The Games That Defined the Nintendo 64 (N64)

Presented by Ack
This guide is part of the Defining Games Series 

Nintendo’s third major console release has had some interesting times.  While some reviewers praised its 3D graphics, its quality platformers and solid first-, subsidiary, and second-party support, others blasted its use of cartridges, its lack of solid fighting games and RPGs, and its supposed dearth of adult-themed games.  All opinions aside however, the Nintendo 64 had quite a solid lineup of titles that are worth checking out.  The N64 redefined how the typical gamer looked at platformers, console FPS, and 3D graphics.  It changed the design of our controllers, what functions our controllers provided, and how many of us could play together at the same time.

Of this list, two companies stand out at the forefront of Nintendo 64 development, and their games heavily dominate this list.  These companies are Nintendo, the manufacturer of the Nintendo 64 and principal designer of games for it, and Rare.  During the mid- to late-1990s, Nintendo and Rare shared a very special relationship which allowed for the development of many influential games, some of which are now considered to be some of the best ever created.  Rare’s work is especially prevalent on the N64, and while Nintendo’s games easily dominate this list, Rare follows.  Three other companies also inhabit the main portion of this list: LucasArts, AKI, and Acclaim.  Their contributions to the console are not to be forgotten.

So read on.  Enjoy the list.  Consider each, and if you’ve never played them, consider tracking them down.  Because these are the games that defined Nintendo in the wake of the Virtual Boy and after the loss of Gunpei Yokoi, in an age where games were changing and evolving, where new dimensions were being explored and old formats being discarded.  These are the games that define the Nintendo 64.

Super Mario 64

Super Mario ScreenshotIf there is one game that absolutely defines the Nintendo 64, it would be Super Mario 64.  A launch title, Super Mario 64 proved not only Mario but the platformer could move to 3D and be successful, forever changing the genre.  Instead of a flat race to the finish, levels were now miniature worlds with multiple paths to choose from to advance.

Mario was manipulated via the analog stick and controls to enable a far more sophisticated series of movement and maneuvers.  The title effectively highlighted the console’s strengths and became the highest selling N64 game, with gamers picking up 11 million copies worldwide.

The game’s success has continued on the Wii’s Virtual Console and in its handheld remake, Super Mario 64 DS.
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The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time

Zelda Ocarina of Time ScreenshotThe Legend of Zelda’s initial transition to 3D is one of the best received titles in a series continuously applauded throughout Nintendo’s video game enterprise.  Fans were happy to see Link traverse an expansive world, fighting off hordes of monsters and completing complex dungeons from an entirely new perspective while switching between childhood and adulthood.

There was something magical about riding Epona across the Hyrule Field, or hunting Poes for the Poe, or searching for the hidden Scarecrow.  The game was rife with side quests and hidden material, and longtime series fans have created new means of challenging themselves via three-heart runs or other methods to increase the difficulty.

Overall Ocarina of Time is continuously applauded and has topped multiple “Best Games of All Time” lists as well as received numerous rereleases on the GameCube, iQue Player, and Wii.  A remake on the Nintendo 3DS has also been announced.  The game can be found in both gold and grey cartridges.
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The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask

Zelda Majora's Mask ScreenshotMajora’s Mask, the sequel to Ocarina of Time, focused on Link as a child in an adventure where he is perpetually trapped in a three day loop as the moon slams into the world, all because the Skull Kid has stolen the obscenely powerful Majora’s Mask.

Basically every three days of in-game time the world resets, with only certain of Link’s actions having any permanent affect on the world.  Gameplay focuses heavily around the various masks that Link collects, with some even transforming Link into the various different species which populate the world.  Upon release critics praised it for its dark story and unique gameplay, though they worried about its inaccessibility, as some players found the formula more than a little frustrating.

The game does have a polarizing affect on fans, but it is well worth trying if you’re used to the Zelda formula and want something a little different.  Majora’s Mask has been rereleased on both the GameCube and the Wii’s Virtual Console and was recently voted “Game of the Decade 2000-2009” at  Depending on the region, the game can be found in either gold or grey cartridges.
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Mario Kart 64

Mario Kart 64While Super Mario 64 recreated the Mario characters in 3D faithfully, Mario Kart 64 gave them 3D tracks to race on. With 8 playable characters, 6 of which returned from Super Mario Kart, players could race the computer AI or take each other on in a 4-player dash to the finish line.

