Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Top 64 N64 Games #64 - 57

Exactly twelve years ago on September 29th, 1996, Nintendo released their third home console, the much-hyped Nintendo 64, alongside Super Mario 64 and Pilotwings. When I first played Super Mario 64 at a public store demo I couldn't even fucking believe what I was seeing; running around in a fully three-dimensional environment, jumping and flipping and sliding in every axis of motion, it was like playing a cartoon, it was better than seeing tits for the first time. I knew right then that the world would never be the same.

But all was not well in Nintendo land; a foul portent hung in the air. The Big N had managed to conquer the threat of the Sega Genesis in the 16-bit era (a blow from which Sega would never fully recover and eventually fold as a hardware manufacturer in 2001), but the Nintendo 64 found itself under siege from the Sony Playstation, a deadly siege indeed that relegated Nintendo to second and then to third place in the console wars until finally regaining their lead with the Wii a full decade later. Why did the Playstation outsell the N64 by such colossal margins? I see two major reasons:

1. Marketing. In the 16-bit console war, Sega briefly managed to gain on Nintendo by advertising the Genesis as the cool kids' system, whereas Super Nintendo was the little kids' system. Sony took that concept several levels of magnitude further, painting Nintendo 64 as a toy for kids, period, while marketing their own system as a sleek entertainment package for all ages. Adults bought the PS1 in unprecedented numbers and kids emulated the grown-ups, peeling off from Nintendo in droves. The fact that Nintendo's primary financial IV during these years was Pokémon did little to alleviate this kiddy image, and although they are again financially on top the specter of this marketing campaign continues to haunt the Big N to this day.

2. CD-based technology. Playstation opted for CDs. Fearing load times, Nintendo opted for a third round of cartridges. It was and is an incredibly controversial decision to this day that caused several previously Nintendo-centric developers like Capcom, Konami, and Squaresoft to embrace cheaper and easier CD-based development. NES and Super NES franchises with names like Mega Man X, Castlevania, Metal Gear, Street Fighter, and (perhaps most crushingly) Final Fantasy suddenly became Sony franchises alongside new hit series like Resident Evil, Tomb Raider, and Spyro the Dragon. Nintendo found themselves leaning primarily on their own IPs and those of Rare, and long story short, the system just didn't have that many games. Probably about a quarter of what Playstation had, and being cartridges, they cost much more to produce. It just became hard to keep up financially.

All that said, I fucking love my Nintendo 64. It's one of my favorite systems of all time, and I have a pretty nice collection to prove it. I played it nonstop from 5th to 10th grade and the very sight of its rounded black plastic casing sends me cascading back through a blissful half-decade of early 3D gaming, hazy and clouded yet highly fond memories of a time long past when Mario, Zelda, James Bond, and Star Wars were the most important things on earth. So I figured what better way to pay tribute to the 64's twelfth birthday than a list of the top 64 N64 games?

Usual disclaimers apply - this of course a 100% biased list, and certain genres will receive minimal representation (sorry sports games). And I haven't played everything; hell, I still find NES and Super NES and PS1 and Genesis gems to this day I was fully unaware of, and I'm totally open to the idea there's some stellar N64 games I just flat-out haven't played. But I've done the best I can. That said, I will admit that due to the previously discussed relatively small pool of games to choose from there's some definite mediocrity towards the bottom tiers of this list. But trudge through, brave soldier, for there is brilliant, golden light at the end of the tunnel. Golden showers, if you will. Let's get the extended love letter to N64 started:

64. Mega Man 64 (2001)

Pros: Mega Man 64 is actually a direct port of a Playstation game from a few years previous, Mega Man Legends, a game that fuses the Blue Bomber's running, jumping, and shooting roots with what we now know as Zelda formula. There's a big overworld, lots of dungeons you go to one at a time with treasure chests and items and bosses at the end, towns to visit with stuff to buy and people to talk to, and a plot that unravels propelling you from one dungeon and action set piece to the next. Adventure gaming 101.

Cons: That being said, if Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon is the poor man's Zelda, Mega Man 64 is the impoverished Ugandan orphan's Zelda. The dungeons are all incredibly drab, the puzzles are bland and methodical, and the whole thing plays out with a sense of tedious inevitability. When I play Mega Man, I want hyperactive music, awesome bosses, intense platforming, and hordes of bad guys to shoot - this game has none of those things, just lots of plodding through empty overworlds. Also, the game wasn't really pretty in 1998 on Playstation, in 2001, the graphics looked positively primeval.

63. Quest 64 (1998)

Pros: One of only five RPGs on the N64 (along with Aidyn Chronicles: The First Mage, less a game and more a harlequin fetus-esque tragedy, and three more we'll discuss later), Quest 64 finally brought turn based fighting and level gaining and casting spells to the N64. The world is bright and colorful and free to explore, and the combat system - involving laying out fields of movement for you and the bad guys and having you strategize on where to best land hits from - interestingly elaborates on simple menu-scrolling RPG fights. The music isn't bad either. I've seen several people on message boards enthusiastically defend it as an underappreciated gem.

