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3/24/2018

Top Twenty Nintendo 64 Games

The Nintendo 64 marked the end of an era.  After Nintendo's long-standing monopoly on third-party developers was eventually abolished by law and a business deal with Sony to produce a CD add-on for the SNES fell through (indirectly resulting in the birth of the Playstation),  Nintendo suddenly became the unpopular one on the block. Between that and making the controversial decision to stick with cartridges when CD technology was rapidly becoming the new standard, they ostracized many developers, including the ever-popular pillars of Squaresoft, Konami and Capcom, who all went on to produce a lot of popular games for their competitors instead and mostly left Nintendo with table scraps.  That also resulted in a lot of lesser-known companies attempting to fill the gap on a platform that was exceptionally difficult to develop software for, resulting in a handful of top-notch games scattered between a lot of mediocre-to-awful ones.  The higher price point of the system's software certainly didn't help, either - the Nintendo 64's cartridges cost anywhere from $10-$40 more than a CD-based game on the Saturn or Playstation, so it was natural to expect better quality for such a drastic increase in price.  Still, despite the dated graphics and clunky cameras and weird controls that characterize the beginnings of the 3D era, the N64 has some standout classics to experience.  Most games for it are still relatively cheap to collect, too, so it's definitely worth a look for retro enthusiasts.  Let's count down my favorites.

20. Shadowgate 64: Trials of the Four Towers (TNS/Infinite Ventures, 1999)

In an era where point-and-click adventure games had largely fallen by the wayside, the closest thing most people had were survival horror games that involved a lot of switch-flipping and slot-filling puzzles, but that didn't quite scratch the itch.  Shadowgate 64, however, didn't break from what made the franchise a hit on computers in the 80s, and as a result garnered a small fanbase.  Sure, it moved to 3D instead of static screens and had a two-button interface instead of a menu, but much of the rest was still intact - finding items, figuring out where to use them, and just getting immersed in a dark, creepy atmosphere and storyline as you made your way to the end and tried to figure out what to do to progress.  A mostly overlooked entry in a classic franchise.

19. Fighter's Destiny (Genki, 1998)

The Nintendo 64, in lacking the support of big-name third parties, also largely missed out on several popular genres; one of those was fighting games.  Sure, it had the token Mortal Kombat ports and a Killer Instinct title early in its lifespan, but aside from those, the ones it got were mostly low-effort and forgettable ventures just made to cash in on a void.  However, Genki's take on the genre proved to be something unique and interesting.  Rather than being a traditional race to deplete your opponent's health bar, Fighter's Destiny operated slightly more akin to a traditional martial arts tournament, challenging each player to earn points by hitting certain goals - a ring-out would earn one point, a throw earns two, knockdowns and counters were three points, and landing a special attack (basically a finishing move on a stunned opponent) would earn four, with the winner being the first to a set number (seven by default).  Better, one could counter almost every move their opponent threw at them with well-timed blocks or button presses - stopping throws, throwing back a counterattack at an opponent's special for an instant three points, or even grabbing their leg while dangling from the arena's edge and throwing them off instead.  That, plus a number of unlockable characters and moves and numerous minigames, made Fighter's Destiny a title of considerable worth.

18. Doom 64 (Midway Studios San Diego, 1997)

For much of the early '90s, first person shooters were a genre that could scarcely be done justice on consoles - the power required to process their visuals and fast-paced design just wasn't there and movement just felt clunky on the limited button layouts of controllers.  Doom 64 was one of the first to prove that the format could really work on a console, and for over two decades, that was the only way you could actually play it.  It still used the same engine as classic Doom, but was given a major overhaul in terms of aesthetics, becoming a lot darker, grittier and having some truly nightmarish monster designs.  It's still quintessentially Doom, though, with all that entails - blasting monsters, collecting powerups, finding hidden secrets, avoiding deadly traps and solving a lot of switch puzzles.  Good times, though nowadays I'd probably recommend checking out the modern remaster by NightDive - it's on just about every current platform and dirt cheap to boot.

17. Goldeneye 007 (Rare, 1997)

At a glance, it was easy to dismiss Goldeneye for its blocky character models, uneven framerate and seemingly basic first person shooter gameplay.  However, closer inspection reveals a surprisingly strategic game that encompasses the best elements of movie-licensed games - close enough to the original film to be familiar, but divergent enough to still be a fun title.  Case in point, each stage gives you a list of missions to complete and a variety of gadgets to complete them with - timed mines, magnetic watches to pull keys and items closer, cutting lasers and so on.  It was also among the first games I can think of that encouraged player speedrunning (allowing cheats to be unlocked if a target time was beaten) and it even had a pretty kickass split screen multiplayer mode that made for some really hectic matches as bombs and bullets were constantly flying past your head.  It may not stand up as well today, but Goldeneye remains a defining game for the platform.


