Nintendo 64

The first second 64bit console released with the power of a tried and trusted cartridge medium. Whilst the system was powered by the SGI Reality Co-processor, Nintendo forgot to give it an RGB output, and decided to axe S-Video on the later models, mine being one of them.

Composite video ought to be enough for anyone

Hiroshi Yamauchi (Probably)

Still its clear to see the technical advantage the N64 offered with its games, sometimes even shining through the muddy composite output and hey, at least we weren’t stuck with RF.

Regarding the cartridge format, a lot of people give them stick for not embracing CD’s for that generation, but personally I respect them for it. Cartridges still had a distinct advance over CD’s in terms of access speed, and durability. Plus some games supported cartridge storage with negated the need for a separate memory card. It also worth mentioning at many early Playstation and Saturn game used uncompressed (Red Book) CD audio for the music and background audio which took up a majority of space, and used MJPEG for the FMV. The N64 could make use of certain sound compression (MP3 was possible to rather CPU demanding, especially if you need the CPU for other tasks.

Accessories

Controller Pak: Games can store a ‘note’ similar to how PlayStation games save data onto a memory card. This Pak plugs into the controller, and up to 4 can be connected to the console providing there are four controllers plugged in. As this occupies the port on the controller, it’s not possible to connect a Rumble Pak simultaneously with the controller Pak. This must be swapped which some games will prompt the user to do.

The controller Pak can come with 32KB of memory which is battery backed SRAM, which means once the battery dies the saves are lost. Like the PlayStation memory cards, larger storage options exist but the additional storage is divided into banks that the user must manually switch by pressing a button to cycle between the different banks.

Not all games required the use of the controller Pak to save since many games had their own memory storage included within the cartridge, however some games support both with the controller Pak being the method of exchanging and copying game saves to another console.

The Everdrive64 Is capable of backing up and restoring game save images to and from the Controller Pak, which saves having to mess around with pages or running out of space since each game has it’s own image that is automatically swapped when the Everdrive launches the game.

Jumper Pak: Required for the Nintendo 64 to function as this terminated the Nintendo 64’s memory bus. You see, the N64 used Rambus RDRAM and one of its quirks was any unused memory slot had to be terminated using a terminator module that occupied the slot, in this case this is what the jumper Pak does. Turning on the console with this disconnected just results in a black screen, since the CPU cannot boot without it

Expansion Pak: the RAM expansion for the Nintendo 64, this replaced the Jumper Pak discussed earlier, since it occupies the same slot and adds an additional 4.5MB of memory to the console, which some games can utilise to run in a higher resolution, bringing the total RAM to 9MB. For some games, certain sections or levels require the Expansion Pak in order to function, and some games wont boot without it at all.

Rumble Pak: Adds vibration support for force feedback for supported games, this connects to the controller’s extension port and require additional two AAA batteries to operate. Games that save to the Controller Pak and have support for the Rumble Pak will prompt the user to swap the Pak’s before the gameplay/level starts.

Rear I/O

AV Multi Out: A connector that combines multiple video signals into standard into one connector, the same interface as the Super Nintendo and most cables from that console will work, with a few exceptions

PAL Nintendo 64’s lost their RGB output. S-Video and composite/RF out are your options here. The later revisions even removed S-Video, commonly the light transparent coloured consoles, like the one I own…

Given the fact that most TVs in Europe supported RGB scart, you wonder why Nintendo decided to remove the RGB feature. It does not make any sense considering that was a high-end console that had one of the most advanced graphics processor for its time, so why cripple it with composite out?

Oh right, cost…

Processors

CPU: The heart of the Nintendo 64 is the NEC VR4300 architecture CPU that uses the MIPS instruction set. This is capable of executing 64bit code, although due to memory limitations that was very rarely used, since a 64bit integer takes up for space in memory than a 32bit integer, with the only advantage was the 64bit integer being more accurate. This is a by-product of the N64 being based on the SGI workstation design, as having the increased accuracy would be benefit a workstation system.

Compared to the PlayStation, the VR4300 is significantly faster than the R3000 based CPU used, however the PlayStation has dedicated processors that assist with various functions like the SPU and the MDEC decoder. The N64 lacks these and must reimplement them in software via the CPU. Graphics acceleration however is assisted using the reality co-processor, also designed by SGI.

Reality Coprocessor

The RCP (Reality Coprocessor) is responsible for what is seen on screen and is split into two sections:

Reality Signal Processor: A fully programmable processor that relies in microcode in order to function, this can be rewritten by the game developer to alter the capabilities of the processor , within reason. However very few developed were able to incorporated that and many used the default N64/SGI developed microcode. The RSP is sort of similar on concept to the PlayStations GTE, where polygons are generated and lighting effects are applied.

Reality Display Processor: The other half of the RSP, similar to the PlayStations GPU where it performs rasterization – converting the 3D data to a 2D that the displayer encoder than processor in order for it to be displayed on your TV. Texture mapping and also occurs here and  bilinear filtering  & Mip-mapping is implemented on a silicon level, meaning the developer only needs to call the function n to implement it into the game.

Unlike the PlayStation, the N64 features perspective correction and a Z-buffer which prevents the texture warping and polygon seaming that plagues the PlayStation and Sega Saturn.

One common trait with Nintendo 64 games was the limited draw distance and the trademark blurry textures, which were believed to be a result of the cartridge format. In reality there are several issues at play, with memory often being a quantity vs quality sort of thing. This is where game design and art style come into play, as having detailed textures in game meant having less space to store additional textures, with assets often being repeated multiple times in the level or even throughout the game. Nintendo were also insistent of having anti-aliasing and mip-mapping being enabled on all of the games (even third party) with the belief that this would create a distinctive look for the Nintendo 64, and would contrast with the blocky and unfiltered PlaySaturnStation games.

Conclusion

Whilst it was a flawed console (aren’t they all?) I think Nintendo had some method to their madness, and ultimately created a unique system that allowed for gameplay that was not yet possible on competing systems at the time of its release, it certainly took a couple of years before PC 3D chipsets to catch-up to its graphical capabilities. As for the whole CD vs cartridge argument, I think the N64DD should have been the primary storage medium, since its a lot faster than CD’s and could store more than the cartridge at a reduced cost. Really if you wanted the best that CD-ROM had to offer, you had the PC, PlayStation, 3DO (Hah!) or the Saturn to choose from.

The Games

1080 Snowboarding

A downhill snowboarding game similar to the SSX series of games and Cool Boarders, would later receive a sequel on the Gamecube

Ridge Racer 64

A port of the original Ridge Racer, with altered graphics. The tracks from the original Ridge Racer and the tracks in Revolution are present here, with an exclusive desert track only found in this version. Has a good soundtrack, but the drift controls take a while to get used to, with a very bipolar physics engine.

007 Goldeneye

California Speed

A racing game set around California, this was the unreleased PAL version of the game

Wipeout 64

A port of Wipeout XL/2097 for the Nintendo 64, with a revised MIDI soundtrack and mirrored tracks

WWF No Mercy

Crusin USA

A fun arcade racing game, you drive on a single lap track to the end, trying to avoid the traffic obstacles along the way.

WCW Mayhem

Top Gear Rally

Rush 2

F-Zero X

DOOM 64

Mario Party

Duke Nukem: Zero Hour

Duke Nukem with time travel, unlike other games in this series it is played in third person view instead