Amnesia Lane: Got N, Got Out

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The 18th anniversary of the Nintendo 64’s North American launch came last week (Sept. 30, specifically).

There are paltry few posts on this blog about the beleaguered console. As the system’s fade to irrelevance in the market took place well before Damage Control existed, we have no retrospective for it.

To mark the occasion, I present to you one more take on consoles gone by.

What was once known as the Ultra 64 (a forerunner of the infamous transition from “Revolution” to “Wii”) was initially passed over by me in favor of Sony’s Playstation. Why? Final Fantasy VII.

I only owned an N64 after I landed in college and took advantage of the campus’ online classifieds. I also got my Dreamcast that way, but that’s a tale for another time. However, this doesn’t mean I went without for all of the five years it took me to buy one. I was lucky enough to know three friends who were happy to share when able. One even lent me the console for a month so I could play through The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.

There are still several heralded games (such as Blast Corps) I have yet to play, though the early 3D-era jaggidies can make it quite difficult to go back to them. I do have a small pile of potential classics sitting somewhere in my backlog: Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire, Conker’s Bad Fur Day and Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards as honest-to-goodness cartridges, and Virtual Console copies of Paper Mario and Sin and Punishment.

With those grains of salt out of the way (plus a reminder that I was disappointed by Super Mario 64), here are my five selections for that alternate universe retrospective from a world in which Damage Control was started at the same time as the Ice Cave’s “Netscape 4.0+” recommendation was relevant. Woah, wait… is that Netscape Navigator or Communicator?

Mario Kart 64

Who could ever forget racing on Toad’s Turnpike on mirror mode? Can you say the same about any recent Mario Kart track?

In an age when series’s battle modes have declined with each new game (like the time-based-only bouts of Mario Kart Wii, or the entire lack of battle mode arenas in Mario Kart 8 — which I hope will one day be remedied by a third DLC pack dedicated to this monstrous oversight — Mario Kart 64 still stands tall as the best deathmatch the series has to offer in terms of stages and mechanics.
Becoming a speedy Bomb-omb after being knocked out early and taking ever-so-sweet revenge? Priceless. Learning to control your speed well enough to never worry about taking accidental tumbles off the skyscraper? Dominating. Nailing another player by dropping a shell from above in the truly-3D Block Fort and Double Deck arenas? Ingenious.

Mario Kart 64 was probably the only game of the series I didn’t eventually get sick of grinding my way through each cup of Grand Prix mode at each difficulty to unlock all of the game’s (admittingly paltry) extras.

Having a multitude of extra karts and pulling tricks with motorcycles just aren’t captivating extras for me, though I do find fun with the insanely expanded rosters of the newer games.

Super Smash Bros.

Y cant Metroid N64? We never did get an answer to that timeless question, but Samus at least made an appearance in this experimental fanservice fighting game.

While the first game holds up poorly in face of it’s three younger siblings, it still provided zany fun. Super Smash Bros. was a game nobody thought Nintendo would ever make, as the company never seemed to be interested in crossovers or using its more family-friendly characters in a game that’s only object is to make them kill each other.

But HAL Laboratories caught lightning in a bottle with this very unique take on the fighting genre and kicked off a lucrative new franchise for Big N.

Star Fox 64 (a.k.a. Lylat Wars)

Second only to Mario Kart 64 in the endless replayability and ageless presentation is this amazingly planned-out remake of the SNES’s Star Fox. While Star Fox: Assault has amazing visuals and the best damn soundtrack one could ever hope for, the Nintendo 64’s iteration remains the best overall package in the entire series.

Star Fox 64 retains the branching paths of the original, but uses them dynamically, changing direction based on the discovery of secrets or the outcome of missions. This was sorely missed in Assault, which erred on having fewer, longer stages.

The addition of the voice overs was a big boost to the immersion (also aided by having a polygon count above 1,000) and, as annoying as Slippy’s voice was, the original voice actor was still better.

The 3DS remake put a marvelous shine on this classic, though for some reason the controls feel slightly off. It could just be me.

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time

You know what’s difficult? Finding all the Hyrule Field Gold Skulltulas without a rumble pak. But, like many other inexplicable gaming accomplishments in my youth (like claiming Erdrick’s Token in Dragon Warrior while at the lowly level of 8), I somehow figured it out.

Ocarina of Time was not my favorite game in the series. At the time, it was placed behind The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (better gameplay) and The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening (more evocative). And nowadays there are seven more games that might also be favored above it, but that’s another story for another time.

That being said, it was by far the most cinematic Zelda game to date and nailed its control scheme. I deserves a lot of praise even if I’m not part of the following. It still ranks as one of the N64’s superlative offerings.

Ogre Battle: Person of Lordly Caliber

The only game on this list I’ve never beaten. But its good enough that I don’t need to beat it to be in my Top 5.

If you’re looking for a strategic fantasy game with an endless well of nuance, this is your ticket. Meaningful decisions and your actions in battle can shape how the game unfolds. Soldiers level up and become new classes based on a bevy of factors. But despite the complexity of the systems, they never feel intimidating or incomprehensible.

It’s nearly impossible to play the game the same way twice and there are three different endings your actions pave the road to. It’s kind of a shame that you’re looking at an investment of more than 150 hours to see them all.

One fun little detail was the discovery of extra events in the game’s story log that you never saw occur. Among them is the celebration of your character’s birthday each year in which your compatriots give you items or equipment, with each new decade bringing more powerful gifts.

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