Tag Archives: Nintendo 64

Custom Mario Tunes on Rock Band Network

Found this Super Mario 64 Bowser battle Theme on YouTube–and love it.  Wouldn’t it be great if these got approved? I’d pay money for all of the Mario 64 tunes.

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The Best of Madden

In light of sports commentator John Madden’s retirement from the booth, coupled with the summer release of Madden NFL 10, a sudden overwhelming feeling made me stop and think: Which Madden rules over the rest?

The question is subjective in nature. There is no empiric evidence that points to a clear winner during the last 21 years of EA’s Madden series. The question itself might even be considered questionable –Does there have to be a best Madden? And, who cares?

Sports fans do. They rank and compare the numbers on everything. Given the series’ immense history, EA’s annual output of a new Madden, and the series’ evolution from 1989 to the upcoming Madden NFL 10–an evolution that itself is an insight into the video game industry–delving into the series makes a lot of sense.

But if there isn’t a single “best” Madden, which ones stand out from the pack? There are Madden games that have risen above the rest in each era, from the 16-bit Genesis games to the knockout 2000 PS2 launch title. Which ones stood out graphically? (What about them virtual polygons?) Which made the biggest tech leaps? Which ones failed?

THE ROSTER

I’ve interviewed Madden specialists, including a handful of select journalists, each of whom has followed, played, and reviewed the series (and many other football games) for more than a decade.  I’ve interviewed a Madden competitor, a guy who’s appeared on Madden Nation and who runs a Madden fan site. I’ve included interviews with Tiburon’s producers to get a deeper look at the series from the inside. And I’ve included an interview with a former Visual Concepts producer and designer.

These folks include ESPN host and analyst Aaron Boulding, Game Informer’s sports experts Matt Bertz and Matthew Kato, and former long-term EGM sports writer (and current Insomniac community manager) Bryan Intihar. I also grabbed some time with EA’s Steve Chiang, senior vice president and group GM of Tiburon Studio, and Jeremy Strauser, Tiburon’s executive producer, each of whom have helmed the series through countless iterations. For a counter-point to EA, Dave Zdyrko, I spoke with former gameplay producer/designer at Visual Concepts and current lead designer at Quick Hit, Inc. And finally, we spoke with Raymond “Shopmaster” Goode. He was a contestant on Madden Nation (the TV show) and runs the fan sites Maddenwars.com, MyMaddenPad.com.

THE PROS’ ANSWERS

In email interviews with the aforementioned group, I asked the same set of questions, which is the best overall Madden game in the series? What is your top five list of Madden games? Which made the biggest improvements graphically? Which versions made the biggest gameplay advancements?  Which was the worst version? And which gave you your first “a-ha!” moment? For the purposes of this article, I pared down their answers to their favorite game, plus their top five all-time favorites. For the full set of individual interviews, click on the names of each contributor.

Which Madden games made the pro’s top choices?

Aaron Boulding is a host and analyst for ESPN.

Aaron Boulding is a host and analyst for ESPN.

Aaron Boulding (ESPN): Madden NFL 92 (Genesis: until Madden NFL 10)

“With the exception of Madden ’06, which was an insult to video game football fans everywhere, the best version is always the most recent version,” explains Boulding. “All of the lessons, mistakes, improvements, enhancements and innovations of previous games are put to good use in the game that’s out right now. Even bad ideas like the quarterback vision cone (Madden 06) went to a halfway house in subsequent editions of the game before being banished forever (Madden NFL 10).”

Boulding’s Top Five

1. Madden NFL 92 (“Genesis: It had ambulances on the field thanks to Randall Cunningham’s brittle ass,” said Boulding. “JJ Birden and Neal Anderson were unstoppable.”)

2. Madden NFL 2005 (Xbox)

3. Madden NFL 09 (Xbox 360)

4. Madden NFL 08 (Xbox 360)

5. Madden NFL 2001 (PS2)

Matt Bertz is the content manager for Game Informer magazine.

Matt Bertz is the content manager for Game Informer magazine.

Matt Bertz (Game Informer): Madden 99 on Nintendo 64

“‘Best overall game’ is a tricky term when you’re talking about an evolving series,” said Bertz. “One the one hand you have to go with the latest version, which features most of the gameplay improvements and innovations that made the game great over the last two decades. But if you use the term ‘best overall game’ to point toward the version that introduced the most innovative ideas I would have to go with Madden 99 for the N64. I think the debut of the franchise mode is the pinnacle achievement in the series history, and Madden 99 also marked the series transition to 3D and motion-captured animations.”

Bertz’s Top Five

1. Madden 99 (N64)
2. Madden 04 (PS2)
3. Madden 94 (Genesis)
4. Madden 01 (PC)
5. Madden 95 (Genesis)

Matthew Kato is the senior associate editor at Game Informer magazine.

