Nintendo 64



The Nintendo 64, commonly called the N64, is Nintendo's third home video game console for the international market. The N64 was released on June 23, 1996 in Japan, September 29, 1996 in North America and Puerto Rico, March 1, 1997 in Europe/Australia and September 1, 1997 in France. It was released with only two launch games in Japan and North America (Super Mario 64 and PilotWings 64) while the PAL region had a third launch title in the form of Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire (which was released earlier in the other markets). The Nintendo 64 cost $199 at launch in the United States.

The N64 was first publicly introduced on November 24, 1995 as the Nintendo Ultra 64 at the 7th Annual Shoshinkai Software Exhibition in Japan (though preview pictures from the Nintendo "Project Ultra" console had been published in American magazines as early as June 1993). The first published photos from the event were presented on the web via coverage by Game Zero magazine two days after the event.[1] Official coverage by Nintendo soon followed a few weeks later on the nascent Nintendo Power website, and then in volume #85 of their print magazine.

During the developmental stages the N64 was referred to by its code name, Project Ultra. The name Project Ultra came from the speculation within Nintendo that this console could produce CGI on par with then-current supercomputers. Once unveiled to the public the name changed to Nintendo Ultra 64. Nintendo dropped "Ultra" from the name on February 1, 1996, just months before its Japanese debut due to the word "Ultra" being trademarked by another company, Konami for their Ultra Games division.

After first announcing the project, two companies, Rareware (UK) and Midway (USA), created the arcade games Killer Instinct and Cruis'n USA which claimed to use the Ultra 64 hardware. In fact, the hardware had nothing to do with what was finally released; the arcade games used hard drives and TMS processors. Killer Instinct was the most advanced game of its time graphically, featuring pre-rendered movie backgrounds that were streamed off the hard drive and animated as the characters moved horizontally.

Nintendo touted many of the system's more unusual features as groundbreaking and innovative, but many of these features had, in fact, been implemented before by the Atari Jaguar. Regardless, the Nintendo 64 was the first popular system to combine these features and make a significant impact upon gamers.

The system was designed by Silicon Graphics Inc., and features their trademark dithered 32-bit graphics. The early N64 development system was an SGI Indy equipped with an add-on board that contained a full N64 system.

Nintendo 64 is perhaps best known for one of its launch titles, Super Mario 64, which is still considered to have set the standard for 3D platform games and is considered by many to be one of the greatest games ever published.

The Nintendo 64 was the last mainstream home video game console to use ROM cartridges to store its games (although the last real cartridge based system to have still continued production was SNK's Neo Geo hardware until 2004). Nintendo's choice had several advantages:

* ROM cartridges have very fast load times in comparison to disc based games. This can be observed from the loading screens that appear in many PlayStation games but are typically non-existent in N64 versions. ROM carts are so much faster than the old 2x CD-ROM drives in other consoles that developers could stream data in real-time off of them. This was done in Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine, for example, to make the most of the limited RAM in N64. One could relate the ROM to an additional amount of slow RAM in this case.

* ROM cartridges are difficult and expensive to duplicate, thus resisting piracy (albeit at the expense of lowered profit margin for Nintendo). While unauthorized interface devices for the PC were later developed, these devices are rare when compared to a regular CD drive as used on the PlayStation.

* It is possible to add specialized support chips (such as coprocessors) to ROM cartridges, as was done on some SNES games.

* Most cartridges store individual profiles and game progress on the cartridge itself, eliminating the need for separate and expensive memory cards. Storing data at first required a cartridge battery whose energy would diminish over time, though the battery generally lasted for years, and in subsequent games EEPROMs were used instead.

* ROM cartridges are far more durable than CD-ROMs. It is extremely difficult to damage a cart, whereas CD-ROM disks must be carefully used and protected in cases. This makes the cartridges better for children who do not know to take care of CD-ROMs. It also prevents accidental scratches even by adult owners, and subsequent read errors from these inevitabilities. It was also a frequent occurrence for the mechanisms of CD-ROM drives to fail. There are no moving parts with a ROM cartridge system.