Time trials are also available, and a battle mode with four arenas was offered up for those more interested in fighting than racing using the numerous weapons in the game.  The title is reported to have sold over 9 million copies worldwide and was released on the Virtual Console in all regions in 2007.
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Super Smash Bros.

Super Smash Bros. ScreenshotTired of Pikachu?  Not a fan of Mario?  Want to beat down Samus for not getting a game released on the N64?  Super Smash Bros. lets you do all that and more!  Second-party developer HAL Laboratory’s fighting game gem for the Nintendo 64 may not be traditional in any sense, but it did offer up to four players the chance to battle various characters from a variety of Nintendo game franchises across multiple themed stages.

The game featured relatively simple controls and easy to learn rules, but the combination of randomly spawning items and interactive stages lent it a fervent intensity that is not to be missed.  It may not have sated the Street Fighter fans out there, but it’s easily one of the most original and entertaining fighters to exist, as well as one of the best fighters on the console.

The Smash Bros. series was also continued in later entries on Nintendo consoles, adding more characters, stages, items, and other pieces of Nintendo nostalgia while incorporating video game icons not limited to the Big N.
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Star Fox 64 (Lylat Wars)

Star Fox 64 ScreenshotStar Fox 64 took the SNES original and remade it to utilize the Nintendo 64’s 3D capabilities.  The results were spectacular: players are now offered branching levels depending on actions completed in that stage (as opposed to the difficulty-based choices offered in the SNES Star Fox), 4-player multiplayer, an unlockables system based on acquiring medals throughout the game, and voice acting to replace the “Lylat” language from the 16-bit era (with the line “Do a barrel roll!” becoming a popular Internet meme).

The game stayed true to its on-rails roots through much of the game, though some levels and areas allowed for free flight, particularly boss battles and multiplayer.  Star Fox 64 sold 5.5 million copies around the world, continues to garner high marks, and is probably the most well received title in the series.  It also saw release on the iQue Player and the Wii Virtual Console, and a new remake has been announced for the 3DS.

The game also came packaged with the N64 Rumble Pak, making it the first official title to use it, though many more would make use of it.  The Rumble Pak helped standardize the vibration features in video games for the following generations, with Nintendo even releasing Rumble expansions for the Nintendo DS.
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Mario Party Series

Mario Party Screenshot

The product of a deal between Nintendo and Hudson Soft, the Mario Party games have expanded quite a bit in the last decade, but the series saw its start on the Nintendo 64 with Mario Party, Mario Party 2, and Mario Party 3.  Each game is essentially a board game with a variety of playable characters from the Mario universe and a large mass of minigames affecting progress on the board.  The minigames are also playable without the context of the board, but only in alternate game modes.  While Mario Party titles can be played in single player, multiplayer is where they truly shine, and each title is meant for up to 4 people.  More minigames were added as the series progressed, cheaper luck-based games were removed, new characters were included in the cast, and new types of spaces were added to the game boards.

One thing to note with Mario Party is that some of the minigames have led to broken controllers and physical harm to the players.  Certain Mario Party minigames, particularly the tug-of-war game in the first, can wear out the N64 controller stick.
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Pokemon Stadium

Pokemon Stadium ScreenshotWhile this game is actually the sequel to the Japan-only Pocket Monsters Stadium, but Pokemon Stadium was in all regards an upgrade.  Featuring all 151 original Pokemon (the first game only had 42 playable), Pokemon Stadium focuses entirely on the combat.  Players first choose a cup to compete in and then select their Pokemon so they can battle it out with AI trainers before then moving on to the four Kanto Gym Leaders, the Elite Four, and the Champion.  After that the player must defeat Mewtwo and then start all over again on the harder Round 2.  The cartridge also included mini-games, some interesting side galleries of trophies or pictures, and multiplayer arenas.

Originally the game came bundled with the Nintendo 64 Transfer Pak, which allows data to be transferred between Game Boy or Game Boy Color games and the N64.  Pokemon Stadium used the pak to import a player’s personal Pokemon from Pokemon Red, Blue, or Yellow, access the Pokemon Center from the Game Boy, transfer prized Pokemon from the N64 to your Game Boy, and even allow players to transfer their Pokemon for multiplayer battles.  Pokemon Stadium 2, the successor to Pokemon Stadium and the third game in the series in Japan, supported the first generation games along with Gold, Silver, and Crystal.  While those of us who aren’t really into Pokemon games may not take notice, fans of the series should definitely check it out.
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Wave Race 64

Jet ski racing has never been so much fun! (Well, ok racing real jetskis against each other might actually be more fun)  Though it only featured four characters, Nintendo’s water-based racing game featured a lot of replayability, with multiple difficulties for races, including a reverse course mode, time trials, and a stunt mode.  But courses have to be unlocked for these later modes by racing against the AI in the Championship.  The game also features accurate wave physics, a feat unto itself, coupled with varying weather conditions.  It’s no wonder Kawasaki Heavy Industries thought the game was good enough to put their name on it.

