I still remember the look of confusion and disappointment on my father’s face when he caught me packing up my Nintendo 64 for college.
“Didn’t I buy that for you when you were 9?” he asked, bewildered.
“Uh, yeah. But we still play it sometimes,” I answered.
It was winter break of my sophomore year, and my roommate had sent me home with specific instructions to retrieve my Nintendo 64 and any stray games and controllers that came with it. I found the console collecting dust in my parents’ basement. To my amazement it still worked, and I spent the remainder of the afternoon beating Star Fox 64 for the umpteenth time in my life. (This all was to the chagrin of my father, who was appalled I still played video games at all, let alone ones intended for children half my age.)
But what my father could never understand, and what I could never adequately explain, was that an N64 was a prized commodity at my large, Midwestern college campus. The system remained just as popular among people in my age group as when we first grew enamored of it as 10-year-olds. My specific Nintendo 64 system was the source of endless entertainment for me and my friends. We’d pregame with Mario Kart 64, kill afternoons playing Mario Party 2 mini-games and play Super Smash Bros. (stoned out of our minds) into the wee hours.
Now — 10 year later, and more than 20 years since the system’s initial release — the Nintendo 64 is arguably more popular than ever.
Prices for old Nintendo 64s have been steadily increasing for the past several years, as collectors and nostalgists scramble to buy a system that’s long been out of production. Six years ago, consoles sold for $25 to $30, according to Jacob Hurst, a 24-year-old video game collector in Davis, California. Today, they sell for three to four times that amount on eBay, with mint condition models costing $1,000 or more, and collector’s editions (such as the original smoke-gray console, or the limited edition Pikachu console) go for upwards of eight grand.
The appeal extends to professional gamers, too, who continue to vie for the fastest “speedrun” (or completion time) in Super Mario 64. The record was broken twice just this summer. On sites like Twitch, gamers film themselves attempting zany Super Mario 64 challenges, like trying to beat the game without ever hitting the “A” (or jump) button. And the 64-version of Super Smash Bros. is an esports staple. Last month, Super Smash Con, a convention dedicated to the popular fighting franchise, held a competition for who could string together the most creatively devastating combo maneuver in the game, while 10,000 viewers streamed the action live.
And it’s still found on college campuses. “There’s a communal area on campus at Arizona State, and last year, there were people on the couches playing Mario Kart 64,” says Reddit user ZadocPaet, who moderates r/N64, a Reddit forum dedicated to the system. “You won’t see that for NES and Super NES.”
The fact that the Nintendo 64 remains as popular as it does is, on its face, wholly irrational. It’s an old, boxy looking system that looks frumpy next to the sleek, sharp-edged aesthetic of modern-day systems. The controller has a wonky, three-handle design that’s sure to baffle and feel uncomfortable to those new to the system, and its graphics are crude at best — it was the first gaming console to use a 64-bit processor, but modern-day systems have four times the processing capacity and require an ultra-HD, 4K monitor to enjoy their graphical capabilities to the fullest extent. Similarly, N64 games come on cartridges that have a fraction of the data capacity discs do, and look like archaeological relics in an era of streamed gaming.
Stranger still, when the 64 was at its most popular, it didn’t sell very well. The bestselling system of all-time is Sony’s PlayStation 2, at more than 157 million units worldwide, according to consumer data firm Statista. The Nintendo 64 moved a paltry 32 million units by comparison, good for just 14th best all-time. Nintendo alone manufactured seven other systems that sold better than the 64: Nintendo DS (154 million units), Game Boy (118 million), Wii (101 million), Game Boy Advance (81 million), NES (61 million), Nintendo 3DS (59 million) and Super NES (49 million). Granted, some of these systems are handhelds and don’t make for a perfect apples:oranges comparison, but still, the Nintendo 64 was hardly an earth-shattering commercial success.
In fact, many mark the 64 as the beginning of the end of Nintendo among hardcore gamers, who would flock to Sony and Microsoft’s next-gen consoles in subsequent years, leaving Nintendo to focus on family-friendly products like the Wii.
But no other system is as endlessly appealing and replayable as the Nintendo 64. Its continued success defies the very nature of video-game consoles, which are, by their very design, fleeting. We purchase them and their games knowing (and hoping) they will be rendered obsolete by more robust subsequent versions.
The Nintendo 64, however, is timeless.
MEL asked 10 Nintendo 64 fanatics to discuss their personal history with the gaming system, and what makes it so endlessly enjoyable. The panel (the full listing of which is below) included a mix of casual gamers, hardcore collectors and self-proclaimed video-game historians. What we found is that the aspects to N64 that seem antiquated — the controller, the four-port local multiplayer, the boxy design — are what give the system its lasting charm and have allowed it to stand the test of time.
