The N64 recently celebrated its 20th birthday in North America. We had to wait until March 1997 before it came out in Europe (remember the days when we’d have to wait actual years for games?), but that’s 20 years since the last of the cartridge home consoles first appeared on western shores; 20 years since platformers exploded into the 3D realm with Super Mario 64; 20 years since we played the latest games with virtually no loading times; 20 years since we first prodded at that curious ‘analog stick’ thing in the middle of that dinosaur-claw controller, like apes at the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
But enough of that. It’s making me feel ancient.
The N64 will be best remembered for everything that came from the Nintendo and Rare stables – the Marios, the Zeldas, the Banjo-Kazooies, the Goldeneyes – but the console also seemed to compel developers to make games that were a little more ambitious and off-the-wall than what you’d find on the populist PS1. But many of these great games slipped through the cracks of gaming history, possibly because the N64’s early popularity quickly languished in the face of its hip grey rival.
This is a tribute to those forgotten ones, showing us that the pool of great games was deceptively deep on this flawed, wonderful console.
Shadowgate 64: Trials of the Four Towers
Western-style medieval fantasy settings were almost non-existent on the N64, so Shadowgate 64 is as close as the console ever got to having its very own Skyrim.
Well. It’s quite a long way off Skyrim, but this first-person, sort-of open-world adventure was saturated in haunting atmosphere thanks to an earthy, downbeat colour palette and soundtrack that managed to squeeze something magical out of the N64’s shoddy sound abilities.
There is no combat in Shadowgate 64; you just explore the town and titular towers, solve puzzles, and chat with townsfolk and ghosts. Like so many '90s adventure games, it suffers from IPS (Impossible Puzzle Syndrome) and a lack of guidance, but it’s also a rare showcase of how moody and immersive an N64 game could be if it really tried.
The N64 was so fixated on 3D graphics that it often neglected the 2D realm. But Mischief Makers is one of the exceptions. This speedy 2D platformer developed by Treasure (Gunstar Heroes) casts you as robotic maid named Marina.
Mischief Makers was not only nice to look at (no chunky polygons, hooray!) but inventive in its gameplay. Alongside the satisfying air dashes, you’d be doing a lot of grabbing – onto blocks to get to higher ground, onto enemies to chuck them into lava, and onto the giant fists of bosses, so you can duff them up with their own hands like you were some kind of bite-sized high-school bully.
It’s a shame it never got a sequel. It’s one of the few N64 games that’s still great to play today, and its bionic protagonist had an iconic quality that could’ve made her a star (or at least a Smash Bros. character, surely?)
Goemon’s Great Adventure
Another rare example of an N64 game bucking the 3D trend, Goemon’s Great Adventure, aka Mystical Ninja 2 Starring Goemon, was a follow-up to the unforgettably bizarre 3D platformer Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon. Konami decided to strip it back to something a little more old-school.
It was a good call by Konami, which, believe it or not, used to make things that weren’t Metal Gear Solid or PES. The vibrant Japanese stylings, offbeat humour, and great soundtrack give it a weird and whimsical tone, and it’s one of the few platformers on the N64 that could be played co-operatively with a buddy (if you completed the game with all 44 entry passes, you could add a third and fourth player as well).
This was to be the blue-haired rogue’s last appearance on western shores. Goemon’s career has gone downhill since. He starred in a number of mobile games in Japan before being thrown into a Pachinko machine. Now there’s the Konami we all recognise!
Snowboard Kids 2
Mario Kart is old news and Diddy Kong Racing has aged horribly. What to do in this conundrum? Give Snowboard Kids a pop.
Snowboard Kids never matched its more prestigious kart-based rivals in sales, but its colourful courses and Pinocchio-nosed characters garnered it a cult following. Races could be turned on their head with a single well-timed shot, while the ability to jump over traps and earn speed boosts by doing tricks in the air added some layers to the gameplay.
This sequel had sharper graphics and tighter turning controls than the original, prettier world design than Diddy Kong Racing, and tracks that had you skimming across sand, grass and snow. N64 games generally age about as gracefully as full-fat milk, but Snowboard Kids 2 defied its hardware and is, at the very least, a blue cheese in this analogy.
