Nintendo 64 Week: Day Two
Sticking with cartridges was a costly decision. For everybody.
September 30, 2008 - This week, the Nintendo 64 turns 12. In many respects, it remains one of the most controversial consoles in gaming history -- and not controversial in the sense of something being ribald, but in just how divisive it was for the entire industry. Nintendo's decision to keep cartridges as the rest of the industry shifted to discs offered a competitor an opening to pull off an unprecedented leadership reversal. But this was also the same machine that hosted the revolutionary Super Mario 64, which defined 3D games in a way no other game has paralleled in the last decade.
This week, IGN Retro is featuring a series of articles about the debut of the Nintendo 64 and its industry legacy, such as the ramifications of choosing cartridges over discs and the lasting influence of Super Mario 64.
Save for the decision to spurn Sony at the 1991 CES, perhaps no decision affected the fortunes of the Nintendo 64 than the choice to delay using discs as a storage medium for one more generation and sticking with cartridges. No publisher in videogames has lost as much money to piracy as Nintendo, and the gaming giant believed that the cost of pirating cartridges would deter "unauthorized back-ups." Surely, Nintendo saw the copious amounts of piracy that plagued the PlayStation thanks to widespread use of mod chips and low-priced CD burners and believed that, to some degree, it had made the right decision. However, the drawbacks of using cartridges for the Nintendo 64 might have cost Nintendo even more in lost sales against the PlayStation, as it was viewed more as a forward-looking console with a larger library.
Nintendo had counted on the cost of cartridges preventing piracy, but those extra manufacturing costs were passed along to gamers. Gamers that had watched the price of titles inch up with each generation -- $30 for the NES, $40 for Genesis/SNES -- experienced sticker shock at the price of Nintendo 64 cartridges during the first year of the console's lifespan. Super Mario 64 and Pilotwings debuted at $60. But later games in 1996, such as Mortal Kombat and Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire, were topping out at $80. Compared to games on the PlayStation and Saturn that came in around $40-50, Nintendo 64 games were simply too expensive for the market. A $70 cartridge in 1996 is equivalent to approximately $91 in 2007 dollars -- that's far greater than the still decried $60 price of most third-party games for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.
Were these games really worth $80?
A cartridge manufacturing squeeze that helped fuel the high costs eased in subsequent years, bringing games back down into the $60 range -- particularly for first-party games like Ocarina of Time. But even as cartridges costs dropped, third-party publishers were still troubled by the need to order their cartridges well in advance without full anticipation of retail reaction. If a publisher ordered too few, sales were missed as it waited for Nintendo to greenlight additional supplies. Ordering too many resulted in extremely expensive unwanted stock.
N64 Videos - Get a glimpse of the past.
Obviously cartridges have less storage space than discs. The largest Nintendo 64 cartridges were 64MB. This decreased storage resulted in the exclusion of full-motion video scenes and orchestrated music, which were en vogue in this generation. It also boxed in some developers that had to rethink their designs, since they did not have the virtually unlimited space of a 650 MB CD. (Bear in mind, this is 1996 we're talking about.) This comparable lack of storage space also directly affected the way Nintendo 64 games looked. With less space to store textures, many developers resorted to low-resolution textures that actually worked against the Nintendo 64's otherwise powerful hardware.
It was the twin issues of storage space and cartridge costs that resulted in one of the industry's most high profile defections.
Nintendo's Final Fantasy
Square's Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior series were titans on the NES and SNES and so naturally in 1995, Square planned Final Fantasy VII for Nintendo's upcoming 64-bit console. Anticipating the final console hardware, Square went to work on Silicon Graphics workstations. To hype the game -- and prove their ambitious design -- Square created a demo of Final Fantasy VII. The 2D look of all previous Final Fantasy games was scrapped in favor of 3D, as super-deformed heroes battled polygonal monsters. The initial peeks at the game were astounding at the time, rivaled only by the incredible expectations for Super Mario 64.
But then Nintendo made the decision to keep the cartridge format.
The Final Fantasy Silicon Graphics demo.
The severe limitations of cartridges meant Square would have to completely re-imagine the epic scope of the game, as even a 64MB cartridge could not house the firm's plans for cutscenes, full orchestra music, and an enormous storyline. Shocked by the about-face, Square had no choice but to consider taking Final Fantasy to another console and on January 12, 1996, the RPG developer revealed that the PlayStation would serve as home to Cloud and Sephiroth.
The Final Fantasy series was not yet a behemoth in America -- the release of Final Fantasy VII would manage that feat -- but this announcement was an absolute megaton in Japan. Nintendo already had tenuous relationships with many Japanese publishers, and Square only further legitimized the PlayStation with its Final Fantasy decision. Years of business decisions that angered many Japanese publishers came to bear on Nintendo and the console suffered a great deal of third-party abandonment. The Nintendo 64 was not wholly ignored, but the majority of games that Nintendo would have once had a stranglehold on such as Metal Gear Solid were PlayStation exclusives.
The arguments that cartridges were beneficial for anti-piracy and fast loading times were crushingly outweighed by cost decisions and storage issues. The Nintendo 64 was certainly host to a good many games, but how many of them were third-party? Immediate successes that come to mind -- Ocarina of Time, Super Mario 64, Wave Race 64, Banjo-Kazooie, GoldenEye -- were primarily first- or second-party. There were some third-parties that stuck by Nintendo over the course of the generation, such as Midway and Acclaim, but the majority of them jumped ship for Sony or at least saved their best productions for the PlayStation.
The mistakes of this generation were not lost on Nintendo. There is a risk in playing it safe sometimes -- or of just keeping pace. Nintendo was unable to break out of the pack with the GameCube, which was disc-based like the other machines. But keeping pace was not good enough for Nintendo, which explains the out-of-the-box philosophy for the Wii. And that kind of thinking has vaulted Nintendo back into first place, so even though the cartridge decision caused Nintendo setbacks, perhaps it was a lesson that the company needed to learn. After all, it did give us Super Mario Galaxy.
Tomorrow, IGN Retro looks at the best of the Nintendo 64 -- the games that truly defined the machine. You know the obvious ones, like Super Mario 64 and GoldenEye 007. But maybe we'll have a surprise or two waiting for you.