- Stephen O’Toole, 25, cook, Hinsdale, Illinois
- Colin Van Court, 24, cook, Utica, New York
- Chris Bilancsuk, 31, TV production assistant, Beverly Hills, California
- Darron Harmon, 28, quality assurance specialist, Ripley, Mississippi
- ZadocPaet (declined to use his real name), 35, moderator of r/N64 subreddit, Phoenix
- Grant Holland, 20, San Diego
- Lucas Pinckard, 21, civil engineer, Dallas
- Teddy Saridakis, 27, Reston, Virginia
- Jacob Hurst, 24, archaeologist, Davis, California
- Javier Cruz, 17, student, Mecca, California
Ease of Play
The common knock on Nintendo is that it produces consoles for children and families, and not serious gamers. But this actually works in the Nintendo 64’s favor. A large part of the Nintendo 64’s continued popularity is its simplicity, especially compared to modern consoles that require a significant amount of tech savvy and technical skill to set up and play.
Saridakis: In college, my friends and I had PS2, PS3 and Xbox 360. But we kept coming back to N64 because it’s so easy. You just plug everything in, turn it on and you play. No welcome screen. No adapters. No load times.
Bilancsuk: There’s a famous video game quote [often called Bushnell’s Law] which is the best games are easy to learn and hard to master. That was Nintendo’s motto. Their games are a perfect balance of complex, immersive gameplay and being simple enough for anyone to pick up and play without any training.
Harmon: As I’ve gotten older and started earning more money, I find myself spending it on N64 games. There’s something so satisfying about that gray cartridge — you just pop it in and play. I have a daughter who’s 4 months, and I’m looking forward to her being able to easily play N64 in a few years.
The Hall of Games: ‘Mario 64,’ ‘Goldeneye’ and ‘The Legend of Zelda’
A gaming system is only as good as the games it plays, and in that sense, the Nintendo 64 was truly revolutionary. Its three early marquee titles, Mario 64, Goldeneye and The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time fueled much of the system’s initial success, and left indelible marks on their respective game genres.
Mario 64 was the system’s launch title and introduced an entire generation of gamers to the wonders of three-dimensional, open-world gaming. Ocarina later perfected that concept and set the mold for every fantasy and role-playing game to follow in its wake. (Ocarina has a near-perfect aggregate score of 99 on Metacritic, making it one of the most critically acclaimed titles in video game history, and it’s impossible to overstate how strongly certain gamers feel about it.) And Goldeneye, based off the 1995 James Bond film of the same name, was the prototypical first-person shooter, a genre that dominates so much of game sales today.
Harmon: I got N64 for my 8th birthday, and I can still remember pulling it out of the box for the first time and firing up Mario 64. Setting foot in that 3-D world blew me away.
Van Court: It was like there were no limits on what you could do. I was used to the limitations of most games: You can’t go here. You can’t do that. But with Mario, it felt like truly anything was possible.
O’Toole: The snow, the sand, the floating islands — it was like playing a storybook.
Saridakis: You were actually there, in the game.
Holland: As child, I couldn’t comprehend the limits of the games. The worlds that N64 produced felt immense, infinite even. Obviously, that’s not true, but those limitations actually help the N64. A lot of games today put almost no limits on what can be done, and in doing so, they lose their identity. They try to be too many things at once.
O’Toole: Ocarina was the first time I experienced a game as an immersive work of art — the storyline, the music, the gameplay. Putting hours into a game and not getting bored was new to me. It’s still my favorite game, and it cemented my love for the system.
Van Court: Last year, a blind man managed to beat Ocarina of Time using nothing but auditory cues. It took him five years. People are that committed to the game. It’s amazing.
Holland: Ocarina began the era of narrative-driven gameplay, it made you actually feel like you were on epic quest.
O’Toole: The game was complicated and the internet was just becoming a Thing, so everything about it spread through word-of-mouth. I remember having to call around and ask my friends, “Hey, how’d you get past this spot?” But that was part of the fun, having to figure things out on your own and telling your friends about it at school the next day.
Harmon: Now, when a new game comes out, all of the secrets are dumped on the internet within 24 hours. With Ocarina, there always was the possibility that even though you played the game 1,000 times, there was going to be a hidden secret you might find.
Van Court: I remember we eventually got a Gateway computer — you know, in the cow box. I was the only one who knew how to use the internet. On a whim, I searched for Zelda, and it was a game changer. I found tips, secrets, Zelda fan-fiction.