16. WWF No Mercy (AKI Corporation/Asmik Ace Entertainment, 2000)

The Nintendo 64 definitely dragged its feet when it came to fighting games, but the exact opposite was true for wrestling games.  Aki and Asmik Ace's wrestling games are regarded as some of the best in the genre even today, and it's easy to see why only moments after playing one - they look great, play smoothly, have innovative yet natural controls and manage to incorporate just about every iconic wrestler from the time and all of their special moves (and there are even a bunch of leftovers for making your own wrestlers).  And like other perennial favorite games, it continues to get fan mods and updates even today to incorporate new wrestlers and even entire wrestling promotions to the game.  Great stuff.

15. Space Station Silicon Valley (DMA Design, 1998)

DMA Design's Body Harvest was hyped up well before the Nintendo 64's launch, but Nintendo got cold feet about publishing it for its violent content, and by the by the time they found a new publisher and got it released, it was already pretty dated - the choppy framerate, huge barren levels and awkward aiming just relegated it to a historical footnote at best.  Their second outing, however, fared quite a bit better and even became a cult classic for the system.  Space Station Silicon Valley is something of a cross between Grand Theft Auto and Mario 64, having the player (as a robot's lone surviving microchip) overtake the bodies of robotic animals in order to venture across environments, clear obstacles and complete various objectives across four major environments and numerous sub-levels.  Its quirky sense of humor, strange setting and simple yet fun design make it a lot of fun to play, as does its charming visual style.  Even a few odd bugs that prevented 100% game completion couldn't stop it from being a good time for all.

14. Pilotwings 64 (Nintendo/Paradigm Simulation, 1996)

Taking console flight sims to a new level of realism and silliness at the same time, Pilotwings 64 was a massive leap over its predecessor.  Not only was it in true 3D this time, it also sported a selection of new game modes. In addition to the familiar jetpack, hang glider, prop plane and parachuting events, you now also had a free-flying bird suit, spring shoes and my favorite, the human cannonball.  The game was as difficult as ever, but undeniably fun as you shot for the highest score you could achieve in both the silly and serious events.  It's also one of the few video games ever made to feature Nester, and that's pretty damn cool. Now if only we could get another Pilotwings game that had the variety and level of challenge this one brought to the table...

13. Mario Kart 64 (Nintendo EAD, 1997)

I'll be honest with you - Super Mario Kart on the SNES didn't really do much for me.  It certainly was a technologically impressive game for its time, but the sense of speed wasn't really there and the flat tracks and weird physics just took me out of it before too long.  Mario Kart 64, on the other hand, got it all right and remained my favorite game in the series for nearly twenty years.  The game was blisteringly fast, the new powerups were a ton of fun (Lightning bolts and blue shells in particular), and you could play with up to four players simultaneously, either racing or battling it out across several combat-specific arenas.  If you were really good you could even unlock the Mirror courses, which reversed the designs of the originals in some pretty unexpected ways (like traffic coming toward you on Toad's Turnpike, which made the level much more hectic).  Highly polished and incredibly fun to play, it's the quintessential Mario Kart experience.

12. Paper Mario (Intelligent Systems, 2001)

Originally billed as "Super Mario RPG 2", but backlash from fans caused them to change the title before its release.  Probably a good decision, as while the SNES game was an ingenious blend of Mario's platforming, minigames and turn-based battles, Paper Mario is a substantially different beast.  Mostly centered on Mario (with one partner at a time fighting beside him), your main strategy this time was using the right tool for the right job - spiked enemies were dangerous to jump on, but you could safely hit them with a hammer, for example.  You were also afforded quite a bit of customization with the new Badge system - leveling up can earn you more Badge points, which in turn allow you to equip more badges with a variety of effects.  Unlocking more powerful moves, letting your normal attacks deal more damage, using multiple items in one turn, giving enemy attacks a chance to miss entirely, or even just cosmetic changes like switching around sound effects from your attacks.  This all gives it a very different feel from Mario RPG, but it's quite fun in its own right and worth checking out, especially as it's one of the very few quality RPGs on the Nintendo 64.