The World is Not Enough
Goldeneye was so influential and brilliant, that it kind of feels like sacrilege to talk about any of the other Bond games that have come out over the years, especially when that game is based on one of the worst Bond movies of all time. So burn me at the stake, because The World is Not Enough is actually pretty good.
Made by EA, and on a different engine to Goldeneye, The World is Not Enough wasn’t as pretty as its formidable sort-of predecessor, but it had some wonderful set-piece missions, like the building siege where you fight alongside security guards to take on the attackers. At the time, a 3v3 shootout with me in the middle of it felt unspeakably epic in scale.
The multiplayer was the real highlight. You could use up to three bots alongside human players, there was a wealth of game modes, and it actually had stable frame-rates (yep, much smoother than jittery 4-player Goldeneye).
Space Station Silicon Valley
For a few months in the autumn of 1998, all that we N64 owners could talk about was Space Station Silicon Valley.
The quirky puzzle-platformer hybrid from DMA Design (whom you may now address as Rockstar North) was a wonderful game but a hard sell: you controlled a marooned microchip that could possess a range of robotic animals to get past obstacles. You could embody fez-wearing cannon camels, flying bomber dogs with plane wings, diesel-powered elephants...you get the idea. Don’t you?
With its Wallace & Gromit humour, bright colours and absurd premise, Silicon Valley encapsulated the offbeat spirit of the N64. Its missions spanned all the earthly biomes of grasslands, snowscapes and deserts and you could jump into around 40 unique creatures. It all culminated in an epic finale where you stomped around a city as a giant robot, decimating all the animals in sight. Unforgettable if you played it, kind of macabre if you didn’t.
Take the most reliable video game formula imaginable and turn it into something strange, uncanny, yet kind of brilliant; it's a classic N64 move. (Though this game has its origins in an unreleased Atari Jaguar game called Sphere.)
It’s all in the name with Tetrisphere. You line up blocks of various shapes and sizes on rotatable spherical objects that float around against a backdrop of surreal storms, vortexes and swirling clouds. The goal is to clear blocks until you get to the centre of the sphere (a bit like Peter Molyneux’s Curiosity, but without the disappointment of broken promises awaiting you in the middle).
Throw a few weapons in there like lasers and bombs, along with a bloppy, minimal soundtrack that ranges from Aphex Twinny weirdness to Techno, and you have quite possibly the most atmospheric Tetris-like in existence.
The PS1 was the place to be for spy thrillers like Syphon Filter and Metal Gear Solid. People simply didn’t associate the N64 with ‘serious’ games like these, which is probably why few paid attention to Operation Winback.
With innovative cover mechanics, a proper laser-pointer reticule, and all manner of weapons accommodating both stealthy and all-action approaches, Winback was ahead of its time mechanically, with a healthy roster of epic boss battles just as goofy as those faced by Solid Snake.
Winback was advanced enough to get a PS2 port later, though inevitably it was seen as little more than a stopgap for Metal Gear Solid 2 – whose mechanics, ironically, borrow more from Winback than from previous MGS games. Where’s the gratitude?
While everyone was awaiting the launch of established hyperspeed racer F-Zero X on the N64, Extreme G sped out of nowhere and swept many of us early N64 adopters along for the breakneck ride.
Controlling one of several Tron-like bikes, you raced across neon-tinted futuristic tracks filled with jumps, wide, loop-the-loops, and vast sweeping bends befitting of 300mph speeds. You could shoot your opponents with a basic gun to slow them down, though a personal favourite of mine was the Static Pulse, which would switch around the poor victim’s controls. With that said, the pace of the game was so fast that the weapons rarely came into play.
Industrial, impersonal, and with a teeth-grinding 4/4 Techno soundtrack that wouldn’t be out of place at a '90s warehouse rave, Extreme G was one of the first games to show the N64’s grittier side.
The second overlooked trippy puzzler on this list, Wetrix sees you in the role of, er… God, maybe? Your job was to terraform a square board of land into mountains so you could trap the rainwater and form it into lakes. If that whole ‘Created the World in 7 days’ bible business was anything like this, then God must’ve had a whale of a time doing it.
