Spoiler Warning: Minor spoilers are present for some of the entries on this list.
Nintendo recently launched the so-called Switch online “expansion pack” – representing incredibly poor value, but that’s beside the point. Included with the subscription are a handful of Nintendo 64 titles which the Switch can emulate. It just got me thinking about one of my favourite consoles and some of the amazing games I enjoyed back in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
I upgraded from a Super Nintendo (or SNES) to a Nintendo 64 at Christmas 1997, and the console was my primary gaming machine for about three years until I picked up a Dreamcast shortly after the turn of the millennium. Though I had a PC as well at the time, it was underpowered compared to the console and couldn’t come close to matching it. Though we often think of PC gaming in 2021 as being the gold standard that consoles have to try to measure up to, it wasn’t that long ago where even an expensive PC would struggle in gaming performance next to a dedicated games console – and the Nintendo 64/PlayStation generation was certainly part of that era!
The Nintendo 64 was my first experience with proper 3D graphics. I’d played PC games with 3D environments before, and other games with 3D sprites, but it was only when I sat down to play Super Mario 64 that I got to fully experience a 3D virtual world. It felt like the future back then – and considering that the Nintendo 64 pioneered a number of features that are still part of gaming today, I guess I was right about that!
Aesthetically, I love the design of the Nintendo 64 and its controller. The chunky three-armed device was intimidating at first; “I don’t have three hands,” I remember thinking, “so how am I supposed to hold it?!” But having an analogue stick was a neat feature, one that felt like a massive upgrade from the wobbly joysticks or D-pads of past consoles I’d been able to play on. Navigating the new 3D environments needed a controller suited to that purpose, and the Nintendo 64’s analogue stick delivered – even if it seems a little primitive when compared to the controllers we enjoy today! Having a “trigger” also made shooting games feel all the more immersive.
The Nintendo 64 had a stellar lineup of games – several of which I only got to play years later as they were unaffordable to me when I was younger and broke! Now I’m old and still broke – but at least there’s emulation! Actually, the Nintendo 64 was the console that got me into the emulation scene back in the early 2000s. After upgrading to a more powerful PC I found that I could emulate the console quite well, and had a blast re-playing a few favourites as well as playing titles I missed out on first time around. I can’t condone emulation – it’s a legal minefield and you should be careful – but if you have a decent computer and know what you’re doing you’ll have a far better (and cheaper) time than you would if you paid for a Switch online “expansion pack!”
Looking back with the benefit of hindsight, I’d say that the games of this era represent a transitional stage for the video games industry as a whole. Most Nintendo 64 titles feel like a half-step between the rather basic, toy-like games of earlier generations and the bigger, more in-depth and cinematic titles that we’d enjoy a few short years later. The move from 2D to 3D didn’t immediately lead to masterpieces like Shenmue or Knights of the Old Republic, but the rapid pace of technological change meant that those kinds of games were finally possible. The Nintendo 64 has some games that tried very hard to tell more adult-oriented stories, and it was around this time that I felt video games as a whole had a heck of a lot of potential to be something more.
So on this occasion – twenty-five years on from the Nintendo 64’s 1996 debut – I thought it would be fun to look at five of my favourite titles. These are just a few of the games that, for me anyway, made the Nintendo 64 great. My usual caveat applies: I’m not saying these five games are “objectively the best” Nintendo 64 games out there. If you hate all of them or don’t see your favourite on the list, that’s okay! There are plenty of Nintendo 64 games out there, and we all have our personal favourites. These are just a few of mine!
With that out of the way, let’s take a look at the list – which is in no particular order.
Number 1: Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire
A few years before Knights of the Old Republic would come along and absolutely blow me away, Shadows of the Empire took me on an outstanding Star Wars-themed adventure. A third-person action-adventure game with nary a Jedi nor the Force in sight, players take control of the Han Solo-inspired Dash Rendar for a wild romp across the galaxy – set during and just after the events of The Empire Strikes Back!
What I adored about Shadows of the Empire was the diversity of gameplay on display. Not only could Dash run and gun in a 3D world that looked so much better and felt way more immersive than any 2D Star Wars game I’d played previously, but he could also pilot several different vehicles – a Snowspeeder taking on AT-AT walkers on Hoth, his own spaceship, swoop bikes, and more.
Shadows of the Empire came at a time when the old Expanded Universe was really ramping up, and along with a novel and comic was technically considered canon until Disney expunged the Expanded Universe in 2013. However, being an official project with a high degree of involvement from Lucasfilm meant that the game slotted in well to the Star Wars universe, feeling genuinely connected to the events and characters of the films.
Number 2: Super Mario 64
Of course we’re going to talk about Super Mario 64! This was the only Nintendo 64 game I had at first, and I played it for hours and hours! Though I’d played some games on the PC – like Doom – which used pseudo-3D environments, and others which used 3D sprites for 2D gameplay, Super Mario 64 was the first truly 3D game that I played. The difference in how immersive and realistic the game felt, and how it conveyed a sense of scale that really made me feel part of its world are feelings I have never forgotten even a quarter of a century later!
