Welcome to a very contemplative episode of 64 in 64, where it's all about chill vibes and taking our time to make the best choices. Granted, choosing to play a couple of Nintendo 64 games for an hour each when there are so many great new games coming out on a weekly basis might not necessarily resemble "the best choice" but I'm not one to let common sense dictate my actions. I have ancient games to rank, after all, I can't be wasting my time with "fun" and "gaming as a hobby from which I derive joy". Speaking of ranking old games though, not only do my excellent blogpeers @borgmaster and @jeffrud have their own tiers of the damned going on, but one Mr. Jeff Gerstmann has taken it upon himself to rank all the American NES games in an ongoing video feature. I'm heartened we have so many of these system-by-system ranked lists happening everywhere, being the fan I am of arbitrarily deciding something's worth in relation to others even when direct comparisons are unfeasible, though I'll admit it was mostly an afterthought for this feature.
Speaking of this feature, hey, hi. This is 64 in 64, where I consider two N64 games that have yet to be added to the Switch Online subscription service and make my own decision on whether they deserve to be immortalized in the same way. I'll be winding down this feature come December and considering whether I have enough games left to want to warrant another "season" in 2024 without resorting to some of the more cursed items in my personal playing history like, say, a game involving giant magical hand people. We shall see; it very much hinges on how my creativity for new features is faring these days.
On a related matter, I might as well uncreatively recite all the rules of 64 in 64 again:
- Each episode covers at least two N64 games. These are played sixty-four minutes each. The first I've selected from a shortlist (getting shorter by the month) of noteworthy releases, or those with which I have a personal history. The second is selected randomly by an algorithm, though given what it's picked out for me so far I can't fully discount it being some future synthetic superintelligence choosing to mess with me. Like Roko's basilisk, except it's Mento's basilisk.
- Each game has an intro, four live-reaction reports taken at quarterly intervals, a space where I discuss the game's vintage, and another where I judge its likelihood to enter the vaunted halls of the Switch Online archive. I'll toss in something about Retro Achievements too, since it's too much effort to turn those off.
- I'm not going to cover anything that's in the premium tier Switch Online N64 library already. You don't need me to tell you if Ocarina of Time has held up, and I'm too afraid of Nintendo's legal division regardless. (They killed a guy with a trident!) My one concern is whether Nintendo decides to scrap the current library and start over when they announce that new Super Switch they're working on.
Past episodes can be found over here. They're fun times and suitable for all ages, so go read them:
History: If there's one aphorism that applies to Tetris more than all other game types, it's "don't mess with perfection". Alexey Pajitnov's curious little block-stacking game came out the gate with everything the game needed to be a success; the few quality-of-life additions it's received since, like T-spins and piece-holding, are convenient bonus adds rather than instrumental changes. The Tetris knock-offs that worked were those that essentially rebuilt the entire concept from scratch, retaining only the fundamental mechanic of dropping objects into a grid-like bucket. Tetrisphere, a variant that attempted to marry the basic tenets of Tetris with the possibilities of 3D graphics, is one of the few celebrated Tetris variants to take a hard left-turn with its sacrosanct blueprint. Apparently it began as an unrelated Atari Jaguar game called Phear, so it was figuratively rescued from the trash heap when Nintendo came knocking on H2O's door with the Tetris license in tow.
This is our second encounter with H2O Interactive and given the first was Aidyn Chronicles: The First Mage back in Episode 20 there's plenty of room for improvement. When covering Aidyn Chronicles I mentioned that H2O's only other N64 credits were two half-decent Tetris games, making them an odd choice for an ambitious tactical build-based CRPG like Aidyn, but if they're capable of throwing one of those together I don't doubt they can handle Tetris. At least, that's what I hope to find out. (Their third and last game, The New Tetris, is such a no-frills variant that I'm probably not going to prioritize it anytime soon.)