If the title doesn’t evoke great brown slabs of British breakfast cereal to you, then you’d be right in thinking it sounds like a riff on Tetris. This is reflected in the gameplay, as you build mountains by positioning quickly falling blocks of different shapes around the map.
But don’t go thinking that just because it involves water and nature it’s going to be some kind of therapeutic Flower-like experience. The trance music, psychedelic backgrounds, and brisk pace make Wetrix one for seasoned puzzler enthusiasts.
Turok: Rage Wars
Most gamers have sort of heard of the Turok series, and if you ask them about it they’ll say something like “That’s the one with the dinosaurs, innit?” before their eyes glaze over in disinterest.
Turok 2 is hailed as the best in the series, but if you were looking for a split-screen shooter on the N64 in the vein of Quake III or Unreal Tournament, then the little-known Rage Wars was the one. It was speedy, violent, and one of its modes involved one person as a chicken or monkey trying to run to a marker on the map without getting killed.
It created sublime moments of split-screen madness: envision one player with a giant hammer chasing a chicken, while a Raptor is chasing that player in turn, before some plucky bastard at a distance fires a rocket launcher into the lot of them. Can you do that in Goldeneye?
Until Smash Bros., the N64 lacked a defining fighting game, but Fighter’s Destiny gave it a damn good shot.
More Virtua Fighter than Street Fighter, Fighter’s Destiny was a methodical, tactical fighter that focused on defensive play, grabs and counter-attacks rather than long sequences of button presses. Each arena was on a platform, so even if you were losing you could bait your opponent towards the edge, then switch places with them and knock ‘em off (much more satisfying than actually deserving to win).
Sadly, the PS1 had already established itself as the fighting fan’s console of choice with the likes of Tekken, Toshinden and Dead or Alive, while it later turned out that all Nintendo gamers really wanted from a fighting game was Pikachu, Mario and Kirby trying to knock each other off the walls of Hyrule Castle...
Body Harvest was the first time I played a game with 3D graphics, and instead of being amazed I thought ‘My God, this looks appalling’.
Made by those DMA Design folk again, Body Harvest sees you controlling an Irn-Bru-orange space trooper time-travelling around the world to battle an alien invasion. Body Harvest was one of the first open-world games on consoles, and you can see the GTA 3 DNA running through it. Being able to hop into a janky pickup truck in Greece, 1916, a schoolbus in 1966 USA, or some weird hovercraft thing in the future (actually, 2016 as envisioned in 1999) was breathtaking.
Body Harvest was ugly to behold and sometimes choppy to play, but its open world and nightmarish sci-fi plot – in which humans were planted on Earth so they could reproduce and then be harvested by aliens – made it easy to forgive its flaws.
The N64 was littered with average-to-poor ports of PC shooters like Hexen, Quake and Duke Nukem 3D. What made Doom 64 stand out was that it wasn’t a mere port, but a bespoke new game from Mortal Kombat makers Midway.
Doom 64 had a more subdued tone and overhauled design from its predecessors. The new-look monsters were a welcome, sinister revamp on the now-ageing designs of Doom 1 and 2, while the combination of a haunting soundtrack with artful use of red and blue lighting gave it a hellish, surreal feel that was somewhere between a Dario Argento and David Lynch movie.
And there you all were expecting a dedicated N64 version of Doom to have been something innocuous like, I dunno, a technicolor adventure set in a magical cave where you rode rainbows and threw pancakes at Goomba-demons. Instead, we got the darkest damn Doom game to this day.
Ogre Battle 64: Person of Lordly Caliber
The subtitle of this tactical RPG sounds like a roundabout, lost-in-translation way of saying ‘VIP’. But then, Ogre Battle is a series in which the previous two games used the names of Queen songs for their titles.
In Ogre Battle 64: PoLC, you control a military commander responsible for a large battalion of troops during a civil war, which are split into multiple armies that you organise and control in semi-real-time battles. With all the of leaders, politics, and personalities and of course battle tactics you need to manage, it’s a miracle how a game of such depth and scale was even playable using the infamous trident controller.
Ogre Battle’s hand-drawn art style has helped preserve it, too. Using the food analogy from earlier, it’s like a dried cinnamon stick – just as fragrant as it was back in 1999.