Although the launch of the Super Famicom, known as the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) internationally, was a success, sales were affected by two factors. While the Famicom (NES) went a majority of its life unchallenged, the fourth saw the rise of a fierce challenger in the form of Sega. Owing to a successful marketing campaign revolving around their mascot, Sonic the Hedgehog, and his eponymous 1991 debut game, Sega successfully tapped into the zeitgeist of the era, proving they could keep pace with the ostensibly out-of-fashion Nintendo. This could be seen in how Super Mario World was received. Though popular even when it was released in 1990, with no fewer than three predecessors, people dismissed it as another Mario title. On top of this, a failed business deal between Nintendo and Sony involving a CD-ROM player add-on to the SNES resulted in the latter company themselves entering the console race with their inaugural PlayStation console in 1994. Said console proved to be highly popular – especially once prominent third-party developers such as Konami and Capcom, dissatisfied with Nintendo’s draconian licensing policies, began releasing new installments of their big-name franchises on Sony’s platform.
The other factor that caused Nintendo’s sales to slump was something none of these companies had control over: the economy. Throughout second half of the twentieth century, Japan’s economy appeared to be a juggernaut with many Westerners speculating that they would effectively take over the world. This eventually proved not to be the case. In late 1991, the Japanese asset price bubble collapsed, and a devastating recession ensued.
There were numerous causes behind this recession. One of the biggest catalysts was when the Bank of Japan, attempting to keep inflation in check, raised inter-bank lending rates. Before then, the banks were lending more with barely any regard for the borrowers’ credibility. Their drastic actions caused the bubble to burst, and the stock market crashed, leaving banks and insurance companies with several books’ worth of bad debt. The period that followed would eventually be known as the Lost Decade with some economists believing it to have lasted long enough to warrant being called the Lost Score. With Nintendo facing not one, but two companies that were more than a match for them while also feeling the effects of an inescapable recession, they realized they needed to do something drastic to remain in the game.
The Sunnyvale, California-based company Silicon Graphics, Inc. (SGI), had prided themselves by leading the pack in graphics visualization and supercomputing. They were particularly interested in expanding their business, adapting their pioneering technology so that it could reach a higher volume of consumer products. Observing the impressive momentum of the video game industry, they felt it to be the ideal starting point. Their lasted invention had them use the MIPS R4000 family of CPUs as a base, creating something that used only a fraction of the resources. SGI founder Jim Clark originally offered a proposal to Sega of America CEO Tom Kalinske. If they declined, Nintendo would be the next candidate in line. The exact details of the subsequent negotiations have been lost. It has been claimed that Mr. Kalinske and a colleague of his were impressed with SGI’s prototype only for engineers to uncover multiple hardware issues. While they were ultimately resolved, Sega decided against SGI’s design. It’s also said that the real reason they partnered with Nintendo was because they, unlike Sega, were willing to license the technology on a non-exclusive basis, thus expanding SGI’s consumer base to a far greater degree if their newest console became a hit. Regardless, a partnership was made, and when Jim Clark met with Nintendo CEO Hiroshi Yamauchi in early 1993, Project Reality had begun. The eventual result would be the console to succeed the Super Famicom.
The first result from Project Reality was the Onyx supercomputer, which was priced anywhere from $100,000 to $250,000 USD. The system’s controller was a modified SNES controller outfitted with an analogy joystick and “Z” trigger. The secrecy was such that when LucasArts expressed interest in making a game for the console’s impending launch, the prototype controller had to be placed in a cardboard box as the developers used it.
In June of 1994, Nintendo announced the new name of the unfinished console: the “Ultra 64”. Its design was unveiled for the first time shortly thereafter. The console was so named because it was to be the world’s first 64-bit gaming system. Atari had claimed that their Jaguar console was the first 64-bit gaming system. In reality, it only had a general 64-bit architecture, utilizing two 32-bit RISC processors along with a 16/32-bit Motorola 68000. For good measure, the Ultra 64 was cited in marketing campaigns as more powerful than the computers used for the Apollo 11 mission. Especially controversial was the decision for the console to retain ROM cartridges as opposed to utilizing the superior storage capabilities of the CD-ROM format, which drew much speculation from the press.
