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The Announcement

August 23, 1993. The consumer electronics industry tuned in as Silicon Graphics and Nintendo announced a partnership to build the world's most powerful game machine. Speaking to a crowd of analysts, news media, and industry pundits, Silicon Graphics founder and CEO Jim Clark outlined an ambitious project, Project Reality, which would revolutionize the consumer electronics industry. Never one for understatement, Clark declared that Project Reality would harness the "combined computer power of hundreds of PCs" for less than $250. The pundits were convinced that the Silicon Graphics/Nintendo powerhouse could deliver it. Apparently, were the analysts--3DO stock dropped $4 that day in heavy trading--and children around the world, whipped to a frenzy by the glowing reports in the news media, began to lobby their parents for their Christmas '95 presents. By all indications, Project Reality would be a tremendous success. Only one small task remained--building it.


Go!

The plan called for Silicon Graphics to design two chips that would be at the heart of the system: R4300i processor and the Reality CoProcessor (RCP). The R4300i processor, the low-cost, low-power MIPS RISC CPU, would handle the interaction with the game player and manage the game's control tasks. The RCP, the media processing engine, would handle all the high- performance graphic and music synthesis tasks. The R4300i processor team was already in place at MIPS and staffed with experienced engineers. However, the Project Reality team, which would design the RCP and write the software, had to be built from scratch.

"Only hire superstars" was Senior VP Wei Yen's mandate. Staffing was going slower than expected and this was a tall order. Surprisingly, internal recruiting was difficult. Many people inside Silicon Graphics were suspicious of the hype surrounding the project. "Onyx caliber graphics and music synthesis in a $250 box? You're crazy," came the protests. "Maybe so, but that is what we're going to do," was the team's response. Most of the early Project Reality team, with the exception of a few burnt-out old-timers, came from outside Silicon Graphics.

With few people on board, Project Reality team members wore many hats in the fall and winter of '93. But one by one, lured by the prospect of designing a system that would ship millions of units per year, top hardware and software designers signed on. As winter turned to spring, the team reached critical mass, and it all began to come together. The product plan crystallized and the first milestone became clear: RCP TapeOut.


The Road to Tape Out

TapeOut is, to a chip design team, the ultimate milestone. By the end of 1994, the team was exhausted. Working nights and weekends away from family and friends was beginning to take its toll. The tapeout tension mounted each day. Finally, early in 1995, the tapeout was complete. And that meant...


Party!

And what a party! After the toast and the obligatory management speech, two engineers summarily christened the director with the tub of ice water, starting what may go down as the wettest indoor celebration in Silicon Graphics history. By some fortunate coincidence, one of the nearby conference rooms contained a bunch of balloons, which were quickly pressed into service for the mother of all water balloon fights. After thoroughly soaking team members and not a few innocent bystanders, the team decided to share its celebration with others. Packing tubs of water balloons, the team stormed building 10, where in a blaze of glory, it ambushed an unsuspecting Wei Yen.

Re-armed with Super Soakers, after thoroughly soaking anything that moved in building 8, the team went in search of more executives in building 6. They continued up the management chain and finally set up an ambush for the company president, in his office.

 


Bringup

NEC fabricated the RCP chips on a totally new, state-of-the art chip fab line in Japan, built at a cost of more than a billion dollars. The chips in Nintendo 64 were the first microchips produced in volume using .35 micron semiconductor technology! Nintendo's partners, Silicon Graphics and NEC, had succeeded in getting the world's most advanced semiconductor technology into a consumer product.

Over the next two weeks, Project Reality staff worked nearly around the clock with engineers from Paradigm Simulation to polish a demo which Nintendo would show to key developers and distributors in a whisper suite at the E3 show on May 10.

Just prior to the show, however, Nintendo dropped a bombshell--it would delay the release of the Nintendo 64 until April 1996. According to the press release, Nintendo wanted to give developers more time to develop their games. Regardless, the team pushed on.


Out of the Lab

Almost before the E3 dust had settled, development systems were whisked out of the lab and into the hands of waiting developers. Thanks to the Reality Engine emulator, many of the games were already well into production, but there is nothing like running games on the actual hardware to tune the sounds, images, and game play. With development systems in hand, developers could begin this process.


Making it Real

The fall of 1995 saw Nintendo 64 mature from prototype to real system as the software team optimized, added features, fixed bugs, and brought new game developers up to speed. The fall of '95 also saw it begin to take on a life outside Silicon Graphics.

The marketing machine awakened as Nintendo prepared for a November public introduction in Japan at the Shoshinkai show. While the world got a taste of the power of Nintendo 64, the Silicon Graphics team got a taste of what it means to ship a consumer product.


E3: Wow!

E3 surpassed expectations. The official unveiling occurred at a press conference on Wednesday, May 15. "It's over; it's sooooo over," drooled one member of the press corp watching the live demonstration of real games on the large screen monitor. The folks at GamerX were even more ebullient:

"Today's a beautiful day, mostly because I just left a splashy Nintendo media briefing, where two Nintendo of America upper-ups rolled out their 64-bit wonder, Nintendo64. I gotta admit--this baby smokes. With Silicon Graphics hardware, no CD-ROM slow-down (the N-64, as it's been nicknamed, will use cartridges, not CD-ROMs), and several games that look to be top-shelf quality, Sony and Sega had better watch their backs. I can't wait to get some hands-on experience with games like Super Mario 64, which looks absolutely incredible. And,judging by the reaction of the assembled crowd, neither can anyone else."
 
"Render me speechless. Kudos to Silicon Graphics and its sweet console implementation for Nintendo. Super Mario 64 on the Nintendo64 is a joy to behold, and besides creating a platform that makes the PC look like an Atari, Silicon Graphics brought new life to the MIPS processor under the hood. [This] shows how location can make all the difference. Suddenly MIPS is mainstream and hot--and we're not talking heat dissipation problems, either."
 
Even the mainstream Time Magazine joined the party. In a two page article on the Nintendo 64 in the May 20 edition, Time's Michael Krantz says,
 
"What matters is that the Silicon Graphics chip-fueled Nintendo64 puts the fastest, smoothest game action yet attainable via joystick at the service of equally virtuoso motion."
 
And how did the team feel? For most of the team members, the E3 show summed up the emotional total of almost three years of hardwork, of friendships, of teamwork and personal growth. And as they stood before this finished product, which would convey the sum of their ideas to the world, each team member likely felt intense pride that said, "This is what I can do."