Matthew Kato is the sr. associate editor at Game Informer.

Matthew Kato (Game Informer): Madden ‘06 for the PS2

“Madden ’06 had QB vision, Superstar mode (where you get to control one player on and off the field), and was a fast-playing title that had honed some of the series problems through the years,” said Kato.

Kato’s Top Five

1. Madden ‘06 (PS2)
2. Madden ‘04 (PS2)
3. Madden ‘94 (Genesis)
4. Madden ‘99 (PS)
5. Madden ‘96 (Genesis)

Bryan Intihar is the former sports writer for EGM.

Bryan Intihar is the former sports writer for EGM.

Bryan Intihar (Insomniac): Madden NFL 2001 (PS2)

“Even though the later PS2/XB/GC iterations continually improved gameplay, Madden NFL 2001 (PS2) will go down as my personal favorite,” said Intihar. “I’ve already commented on the visuals, but it was one of the first sports games that really started concentrating on the subtleties. No matter which NFL team you were a fan of, you knew the players—from their body proportions to extra gear—were going to be unbelievably accurate.”

Intihar’s Top Five:

1. Madden NFL 01 (PS2)
2. Madden 92 (Genesis)
3. Madden NFL 05 (PS2/Xbox)
4. Madden 93 (Genesis)
5. Madden NFL 08 (Xbox 360)

Dave "Z" Zdyrko is the lead designer for Quick Hit Football.

Dave "Z" Zdyrko is the lead designer for Quick Hit Football.

Dave Zdyrko (former producer/designer, Visual Concepts): Madden NFL 2001 (PS2)

“I wouldn’t necessarily call them the best, but my fondest memories are with Madden ’98 for the Sony PlayStation and Madden ’94 for the Sega Genesis,” said Zdyrko. “My level of enjoyment with Madden typically came from playing with my boys and these two versions happened to garnish some of my all-time Madden moments.”

Zdyrko’s Top Five

1. Madden NFL 2001 (PS2)
2. Madden NFL ’98 (PS)
3. Madden NFL ’94 (Genesis)
4. Madden NFL ’93 (Genesis)
5. Madden NFL ’08 (Xbox)

Steve Chiang, image courtesy of Jim Carchidi

Steve Chiang, sr VP & Group GM, EA Tiburon (image courtesy of Jim Carchidi)

Steve Chiang (Tiburon): Madden NFL 2004 (PS2)

Excluding current PS3/Xbox 360/Wii, Madden NFL 2004 for the PS2 with Michael Vick on the cover was a great one,” said Chiang. “We had an awesome feature set with Playmaker control, Owner Mode, and things like the EA SPORTS Bio, which was an EA SPORTS version of the Xbox 360 achievement system… we tracked achievements for all of your EA SPORTS titles.”

Chiang’s Top Five:

1. Madden NFL 2004 (PS2)

2. Madden NFL 2001 (PS2: it took the franchise to the next level)

3. Madden NFL ’96 (Super NES: first football game made by Tiburon)

4. Madden NFL ’97 (PS: first 32-bit football game, and when Tiburon took over future versions of the game)

5. Madden NFL ’99 (first version with Franchise mode)

Jeremy Strauser is the executive producer on Madden at EA Tiburon

Jeremy Strauser is the executive producer on Madden at EA Tiburon

Jeremy Strauser (Tiburon): Madden NFL 2004 (PS2)

“This is a tough question,” pondered Strauser. “It is like asking to pick our favorite child.  If forced to pick just one, I would have to say Madden NFL 2004 for the PS2 and Xbox would be it.  The graphical and gameplay engine were in its fourth year, which is about what it takes to reach peak capability, online play was going strong, we had a solid base feature set and then added two huge things in Playmaker Control and Owner Mode.  Madden NFL 10 has the potential to be that version for our current generation of engines.”

Strauser’s Top Five: 1. Madden NFL 2004 (PS2)

2. Madden NFL 2001 (PS2: this launched Madden into a new level)

3. Madden NFL 09 (Xbox 360/PS3: Amazing graphical engine, feature set filled out nicely)

4. Madden NFL 96 (Sega Genesis: My first credited Madden game, for purely sentimental reasons)

5. Madden 93 Championship Edition (Sega Genesis: classical best gameplay, top historical teams, cool and rare cartridge)

Jeremy "Shopmaster" Goode runs MaddenWars.com

Jeremy "Shopmaster" Goode runs MaddenWars.com

Raymond “Shopmaster” Goode (Maddenwars.com): Madden 06 on PS2

“I would have to say that last year’s Madden 09 for the XBOX 360 was one of the best Madden game in the series,” said Goode. “Madden 09 had made so many strides from 08 that it was hard not to like the game. Running a close second has to be Madden 06 for the PS2.  Madden 06 with McNabb on the cover was a very good game also because it introduced the vision cone, which was a good in my opinion but wasn’t as well received by the community.”