O’Toole: I took up piano and guitar later in life, and two of the first songs I learned were the themes to Mario and Ocarina of Time. That music just gets ingrained in your mind from playing so much. You’ll hear them and instantly be taken back.
A Multiplayer Party
Influential as the above titles may be, the staying power of the Nintendo 64 lies in its multiplayer functionality. It was the first system with four local controller ports, and thus, the first system to allow for 2-on-2, four-person free-for-all — and in the case of certain Mario Party minigames, even 3-on-1 gameplay.
Every panel member cites multiplayer as the Nintendo 64’s most endearing feature. Four friends, in the same room, playing together simultaneously, fostered a sense of camaraderie (and shit-talking) that was unprecedented in video games, and defied the notion that video games were only for sad, lonely losers. With the N64, they were a bonding ritual.
Van Court: It has what a lot of modern games lack, which is local, four-player multiplayer, and a ton of games that supported four players. It made for a social experience, and people still use it in that sense. Mario Party is essentially a board game in video game form.
Bilancsuk: Even playing video games with one other person can be a little isolating. But four-player wrestling battles in WWF No Mercy, or four-player space battles in Star Fox 64 are a much more communal experience.
Holland: The N64 is a party machine. You’d betray your friends in Mario Party and take your frustrations out on them in Goldeneye.
O’Toole: My three older brothers would gang up on me in Goldeneye, and we’d play 2-on-2 in Kobe Bryant’s NBA Courtside. It was four people in one room, and lots of banter. And with four boys, things would get competitive. We have a graveyard of busted controllers from when we’d get frustrated and throw them across the room. We probably broke at least eight of them.
Super Smash Bros. and Mario Kart 64 are especially famous for their multiplayer modes, and many gamers still square off against their friends in them today. Mario Kart 64 has even inspired its own drinking game, Mario Kart Drunk Driving, where players have to finish a beer before they complete three laps around one of the courses.
O’Toole: I went to Miami University in Ohio, and of course I played Drunk Driving. It’s a great drinking game because anyone can play it. It’s just “A” to go, and you don’t even have to use the brakes if you don’t want to. You can play hitting just one button. And it’s designed to make things fair and fun — if someone is way out ahead, the computer gives everyone else a chance to catch up.
Saridakis: We’d play Mario Kart for hours in college, talking shit, drinking beers. Sometimes we’d drink so much we’d never even make it out. We added our own wrinkle to the game called Drink ’Til You Drop. If you fell off a ledge, you had to drink until the game put you back on the racetrack.
Modern systems allow for multiplayer, too, of course — and on a much grander scale. Gamers can now participate in all-out wars with hundreds of other online players. But the anonymity of those interactions is, ironically, what makes the Nintendo 64 so appealing today. In a world of faceless internet gaming, the Nintendo 64 forces players to occupy the same space when competing against one another, facilitating a sense of camaraderie that doesn’t exist in modern gaming.
O’Toole: The first time I played Super Smash Bros., I was at my friend’s lakehouse. And whenever I play that game today, I’m taken back there. I can’t imagine anyone remembers the random person they played Call of Duty against eight years ago on Xbox Live.
Built to Last (Literally)
Nintendo 64 wouldn’t still be popular if the system itself didn’t work, and after 20 years, the Nintendo 64 has proven itself to be borderline unbreakable.
Van Court: Apart from the joystick, the N64 is a very robust piece of hardware. I’ve had my hands on many, many N64 consoles, and I’ve never encountered one that didn’t work. They’re made of iron, man. You have to go out of your way to physically destroy an N64 to make it not work. It’s a solid piece of equipment.
Nintendo’s decision to use cartridges for the N64 instead of discs, which were gaining prominence in the gaming industry, was met with derision, and is often cited as the reason Nintendo fell behind Sony when the latter released the PlayStation 2. But N64’s cartridges have a physical advantage in terms of longevity. Discs scratch, rendering them unusable. Cartridges, however, just get dusty.
Van Court: Nothing inside the N64 moves at all. Nothing inside is subject to the wear and tear of motion, whereas a CD drive has all these tiny moving gears.
One of the N64’s distinguishing quirks is its controller. It has three handles, which baffled many newbie gamers in 1996, and a joystick, a first for many gamers at the time. (There’s a D-pad on the left handle, presumably for those scared to make the leap to 360 joystick movement.) The controller is just as alien to modern gamers, who are accustomed to dual analog controllers, where one joystick controls movement and the other changes the angle from which you view the gameplay. In the end, however, the controller’s distinct design is a big reason why the N64 is so widely adored and easy for newcomers.
