of advanced weapons tech she can find to uncover the truth and survive the onslaught of foes out to stop her.

Since this game runs on almost the same engine, it is, graphically speaking, quite similar to GoldenEye but had the benefit of that game’s experiences behind it. It ran smoother, thanks to the engine work that the team put into it, and its texture fidelity was noticeably increased compared to the previous game. It included more fun little features, like complex costume changes for the protagonist, the ability to destroy light sources, and asynchronous multiplayer—meaning you could drop into a single-player game and take over a villain to try and stop Player 1 as Joanna. In fact, so much extra stuff was put into this game that it required the 4MB RAM expansion pack on the console in order to be fully realized [ 9 ]. By today’s standards, 8 total MB of ram is not a lot, but it was rather cutting edge for the ’90s, especially for a console, but it was certainly the correct decision to keep the features and require the expansion RAM rather than to cut back on the many dramatic improvements made to the game engine and the game features themselves.

Another excellent N64 title, Perfect Dark continued Rare’s reputation of being a wunderkind when it came to Nintendo’s 64-bit console.

While the graphic fidelity of Perfect Dark cannot hold a candle to modern-day games, it is still a shining example of the very best that ’90s 3-D and the N64 game library had to offer. Its multiplayer mode especially stands out, taking everything that made GoldenEye’s multiplayer great and cranking it up to 11. It remains one of the most acclaimed FPS of all-time, with near perfect scores from various gaming websites, and the team from Rare received a BAFTA Interactive Entertainment Moving Images Award for their work on the title in 2000 [ 10 ]. If you ever get the chance, you really need to play this game.

The Fight’s Not Over: Super Smash Brothers, the Game We Didn’t Know We Wanted

Of all the famous legacies of the N64 (of which we listed several), there are very few that can compare to the unforeseen success and subsequent rocket into the spotlight of Super Smash Brothers [ 11 ]. A fighting game that brought together characters from Nintendo’s vast library of games, Super Smash Brothers finally allowed us to answer previously unanswerable questions, like who would win in a fight, Link or Mario? Could Pikachu beat up Donkey Kong? Would anyone play Luigi in a game about being as violent as possible? Jokes aside, having an all-star roster of video game characters together in a single game was something unheard of before this point in time, and the success of this game spawned a franchise that has continued to this day, expanding its roster as more video game protagonists and antagonists are added on.

The original game only featured 12 total fighters, four of which had to be unlocked. Its graphics were a compromise between the style of Super Mario 64 and Ocarina of Time, allowing for some amount of detail in each character’s polygons while keeping their overall silhouettes quite simple. Special effects worked similarly, and while there are several very flashy moves, they don’t dramatically affect landscape or lighting, so the game can still run smoothly when they occur [ 12 ]. Stage designs are based on the individual game franchises that the playable fighters come from—Hyrule Castle for Link, Mushroom Kingdom for Mario, Dream Land for Kirby, and so on. Not every character has its own stage, such as Ness and Captain Falcon, but there are enough stages to keep fights interesting. The details in each stage are kept practical, with foregrounds being the sort of traditional polygonal blocks and other shapes, and backgrounds being more of a matte painting style, providing color and mood without being interactive.

The control scheme is quite interesting. The joystick controls regular movements, with the A and B buttons functioning as attacks, and the shoulder buttons used for blocking and dodging. You can also make use of the C-pad—the yellow buttons on the opposite side of the D-pad—to do quick charge versions of charge-up swings by tapping or holding them to do a fully charged version (also achievable with direction + attack and not releasing the attack button right away). Each character moves in their own interesting ways, such as Captain Falcon being super-fast moving, Kirby being very floaty and hard to knock out, Samus being able to curl up into ball form, and so on. While each character can do basic attacks, grabs, jumps, and charge-up attacks, they all have unique attacks that reflect what they can do from their respective franchise games. Mario can launch fire blasts, Kirby can swallow other foes to gain part of their abilities, Link can do a rapid spin with the Master Sword. It’s all quite simple when put down in plain text, but getting each character to behave in a way that is consistent with their originating game titles is no small feat. Making them mesh together is another matter still. The fact that such different forms of movement, offense, and defense can be so well displayed in this game is a testament to its developers.

There’s no real single-player object in Super Smash Brothers, other than unlocking the hidden characters so that you can play them against your friends in multiplayer, where the real focus of the game lies. In fact, the multiplayer mode of this game was so popular that several tournaments sprung up, eventually leading to professional Smash Brothers tournaments becoming a staple among the fighting game community, which remains to this day thanks to the continuation of this highly entertaining franchise.

