The Final Word: Why the N64 wasn’t a huge success (and how the next Wii can be)

Nintendo 64Looking back on Nintendo systems, it’s easy to see why the NES, GameBoy, DS, and Wii were such successes. The NES had Super Mario Bros. GameBoy had Tetris. DS had Nintendodogs. Wii had Wii Sports. In other words, they all had must-have launch games. But to get theses games, you had to buy the hardware.

Conversely, it’s easy to see why the GameCube never really took off, despite its potential. The reason: it launched with Luigi’s Mansion. A fun little Mario knock-off, yes, but hardly a system-seller. (NOTE: SNES and GBA—although extremely successfully—were more brand extensions of popular systems, so they were an easy buy for people already in love with NES and GameBoy.)

Of all Nintendo hardware, though, there is one notable anomaly. Why didn’t the N64 enjoy massive success?

After all, it launched with Mario 64, which pioneered 3D games. The console introduced a new input device: the analogy stick, something the competition soon copied. And yet the N64 only achieved 33 million unit sales when it was all said and done—A far cry from the 100+ million PlayStations sold.

The most popular explanation for underwhelming N64 sales is that Nintendo failed to court more developers, while Sony readily embraced them on the PlayStation. N64, therefore, couldn’t compete and didn’t do so hot commercially.

But in the case of NES, GameBoy, DS, and Wii, killer-app games gave way to massive hardware sales, which gave why to more developers wanting to reach those new hardware owners. Why, then, didn’t the N64 experience an identical path towards success?

Because Mario 64 isn’t a killer app. Phenomenal game? Yes. Influential? Definitely. One of the highest-rated games of all time? You bet. But seeing Mario 64 for the first time doesn’t instill the same “I have to have this game” impulse that Super Mario Bros, Tetris, Nintendogs, or Wii Sports does. At least not for most people.

Put differently, would Wii have been the must-have console that it is had it launched with Super Mario Galaxy? I doubt it. Even though Galaxy is one of my favorite Wii games, I would be lying if I said it wasn’t a direct sequel (i.e. Mario 64 in new clothes). I would be lying if I said it made me want to fight for a controller (and defend it once in my possession) like Wii Sports did the first time I saw and played it.

Similarly, who knows how much more successful both SNES and GBA might have been had they launched with truly original games, instead of updated versions of familiar ones (i.e. Super Mario World and Super Mario Advance respectively)?

Which brings me to the oft discussed Wii successor. Sure, Nintendo could release Wii HD and bundle it with an updated version of Wii Sports, Mario, or Zelda. Maybe they will. Like the SNES, and GBA, the thing would appease fans and sell millions, if not only by its association with the Wii brand name, beloved by millions.

Nintendo’s recent comments, however, suggest they won’t release a new console until they find that “special” hardware sauce, in addition to planned high-definition graphics and motion controls, which are now standard. Looking at the past, perhaps Nintendo is going for back-to-back phenoms, not just back-to-back commercial successes. Not just the NES to SNES connection or PS1 to PS2 combo, but something larger.

A tag team the gaming world has never seen.

19 Responses to The Final Word: Why the N64 wasn’t a huge success (and how the next Wii can be)

  1. Gunder says:

    My main problem upon getting my N64 was seeing cartidges sell for $60-$70 while on the other side of the aisle, the PS CDs were going for $20-$40.

  2. Eolirin says:

    I don’t think that’s a fair assessment of Mario 64; No one had done that before, it was a completely new experience, and it absolutely was a must have for that generation. It’s not so simple as just being a matter of must have launch software, unless you can point out the singular title that launched with the PlayStation or the PS2, that catapulted those systems to success?

    I think you’d be hard pressed to do that, because there’s not much in the way of a single title that went “look at me, I’m *new*! come play me!” for either of those systems. There was a wide diversity of titles that appealed to many different people instead.

    Success is a complex equation based on the cost of the base hardware, the software available, the launch window, the sorts of experiences being provided, the level of the competition, the markets being targeted, branding, and a number of other factors. The N64 lost to the PS not because it lacked killer software (Mario 64 sold 11 million copies ffs; I mean that’s impressive as hell: 1 in 3 people who bought an N64 picked it up!), but because the PS was better at doing what the N64 did; they attacked roughly the same market, but the PS was out a year earlier, had 3 times as many games, much better third party support, and used a CD drive instead of an expensive cartridge. It had broader appeal.

    It was a better positioned product, which better met the needs of it’s market. And that’s pretty much what it comes down to in the end. The DS and the Wii’s great success is in recognizing that there was another market that wasn’t having it’s needs met and they reached out and met them, very strongly. That market was bigger than the current one, so it was a tremendous success, but it’s still really about what the market’s needs are and being well positioned to meet them.

  3. Jon says:

    On the other hand, do you often see people nowadays play with their PS1? Do you tell your friends “I bring the PS One!” in 2010?! No!

    Surprisingly, all of my friends has the mighty 64, and they all bring a controller, and we play KILLER-time-defying games. I’m talking here about Mario Kart 64, Super Smash Bros, GoldenEye, Perfect Dark, Mario Party 1 2 3.

    Nintendo 64 was AND IS always underrated. It’s that system that started everything. Not only Analog Joystick; Rumble controllers, 4-Players, Super Smash Bros., two controls (d-pad + joystick)……..!