The game also still holds up well today in gameplay, even over its sequel.  It’s difficult not to be impressed with Wave Race 64 and its showcase of the Nintendo 64’s capabilities.  It’s even more astonishing when one realizes the game came out only three months after the console’s release, showing that a skilled developer could coax some amazing power out of the N64 to create a game that still stands out today.  While it may not be traditional, fans of racing should definitely take note.
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Mario Tennis

Mario Tennis ScreenshotWhile it wasn’t the first Mario sports game (or even the first Mario tennis game), this is one of the best.  Combining solid controls that are easy to learn but tough to master, quality physics, a plethora of playable and unlockable characters (Baby Mario being a personal favorite), multiple courts, various tournaments and game modes, and up to four-person multiplayer, this game demands to be played.  And to further up the ante, the game is compatible with the Game Boy Advance version of Mario Tennis via the Transfer Pak to unlock further stages and allow for characters to be transferred between versions.  It really is a tennis extravaganza!

Despite its late N64 release date in 2000, fans snapped up nearly 2 million copies worldwide. And where else can you have a Shy Guy and Koopa Paratroopa team up to beat down Birdo and Boo for a show of the baddest standard enemy?  Or finally discover who’s got better skills on the court, Peach or Daisy?  Or decide who’s the biggest villain, Bowser or Wario?  You’ll be having a blast before you can say “Power Smash.”
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GoldenEye 007

Goldeneye 007 ScreenshotThis is the game most people think of when you say Nintendo 64.  There’s quite a bit GoldenEye did for video games.  It changed how we handled FPS console multiplayer, paving the way for titles like Halo or Call of Duty: Modern Warfare to become the major multiplayer machines they are today.  It stood on the shoulders of Turok, showing just what a console FPS could do and how popular it could become, proving that this genre could definitely work with a controller.  And it showed us that not all property and movie-based video games had to be terrible, something which is often forgotten amongst gamers.  GoldenEye proved to be such a hit that its sales record of 8 million wasn’t beaten by another FPS until a decade after its release.

Upon release, GoldenEye won considerable praise and numerous awards, and it’s not hard to see why.  It offers a large variety of replayable missions, some of which have randomized locations for certain goals.  It featured a multitude of unlockable cheat codes, some of which were quite challenging to obtain.  Also included were a deep multiplayer experience and a large number of selectable skins and weapon choices.  And it kept true to its roots, expanding phenomenally on one of the best James Bond films that didn’t feature Sean Connery as the star.  In fact his inclusion would probably be the only thing that could really have improved upon the experience…
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Perfect Dark

Perfect Dead N64 ScreenshotWhile it may not be a James Bond game, Perfect Dark is Rare’s spiritual successor to the massive hit GoldenEye 007.  And while it suffers from issues with framerate, it takes all that was good about its predecessor and runs with it into a dystopian cyberpunk future where corporate espionage has taken a militant intergalactic twist.  But once through the main story line, there are unlockable missions, cheat codes, co-op and counter-op gameplay styles, and a massive multiplayer system with support for up to four players or eight bots.  Multiplayer matches can also be customized further than in GoldenEye, such as setting the bots’ AI to certain styles or selecting individual weapons instead of the groups that GoldenEye provided.

Unfortunately to keep up with everything Rare put into the game, Perfect Dark requires the Nintendo 64 Expansion Pak to access most of the content.  Only an estimated 35% of the game is available without it, and the single player campaign is completely inaccessible.  The game is also compatible with the Transfer Pak and Perfect Dark for the Game Boy Color to unlock several features, such as cheat codes.  Though Perfect Dark was originally supposed to be compatible with the Game Boy Camera to allow pictures of friends to be turned into multiplayer character models, this feature was scrapped.
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Banjo Kazooie ScreenshotRare’s classic platformer took the 3D formula set forth by Super Mario 64 and ran with it.  In it, players take control of a bear named Banjo and his bird-pal Kazooie as they journey around Spiral Mountain to rescue Banjo’s sister Tooty from the evil (and hideous) witch Gruntilda.  To do so, they must traverse 9 nonlinear levels, searching for puzzle pieces called jiggys.