Goode’s Top Five

1. Madden 06 (PS2)

2. Madden 05 (PS2)

3. Madden 09 (Xbox 360)

4. Madden 03 (PS2)

5. Madden 92 (Sega Genesis)

The Pro Winners: It’s a three-way tie between Madden NFL 06 (PS2), Madden NFL 2001 (PS2), Madden NFL 2004 (PS2).

THE AGGREGATE SCORES

While aggregation sites like Metacritic.com don’t always accurately reflect media outlet scores, they do a good job of providing a baseline average. The best average score on MetaCritic is Madden NFL 2003 (with Rams running back Marshall Faulk on the cover) for PlayStation 2, with a 95 overall ranking and which collected 10 perfect scores.

Tied for second place are Madden NFL 2002 (with Daunte Culpepper) and Madden NFL 2004 (with Michael Vick) on PS2, both of which scored an average of 94, the latter of which collected 11 perfect scores from media outlets.

GameRankings.com‘s top accumulated Madden review is Madden NFL 2004 on PS2 (91.75%). It is followed by Madden NFL 2002 on PS2 (91.66%), Madden NFL 2004 on GameCube (91.54%), Madden NFL 2003 on PS2 (91.40%), and Madden NFL ’96 on the Sega Genesis (91.25%). These are all aggregated scores from select media outlets.

Metacritic.com “winner”: Madden NFL 2003

GameRankings “winner”: Madden NFL 2004

MADDEN BY THE NUMBERS

Publishers use NPD’s TRSTS data to track unit sales in North America. Sales numbers help publishers determine whether to create a sequel. For Madden, that’s not really an issue, since there is always a sequel! Sales numbers aren’t good, however, for determining which games are best. If quality was equal to quantity than Britney Spears (a Mousekateer) would be a talented goddess of dance and song, instead of a popular pop singer who stole all Janet Jackson’s dance moves.

Sticking a wrench in evaluating sales numbers is the fact that newly launched consoles have poor installed bases. When the Xbox 360 arrived in fall 2005, EA could only sell as many Maddens as there were consoles in homes, and that’s assuming that every single Xbox 360 owner bought Madden NFL 06 (which they didn’t). To make up for early systems, EA also made Madden on existing systems (PS2, GameCube, Xbox, PSP, etc.), which is why the numbers (below) look they way they do. Also remember that Madden NFL 07 arrived in summer 2006, and it probably sold more units on PS2 than on Xbox 360.

Still, looking at Madden’s best selling games helps us determine the most popular Madden games in the public’s eye. The best selling Madden titles in North America across all SKUs (systems) are:

1. Madden NFL 07

2. Madden NFL 08

3. Madden NFL 09

4. Madden NFL 06

5. Madden NFL 2004

Some other interesting facts–according to NPD, year to date:

–Madden NFL 09 is the third highest selling title across all SKUs combined

–Madden NFL 09 is the fourth highest selling Xbox 360 title

–Madden NFL 09 is the second highest selling PS3 title

–Madden NFL 09 is the fourth highest grossing title across all SKUs combined

–Madden NFL 09 is the fifth highest grossing Xbox 360 title

–Madden NFL 09 is the second highest grossing PS3 title

Sales “Winner”: Madden NFL 07

MAKING SENSE OF MADDEN

The Madden NFL franchise is a remarkable series in the history of video games. It’s popular; very, very popular. It’s developed an incredible brand name; many gamers know “Madden” first as a game, second as an announcer. It’s not always the best football series, as early versions of GameDay and a handful of NFL 2K versions have shown. “Madden ’06…was an insult to video game football fans everywhere,” Boulding explains.

Furthermore, many gamers see EA’s exclusive NFL licensing as a negative. “Whether it was Tecmo Super Bowl, NFL Gameday, or the 2K series, competition has always made Madden better,” says Bertz. “A rivalry-based league like the NFL should realize that competition breeds success, and I hope they lift the exclusivity agreement when the option presents itself.”

But  since 1989, EA has cranked out a new Madden game each year, every new version full of new feature sets, improved gameplay and production values. “I think the series usually does a good job of trying to including things–like franchise innovations, superstar mode, QB Vision –that go beyond just being a yearly sports title that non-sports fans thinks is just churned out with new rosters,” says Kato.

To wit, Madden NFL 09’s player IQ feature is one of the more intriguinig features in years because it’s useful for both new and veteran players: it teaches players where they messed up and how to improve their game. The improvement to the game’s online functionality, added leagues,  and Tiburon’s constant focus on improving player control push the series each year to a potentially better game.

By looking at sales numbers, aggregate scores, and the pro picks, there was no clear winner. If any game surfaced to the top, Madden NFL 2004  was among the bigger favorites. Can Madden NFL 10 top them all?