I've actually never played Tetrisphere, so this was a pick motivated by curiosity. I always imagined it playing a lot like Wetrix (how weird is it that Wetrix was not the one made by H2O Interactive?), so in my mind the two have always been these rivals jockeying for the "best N64 puzzle game" crown—Pokémon Puzzle League and Dr. Mario 64 are fine but kinda rote, Bust-A-Move always felt more of a PlayStation property, and the system sadly never saw a Mario Picross 64 which probably would've been an automatic victor in a perfect world in which it exists. One of my side-quests with 64 in 64 is to cover every N64 game of a particular genre so I can have all these little intra-leagues going on in the overall ranking table, so expect future 64 in 64 entries to build on that objective. (For completion's sake, this will also eventually require factoring in all the games I've prohibited due to my "no Switch Online games" rule, but I'll probably save all that for when I'm finally done with this feature.)
16 Minutes In
The onboarding has been surprisingly accommodating for a game of this vintage, but I suppose that has more to do with how strange Tetrisphere is. The idea is that you have a solid ball made out of tetraminos (well, almost) and you can drop pieces onto matching shapes to remove them and any identical pieces touching them, with the ultimate goal of breaking down into the center of the ball (at least on the default "Rescue" mode). There's a combo system at work too where you can shuffle pieces around to make it easier to eliminate multiple at once, but taking the time to shuffle them will almost certainly negate any combo chain you've built up: the way to get the most out of this scoring system I've found is to take your time (but not too much time, since you'll hit a game over) to shuffle pieces until you get a good number in one go, and then quickly the next piece drop onto a nearby second group to cash in that large combo chain. You can prepare for this second drop somewhat because you're told what your next two pieces will be, though as you can only shuffle the pieces that match the shape of the next piece there's a limit to how far you can modify the playing field. Another good tactic I've found is to just do the bare minimum of clearing shapes until you have two matching pieces in the queue and can then set up two big combos one after the other. This little score-boosting system is going to be less relevant as the game timer gets faster, introduces more piece types to remove per level (so far it's only two, which is very manageable), and includes more awkward pieces to shuffle around like the Z, S, and T shapes: at that point it'll be a matter of survival, shuffling and dropping as quickly as possible.
Tetrisphere's been a lot of fun so far. I'm waiting for the other L-shaped shoe to drop, of course, but the limited preparation time has meant that it's been relatively chill so far. I'm going to stick with Rescue until I hit a wall (or the surface of a sphere in this case) and try out some other modes. I'm getting the impression this early on that this might be the perfect kind of game to only play for sixty-four minutes.
32 Minutes In
That I'm honestly not even noticing time passing to the extent that I get shocked by the timer buzzer is a testament to how addicting this game has been so far. It's a simple enough concept once you get the basics down but it's really effective at that whole "Tetris Effect" zen state you enter into where your whole world just becomes pushing blocks around and making the score number go up. A few more things I've learned after this segment: the timer is ticking away whenever you're not clearing blocks, but by clearing them you're producing these glowing blocks that will add a huge chunk back onto the timer if you eliminate them. The idea, then, is to spend whatever amount of time you feel like setting up a big combo and then take the next few moments recovering the timer by eliminating these newly-added glow blocks before repeating the cycle.
So far the only losses I've taken was because my DS4 (the only effective controller I have right now thanks to my 8bitdo completely crapping the bed a few months after I bought it; caveat emptor) has suddenly developed D-pad drift, which I didn't even know was a thing. Tetrisphere is one of the few rare N64 games to completely ignore the Control Stick—I guess because this was originally an Atari Jaguar game, but also it'd be hard to depend on that thing for the precision control needed for a game like this—so I've had to be careful the controller won't just yank a piece away and drop it somewhere inconvenient. Each level lets you make up to three mistakes at least, so there's only been the one occasion where I've lost completely and had to restart (which, of course, wiped my high score). I imagine if you let the timer run out that'll be an automatic fail as well, though I'm not going to test it. I said I'd check out the alternative modes but I'm having enough fun with Rescue, which has you open just enough of the bottom layer of the sphere to emancipate its cute roly-poly captive in the center, that I'll stick with it for as long as the game lets me continue. Surprisingly, we're still only on two shapes per sphere so far so I've yet to be too taxed.