Along the way Banjo and Kazooie also find a variety of other items to make them more powerful or to help advance them in the game.  Eventually the game was released on Xbox Live Arcade with some minor changes, such as the removal of Nintendo properties and a working version of the Stop ‘N’ Swap feature.

On a console known for changing the way we viewed platformers, Banjo-Kazooie shines.  It received several awards and nominations at the time of its release and spawned a detailed series with multiple spin-offs.  Upon its creation Rare claimed Banjo-Kazooie would do for the Nintendo 64 what Donkey Kong Country did for the SNES.  But while it never approached anywhere near DKC’s 8 million in sales, it did manage to sell over 2 million copies and set a new standard for the genre.
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Conker’s Bad Fur Day

Conker's Bad Fur Day ScreenshotAh, adult-themed video games.  Rare’s attempt to make a platformer break the mold of previous games like Banjo-Kazooie and Donkey Kong 64 and put down Nintendo’s supposed “kiddy” image went so far, it became more about the filth than anything else.  And for that, we thank it.

Nowhere else can I get a hung over squirrel to jump using a busty flower’s cleavage, pee on anything that moves, and fight Nazi-esque teddy bears.  And the entire thing is rife with crude lowbrow humor and movie references.

But if the single player platforming didn’t float your boat, Conker had twisted multiplayer to add to the fun.  Playes could pick from one of seven minigames, including the awesome Total War mode which involved using a chemical weapon to take out the opposite side.  Other modes include racing, deathmatch, capture the flag, and even a bank robbery mode.  It’s entertaining, it’s inventive, and it’s more than a little gross, and that’s what we like about it.
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Diddy Kong Racing

Diddy Kong Racing ScreenshotRivaling Mario Kart 64 (and some claim surpassing it), Diddy Kong Racing is a kart racer that is highly significant to the Nintendo 64.  It was the first appearance of both soon-to-be platforming stars Banjo and Conker alongside genre veteran Diddy Kong.  It provided a solid adventure mode, in which players moved around Timber the Tiger’s island, selecting and competing in various races to eventually defeat the evil Wizpig.

It included not just karts, but airplanes and hovercraft as usable vehicles.  And it even earned a Guinness World Record for being the fastest-selling video game at the time of its release, selling over 800,000 games in the two weeks before Christmas the year of its release.

Diddy Kong Racing changed the Nintendo 64 considerably, both by its gameplay enhancements to kart racing, and by the first appearances of two of the console’s defining characters.  While it did eventually see a remake on the Nintendo DS, important changes such as the replacement of Banjo and Conker by Dixie Kong and Tiny Kong were made because of Rare’s separation from Nintendo.  DKR serves as a reminder both of the quality of Rare’s work and the significance of the company’s products on the Nintendo 64.
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AKI Corporation Wrestling Games

WWF ScreenshotWhat the Nintendo 64 lacked in quality fighting games, it more than made up for in quality wrestling titles.  And AKI Corporation (now known as syn Sophia Inc.) made the best.

During the Nintendo 64’s era, AKI released no fewer than 6 wrestling games: WCW vs. nWo World Tour, WCW/nWo Revenge, WWF Wrestlemania 2000, WWF No Mercy, and the Japan-only Virtual Pro Wrestling 64 and Virtual Virtual Pro Wrestling 2: ?d? Keish?.  These games set the standard for many wrestling games to follow in terms of quality and combat systems, including new fighting systems, real arenas, and even adding in a Create-A-Wrestler mode with a deep library of wrestling moves.

As of 1999, WCW/nWo Revenge was the highest selling wrestling game ever.  For those wrestling fans into Puroresu, the Virtual Pro Wrestling series gives a taste of professional wrestling in Japan while using a similar fighting system.
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Star Wars Games

Star wars ScreenshotLucasArts developed or co-developed four Star Wars games for the Nintendo 64: Shadows of the Empire, Rogue Squadron, Episode 1 Racer, and Episode 1: Battle for Naboo.  Of the four, Rogue Squadron proved to be the most popular and was further enhanced by use of the N64 Expansion Pak.

Rogue Squadron and Battle for Naboo were both free flying shooters, while Episode 1 Racer was a pod racing game based on the sport from Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.  Shadows of the Empire was a third-person shooter released a few months after the North American launch.  It featured the option to switch to a first person mode for FPS fans in certain levels, while also including racing and free flight space battle levels.