Perhaps Boulding put it best. “With the exception of Madden ’06, which was an insult to video game football fans everywhere, the best version is always the most recent version. All of the lessons, mistakes, improvements, enhancements and innovations of previous games are put to good use in the game that’s out right now. Even bad ideas like the quarterback vision cone (Madden 06) went to a halfway house in subsequent editions of the game before being banished forever (Madden NFL 10).”

WHAT DO YOU THINK? Let me know what your favorite Madden games are (and include your top fives).

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The Pros Weigh in on Madden: Matt Bertz

In light of sports commentator John Madden’s retirement from the booth, coupled with the summer release of Madden NFL 10, a sudden overwhelming feeling made me stop and think: Which Madden rules over the rest?

In conjunction with the cover story, The Best of Madden, I’ve included individual interviews with each of the pros. I asked each pro the same set of questions: Which is the best Madden, which version made the biggest strides? Which ones were the best graphical leaps? Which were the worst Maddens? Was there an “a-ha” moment for you? What is your favorite Visual Concepts football game?

Matt Bertz is the content manager for Game Informer magazine.

Matt Bertz is the content manager for Game Informer magazine.

Here is the full interview with Matt Bertz, content manager, Game Informer.

Doug Perry: Starting in 1988 on the Apple II, the Madden series has drastically evolved as one of the longest-lasting video game series in the industry’s history. What were a few of the most impressive gameplay advancements you’ve experienced in the series?

Matt Bertz: To me, there are different standout achievements for different eras. In the days of couch competition, the introduction of bluff playcalls in Madden 94 was huge. You no longer had to worry about your friend sneaking a peak at your offensive playcall. As the game progressed over the years, the evolution of on-field strategy like audibles, formation shifts, hot routes, and man locks helped push the competition to higher levels, allowing players make quick adjustments to exploit or shut down their competition.

Doug: What were a few of the most memorable graphic improvements?

Matt: The ambulance coming on to the field after you murdered your friend’s quarterback in the early Genesis versions is the standout graphic in my mind. I wish they would bring those back. The addition of motion captured animations like pump fakes, sideline catches, and big hits also stand out.

Doug: Which iteration, in your opinion, is the best overall game in the series? Why? List the year and the platform.

Matt: ‘Best overall game’ is a tricky term when you’re talking about an evolving series. One the one hand you have to go with the latest version, which features most of the gameplay improvements and innovations that made the game great over the last two decades. But if you use the term “best overall game” to point toward the version that introduced the most innovative ideas I would have to go with Madden 99 for the N64. I think the debut of the franchise mode is the pinnacle achievement in the series history, and Madden 99 also marked the series transition to 3D and motion-captured animations.

Doug: Create a top five list of Madden games, including the year and system.

Matt: 1. Madden 99 (N64)

2. Madden 04 (PS2)

3. Madden 94 (Genesis)

4. Madden 01 (PC)

5. Madden 95 (Genesis).

Doug: Which Madden version was the worst one you’ve played? Why? Make sure to include the platform.

Matt: I have to go with Madden 06 for the Xbox 360. Missing game modes, no play-by-play announcer, graphic glitches, animation locks—EA should have never released a game this half-baked. When the version for older consoles is better than your next-gen debut and it also happens to be the year you sign an exclusivity deal, you have problems. I think the release of Madden 06 for the 360 marked the start of a growing sense of disgruntlement among the fan base that still haunts the franchise to this day.

Doug: What was your first “a-ha!” moment with Madden? (In other words, what was the experience that hooked you on the series?)

Matt: I’m a huge football fan, so I’ve always played the series. On a personal level, the biggest moment in the series history has to be the introduction of the franchise mode in Madden ‘99. Since the days of Tecmo Super Bowl, I loved guiding a team through a season. But when EA gave me the ability to call the shots for my organization over several years—taking on the responsibility of drafting, trading, signing, and releasing players—the time I spent playing the game in my free time skyrocketed. The success of franchise mode is evident in the fact that it is now mainstay across all the major sports titles.

Doug Perry: Is there anything else you’d like to add to this Madden story?

Matt: Whether it was Tecmo Super Bowl, NFL Gameday, or the 2K series, competition has always made Madden better. A rivalry-based league like the NFL should realize that competition breeds success, and I hope they lift the exclusivity agreement when the option presents itself. I think EA would devote more resources to the game and Madden would be better if the company had to fight for sales against other football games.

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The Pros Weigh in on Madden: Jeremy Strauser

In light of sports commentator John Madden’s retirement from the booth, coupled with the summer release of Madden NFL 10, a sudden overwhelming feeling made me stop and think: Which Madden rules over the rest?