  4. Mark says:

    I do not agree. The N64 was one of my favorite systems. Mario 64 was an amazing game that changed platform gaming forever. How can you even make yourself say that it wasn’t a “wow” game. My friends and I would play it for hours trying to get every star. Mariocart 64 was a great game that if you had multiple players, you could never get enough of. Lets not forget that two amazing Zelda titles were released on this system. Ocarina of Time being one of the best Zelda games of all time. Golden Eye, Donkey Kong 64, Mario Party are all great games that came out on this system that occupied many hours of my friends and my lives. I am not a huge fan of sport games, fighters, or FPS, and I feel like those three genres were done much better (and to death) on the other systems that were out. Nintendo 64 was not a “cool” system. Mario, Zelda, and Pokemon don’t carry a huge amount of street cred, but they are great franchises and many of them did well on the 64. It almost seems that the kids that grew up on NES were in college or high school when the N64 came out and that they were looking for more violent and harder edged games that were not really what Nintendo was making. It seems that with the release of the Wii, gaming has taken a turn back towards family gaming and the types of games that Nintendo excels in are doing well once again. Nintendo is great at innovation and fun without the need for gritty violence and gore and the kids that played NES when they were young are now married with families of their own. These are the people buying Wii’s and DS’s. Everyone in my family has a Wii in their household. I feel that the failure of the N64 was only due more to its timing in the generation of gamers that were playing and buying systems at the time than in its innovation and groundbreaking games.

  5. Mikey says:

    Hey, guys! That’s why i love this site. Your comments are sometimes more interesting than articles. Thanks for your comments, guys!

  6. Eric says:

    Mario 64 was definitely a killer app, no question.

    It was the cost. $70-80 for a N64 game vs $50 or less for Playstation games. This was owing to the phenomenally stupid decision of sticking with cartridges over CD-ROM.

    Beyond that, the games – Pilotwings and Mario were the only two launch titles, and it only had 6-8 by Christmas, if I’m recalling correctly. No matter how good Mario 64 was, people don’t like the feeling of picking up a system to play one game. Meanwhile, Playstation started to pick up a lot of exclusives, and throughout the entire generation simply had the big and better (and cheaper) library of games.

    Though I’ll say this about your thesis: Had Goldeneye been an N64 launch title, history might be very different. The real killer app for both the analog stick and the 3D graphics was first person shooters. Goldeneye was the game the N64 needed and to this day spurs the N64’s afterlife, but it came too late in the console’s lifespan to help it win.

  7. RoyalRook says:

    I respectfully disagree, sir. N64 was launched with THE most ground breaking game in media entertainment history, Mario 64. My mean, you can say you have never played a Zelda game, but as a Nintendo fan, you have to play that game in one form or another. Talking about a killer app, Mario 64 was it.

    I was so in love of that game, I collected every single star, and I am not even a perfectionist. I just could not stop playing that game as a kid, you know? Lol.

    So I pretty much agree with everyone else on this site.

  8. mr.cranky says:

    my n64 was awsome! had a collection of around 30 games or so. playstation had more games but n64 had better games. i wish more were on VC, been dying to jump into shadows of the empire and resident evil 2 🙂

  9. Zeek says:

    “The console introduced a new input device: the analogy stick, something the competition soon copied.”

    Come on. “Popularized” is the correct term. The Vectrex had it first.

  10. gamecollector44 says:

    That is true. While the N64 didn’t have the greatest commercial success, it had more hits than the Ps1. That’s even better considering the ps1 had, oh I dunno… 1000+ titles, while the N64 only had around 350. (But more hits! A’ Can you say Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine? ;D )

  11. [obscene screen name] says:

    This is an over simplification of any console or handheld’s success. Also, there is no way Mario 64 was not a Killer app. It seems to me that you got this idea, noticed the loophole in the N64 case, and just altered what you consider a killer app so Mario 64 would not be included in that definition so your theory would work.

  12. I think Nintendo needs to focus a lot more on games that people play rather then the consoles. Because ultimately their sequels lead to more sales of the upcoming consoles.

  13. frstOne says:

    I definitely had the “I have to have this game” impulse when I first saw mario 64…

  14. PoopKicker5000 says:

    Sorry Blake. Mario 64 is a killer app. The PSone won out due to cheaper games.

  15. Josh says:

    $70 – 80$ per game? What are you people talking about? Games were typically $49.99. There were only a couple that may have been more than that, such as Ogre Battle or maybe Resident Evil 2.

  16. Josh says:

    Zelda, GoldenEye and Mario Kart were also killer apps.

  17. Lord Toker says:

    weird i thought the 64 did better than the cube in the long run? or maybe that’s another article to come…

  18. J_man86 says:

    How did Mario 64 not have the “I have to have this game” factor? It was in effing 3d! I didn’t really see Mario 64 when it first came out but the first time I saw Ocarina of Time I thought my brains were gunna explode out my ears. I was dumbfounded. I HAD to have an N64! When Christmas came I was like that little kid on YouTube. Good times… good times…

  19. Johnny Pitsberg says:

    Not to be messed up or anything, but the PS1 Sucked, yeah the games were cheaper and had a big library of games but that’s not all gamers care about.
    The N64 was awesome, I’m a huge Mario fan so I bought all mario games from the N64 and they all kick ass!. On the PS1 I probably bought like 5 games and they all sucked. The loading screens took forever. N64 was using cartriges and its better because there’s no loading screen!

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