ZadocPaet: It’s the best controller ever made for a three-handed person.
Van Court: The joystick is notorious for wearing out over the years, however. But N64 is so popular now that there’s a thriving market for replacement joysticks. An entrepreneur created Steel Sticks, an N64 controller with a metal bearing joystick, and there was a Kickstarter project this summer for a modernized version of the classic N64 controller. [The Kickstarter earned more than $160,000 in pledges, more than 12 times its original goal.]
O’Toole: We had a PlayStation at same the time we bought our N64, but I wasn’t interested in it. The physical PlayStation system was sterile and off-putting. It had these sharp corners and the controllers were a drab gray. The N64 is so much more inviting. It had this strange controller that felt so different and with all these different colored buttons. They’re bright and vibrant and accessible. The buttons are huge, and you can say, “Press the blue one!” instead of “Hit the ‘A’ button,” which can be confusing.
Buying Back Their Childhood
There’s a simple economic explanation for the N64 resurgence: The people who grew up playing the system are now at an age and level of professional success that they can afford to spend money on a gaming system that’s been out of production for 14 years.
Hurst: After N64, I moved onto PlayStation 2, and then PC gaming. But six years ago, I got back into retro gaming. You can’t have every game growing up, and I felt there were games I missed out on as a kid. So I set out to buy all 296 Nintendo 64 games in existence. I completed my collection eight months ago. It took me five and a half years.
Right now, the market is at its peak. I bought a copy of Yoshi’s Story for $5.99 six years ago and thought, Oof, that’s a little steep. Nowadays, that game costs $25. The cost of the system has increased, too. You used to be able to buy a Nintendo 64 for $30. Now they’re at least twice as expensive. I find PS2s at flea markets all the time, and people can’t give them away.
I know people who saw this coming and bought up every copy of Super Mario and Super Smash Bros. they could get their hands on. And they’re making a killing.
Van Court: The generation of gamers who grew up on the N64 is the same generation that grew up with the internet. That’s why there’s such a thriving online community for it.
Hurst: All the time nowadays, I’ll catch people online or in game stores saying, “I’m going to pick up an N64, and get some beers and play with my friends.”
ZadocPaet: In the past three years, the r/N64 subreddit has tripled in size. Being a moderator isn’t a lot of work because the community is so active.
Saridakis: When you’re at a party, and there’s an N64, certain people will gravitate toward it. And you’ll know you have this common interest with them, and that you share this deep emotional connection to the system.
Hurst: Part of the reason I love the N64 is that it’s the loser console of that generation. It didn’t fit with the zeitgeist of the era, and the PlayStation 2 tripled it in sales. But everyone loves an underdog, right?
Van Court: I still play it. I just recently picked up some obscure Japanese N64 games.
Harmon: It harkens back to this simpler time when not everything was leaked on the internet, and there was this feeling that you were the one discovering things about these games. Obviously that’s not true when you play N64 now, but maybe it wakens that child in you.
Cruz: I came from a poor family. The PlayStation 2 was expensive, so my older brother got the N64 instead. And occasionally my brother and I will be like, “Ay, let’s get a round of Smash Bros.”
O’Toole: My brothers graduated to the PlayStation 2 after N64, and after that, we didn’t buy any other systems. But nowadays, we play the N64 at holidays when everyone’s home. The PS2? We haven’t played that in eight years.
Pinckard: I played N64 with my dad a lot when he was still alive. We only had one controller, so we couldn’t play multiplayer. Instead we’d play single player and switch off at checkpoints.
I recently replayed Ocarina of Time. The game is very pixelated, but it still has this charm other classic games don’t. It brought me back to how things used to be. Playing N64 doesn’t make me sad — it brings back happy memories. I have a lot of things to remember my dad by, and N64 is a big one.
Nintendo didn’t return requests for comment, but the company seems acutely aware that adult gamers are rediscovering the Nintendo gaming systems of their youth. The company released a shrunken down, “Classic” version of its NES system last holiday season, and the response was overwhelming. NES Classic sold more than 2 million units as of this spring, far more than even Nintendo anticipated, as the company literally ran out of the product. They have a Super NES Classic slated for release on September 29.
A Nintendo 64 Classic also appears to be in the works. Earlier this summer, Nintendo submitted a series of trademark claims to the European Union Intellectual Property Office that included a drawing of the N64’s unmistakable three-handle controller, suggesting that N64 zealots will soon be able to buy the system again.
That is, if they’re not playing their old one already.