In conjunction with the cover story, The Best of Madden, I’ve included individual interviews with each of the pros. I asked each pro the same set of questions: Which is the best Madden, which version made the biggest strides? Which ones were the best graphical leaps? Which were the worst Maddens? Was there an “a-ha” moment for you? What is your favorite Visual Concepts football game?

Jeremy Strauser is the executive producer on Madden at EA Tiburon

Jeremy Strauser is the executive producer on Madden at EA Tiburon

Here is the full interview with Jeremy Strauser, Executive Producer, EA Tiburon.

Doug Perry: Starting in 1988 on the Apple II, the Madden series has drastically evolved as one of the longest-lasting video game series in the industry’s history. What were a few of the most impressive gameplay advancements you’ve experienced in the series?

Jeremy Strauser: Here’s my list: Windowless passing,  Madden NFL 95?  May have been 94; Playmaker control – Madden NFL 2004; Hitstick – Madden NFL 2005; Playbook and player ratings accuracy/detail jump starting with X360/PS3 versions, and seriously, no kidding, Pro-Tak coming in Madden NFL 10

Doug: What were a few of the most memorable graphic improvements?

Jeremy: Here is another list: Madden NFL 2001 for PS2, which made the biggest leap ever in overall graphical quality; Madden NFL 06 for Xbox 360, which made another big leap in overall look; Madden NFL 09 for Xbox 360/PS3, our current engine starting to come into its own, and Madden 64 for N64, this was a big deal compared to PlayStation/Saturn.

Doug: Which iteration, in your opinion, is the best overall game in the series? Why? List the year and the platform.

Jeremy: This is a tough question, it is like asking to pick our favorite child.  If forced to pick just one, I would have to say Madden NFL 2004 for the PS2 and Xbox would be it.  The graphical and gameplay engine were in its fourth year, which is about what it takes to reach peak capability, online play was going strong, we had a solid base feature set and then added two huge things in Playmaker Control and Owner Mode.  Madden NFL 10 has the potential to be that version for our current generation of engines.

Doug: Create a top five list of Madden games, including the year and system.

Jeremy: 1.Madden NFL 2004 for PS2/Xbox 360 as described above.

2. Madden NFL 2001 for PS2 – this launched Madden into a new level.

3. Madden NFL 09 for Xbox 360/PS3 – amazing graphical engine, feature set filled out nicely.

4. Madden NFL 96 for Sega Genesis – my first credited Madden game, this is for purely sentimental reasons.

5. Madden 93 Championship Edition for Sega Genesis – classical best gameplay, top historical teams, cool and rare cartridge

Doug: Which Madden version was the worst one you’ve played? Why? Make sure to include the platform.

Jeremy: Declined to answer.

Doug: What was your first “a-ha!” moment with Madden? (In other words, what was the experience that hooked you on the series?)

Jeremy: Playing enough Madden ‘93 and ‘94 in college to earn a minor in videogames 🙂  I couldn’t put them down.  As an extension of being a sports fan, I was immediately hooked by EA SPORTS on the Sega Genesis.  When I got a chance to join the company, I never looked back.  This is still (after 14 years) a dream job for a sports fan.  On the tech side, the transition to new hardware engines (Madden 2001 and 2006 for example) are filled with cool a-ha moments during the dev process.

Doug Perry: Is there anything else you’d like to add to this Madden story?

Jeremy: No, not really.  Thanks for the walk down memory lane.

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Looking Back at 1998: Nintendo’s Fall, Part 2

mariocrackedimage_1What happened after N64’s launch? What happened with third-part support? What ultimately happened to the Nintendo 64?

——————————————-

With the wildly successful Nintendo DS and Wii hitting record sales month after month, Nintendo looks like a million bucks. All of Nintendo’s well calculated strategies and inventive risks look like–and may very well be–genius.

Going against the grain of more sophisticated machines such as the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, in 2006 Nintendo launched the Wii, a console less powerful than the original Xbox, accompanied by an un-tried game controller that smacked of trickery, and a name that sounded so close to urine that it made everyone over 10 years of age giggle.

But it wasn’t always that way.

“Looking Back at 1998: Nintendo’s Fall, Part 2” is the second part of a series originally published on Edge-Online.com.

——————————————

“Something is Wrong with Nintendo 64”

In the May 1997 issue of Next Generation (number 29, Volume 3), eight months after Nintendo’s successful launch with only two games, Next Generation magazine took a hard look at Nintendo’s system with the headline, “Something is Wrong with Nintendo 64,” followed by the subhead, “There simply aren’t enough quality games. But is there hope? Revealed: The 70 new games that will make or break N64.”

next_gen_thenandnow_1

Next Gen compares the the Super NES launch titles to the Nintendo 64 launch titles. Super Mario World Vs Super Mario 64; PilotWings versus PilotWings 64; F-Zero versus Wave Race 64; and Actraiser versus Shadows of the Empire.