While Nintendo chose the cartridge format for the N64, the company originally signed a contract with Sony in 1988 to develop a CD-ROM drive add-on for the SNES. When Hiroshi Yamauchi read the (already signed by Nintendo) original 1988 contract between Sony and Nintendo and learned that it allowed Sony 25% of the profits from the machine and also a part of games' sales profits, he was furious. He deemed the contract totally unacceptable, and secretly cancelled all plans for a joint Nintendo-Sony SNES CD attachment. Indeed, instead of announcing their partnership, at 9 AM the day of the CES, Nintendo chairman Howard Lincoln stepped onto the stage and revealed that they were now allied with Philips, and were planning on abandoning all the previous work Nintendo and Sony had accomplished. Lincoln and Minoru Arakawa had (unbeknownst to Sony) flown to Philips headquarters in Europe and formed an alliance. In addition to the CD-ROM add on, Sony would release a combination Super NES/CD-ROM system in one unit, which would have been called the PlayStation. Initially, Nintendo's abandonment of the joint project caused Sony to consider halting their research, but ultimately the company decided to use what they had developed so far and make it into a complete, stand alone console. This led to Nintendo filing a lawsuit claiming breach of contract and attempted, in U.S. federal court, to obtain an injunction against the release of the PlayStation, on the grounds that Nintendo owned the name. The federal judge presiding over the case denied the injunction.

Graphically, results of the Nintendo cartridge system were mixed. While N64 games generally had higher polygon counts, the limited storage size of ROM carts limited the amount of available textures, resulting in games which had a blurry look because of the liberal use of low-resolution stretched textures. Some games, such as Super Mario 64, use a large amount of gouraud shading or very simple textures to produce a cartoon look. This fit the themes of many games, and allowed this style of imagery a sharp look, but it also hid the texturing limitations of the machine. The blurred look was as much caused by low-detail, low-resolution textures as by the machine's trilinear mip-map interpolation. Ironically, the trilinear filtering was also a critical piece of the machine's improved graphics. Neither Sega Saturn or Sony PlayStation could do any more than nearest-neighbor filtering, resulting in textures that were highly pixelated. This made textures look more detailed than they really were by virtue of the image noise it added and the lack of blurring. Nintendo 64's graphics chip is also crippled by a very small texture cache that can only manipulate relatively tiny textures (typically only 64x64 pixels if mip-mapping is used). Later cartridges such as Resident Evil 2 featured more ROM space, which demonstrated that N64 was capable of detailed in-game graphics when the media permitted, but this performance came late in the console war and at a high price.

At that time, competing systems from Sony and Sega (the PlayStation and Saturn, respectively) were using CD-ROM discs to store their games. These discs are much cheaper to manufacture and distribute, resulting in lower costs to third party game publishers. As a result many game developers which had traditionally supported Nintendo game consoles were now developing games for the competition because of the higher profit margins found on CD based platforms.

The cost of producing an N64 cartridge was far higher than producing a CD: one gaming magazine at the time cited average costs of twenty-five dollars per cartridge, versus 10 cents per CD. Publishers had to pass these higher expenses to the consumer so N64 games tended to sell for slightly higher prices than PlayStation games did. While most PlayStation games rarely exceeded $50, N64 titles could reach $80. Sony's line of Playstation Greatest Hits retailed for $19.99 each vs. Nintendo's Player's Choice value line at $39.99 each. (In the United Kingdom, prices around the time of introduction for N64 cartridges were £54.99, and PSX games at £44.99 for new titles. Over the years, this became £39.99 and £52.99 respectively, before it was commonplace to find many new PSX games at £29.99, but N64 cartridges at £39.99).

Despite the controversies, the N64 still managed to support many popular games, giving it a long life run. N64 took second place for its generation of consoles while the PlayStation finished first, with 40% and 51% of the market respectively. Much of this success was credited to Nintendo's strong first-party franchises, such as Mario and Zelda, which had strong name brand appeal yet appeared exclusively on Nintendo platforms. The N64 also secured its share of the mature audience thanks to GoldenEye 007, Nightmare Creatures, Resident Evil 2, Shadow Man, Doom 64 and Quake II.