Some time after this, the console was to be called the Ultra Famicom domestically and Ultra Nintendo 64 abroad. It’s rumored that the name was changed to avoid legal action by Konami. They had ownership of the Ultra Games trademark, a shell corporation used to circumvent Nintendo’s strict policies limiting the number of third-party releases that could be published in the United States during the NES era. Nintendo themselves claimed that the trademark issues were not a factor. However, they wanted to establish a single worldwide brand and logo for their third console, so these names were discarded. The name they chose, the Nintendo 64, was proposed by Shigesato Itoi, a famous copywriter and creator of two beloved classics: Earthbound Beginnings and its sequel, Earthbound. With a collective of elite developers nicknamed the Dream Team, the Nintendo 64 project was ready to begin.
The console was formally unveiled in a playable form in November of 1995 at Nintendo’s seventh annual Shoshinkai trade show. As the hordes of schoolkids huddling around in the cold outside indicated, the anticipation for Nintendo’s newest console was extremely high. The Nintendo 64 was originally slated to be released by Christmas of 1995, but during the previous May, Nintendo delayed the launch to April of 1996. They claimed they needed more time for the software to mature and for third-party developers to become interested in producing games for it, though an engineer cited the hardware’s underperformance in playtesting sessions. As a result, the console’s launch was delayed again – this time to June 23, 1996. To placate potentially impatient fans, Nintendo ran ads with slogans such as “Wait for it…” and “Is it worth the wait? Only if you want the best!”
Similar to the case with their previous console, Nintendo knew full well that, as impressive as the new machine might be, it would be nothing for want of a selection of impressive launch titles. Once again, Shigeru Miyamoto and Takashi Tezuka, the two most important names behind the Mario franchise were willing to step up to the plate. Joined by Yoshiaki Koizumi, who had recently cut his teeth writing the scenario for The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, the three were determined to make the Nintendo 64’s launch impactful.
As early as 1991, Mr. Miyamoto conceived the idea of a 3D Mario game as he worked on the SNES rail shooter Star Fox. He had considered using the Super FX chip to develop a game called Super Mario FX. It was to have gameplay revolving around an entire world in miniature similar to that of miniature trains. He reformulated the idea as the Nintendo 64 was being developed, though not because of its superior graphical capabilities. Instead, he observed the controller’s greater number of buttons and felt it would allow for more advanced gameplay. In accordance to the global branding of their newest console, the new game was to be called Super Mario 64. The scope of the project spanned three years. One year was spent designing the concept while two were allotted to directly work on the software. Guiding Mr. Miyamoto throughout this game’s development was the drive to include more details than any of its predecessors. He felt the style made the game play as a 3D interactive cartoon.
Information about Super Mario 64 was leaked in November of 1995. A playable version was presented days later. Because the game was only halfway completed by this point, Nintendo of American chairman Howard Lincoln once said that Mr. Miyamoto’s desire to add more to the game was a factor in the decision to delay the Nintendo 64’s launch. Indeed, Mr. Yamauchi, realizing just how observant players are, didn’t wish for the integrity of Mr. Miyamoto’s game to be compromised. When asked for an additional two months to work on the game, he granted the request without questioning it.
Super Mario 64 was released on the promised date of June 23, 1996 alongside the Nintendo 64 itself. While the Mario franchise had been no stranger to critical acclaim, the reception of Super Mario 64 seemed to trivialize that of its predecessors. As one of the medium’s first successful 3D platforming games, Super Mario 64 is considered one of the medium’s most important benchmarks. Such was the scope of its influence that it could be said to have singlehandedly effected the 3D video game leap. As the title often cited as ground zero for 3D gaming, was Super Mario 64 able to stand the test of time?