The four games made valuable additions to the Nintendo 64 library and the Star Wars universe, with Rogue Squadron expanding into a full video game series of its own.  The games also featured a multitude of hidden secrets, Easter Eggs, and cheat codes for the eager Star Wars fan.
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Turok Series

Turok ScreenshotAcclaim’s major addition to the Nintendo 64 was in the four Turok first person shooters released on the console, of which the first two are the most important.  In the Turok games, players generally take up the mantle of Turok, a Native American warrior who fights dinosaurs, men, and aliens with a combination of primitive, modern, and futuristic weaponry.

Turok: Dinosaur Hunter proved that console FPS could be successful several months before the release of 007: GoldenEye, becoming the first third party game to earn a Player’s Choice release.  Turok 2: Seeds of Evil offered expanded multiplayer, complex level designs, an engaging plot, and more of the open locales which made the first game popular, while adding new enemies and weaponry and utilizing the Expansion Pak for higher resolutions.  Turok: Rage Wars expanded on the multiplayer of Turok 2 in lieu of a single player game, while Turok 3: Shadow of Oblivion brought back a single player campaign but moved heavily from the series’ roots.
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Honorable Mentions

  • 1080° Snowboarding – While it’s rife with Tommy Hilfiger ads, 1080° Snowboarding packs quite a lot for both fans of snowboarding and racing.  There are unlockable characters and a snowboard, two trick modes, and three race modes, all sitting on gorgeously-programmed snow.
  • Banjo-Tooie – Released at the end of the Nintendo 64’s life, this game never reached as large an audience as its predecessor, Banjo-Kazooie.  But the game received considerable praise and is worth looking up if you were a fan of the first.
  • Cruis’n USA – This popular arcade racer was originally supposed to be released as a launch title for the N64.  It didn’t happen, and when it did come out the game’s graphics had been downgraded, and the game had been censored.
  • Donkey Kong 64 – Not only did it require an Expansion Pak, it also gave us the painful Donkey Kong Rap.  This 3D update of the popular Donkey Kong Country series on the SNES didn’t manage to live up to the fans’ expectations.  Despite this, it’s still a solid Nintendo platformer.
  • F-Zero X – just as Mario Kart 64 brought a classic SNES racer to the modern age, F-Zero X brought the high-speed, futuristic series to 3D.  It is blazing fast and many fans still prefer it over the Gamecube version, F-Zero GX (editor’s note: Racketboy still considers GX his favorite racer of all time)
  • Hey You, Pikachu! – This Pokemon game used the Voice Recognition Unit to allow the player to talk to Pikachu.  Instead of the traditional focus on monster battles, this game is actually a simulator for raising a wild Pikachu.  A special edition N64 was released alongside the game for collectors to drool over.
  • Killer Instinct Gold – While the N64 isn’t known for its fighting games, Killer Instinct Gold stands out as one of the few worth playing.  While it lost the FMVs of Killer Instinct 2 and had some cut character animations, it did get 3D stages.
  • Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards – A direct sequel to Kirby’s Dream Land 3, this is a 2.5D platformer following everybody’s pink bundle of…whatever it is he’s made of.  Players must control Kirby as he flies around 6 levels collecting crystal pieces to defeat Dark Matter.
  • Paper Mario – Combining 2D characters with 3D backgrounds, Paper Mario is easily one of the best RPGs on the console…which isn’t saying much.  But it’s also one of the best games in general.  RPG fans with an N64 would be remiss to pass up this little gem.
  • Pilotwings 64 – Nintendo’s flight simulator launched the console and showed just what the Nintendo 64 could do, and it makes for a soothing experience.
  • Pokemon Snap – A bizarre take on rail shooters, Pokemon Snap allows you to photograph Pokemon in the wild to show to Professor Oak so the player can advance through the levels.
  • Quest 64 – Also known as Holy Magic Century, this RPG was generally panned for its bland story and gameplay.  That said, it is a competent RPG for beginners in the genre and one of the few RPGs to appear on the N64.  You have to take what you can get.
  • Yoshi’s Story – The successor to Yoshi’s Island is a side-scrolling platformer, and one of the few Mario games not to include Mario whatsoever.  Gameplay centers on the various Yoshis eating fruit to complete a level, which leads to levels generally being pretty short.  While critics panned the game for being different from Yoshi’s Island, fans have argued that it should be allowed to stand on its own.


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