In 2001, the Nintendo 64 was replaced by the disc-based Nintendo GameCube, although even with this system they refused to use mainstream CD/DVD technology, opting for the DVD-based but incompatible GameCube Optical Disc, which is much smaller than standard-sized CD/DVD media. The successor to the GameCube, Wii uses "12 cm optical discs" for storage, which are just encrypted DVDs, thus making it the first Nintendo console to use a standardized storage format.

The cartridge vs. disc debate came to a notorious climax during the release of Final Fantasy VII. Despite the fact that all six previous Final Fantasy games had been published on Nintendo systems, the series' producer, Squaresoft (now Square-Enix), chose to release Final Fantasy VII on the Sony PlayStation, in part due to the N64's inability to handle the extensive FMV around which key parts of FFVII (and subsequent FF games) were based. This incident provided a highly-publicized denunciation of Nintendo's cartridge-based system which caused negative publicity for both Nintendo & Square Soft. The incident also led to Square and Nintendo not working together on a project until Final Fantasy Tactics Advance was released on the Game Boy Advance in 2003.

The CPU was primarily used for game logic, such as input management, some audio, and AI, while the RCP did everything else. The RDP component basically just read a FIFO buffer and rasterized polygons. The RSP was the transform portion of the RCP, although it was really just a DSP, similar to a MIPS R4000 core, designed to work with 8-bit integer vector operations.

In a typical N64 game the RSP would do transforms, lighting, clipping, triangle setup, and some of the audio decoding. Nintendo 64 was one of the few consoles without a dedicated audio chip so these tasks fell on the RSP and/or CPU. It was relatively common to do audio on the main CPU to increase the graphics performance. Workload on the Nintendo 64 could be arranged almost in any way the programmer saw fit. This created a fascinating system that was quite flexible and moldable to the game's needs, but it also assumed the programmer would be able to properly profile the code to optimize usage of each part of the machine.

The RSP is completely programmable, through microcode (µcode). By altering the microcode run on the device it can perform different operations, create new effects, be better tuned for speed or quality, among other possibilities. However, Nintendo was quite unwilling to share the microcode tools with developers until the end of Nintendo 64's lifecycle when they shared this information with a select number of companies. Programming RSP microcode was said to be quite difficult because the Nintendo 64 µcode tools were very basic, with no debugger, and poor documentation. As a result, it was extremely easy to make mistakes that would be very hard to track down; mistakes that could cause seemingly random bugs or glitches. Some developers noted that the default SGI microcode ("Fast3D") was actually quite poorly profiled for use in games (it was too accurate), and performance suffered as a result. Several companies were able to create custom microcode programs that ran their software far better than SGI's generic software (i.e. Factor 5, Boss Game Studios, and Rare).

The Nintendo 64 had some glaring weaknesses that were caused by a combination of oversight on the part of the hardware designers, limitations on 3D technology of the time, and manufacturing capabilities. One major flaw was the limited texture cache of 4KB. This made it extremely difficult to load large textures into the rendering engine, especially textures with high color depth. This was the primary cause of Nintendo 64's blurry texturing, secondary to the blurring caused by the bilinear filtering and limited ROM storage. To make matters worse, because of how the renderer was designed, if mipmapping was used the texture cache was effectively halved to 2KB. To put this in perspective, this cache could be quickly filled with even small textures (a 64x64 4-bit/pixel texture is 2KB and a 128x64 4-bit/pixel texture is 4KB). Creative developers towards the end of Nintendo 64's lifetime managed to use tricks such as multi-layered texturing and heavily clamped small texture pieces to simulate larger textures. Conker's Bad Fur Day is possibly the best example of this ingenuity.

There were other challenges for developers to work around. Z-Buffering significantly crippled the RDP's fillrate so managing the Z-depth of objects, so things would appear in the right order and not on top of each other, was put on the programmer instead of the hardware to get maximum speed. Most Nintendo 64 games were actually fillrate limited, not geometry limited, which is ironic considering the great concern for Nintendo 64's low ~100,000 polygon per second rating during its time. In fact, World Driver Championship was one of the most polygon-loaded Nintendo 64 games and frequently would push past Sony PlayStation's typical in-game polygon counts. This game also used custom microcode to improve the RSP's capabilities.