48 Minutes In
Balls. They're all I see. Endless balls. We're into the third set of Rescue levels now and I can't seem to help myself. I want to keep going even though I'd probably make this a more interesting rundown if I crash and burn and tried some of the other modes I spotted from the start menu. The timer's become a lot more stringent now and, when added to the sudden intensity in the D-pad drift, is starting to make this a less compelling playthrough than what it once was. The latter's hardly the game's issue, of course, but it's adding to my annoyance when the timer is pushing me to make mistakes that may or may not actually be any fault of mine. I've abandoned going for high-scores at this point—too many game overs have proved how temporary any decent scoreboard attempt can be—but I am still trying to figure out optimal strategies for clearing these spheres, between focusing on one area to make it quicker to reach the core or by clearing more of the surface to make it easier to earn those timer-boosters to give myself some breathing room.
What the timer actually does once it gets close to running out is continue to zoom in on the sphere, not only adding to the sense of peril (it's like you're falling to Earth from several miles above) but making it harder to see what you're doing, which is additionally stress-inducing. I'll doff my cap to the designers for that, since it's almost assuredly their intent, but it can make for some sweaty moments. At least I discovered that the timer running out only causes a single life loss rather than an automatic failure. The game also seems to have infinite continues, so there shouldn't be anything stopping me from completing as much of Rescue as is possible with sixteen minutes remaining. Except maybe my patience running out.
64 Minutes In
Moments before finishing the third set, the final timer rang and I was almost sorry to put an end to the proceedings. I say almost only because I've a lot to do this weekend—Wrath of the Righteous continues to beckon, even if it turns out its "Crusade" mode suspiciously resembles a certain Might and Magic spin-off—and if there weren't any hard time limits for this feature I could've feasibly stayed playing this game until the sun rose the next day. Whether you're taking the time to set up chains or feverishly clearing blocks to keep the timer at bay, Tetrisphere never relents in giving you busywork to be getting on with and the spheres now are both several layers deep and much more complex by how the third world has started (finally) introducing spheres made out of three shapes rather than the standard two. You might've noticed from the screenshots that the spheres also contain a lot of tiny one-cube blocks too: those can be destroyed by dragging pieces through them, so pulling a piece around for a while is a good way of clearing some space to work. The game's also a lot more lenient with those aforementioned S, Z, and T shapes I was concerned about: they only need to be touching an identical shape, not parallel with them like the long and square pieces have to be.
I could've selected some of the other modes, like Hide & Seek and Puzzle, but I decided not to. Rescue was enough fun for this hour with the game, and it's heartening to know there's a few other options if I ever get back to it. Tetrisphere might honestly be the best surprise I've had with this feature, at least for a long time: most of that top half of the rankings table were either childhood games I loved already (and have maybe boosted due to nostalgia-induced unconscious bias) or those from certain pedigrees which I was fairly sure I was going to enjoy regardless. Who'd have thought I'd love a game from the Aidyn Chronicles people, of all companies?
How Well Has It Aged?: Orbviously Well. Like many abstract puzzle games Tetrisphere hasn't aged a day because it's not really trying to represent anything beyond basic 3D shapes. You could certainly sharpen everything up with a remaster but you don't need to make any significant changes otherwise. It has that same drum 'n' base/EDM vibe many puzzle games of the early '00s were fond of—Wetrix of course included—and that's always a keen reminder of where our musical priorities were at during the turn of the millennium, so I wouldn't change that either. Also it's just a damn lot of (albeit repetitive) fun in that "no thoughts, head empty" approach certain puzzle games excel at.
Chance of Switch Online Inclusion: Highly Possiball. According to Tetrisphere's backstory, Nintendo themselves bought the rights to the game so it could stay a N64 exclusive, so I imagine the proverbial ball's still in their court. However, bringing it to the Switch Online will mean contending with the Tetris Company for the license, which might be the reason Nintendo's been putting it off. There's also a slim chance that Nintendo will simply remake it with a new (maybe internal) developer. I suspect the real answer is that they just forgot this existed; they're a big company with many irons in the fire after all. Going by previous examples, the best and fastest way to get them to acknowledge Tetrisphere is to start creating and promoting a fan-made sequel and then wait for Nintendo to send out the lawyers while announcing their own Tetrisphere project.