11. F-Zero X (Nintendo EAD, 1998)

The Nintendo 64 had a ridiculous number of racers - nearly twenty percent of the system's library, in fact - so they had to have a pretty solid hook in order to stand out from the pack.  F-Zero X was the sequel to the early SNES racer, and it was a sight to behold for the time - it runs at a constant, smooth 60 FPS and has a sense of speed that's downright jaw-dropping, letting you blast around the track at hundreds or even thousands of miles per hour.  Making things even more frantic was the new Boost mechanic - it was now tied to your energy meter, meaning you could boost basically as much as you like, but you'd leave yourself more vulnerable each time you did, letting you balance risk versus reward.  Add that with a kickass metal soundtrack, a very large and colorful cast of characters and a mode with randomly-generated tracks, and you had one kickass fun time.  The 64DD even got an expansion with new tracks, redone music and a custom track builder, but sadly it has not been seen on any other platform to date.

10. Banjo-Kazooie (Rare, 1998)

Super Mario 64 was definitely a game-changer when it was released, setting a new standard for 3D action-platformers.  Rare made several of their own takes on the format on the N64, and Banjo-Kazooie was probably their most beloved effort.  Playing as the eponymous bear and bird, you'd venture through some surprisingly large worlds connected by a hub, hunt down several types of collectibles, unlock new moves and ultimately make your way to a showdown against the evil witch Gruntilda.  They even had plans in mind for a clever way to transfer data to its sequel, but owing to later redesigns in the Nintendo 64's hardware, they ultimately had to scrap it.  (However, it was later re-implemented in the Xbox Live Arcade and Rare Replay ports).

9. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (Nintendo, 1997)

The first Zelda game to break into the realm of 3D, and it was definitely a game-changer for its time, retaining the puzzle-driven dungeons and intense action of the classics.  Aided by an innovative lock-on system that made melee combat intuitive, as well as a stellar soundtrack and a surprisingly grim atmosphere at times, OOT definitely proved that Nintendo was willing to match its competitors in making a darker, grimmer game to appeal to an older audience without sacrificing anything for their existing fans.  While the game is a bit rough around the edges and it kind of feels like they were fighting against the N64's limitations at every turn, OOT nevertheless set a standard that games today still work to live up to.

8. Blast Corps (Rare, 1997)

An overlooked gem if ever there was one, Blast Corps is a game that revels in its bizarre concept.  A truck carrying a nuclear payload has gone out of control, and it's your job to destroy obstacles with a variety of vehicles ranging from a bulldozer to a dune buggy with a metal bottom (which rockets into the air and crushes buildings beneath it) to several giant mecha in order to clear a path and get it safely to a detonation site.  A goofy concept to be sure, but it works surprisingly well thanks to some challenging stage designs and simply being a lot of fun to play with its wide variety of vehicles and stages.  Oh, and you'd better get used to controlling that super cumbersome dump truck too, as a lot of the later stages require using it...

7. Sin and Punishment: Successor of the Earth (Treasure, 2000 in Japan)

A game that was fully intended to be marketed toward an American audience and even given full English voice acting to that effect, but which sadly came too late in the Nintendo 64's life cycle to get a western release.  A real pity, that, as Sin and Punishment is a unique and brilliant experience.  Equal parts platformer, rail shooter and action anime, the game sports a surprisingly dark story paired with some of the craziest action setpieces put into any game as the player evades enemy attacks and shoots down swarms of jets, monsters and soldiers with their laser pistol/sword weapon.  And aims for a high score, of course.  It's grim, it's violent, it's crazy, and it's unbelievably fun from the first second to the last.  Fortunately, it later got a release on the Wii's Virtual Console, and even a Wii sequel that manages to be even more over the top and insane than this one.  Treasure, you are the best.  Get Bonus.

6. Resident Evil 2 (Capcom/Angel Studios, 1999)

The Nintendo 64's lack of ROM space proved a hindrance to many developers; if the game were to even be ported over, it would usually suffer from lower-quality sound and all the FMVs being cut out or replaced with stills.  Resident Evil 2 originally shipped on two CDs, but lost surprisingly little when ported over to a 512 Mb (!) cartridge - all the voice acting and FMVs were still in place and sounded very crisp, and even the detailed backgrounds and character models still looked pretty damn good.  They further sweetened the pot by adding some content from the later ports of the game (harder difficulty, Extreme Battle mode) and even some new features exclusive to this version, like an item randomizer, new costumes and even the ability to switch to a new control scheme - no more tank controls!  A stunningly good port of a survival horror classic.