The unified memory subsystem of Nintendo 64 was another critical weakness for the machine. The RDRAM used was incredibly high latency memory (640 ns read) and this mostly cancelled out its high bandwidth advantage. A high latency memory subsystem creates delays in how fast the processors can get the data they need, and how fast they can alter this data. Game developers also said that the Nintendo 64's memory controller setup was fairly poor, and this magnified the situation somewhat. The R4300 CPU was the worst off component because it had to go through the RCP to access main memory, and could not use DMA (the RCP could) to do so, so its RAM access performance was quite poor. There was no memory prefetch or read under write functionality either.

Despite these drawbacks, the Nintendo 64 hardware was architecturally superior to the PlayStation. It was, however, more challenging to program for and to reach peak performance/quality.

One of the best examples of rewritten µcode on Nintendo 64 was with Factor 5's Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine. In this game the Factor 5 team decided they wanted the game to run in high resolution mode (640x480) because of how much they liked the crispness it added. The machine was taxed to the limit running at 640x480 though, so they absolutely needed to scrape every last bit of performance they could out of Nintendo 64. Firstly, the Z-buffer could not be used because it alone consumed a huge amount of the console's texture fillrate. To work around the 4KB texture cache the programmers came up with custom texture formats and tools to help the artists make the best possible textures. The tool would analyze each texture and try to choose the best texture format to work with the machine and look as good as possible. They took advantage of the cartridge as a texture streaming source to squeeze as much detail into each environment, and work around RAM limitations. They wrote microcode for realtime lighting, because the SGI code was poor for this task, and they wanted to have even more lighting than the PC version had used. Factor 5's microcode allowed almost unlimited realtime lighting, and significantly boosted the polygon count. In the end, the game was more feature-filled than the PC version (quite a feat) and unsurprisingly, was one of the most advanced games for Nintendo 64.

Factor 5 also showed ingenuity with their Star Wars games, Star Wars: Rogue Squadron and Star Wars: Battle for Naboo, where their team again used custom microcode. In Star Wars: Rogue Squadron the team tweaked the microcode for a landscape engine to create the alien worlds. Then for Star Wars: Battle for Naboo they took what they learned from Rogue Squadron and pushed the machine even farther to make the game run at 640x480, and implement enhancements for both particles and the landscape engine. Battle for Naboo enjoyed an impressive draw distance and large amounts of snow and rain even with the high resolution, thanks to their efforts.

Each Nintendo 64 cartridge contains a so-called lockout chip to prevent manufacturers from creating unauthorized copies of the games. Unlike previous versions, the N64 lockout chip contains a seed value which is used to calculate a checksum of the game's boot code. To discourage playing of copied games by piggybacking a real cartridge, Nintendo produced five different versions of the chip. If the chip did not match the game's boot code, the game would not run.

With over 40 million Nintendo 64 units sold worldwide, Nintendo was unsuccessful in recapturing the preceding Super Nintendo Entertainment System's market share and the fifth generation was taken over by the PlayStation which had sold over 100 million units worldwide. But the N64 secured the second place in the market, outselling the Sega Saturn (10 million).

The reason for this may have been that it was more costly and difficult to develop for ROM cartridges compared to PlayStation's CDs, and cartridges store far less data, constraining a game's content. Most third-party developers went working with the PlayStation (such as Square, whose Final Fantasy VII was initially planned for the N64), while some who remained released fewer games to the Nintendo 64 (Capcom, with only 3 games; Konami, with 13 N64 games and over 50 to the PlayStation), and new game releases were few and far between while new games were coming out rapidly for the PlayStation. Most of the N64's biggest successes were developed by Nintendo themselves or by second-parties of Nintendo, such as Rareware.Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, with no Front-Cover Texts, and with no Back-Cover Texts.
Virtual Magic is a human knowledge database blog. Text Based On Information From Wikipedia, Under The GNU Free Documentation License. Copyright (c) 2007 Virtual Magic. Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.1 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts and no Back-Cover Texts. A copy of the license is included in the section entitled "GNU Free Documentation License".

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home