N64 @ 24: An ode to Nintendo’s nostalgic dream machine

The Nintendo 64 is 24-years-old – is it finally time to exhume its most beloved classics?

The Nintendo 64 made its grand debut 24 years ago this week, launching in Japan on June 23, 1996. At that time, I was still in diapers. It took four years of toddling until I finally got my mitts on the damn thing, with the Pikachu-emblazoned variant arriving in my lap as a present circa 1999 – it was my first proper video game console.

Beyond my own fond memories, the Nintendo 64 has done well to survive so long in the cultural milieu unlike many of its peers. You still see its multi-dimensional iconography plastered on t-shirts, its logo modified and manipulated to prey on a fierce nostalgia for what many perceive to be a groundbreaking era in video game history.

What’s fascinating about the Nintendo 64’s legacy is the way in which people talk with such emotion about this impossibly serene period of their lives. When brought up in conversation, games like GoldenEye and Mario Kart 64 still have an institutional level of sway, and a peculiar infallibility due to the fact that many of these games are still proprietarily bound to the oddball hardware. Precious few have been remastered or remade – and in the current generation, they’re nowhere to be seen. This traps the nostalgia like a prehistoric bug in amber, ensuring our opinion of that era is pure crystallised bliss.

Nintendo 64 system with a goldeneye acrtridge
A Nintendo 64 system with a ‘GoldenEye 007’ cartridge. Credit: Stephen Chung / Alamy Stock Photo

They might not even be the most well-made or critically acclaimed games of the time, but they persevere in the culture because of how they made hordes of people huddle in front of CRTs, clutching unmistakeable squid-like controllers, arbitrarily banning each other from playing certain characters in Super Smash Bros and having fun.

For me though, it wasn’t about the multiplayer. Being an only child, I didn’t get much GoldenEye done until later in life – Halo 3 filled that hole in my teens. Ocarina Of Time? I was too little to understand it, so I never escaped Kakariko Village. The title screen music certainly worked its way into my head though…

For me, it was all about Super Mario 64. I have vivid memories of chasing bunnies through the serpentine halls of the hub, getting spooked by Boo’s in the lonely garden and running up those impossible stairs even though I knew it was never going to lead me to Bowser. I had to put in the work! I had to endure his mocking “wuh huh huh”, jumping into those gorgeous rippling paintings time after time to earn my mastery of Princess Peach’s castle. Charles Martinet’s adorable post-credits quip, “Thank you so much a for-to playing my game” will forever live rent-free in my head, a reminder of the 3D platforming peak I’d climbed in my infancy.

I can’t think of any other game I’d love to have access to in the current generation. But Super Mario 64 has such stopping power that it doesn’t necessarily demand a remaster unless it’s formidably faithful. The charming textures hold up and the gameplay is pristine – the response to a recently circulated high-definition PC port of the game proved that there’s no need to tinker with any of its parts. Crucially, we just need legal access to the game on a modern console.

Super Mario 64
Super Mario 64. Credit: Nintendo

I get it though – I understand why Nintendo has been so reluctant to rejuvenate its library of N64 classics. It would melt through that nostalgic amber instantaneously. Such is the curse of the remake – it removes your reason to go back. Where other remasters offer revelatory improvements on the original, Nintendo runs the risk of damaging some of the magic by daring to open Princess Peach’s Pandora’s Box. It makes sense for a game like Link’s Awakening where it was trapped in two dimensions, but Super Mario 64 is a more complex customer. The Nintendo Switch is a runaway success, and the Japanese developer is at the top of its game – so it’s whether they want to keep this ace up their sleeve for a new console launch, or double down and print money.

Whatever the strategy, Mario is turning 35 years old in 2020 (which seems like a fair representation of his actual age, come to think of it). According to a series of leaks, there are some festivities planned to commemorate the floppy-stached backflipper, with a Eurogamer report suggesting that Super Mario 64, Super Mario Sunshine and Super Mario Galaxy may all return at once, arriving on Nintendo Switch at some point this year. Big if true – and if Nintendo does choose to pull one of its immaculate N64 classics to the present, it would no doubt kick the door open for the rest to follow.

With digital downloads the new norm, it’s never been more important to preserve the past, but when our vivid emotions and fond memories are so wrapped up in a proprietary period as they are with the N64, it might be useful to exhume these games, see old friends once more and relive those moments with a new generation to get some closure and press on to a more exciting future. I know now that Bowser’s impossible stairs won’t lead me anywhere new, but having the chance to try again can’t hurt, just in case…

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