5. Star Fox 64 (Nintendo, 1997)

A great many fans ended up disappointed when Star Fox 2 went unreleased.  Understandable, as the game looked fantastic, expanding on the original in every way imaginable and featuring some downright amazing 3D graphics on the SNES (which, as stated, was not designed with 3D graphics in mind at all).  Well, Nintendo somewhat made it up to us with Star Fox 64, a solid remake of the original game featuring a voice acted narrative (with actual voice acting, not garbled gibberish), sharp graphics, gigantic bosses, clever stage designs and numerous stage routes that gave the game some substantial replay value.  There were even two new controllable vehicles in the form of the Landmaster Tank and the Blue Marine sub, which were pretty cool but sadly limited to specific stages.  All in all, though, we have a solid entertaining game that's fun to try and get a high score on.  It was also the first game that touted the use of the "Rumble Pak", the device that introduced proper force feedback to gaming and would shake your controller whenever you took an especially big hit.  Every major game console since has incorporated that into their controllers in some form or another, so it was a pretty big deal at the time.

4. Mischief Makers (Treasure, 1997)

The first Treasure game I ever played, and once I did, I was hooked on the company for life.  Equal parts over the top, silly and awesome, the game has you playing as Marina Liteyears, a hyper-strong jet-propelled robotic maid out to rescue Professor Theo from his kidnappers, the Clancer army.  The game's mechanics center on grabbing, shaking and throwing items to a variety of effects - grabbing missiles out of the air, shaking them to make them larger, and throwing them back at your enemies to name just one.  Tossing enemies into one another, throwing bombs and items into a pot then shaking to "combine" them into one larger item to name a couple more.  It even features some delightfully silly stages like riding a giant bee, outrunning a tidal wave on a tricycle and the ever-awesome missile surfing stage (pictured), as well as boss fights against some truly outlandish boss monsters.  Hell, there's even a time trial system and a hidden gold gem in each stage that extends the ending cinematic slightly, giving it some considerable replay value as well.  Another game that should be rereleased to a wider audience but still hasn't for some reason...

3. The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask (Nintendo, 1999)

The somewhat divisive direct sequel to Ocarina of Time, which not only required an N64 RAM expansion to even run, but introduced tons of new elements to the gameplay (some might say too many).  Most of these come in the form of equippable masks that grant Link new forms and abilities - from running faster with the rabbit mask to being able to safely approach certain enemies to full-on transformations into the form of a Deku scrub, a Goron and a Zora that granted entirely new movesets and abilities.  Most of these were optional, however, which gave way to a surprising amount of sidequests and extra tasks that could be done in nearly any order, giving the player a tremendous amount of freedom.  Perhaps the most controversial element came in the form of an ever-present time limit - as the game begins, Termina is threatened by the evil-possessed moon about to fall and destroy it, and you're in a constant race against the clock to try and free the four gods before that happens.  Thankfully you do get the ability to reset the timer and slow the countdown relatively early on, though the former carries the price of losing all of your progress in a dungeon as well as any rupees, arrows and bombs you're carrying.

In short Majora's Mask is a game with a lot of ideas, and while not all of them work, the ones that do make for a very interesting and compelling game experience unlike any other game in the franchise (or any other game, for that matter).  It was also nice to see them put that 4 megabytes of extra RAM to use to deliver sharper graphics and a significantly more colorful and detailed game environment than the one OOT sported.

2. Super Mario 64 (Nintendo, 1996)

Like the Super Nintendo before it, the first game released on the Nintendo 64 was not only a groundbreaking title that showed off the power of the system, but a testament to the staying power of Mario.  Sporting reworked gameplay that included new moves like wall jumps, slide kicks, triple jumps and the ever-fun ability to pick up and throw certain enemies around, as well as a huge variety of stages and goals, the game was just as much of a joy to explore as it was to complete goals in.  Sure, the camera was annoying at times and the level design somewhat threadbare, but there's no denying that this game, unlike virtually every other 3D game before it, played just as well as it looked, capturing all the platforming joy of a Mario game while setting itself apart in the best way possible.

1. Perfect Dark (Rare, 2000)

The spiritual sequel to Goldeneye and in every way its superior, toting more of the game objective and gadget-based gameplay, more weapons, brilliant multiplayer for up to 12 characters (four player controlled, eight AI-controlled), unlockable cheats, challenge levels, and even a cooperative single player campaign (and a somewhat broken "counter-operative" campaign where the second player plays as a random soldier and tries to stop the first player from completing the single player mode's objectives).  It was also an amazing game on a technical level with its sharp visuals, excellent soundtrack and even some surprisingly intelligent enemy AI that could, among other things, draw a bead on you from great distances, use melee attacks to disarm you and would even sometimes retreat from a battle when things were going badly, only to regroup and come after you again later.  Another game that required the Nintendo 64's RAM expansion, but it was well worth it to see the system pushed to the absolute limit of its potential.  Hell, I still dig out the old N64 and play this one occasionally - it's too good not to.