Yesterday was the 15th anniversary of the Nintendo 64's launch in America. It wasn't a day every site acknowledged -- they tend to do their anniversary features for the Japanese anniversary, which was in July -- but some did features about what most gamers admired about the system. Pinpointing that isn't easy, as it wasn't the brightest time for Nintendo's collective morale or their relationship with third-party developers. They didn't recover until the Wii came along, though they were still OK in the handheld arena.
The disappointment began once gamers realized all the promises Nintendo made well before the system's launch wouldn't come to pass. When they began hyping it as the Ultra 64, they showed the arcade-exclusive cut scenes from Rare's Killer Instinct as a display of how powerful it was. That was a level not even its sequel, Killer Instinct Gold, could achieve; that kind of FMV that wouldn't be seen on the system until Capcom's staggeringly faithful port of Resident Evil 2. It's far from the only egregious example of a company overhyping their system (see the hyperbole surrounding the Playstation 2's "showcase," for instance), but it was a sting that couldn't be assuaged by a good software lineup.
But you couldn't have told anyone that before the system's launch, me included. Seeing the screenshots for Super Mario 64 in various magazines was enough to get me psyched for it, but I was enthralled upon seeing it in motion for the first time. I first saw it at an import shop while strolling down inner-city parts of Philadelphia. A pity it was only for display, so no random passer-bys could get their hands on it. My first hands-on experience with it, though, is not at all unique for anyone playing video games in America at that time, though. Every local Toys 'R Us store was laden with demo kiosks for the game in September 1996, in preparation for the console's launch. It was a fun time, but it was also a learning experience for many gamers. Not only was coming to grips with wandering around a 3D world a requirement, but mastering the use of an analog stick for navigation.
In fact, I probably had a little too much hands-on time in my numerous play sessions at various Toys 'R Us stores, along with other places that had single, unoccupied kiosks. I managed to find the time to snag all seven stars within the first world, and get enough to head into the first painting for Bower's Castle and encounter him. God forbid anyone else wanted to play the game in those stores.
Despite the serious dearth of software titles at and shortly after launch, plenty of kids and gamers in general had to have the system after playing Mario 64. In fact, that might have been too many people, considering you had to go through hell to get one during the holiday season. It was the hottest commodity for Christmas that year next to Tickle Me Elmo. My parents managed to get a hold of one due to my father knowing a guy who worked at an Electronics Boutique, and was able to hold one for him. The games weren't hard to find initially, but Mario 64 became tough to come by in the post-Black Friday shopping season.
I enjoyed games like Mario 64, Mario Kart 64, and Wave Race 64 immensely within the console's first six months, but then began to wonder what was on the horizon in terms of software. I learned the horrible truth upon consulting a release list within an issue of GameFan magazine in early 1997: the N64 had only a few intriguing titles in the near horizon. The only games I saw on the list that piqued my interest were Star Fox 64, Diddy Kong Racing, Mischief Makers, and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (which was known as "Zelda 64" at the time). That was not a good lineup, and I soon realized there were more games I wanted to play on its direct competition (in the west, at least): Sony's Playstation. I realized the N64 was my first choice because I figured it would continue the legacy the SNES established, unaware of the politics occurring behind the scenes.
The N64's reign was not a time where Nintendo's star shone at its brightest, but that doesn't mean it didn't have plenty excellent experiences to offer. Nintendo's first-party games alone made the system worth keeping around, though it was relegated to the status of "that other system" amidst its competition's plethora of quality titles. It was proof that even when Nintendo isn't within its finest moments, they still put out some fine titles.