Those words were tough for Nintendo fans to face, but the cover image was even more jarring. It was illustrated with a picture of Mario’s face beneath a cracked plate of glass, splintering Mario’s smiling face into shards.

The basic premise of Next Generation’s feature article was Nintendo had promised “quality” ahead of “quantity,” but didn’t support that strategy with enough quality games. Additionally, the magazine wrote that the games that had arrived were:

1) “Out of date” (Doom 64, Cruis’n USA, NBA Hangtime, and Killer Instinct Gold among them).

2) “Too safe” (see previous list).

3) “And had all the flaws of cartridge-based games” (the lack of storage produced redundant textures, little to no FMV, and significant audio limitations).

4) NG also claimed that while Nintendo made a big deal about the power of 64-bit games over 32-bit games, “outside of Super Mario 64 and Wave Race 64, that extra power hadn’t meant squat to the quality of games. “

5) Finally, Next Generation claimed that there was “no third-party support.”

After two years of working at Next Generation, I headed up the first IGN site, N64.com, which launched in August 1996. The publisher of Next Generation Jonathan Simpson-Bint had given me the option to work on any of the IGN sites, and I had originally picked SaturnWorld.com. After some reflection, I decided to run the N64 site instead, shifting newly hired editor, Jeff Chen, to the Saturn site.

turok_boxartAs the new editor at N64.com, I was conflicted. I took issue with Next Generation. Mainly, I disagreed with Next Generation’s review scores. The magazine had only given two Nintendo 64 games, Super Mario 64 and PilotWings 64, five out of five stars. Everything else was ravaged. Wave Race 64 received three stars? Wave Race 64 remains a brilliant piece of technology and gameplay even today. Despite a slew of jet ski games ushered out on PS2, none have been as good as Wave Race. Even the sequel Wave Race: Blue Storm wasn’t better the original. Turok: Dinosaur Hunter received only three stars? Didn’t that game have the coolest set of weapons ever? Even Mario Kart 64 received three stars.

The conflict, however, was that even if I didn’t agree with Next Generation on a game-by-game basis, I agreed with Next Generation’s premise on the whole. On the whole, third-party games were lackluster, old, and safe. It wasn’t until one-plus year after launch that EA started supporting N64. And the 64-bit console’s power wasn’t vastly ahead of the competition, by any means.

cruisnexotica_cartAll of my issues aside, the magazine’s criticisms pointed out N64’s biggest flaw: the cartridge model was already a thing of the past.

The Medium Is the Message

“Numerous motivational factors explain why the third-part lineup thus far excels only in predictability,” reads Next Generation number 29, Volume 3. “One reason is directly linked to the Nintendo 64 business model which takes away a great deal of the profit potential for a third-party developer. Used to paying approximately $15 per disc for PlayStation, Saturn, and PC games, gamers pay about $35 for Nintendo cartridges and publishers must consider this carefully when planning games for the system.”

“‘From an inventory risk standpoint, we prefer working on CD platforms,’ admits Virgin Games’s Neil Young (in NG 29), which is part of the reason why Virgin is only developing one Nintendo 64 product as opposed to a number of games for competing CD-ROM systems. The bottom line is that when third parties have to pay Nintendo $35 up front for all the games they want to make, it requires a huge financial gamble.”

next_gen_indevelopment_1

What happened to Battle Sport II and Contra 64? Why did we get Clay Fighter 63 1/3 and Dark Rift instead?

As we now know, Sony’s PlayStation usurped Nintendo as the market leader partially by wooing developers off Nintendo’s cartridge-based ideology. Developers and publishers alike were attracted to the possibilities of the CD-ROM, which provided more storage versus Nintendo’s cartridge storage capabilities, not to mention more flexible, less risky production scheduling. Publishers could store more video, art, and texture work required in the emerging 3D world of gaming on a CD than on a cartridge. And Nintendo’s rejection of the new technology (or at the very least misinterpretation of its power) played a major role in its stumble from the top.

Equally important to publishers were the economic issues involved with cartridges. There was no doubt in the mind of any smart executive that Nintendo would continue to be successful. Nobody had misgivings about the strength, brilliance, or popularity of Nintendo’s first-party games. Those would come and they would be great. Potentially they would open up sales, markets, and opportunities for third parties as well. Potentially.

next_gen_indevelopment_2

How fun was Virgin's Freak Boy--a character that could turn into any weapon, instead of carrying it? And what is this, Ubisoft? Ed?

But the cartridge business all of a sudden looked riskier and far more expensive in comparison to the CD-ROM business. With cartridges–essentially individual chip sets plugged into the console–publishers had to guess how many cartridges to make in advance of the game’s release.