Booting up Super Mario 64 for the first time was a wild experience, one that has stuck with me ever since. But the game itself was fantastic, too, with Mario on a quest to save Princess Peach by battling Bowser and his minions inside painting worlds. The unique premise allowed Super Mario 64 to show off a range of different levels and different environments, and new gameplay mechanics – some of which were inspired by past Super Mario titles – allowed a far greater degree of environmental interaction than ever before.
One level in Super Mario 64 that stands out is Wet-Dry World. Players could change the amount of water in the level, raising and lowering it both by jumping into the painting at different heights and within the level itself by touching special items. The idea that Mario could change the environment in real-time, and then use that gameplay mechanic to solve puzzles, was absolutely genius! And the game is full of other examples of this kind of radical, utterly transformative gameplay.
Number 3: GoldenEye 007
GoldenEye took the first-person shooter concept and honed it, making excellent use of the Nintendo 64’s control pad and analogue stick. Without GoldenEye it’s hard to see how other first-person shooters on console – like the Halo series, which arrived a few years later – would have been possible. It was a pioneering title, and surely one of the best film adaptations of all time!
The Nintendo 64 upped the number of control pads and thus the number of players from two on the SNES to four – meaning four-way deathmatches were possible! Split-screen was the order of the day, of course – this was long before online gaming was commonplace – and among my friend group four-player matches were relatively rare. But when we could get a few friends together, playing GoldenEye was a blast! It had fun, fast-paced shooting, well-designed levels with plenty of variety – from maze-like corridors and small rooms to expansive larger environments – and 3D graphics that put you right in the action.
GoldenEye didn’t create the first-person shooter genre. But it took full advantage of the Nintendo 64’s impressive hardware to feel streets ahead of earlier titles – and even many games that were released around the same time. Fully 3D environments and characters instead of 2D “billboard” sprites and a plot that vaguely followed the events of the film made for a fantastic all-around title. Rare would further hone many of the techniques on display when they created Perfect Dark a few years later.
Number 4: F-Zero X
You might’ve expected me to put the venerable Mario Kart 64 on this list – especially considering how many times I’ve talked about that game here on the website! But F-Zero X doesn’t get the love it deserves, so on this occasion we can put Mario Kart 64 to one side and look at a different Nintendo 64 racer. F-Zero X is a futuristic-themed racing game, with players in spaceship-like hovercars – and they go really fast!
F-Zero X is an incredibly fast-paced racing game, meaning you often need lightning-fast reflexes! It was a blast, and the unique futuristic aesthetic set it apart from practically every other racing game on the market at the time.
Maybe F-Zero X didn’t have the best graphics. It certainly didn’t push the Nintendo 64 to its 3D limits in the way some other titles did. But despite that, it was an incredibly fun racing game, and were it not for Mario Kart 64 I might be tempted to call it my favourite racer of the era! There’s an odd charm to F-Zero X that I can’t quite put into words; it’s a genuinely different game, and that alone made it a ton of fun.
Number 5: Jet Force Gemini
Had it been made today, Jet Force Gemini would surely have kicked off a whole franchise! As it is, this Rare-developed title remains a one-off, but it’s an incredibly fun and exciting sci-fi adventure. Jet Force Gemini is one game I would absolutely pick to bring back for a full remake, because it seems such a shame to me that it’s all but forgotten, abandoned in the Nintendo 64 era.
An action-adventure title set in a unique sci-fi world, Jet Force Gemini had a fun and engaging story. It also had smooth shooting and a trio of fun main characters who each got a turn in the spotlight. The game had beautifully-designed levels, with some being pretty big and expansive offering different paths to get to the end.
Rescuing the Tribals – cute teddy bear-like critters – was an additional gameplay element that added a lot to each level, though the game’s insistence on finding every single one could feel like padding sometimes! But the Nintendo 64 era saw games trying out new gameplay mechanics, and the idea of having hidden collectibles would be honed and refined in future titles. Overall, Jet Force Gemini was a lot of fun – and I’d love to see its world and characters return one day.
So that’s it! Five amazing Nintendo 64 games.
There were loads more titles I could’ve chosen, so stay tuned! This is a topic I may revisit in future. The Nintendo 64 was a great console with some fantastic games. Though it does represent a half-step between older, more basic games and the immersive, cinematic experiences that were soon to come, it’s also a console that pioneered or refined many of the concepts upon which newer games – and even games today – rely.
The Nintendo 64 also had plenty of amazing games in its own right, and while it is an interesting machine from an interesting era in video game history, it’s also a console that I had a lot of fun with in the late 1990s. Back then it didn’t feel like a half-step – it felt cutting-edge, bringing 3D worlds to life and showing off far more realistic graphics than I ever thought possible! It isn’t just the nostalgia talking – the Nintendo 64 was a fantastic machine.
All titles mentioned above are the copyright of Nintendo and/or their respective developer, publisher, owner, etc. Some images courtesy of IGDB. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.