Retro Achievements Earned: 3 of 39. The vast majority of these are for milestones in the various single-player campaigns. Others include futzing with the practice mode to make the easiest (or hardest) sphere, using the strongest power-up (I didn't use any because I immediately forgot which button activated them (it was C-Down)), and hitting the maximum combo chain.
Mahjong Hourouki Classic (Random)
History: Mahjong Hourouki Classic is a mahjong game based on the Mahjong Hourouki ("Mahjong Wanderings") property which follows a skilled mahjong gambler earning a living during the postwar reconstruction era of Japan. It debuted at the end of the 1960s as a series of novels and later saw a live-action movie in 1984. One of the three big Japanese board games to see adaptations on almost every console, the others being shogi and go/reversi/gomoku (not the same game but played on the same board), mahjong requires building a score-qualifying hand of "sets" or "melds" out of fourteen tiles and declaring victory. (This site had a whole series about Ben and Jan learning the game if you need more details.) The scoring system gets complicated quickly, making it ideally suited for a video game where the CPU can run those calculations in the background, though as a result of this early mahjong games were often limited to two players rather than the standard four.
Alpha Unit is a contract developer that works with a lot of manga/anime license holders to produce game adaptations on their behalf, their most frequent partners being Konami, Bandai, and Banpresto. Mahjong Hourouki Classic is both their first game as a studio and the only N64 game they ever made. Most of their output has been Japan-only for license-related reasons but they've been poking into the global market recently with The Cages: Pro Style Batting Practice for Wii, Foto Showdown for Nintendo DSi, and the Rod Land-esque Whip! Whip! for Switch and Steam. Imagineer is a long-running Japanese publisher that frequently works with both producing licensed games and localizing western games for Japan. This is the fifth game we've covered that they published, albeit the first in which they were the only publishers. One of their most notable N64 published games is Quest 64: a game we've yet to cover and, as long as providence holds, never will.
I kind of expected this would happen sooner or later. Lord knows I encountered enough mahjong games when filling out wiki pages for the SFC and PC Engine (though they're curiously rare on the Mega Drive). For the record, the N64 has a total of seven mahjong games, along with three shogi games, three pachinko games, and one hanafuda game. Fortunately, unlike the others, I'm familiar enough with mahjong thanks to many hours spent in mahjong parlors in various Yakuza/Judgment games that I should at least be able to follow what's going on mechanically, if not narratively, for a hour.
16 Minutes In
Oh boy. So, there's nothing much to playing mahjong outside of its Byzantine scoring system of various yaku once you know what's what, but if you're playing a mahjong game that has no reason to accommodate westerners you do at least need to know the kanji for 1-9 and the cardinal directions (the dragons are color-coded, so there's no language barrier there). That issue is compounded a little here by how almost every N64 game uses real poor quality jpegs for anything 2D rather than pixel art (and I'll admit to maybe some emulator imprecision also) so some of the tiles look a little... jank. Like, the kanji for one, two, and three are usually super straightforward—the number matches the amount of horizontal lines—but because of the compression the two and three kinda bleed together a bit. The game also refuses to remind you of the player's own wind after starting the game, which is a vital piece of knowledge for the sake of your score, so for a few times already I've been aiming for hands that don't actually have any value because I was missing some important context. A lot of this is on my own inattentiveness, of course, and if I were to poke around in the UI a bit more I should be able to figure it out but the game's not left the best impression so far.
I also found myself in the story mode, so there's been a lot of "talking head"-type cutscenes. I'm not going to try to follow the story but the art's been fairly decent; at least, as decent as it can be given it's all 2D artwork (presumably sourced directly from the manga) suffering the same degree of compression. Many Showa era tough guys hustling each other at mahjong gambling. The game has limited voice clips for you and your opponents and these are definitely some rough-sounding customers: if the game had seen a localization, I'm sure they'd all have Bronx and Jersey accents, slipping in asides about mama's gabagool between the pons and chis. If I lose and game over, I'll see if they just have a standard "customize your own one-off session" option on the main menu that I can switch over to.