As many publishers had experienced with the NES and Super NES, guessing wrong on precise numbers (500,000 versus 900,000 units, for instance) could backfire in at least two ways. If they guessed short, they would have to queue up again to make more and potentially wait behind other publishers waiting to have their cartridges manufactured–and potentially lose sales during the waiting time. Publishers could miss the Christmas rush entirely if they guessed wrong.

next_gen_indevelopment_3

Kirby Bowl transforms into Kirby's Air Ride. And of course, there is Mah Jong Master, wihch always threatened to arrive...

But if publishers guessed long and ordered too many, and customers didn’t buy as many as they had estimated, they would be stuck with extra, expensive cartridges. You always hear the real-life moral tale of Atari’s ET cartridges buried somewhere in the desert, but there is truth in that tale for all cartridge-based publishers. What do you do with thousands of pre-ordered cartridges that don’t sell? You could take Braid designer Jonathan Blow’s advice–to start at point zero and make a good game–but that’s easier said than done.

The PlayStation also touted 3D games with a hardware engine designed to create polygons and texture maps, not sprites. The Saturn, for instance, was a great sprite generating machine, and while the Nintendo 64 had serious power at the time, its storage and RAM limitations hampered the expanding demands gamers and developers were placing on better graphics and sound.

“[With CD-ROMs] publishers could provide more content without paying gigantic prices for memory,” explained Mike Mika, currently head of development at Other Ocean, and then soon-to-be associate editor at Next Generation. “No matter what size your game was, it was still just a single fixed cost. For Nintendo, you had a variety of cartridge sizes that became cost prohibitive very quickly. So you saw a lot of developers and publishers move to some exclusivity on PlayStation.”

Next Generation’s final argument in issue 29 crystallized the problem.

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F-Zero, Zelda, and SIlicon Valley made it to N64, and all in great shape.

“Many software publishers are still smarting from huge losses on unsold cartridge games at the end of the 16-bit era, and the last thing they want to do is take another financial bath. So this means that no one wants to take any chances. Third parties will release only the safest, sure-fire winners for N64. And this, (when cemented by Nintendo’s demands for exclusivity which removes any profits from other versions) means tried-and-trusted no-brainer game recipes, big licenses, coin-op conversions–and a resounding ‘snore’ from experienced gamers.”

squaresoft_logoSquare and the Third Party Problem

Squaresoft and Enix were two of the biggest RPG-making companies in Japan. On all visible fronts, both looked like staunch Nintendo supporters with Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest having sold millions of copies in Japan, Europe, and North America on Nintendo’s previous systems.

While Square and Enix originally had stated they would support Nintendo’s system, in retrospect those statements proved differently. It was more than significant to see Square and Enix embrace the PlayStation and then quietly and politely distance themselves from Nintendo’s N64.

The biggest example was when Squaresoft’s Final Fantasy VII arrived on PlayStation in 1997. Sony Computer Entertainment America, which published the game in the U.S., proved its knack for marketing by positioning Final Fantasy VII as an action game in its TV commercials. The game, however, was anything but. Final Fantasy VII was a vast turn-based RPG with what seemed like hours of animated CG cutscenes. At the time, Squaresoft’s RPG was a remarkable visually stunning, and epic game. It sold millions of copies on PlayStation. If you were system agnostic, you bought your PlayStation and you were too were delighted. But to any Nintendo purist, Square’s FFVII on PlayStation felt like betrayal. ffvii_boxart


“The move by Square to CDs was very significant,” said Chris Charla, currently the VP of business development at Foundation 9 Entertainment, and former Editor-in-Chief of Next Generation Magazine. “First, it gave us a hint that Sony’s system might have some staying power… Seriously, it was really the ultimate seal of approval for optical media in games, and of course it marked a shift by third parties towards PlayStation as the system of choice.”

“It really made people understand what CD offered over cartridge,” added Mika. “There was no way that Nintendo could compete with the imagery and animation that Square put into Final Fantasy VII. People who were just starting to wake up to the next generation of gaming would look at FFVII and Zelda and see that FFVII was just simply a higher impact visually. It was in effect the better ‘book cover.’ And as far as marketing goes, that’s what you need to win people over. It looked better in commercials, screenshots, etc. Its brilliant use of FMV combined with real-time 3D was stunning.”

Brilliance and the Slow Decline

In winter 1997, early hardware and software sales figures indicated that despite Nintendo’s late entry into the marketplace with the Nintendo 64 (Nintendo switched the name from Ultra 64 many months after the Shoshinkai Exposition), the Redmond, Washington-based company had come out fighting.

According to TRST data (The Toy Retail Tracking System), an independent tracker of software sales, six of the 1996 holiday season’s best selling titles were Nintendo 64 titles. Those games included the season’s number one selling game, Super Mario 64, Star Wars Shadows of the Empire (#3), Killer Instinct Gold (#5), Cruis’n USA (#6), Wave Race 64 (#8), and Mortal Kombat Trilogy (#9). Super NES games Donkey Kong Country 2 and Donkey Kong Country 3 also made the top 10, leaving one Saturn and one PlayStation game in the top 10.