Cons: Quest 64 has absolutely no cut scenes, character development, puzzles, or mini-games. You are given a plot objective in the 30-second opening dialogue sequence ("Go kill bad guy"), and from there on the game has arguably less depth than the original console RPG, Dragon Warrior on the NES. The game just has no fucking personality, let alone any sense of style. It's a shame, because the battle system is honestly original, but put up against the 60-hour densely-plotted FMV-packed techno-fantasy mega-epic Final Fantasy VII that had come out on the Playstation over a year beforehand, it was more than a little embarrassing that this was what N64-owning RPG fans had to settle for.

62. Tetrisphere (1997)

Pros: One of the first attempts to do a full 3D puzzle game (you still don't see too many of these), Tetrisphere took some of the fundamentals of standard 2D Tetris and wrapped them around a ball. Like its younger cousin the game involves you finding where to fit four-block pieces to make other tetrominos disappear, knocking out layers, and cutting your way to the bottom of the stack (or in this case the core of the sphere). It's pretty amusing, and the techno music is pretty sick.

Cons: Amusing, but nowhere near as sublime and classic as its traditional 2D cousin. It's a novelty - a fun one, to be certain, but indisputably a novelty - and I challenge anyone to play it for more than an hour without succumbing to the desire to put in regular Tetris (be it on NES, N64, or Nintendo DS) and play the REAL game.

61. BattleTanx (1998)

Pros: Within two seconds of starting this game you're told that a plague killed 99.9% of the world's women and the few remaining women are now fought over like countries. So legions of tanks go to war over them. That's fucking hilarious. That's like the best premise I've ever heard, and alone wins the game several points. As for the gameplay itself, it's a fairly amusing swirl of pretty mindless destruction; there's not too much subtlety or variety, but you shoot the shit out of lots of tanks and can also blow up pretty much every building in your path.

Cons: But there's ultimately not too much depth. Once you've played the first few levels you've pretty much experienced exactly what every level is going to be like, just with slightly different layouts and slightly more difficult ratios of enemy tanks.

60. Gauntlet Legends (1998)

Pros: Who doesn't enjoy a little bit of hack and slash action? Gauntlet Legends hews fairly closely to its roots going all the way back to the 1985 Gauntlet arcade game and NES port; you take control of one of four fantasy-themed warriors (ideally the scantily-clad Valkyrie, as to prevent allegations of your same-sex tendencies amongst your friends) and violently slash your way through several levels and the legions of zombies and goblins therein. And that's pretty much it. It's brainless but fun - especially if you have the full four players.

Cons: That said, if you don't have at least two players, it can get real monotonous real fast. There's not too much thinking, just a lot of fighting fighting fighting, and it's meant to be played with a friend. It's a lot like Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles in that way.

59. Chameleon Twist (1997)

Pros: One thing I'll complain about in this list is that too many post-Super Mario 64 platformers ripped off that game's idea of collecting items spread about worlds and pushed it to absurd lengths with overly sprawling levels and hundreds of doo-dads to collect. Chameleon Twist refreshingly rejects all of that. It's the rare post-Super Mario 64 3D platformer that just has a series of levels and the only goal is to get from one end to the other. Stripped-down, stress-free fun. You play a lizard and there's this pretty neat game mechanic where you use your long lizard tongue to grab poles and swing around them like you're Indiana Jones or some shit. When I rented it back in '97 I found it fun enough to play through the whole game in one or two sittings.

Cons: That said, it's strictly by the numbers in every aesthetic way. Drab, flat visuals with tons of sprites, strictly utilitarian music, no real innovative elements in the level designs. Like many games of the 8 and 16-bit eras that tried to be Super Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog, it's platforming paint-by-numbers, not incompetent, but not special.

58. Star Wars: Battle for Naboo (2000)

Pros: The game is kind of an unofficial sequel to Star Wars: Rogue Squadron, and like most Star Wars flight sims is pretty entertaining to play. You fly around and shoot down enemies with very good graphics all set to John Williams music. A fun time.

Cons: But I didn't find it to be nearly as likable as Rogue Squadron, which had you criss-crossing the galaxy in tons of different settings going on all kinds of neat Rebel Alliance missions. Here there's just the endless grass plains of Naboo and instead of the Galactic Empire you're facing off against Episode I's Trade Fedetation, a downgrade that's about as jarring and unpleasant as waking up to find your girlfriend's been replaced by a Komodo dragon. It's certainly not bad on any level, but as with the relationship between Tetrisphere and Tetris, more than anything else Battle for Naboo makes me say "This is fun, but you know what might really hit the spot? Rogue Squadron," and pop that game in instead.

57. Pokémon Snap (1999)

Pros: Now this is an original game. You're on safari on an exotic island armed only with a camera and some apples and have to take photographs of as many Pokémon as you can. You're then graded on your photography based on how large the Pokémon is in frame, how well they're facing the camera, how many of them you can group together, and whether or not you can catch them using their elemental powers. You have to manipulate your environment and figure out where to find the Pokémon, how to get them to emerge, and how best to goad them into using their powers, giving it a neat puzzle element. Honestly, it's a GREAT idea, but -

Cons: The problem is that rather than being one huge, free-roaming island for you to explore at length, you're set on several on-rails levels. This robs the game of what could have been a neat element of adventure, exploration, and discovery, and while it does allow you to really hone those levels, it also undermines the potential of a neat idea and a neat photography engine. If they made a downloadable sequel for WiiWare that actually let you roam the island and manipulate the environment with the Wiimote Elebits-style, now that would be a whole different story. Also, only 60-something of the original 151 Pokémon appear in the game. Weak.

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