32 Minutes In
At this point in this feature I might as well rename the "32 Minutes In" segment to "here's all the shit I was mistaken about, itemized". There's a big ol' kanji in the center of the table that turns around after a wind/seat change that I really should've paid more attention to: it's the kanji for "east" and, relative to the direction it's pointing, it's there to tell you which wind you are (the kanji eventually changes as you progress, but it always points east i.e. towards the dealer). In the screenshot above it's presently upside down, which means I'm west. I've still not won a single game yet—I refuse to believe this game is anything but luck, though a shrewder type should know the probabilities of certain tiles appearing based on what's already been discarded and build strategies around that—but it's only a matter of time until I start with a half-decent hand that I can turn into gold. My one concern is identifying the right command to ron, tsumo, or riichi if they use kanji characters; most of these commands have been kana so far, though, so hopefully that stays the case.
Well... it's mahjong. I'm not sure how to write these updates in a way that is particularly elucidating if you're unfamiliar with the game, or indeed even if you are. Japanese developers have been farting these things out on an assembly line since the early '80s if not earlier—the very first game developed specifically for the Nintendo Famicom (as opposed to an arcade port) was a mahjong game, released simultaneously with a gomoku narabe renju game—so there's been enough time by 1997 for a codified approach to settle in. I wouldn't be surprised if these games all use the same AI software for the CPU opponents too. One semi-surprising tidbit was the amount of English used in victory taunts (like "gotcha!" or "I'm strong!"); I'd guess, based on my limited understanding of Japanese history, because the country was westernizing at a rapid pace back in that postwar era.
48 Minutes In
I got my first win! And what a win it was: a pon of what was both the table and personal wind plus two identical chis plus peacing out with a ron on the very last discard of the game meant a 5-han mangan and 12,000 points in one swoop. I'd gloat, but almost the exact same thing happened to me (which is to say, I got ron'd with a mangan) about three rounds ago, so... easy come, easy go, I guess. I got my second directly after that one too, but it wasn't worth much. Hey, a win's a win.
I've since switched from the single-player story mode to this custom game mode, largely because if you lose the story match the game restarts from the beginning and that means a bunch of clicking through dialogue boxes again. I get to pick my opponents in this mode and, following a hunch, I went with the Caucasian dude to see if I could get some excellent English voice acting. Turns out the VA for whomever this swarthy blond business guy might be sounds convincingly Californian, ringing off announcements with a certain amount of vocal fry. I also selected the dude I was playing as in the story mode as an opponent; he's actually the one I scored that mangan against, so I guess my bad luck followed him over.
64 Minutes In
Well, that ended about as anticlimactically as it started (and mostly continued throughout). I got real close to a winning hand that had a full flush of character tiles but I couldn't quite get the final triplets I needed for a full hand. As is often the case, the more you overreach in mahjong the more likely someone else just zips in and swipes that victory right out from under you. Just goes to show: If you try to showboat expect to get Pearl Harbor'd, as the Japanese almost certainly wouldn't say. Speaking of strained Japanese and American relations, the Caucasian dude continued to entertain throughout this segment with exclamations like "riichi, come to me baby!" and "ron, take that boys!". Typical boisterous gaikokujin: no sense of the quiet civility demanded by the game.
I feel like I need to issue a sincere apology for subjecting you all to a 1,000-plus words of mahjong talk. I'm versed enough in the game to know how to win but not so much that I can call out specifics with the correct terminology like an expert or an announcer might, so I've little to offer by way of a play-by-play rundown. Unlike poker there's very little of a bluffing aspect to mahjong; it's more about what you can chase after with what you have and risking pursuing hands with higher payouts. I also never figured out how to riichi—most mahjong games give you the option to do so as soon as it's available—so hopefully if I end up playing another one of these it'll be a little more accessible.
How Well Has It Aged?: More Like Hoary-ouki. Classic parlor games are not too dissimilar to sports games in the sense that the subjects they cover have stayed more or less the same over the decades, so the only things you can change as a designer include the presentation, the quality-of-life additions, and the realism projected by the decisions of a competitive (but not overly so) CPU. As such, any modern mahjong game will probably be a better option than this unless you're super attached to the manga source material. Might I suggest something from RGG Studio? At any point you can stop playing mahjong, go punch a few dudes out in the street to vent your frustrations at being ronned for the third time in a row, and come back refreshed and ready to embark on a whole new losing streak.