I call this the game we didn’t know we wanted because, well, we didn’t. As much as I loved the individual game franchises of Legend of Zelda, Mario, Donkey Kong and the rest, I never would have thought to see them all in one tie-in game, let alone a fighting game, and I can’t say that any of my friends did either. This franchise came seemingly out of nowhere and became a staple among the gaming community, due in no small part to just how well every title is put together. It’s just so satisfying to finally beat your obnoxious Kirby playing friend who floated back from over 200 percent damage after your last attack, or to land a Falcon Punch, ever. It’s a franchise that is easy to get attached to, especially if your favorite video game character gets added to that ever-expanding roster.

Creating Longevity

Our takeaway from these titles is that there are definitely ways to use the emergent technologies of the day to create a strong impression of a virtual world. One must keep in mind clutter on the screen, as too much animation at the same time will eat up processing power. There is also the level of detail to consider, for rendering speeds, to prevent the “pop in/out” effects that sometimes occur when rendering takes longer than real-time. Finally, a smooth and well-thought-out control scheme for your game, while always relevant, will become more so as the game ages. Altogether, the key is not to go overboard with your details, and also do your best to keep your visual themes consistent.

Images

  1. Pilotwings 64, much like its younger brother on the Super Nintendo, is one part flight simulator, one part tech demo, providing clear examples of how powerful the N64 was in comparison to older consoles.” Pilotwings 64. Nintendo 64. Nintendo, 1996
  2. “A truly masterful update to the SNES version of Starfox, the 64-bit version on the Nintendo 64 innovated and iterated in ways that made it one of the most entertaining games for the console.” Starfox 64. Nintendo 64. Nintendo, 1997
  3. “The FPS that started it all, at least on the console era. The built-in multiplayer for GoldenEye 007 kept many a group of teenagers up well into the night. Lord help the player that chose OddJob as their avatar.” GoldenEye. Nintendo 64. Rare, 1997
  4. “Another excellent N64 title, Perfect Dark continued Rare’s reputation of being a wunderkind when it came to Nintendo’s 64-bit console.” Perfect Dark. Nintendo 64. Rare, 2000.

Resources

  1. Perry, Doug. “Pilotwings 64 Review.” IGN, IGN, 10 Dec. 2018. ign.com/articles/1996/09/25/pilotwings-64.
  2. Retroboxx. “[N64] Pilotwings 64 Gameplay.” YouTube, YouTube, 27 Oct. 2011. youtube.com/watch?v=3LY2EKBebvo.
  3. “Nintendo 64 Technical Specifications.” IPFS, Protocol Labs, 4 Dec. 2016. ipfs.io/ipfs/QmXoypizjW3WknFiJnKLwHCnL72vedxjQkDDP1mXWo6uco/wiki/Nintendo_64_technical_specifications.html.
  4. “Pilotwings.” Nintendo of Europe GmbH, Nintendo. nintendo.co.uk/Games/Super-Nintendo/Pilotwings-775615.html. Accessed 2 February, 2020.
  5. Tacopill. “Star Fox 64.” Lylat Wiki, Justin Folvarcik, 26 Jan. 2020, starfoxwiki.info/Star_Fox_64.
  6. “Wave Race 64.” Wave Race Wiki, FANDOM, waverace.fandom.com/wiki/Wave_Race_64. Accessed 31 January, 2020.
  7. GoldenEye 007, Nintendo, 19 Feb. 1999, web.archive.org/web/19990219222913/www.nintendo.com/goldeneye007/.  Accessed 24 May, 2020.
  8. Rarewhere: Perfect Dark.” Rare, Rare UK. 23 Aug. 2000. web.archive.org/web/20000823090109/www.rare.co.uk/recent/games/pdark/. Retrieved from Web Archive 24 May, 2020.
  9. Rare Ltd. “Rare Revealed: The Making of Perfect Dark.” YouTube, YouTube, 24 Dec. 2015. youtube.com/watch?v=7CxpdspOV5I.
  10. “Interactive: Moving Images in 2000.” BAFTA Awards, BAFTA.  awards.bafta.org/award/2000/interactive/moving-images. Accessed 24 May, 2020.
  11. “Super Smash Bros.” SmashWiki, SmashWiki. ssbwiki.com/Super_Smash_Bros. Accessed 24 May, 2020.
  12. ShadowRockZX “Super Smash Bros. (N64) Opening [HD].” YouTube, YouTube, 26 Mar. 2011. youtube.com/watch?v=cYvoDkIS7e4.