More and more people my age are declaring that Nintendo 64 was the “greatest console ever.” It makes me wonder just how thick the lenses are on these people’s rose-tinted glasses. Nintendo 64 is a wonderful machine that I spent countless joyful hours with, but to claim Nintendo 64 is the GOAT of game consoles? That’s an extremely hard position to defend.
A quick look at history will remind us of the ways that Nintendo 64 failed as a console.
Nintendo 64 pushed developers away
Nintendo does not have a history of being developer-friendly. During the NES and SNES days, Nintendo maintained a tyrannical amount of control over what developers put on their consoles. It was essentially a “my way or the highway” attitude, and Nintendo could afford to behave that way since their consoles were selling so well.
But then the PlayStation happened.
During the SNES era, Sega had wooed developers with more freedom on their Genesis console, but Sony took this idea much further. Sony offered unprecedented freedom and resources for developers to flourish on the PlayStation. Equally important, the PlayStation used cheap discs that could be mass-produced quickly, which was way different than producing expensive Nintendo 64 cartridges that could have months-long lead times. As a result of these two factors, many developers broke ties with Nintendo to produce exclusively for PlayStation (Squaresoft), or greatly reduced their output for Nintendo’s platform (Capcom).
Fewer developers meant fewer games
In the end, Nintendo 64 received only 389 games total worldwide, with 296 of them coming to North America. By comparison, PlayStation received 1,335 games in just North America. Sega Saturn saw around 250 games release in North America, and around 1,000 titles released worldwide. And Super Nintendo had received 721 games in North America, with 1,757 games worldwide (including Satellaview and Sufami Turbo titles).
It’s hard to make an argument for “quality over quantity” with Nintendo 64 when PlayStation and Super Nintendo had both quality and quantity. In its first year, Nintendo 64 only received 22 games in North America! That averages to less than two games per month. I remember being bored and a little frustrated as a kid with how few good games there were to play during that time.
Fewer games meant fewer console sales
Nintendo 64 sold 32.93 million units total, dramatically lower than Super Nintendo’s 49.1 million units. PlayStation sold more than three times as many units as Nintendo 64, at 102.49 million units. Although, Nintendo 64 would at least trounce Sega Saturn’s paltry 9.26 millions sold. Even GameCube would only manage to sell 21.74 million units, but that likely had to do with Xbox further splintering their market share.
In any case, I understand that console sales are not a direct measure of console quality. Most notably, the Wii sold over 100 million units, but I don’t know any serious gamer who thinks the Wii is the greatest console ever. That being said, Nintendo 64 was the first time that Nintendo had to settle definitively for second place in a console war, which puts a serious dent in any “Nintendo 64 is the GOAT” arguments.
Nintendo 64 had spectacular gems, but so does every other major console
Super Mario 64 was a revolutionary game that defined many of the principles of 3D game design, even though many 3D games had already been made by then. Anyone who questions the significance of Super Mario 64 is misinformed or misguided. Similar things can be said of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.
However, those are only two games. The ratios of quality for the rest of the Nintendo 64 library look about the same as they do for every other console: a ton of forgettable stinkers, a lot of great games, and a sliver of genuine classics. The only difference is that Nintendo 64 has a whole lot fewer games than its competitor and its predecessor. RPGs and fighting games are also unusually rare in the Nintendo 64 library.
Nintendo 64 is not the GOAT, but…
The data clearly shows that Nintendo 64 was a big step down in financial success compared to the Super Nintendo. Even worse, Nintendo lost its throne as the top console manufacturer to Sony during this period. For these factual reasons, I believe Nintendo 64 should be easily disqualified from any “greatest game console of all time” discussions.
However, nobody in the world—especially I—can tell people that Nintendo 64 can’t be their favorite console. If this baby is the device you grew up on, and all your initial and fondest gaming memories are attached to it—more power to you! So instead of ending this article by wagging my finger, I’m going to talk about what Nintendo 64 did so very right.
… Nintendo 64 was an incredible party console
Nintendo 64 came equipped with four controller ports, and it made frequent, awesome use of all of them! Good lord did this console have an abundance of outstanding party games. Mario Kart 64, GoldenEye 007, Perfect Dark, Mario Party, Super Smash Bros., WWF No Mercy—any one of these games could have kept a family or friends busy for a hundred hours or more.
Overall, I played my PlayStation a lot more often than my Nintendo 64. But when I was playing with friends, it was almost always on Nintendo 64. Countless sleepovers were spent playing the above games, especially Perfect Dark and No Mercy. In fact, No Mercy was one of the few games ever that allowed both of my brothers and me to bond, thanks to its character creation mode and all of the hilarious things that could be done with it.
So if people have a powerful connection to the Nintendo 64, I can understand why that is. Nintendo 64, maybe better than any console before it, brought people together with its incredible party game selection. I think that in itself is a wonderful way to remember the Nintendo 64, so there’s no need to exaggerate its success or downplay its failings.