Chance of Switch Online Inclusion: It's Fu-Tile. Yeah, Nintendo's not adding this. They have seven mahjong games to choose from and they're going to pick the one that's going to need relicensing? If they add this to Switch Online I'll eat an entire red dragon, scales and all.
Retro Achievements Earned: N/A. Not supported (weirdly enough).
- Super Mario 64 (Ep. 1)
- Diddy Kong Racing (Ep. 6)
- Perfect Dark (Ep. 19)
- Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon (Ep. 3)
- Donkey Kong 64 (Ep. 13)
- Space Station Silicon Valley (Ep. 17)
- Goemon's Great Adventure (Ep. 9)
- Bomberman Hero (Ep. 26)
- Pokémon Snap (Ep. 11)
- Tetrisphere (Ep. 34)
- Rayman 2: The Great Escape (Ep. 19)
- Banjo-Tooie (Ep. 10)
- Rocket: Robot on Wheels (Ep. 27)
- Mischief Makers (Ep. 5)
- Super Smash Bros. (Ep. 25)
- Mega Man 64 (Ep. 18)
- Forsaken 64 (Ep. 31)
- Wetrix (Ep. 21)
- Harvest Moon 64 (Ep. 15)
- Hybrid Heaven (Ep. 12)
- Blast Corps (Ep. 4)
- Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards (Ep. 2)
- Ogre Battle 64: Person of Lordly Caliber (Ep. 4)
- Tonic Trouble (Ep. 24)
- Densha de Go! 64 (Ep. 29)
- Fushigi no Dungeon: Fuurai no Shiren 2 (Ep. 32)
- Snowboard Kids (Ep. 16)
- Spider-Man (Ep. 8)
- Bomberman 64 (Ep. 8)
- Jet Force Gemini (Ep. 16)
- Shadowgate 64: Trials of the Four Towers (Ep. 7)
- Body Harvest (Ep. 28)
- Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire (Ep. 33)
- Toy Story 2: Buzz Lightyear to the Rescue! (Ep. 29)
- 40 Winks (Ep. 31)
- Buck Bumble (Ep. 30)
- Aidyn Chronicles: The First Mage (Ep. 20)
- Conker's Bad Fur Day (Ep. 22)
- Gex 64: Enter the Gecko (Ep. 33)
- BattleTanx: Global Assault (Ep. 13)
- Hot Wheels Turbo Racing (Ep. 9)
- San Francisco Rush 2049 (Ep. 4)
- Fighter Destiny 2 (Ep. 6)
- Big Mountain 2000 (Ep. 18)
- Castlevania: Legacy of Darkness (Ep. 14)
- Tetris 64 (Ep. 1)
- Mahjong Hourouki Classic (Ep. 34)
- Milo's Astro Lanes (Ep. 23)
- International Track & Field 2000 (Ep. 28)
- NBA Live '99 (Ep. 3)
- Rampage 2: Universal Tour (Ep. 5)
- Command & Conquer (Ep. 17)
- International Superstar Soccer '98 (Ep. 23)
- South Park Rally (Ep. 2)
- Armorines: Project S.W.A.R.M. (Ep. 7)
- Eikou no St. Andrews (Ep. 1)
- Rally Challenge 2000 (Ep. 10)
- Monster Truck Madness 64 (Ep. 11)
- F-1 World Grand Prix II (Ep. 3)
- F1 Racing Championship (Ep. 2)
- Sesame Street: Elmo's Number Journey (Ep. 14)
- Wheel of Fortune (Ep. 24)
- Mortal Kombat Mythologies: Sub-Zero (Ep. 15)
- Mario no Photopi (Ep. 20)
- Blues Brothers 2000 (Ep. 12)
- Dark Rift (Ep. 25)
- Mace: The Dark Age (Ep. 27)
- Bio F.R.E.A.K.S. (Ep. 21)
- Ready 2 Rumble Boxing (Ep. 32)
- 64 Oozumou 2 (Ep. 30)
- Madden Football 64 (Ep. 26)
- Transformers: Beast Wars Transmetals (Ep. 22)