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3/24/2018

Top Ten Nintendo 64 Games

The Nintendo 64 marked the end of an era for Nintendo.  After their 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. While Nintendo's second parties still continued to make quality games for their consoles, most other companies did not.  Many developers, including the ever-popular pillars of Squaresoft, Konami and Capcom, departed for the other two platforms, leaving behind a lot of lesser companies attempting to fill the gap on a platform that was exceptionally difficult to develop software for. The end result was a system with a handful of top-notch games scattered between a lot of mediocre-to-awful garbage.  The higher price point of the system's software certainly didn't help matters in that regard either - the Nintendo 64's cartridges cost on average about $20-$30 more than a CD-based game on the Saturn and 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 controls that characterize the beginnings of the 3D era, the N64's library has generally held up better over time than those of its competitors (though its controllers have not), and for a system you can collect for at next to no cost these days there are quite a few quality games to be found.  So let's count down my favorites.

HM. Simcity 64 (64DD) (Imagineer, 2000)

Arguably the definitive release of Maxis's Simcity 2000, which to date remains the definitive city-building simulator.  What sets this version apart, however, is just how much it brings to the table on top of an already great game; Simcity 64 features full 3D graphics, a plethora of new minigames (including the ability to raise your own monster and release it to fight off attacking ones), and the ability to view your city both at night and from a first-person perspective street level view.  Just a pity, then, that it only ever was released on the Nintendo 64 Disk Drive, an ill-fated peripheral that was only released via mail order due to low demand and only had nine games released in its short lifespan...

10. 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, smooth controls 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 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.

9. 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 nearly as well today, but Goldeneye remains a defining game for the Nintendo 64 platform.

8. 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 why is this not on the Virtual Console yet...

7. 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...

6. Star Fox 64 (Nintendo, 1997)


A great many fans ended up disappointed when Star Fox 2 was cancelled.  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 game console since has incorporated that into their controllers in some form or another, so it was a pretty big deal at the time.

5. 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...

4. 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, 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.  A true masterpiece.

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. 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 this is my favorite Treasure title of all time.  ...No really, it's that good.  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.

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.