As Nintendo’s system built momentum, there were some key third-party titles: Konami’s International Superstar Soccer (AKA Pro Evolution or Winning 11), Midway’s Top Gear Rally, and a few others. Several elements kept N64 relatively close in the market race, but third-party support and consistent quality games were rarely part of the equation.

goldeneye007Second-party developer Rare, however, emerged into a powerhouse force during the N64 years. Best known for early hits Battletoads and Jetpac, and Super NES hits Donkey Kong Country 2 and 3, Rare hit its stride with N64, producing creative hits such as Blast Corps, breaking movie-game stereotypes with the first genuinely good console first-person shooter, GoldenEye 007, and producing clutch games such as Diddy Kong Racing for the otherwise empty Christmas holiday of 1997. Additional Rare hits included Donkey Kong 64, Jet Force Gemini, Perfect Dark, and what many critics consider Rare’s best game, Conker’s Bad Fur Day.

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Ocean didn't want us to reveal that Mission Impossible's lead character had a face that merged John Travolta's and Tom Cruise's, due to Cruise's refusal to use his likeness in the game.

The supreme irony of Nintendo 64’s decline in sales and support was that Shigeru Miyamoto’s most transforming, innovative, and visionary work was done on N64. Today, Super Mario 64 remains one of the greatest games ever because of Miyamoto’s ability to successfully bring Nintendo’s flagship franchise into the 3D realm while remaining true to the original. In Mario 64, Miyamoto addressed and, in most cases, solved the difficulty that plagued many developers years after–the 3D camera.

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Zelda shows us what it means to target with a Z.

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was even more visionary. Aside from introducing key innovative mechanics (which are staples in game mechanics today) such as Z-targeting (some might argue this same technique was simultaneously introduced in Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver), and contact sensitive actions, Ocarina of Time evolved story-telling techniques by jumping in time and portraying Link as both a young and grown character. The time-jumping technique also delivered real consequences to earlier actions made in the game. Other clever innovations involved the use of the ocarina. The ocarina had an extraordinary emotional effect on players who had to memorize tunes, which then cast magic on characters and items, enabling Link to progress.

Next Generation called Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time the “game of the century,”‘ under Charla’s editorial direction. Future’s sister publication in England, Edge, in 2007 reported Ocarina of Time as the “best game of all time,” according to its reader poll.

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The 64DD did arrive, but in limited supply.

But even Nintendo had problems with how to deliver The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time to its cartridge system. The Bulky Drive, later known as the 64DD, was originally planned as the defacto peripheral on which the game would arrive. But the 64DD (1999) arrived after Ocarina of Time (1998), and never took off. Nintendo, instead, doubled the size of its cartridge to 32 MBs and fit Zelda onto it, the biggest cartridge Nintendo had ever created.

Well before Nintendo 64’s five-year cycle had come to a close, the Nintendo 64, despite an impressive start and significant first- and second party games peppering its lifespan, continued to lose significant market share to Sony while third-party support dropped precipitously. By 1999, when the Dreamcast shipped, even companies like Midway and Acclaim, original members of the “Dream Team,” stopped supporting N64.

Sony’s win with the PlayStation was due to a combination of factors. First, Sony bet on the right storage medium. Equally important, however, was that Sony had earned market leadership by wooing and grooming third-party publishers who created a massive library of games that reached into all genres and sub-genres. It created its own first- and second-party hits such as Gran Turismo, Crash Bandicoot, Spyro the Dragon, Twisted Metal, JetMoto, and NFL GameDay, to name just a few. But one could question that if Nintendo, despite all its creative strides in software, had picked a different, better technology, the 32-bit generation console wars would have emerged much differently.

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Yuke Yuke Troublemakers was a weird a wonderful game, just like all of Treasure's game.

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How would Nintendo take these lessons and apply them to its next system, the GameCube? And how would Nintendo build upon Rare’s second-party strategy? And how would technology ultimately be the issue that Nintendo would tackle in a totally unique way? Look for part 3 of “Looking Back: Nintendo’s Fall” soon.

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Looking Back at 1996: Nintendo’s Fall, Pt. 1

nextgen_cover_marioflyWith the wildly successful Nintendo DS and Wii hitting record sales month after month, Nintendo looks like a million bucks. All of Nintendo’s well calculated strategies and inventive risks look like–and may very well be–genius.

Going against the grain of more sophisticated machines such as the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, in 2006 Nintendo launched the Wii, a console less powerful than the original Xbox, accompanied by an un-tried game controller that smacked of trickery, and a name that sounded so close to urine that it made everyone over 10 years of age giggle.

But it wasn’t always that way.

For the full story, originally posted on Edge-Online, is here. Look for part 2 coming soon.

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