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64 in 64: Episode 1

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We're here today to witness the beginning of what may well be the dumbest and most self-destructive idea I've ever had. The Nintendo 64 is a console that is beloved by some, maligned by others, and currently enjoying a renewed spotlight due to the recent inclusion of N64 games on the Switch Online service, albeit at the pricier "Expansion Pack" tier. This has naturally led to searching questions about the quality of the N64 library and whether or not they necessitate a higher price point to access than, say, the SNES with its much more celebrated output.

I've been doing a few of these console-specific "challenges" for a while - the PS2 with The Top Shelf, or the SNES with The SNES Classic Mk. II, or the Sega Mega Drive with the presently-on-hiatus Mega Archive - so it was high time I checked out what precious few hidden gems the N64 might have in store in the most boneheaded manner imaginable.

The rules of 64 in 64 are thus:

  • Each week, probably around Sunday, I will play one game pre-selected by me and at least one other selected purely at random from the full N64 library (including Japanese exclusives) for exactly sixty-four minutes apiece.
  • I will provide quarterly status reports after every sixteen minutes that will include gameplay impressions, any mechanical or presentational flourishes that draw my attention, and probably a whole lot of complaining.
  • To keep things somewhat on topic, for each I'll discuss the likelihood of the game getting added to Nintendo's Switch Online service. This decision will be based on the game's quality, its likely demand, and the current status of the game's IP owner (if known).

(As well as the N64 zeitgeist, I'll admit to 64 in 64 being inspired by three major non-moderator bloggers on the site, so I might as well shout them out: @arbitrarywater's own self-imposed Sisyphean torment with his Wheel of Dubious [Blank]; @imunbeatable80's quixotic campaign to rank every game via What's The Greatest Video Game?; and @bigsocrates with his community-minded Unsanctioned Unofficial Game Pass Game Club, which involves playing a whole bunch of possibly-not-great games from a currently active online service.)

Psst, hey there, it's Mento from the future. Not from the future when the Earth is always on fire, but a few years before that. I'm mirroring the most recent episode's contents table for those folks who found their way to this pilot and want to see the rest:

Episode 1Episode 2Episode 3Episode 4Episode 5
Episode 6Episode 7Episode 8Episode 9Episode 10
Episode 11Episode 12Episode 13Episode 14Episode 15
Episode 16Episode 17Episode 18Episode 19Episode 20
Episode 21Episode 22Episode 23Episode 24Episode 25
Episode 26Episode 27Episode 28Episode 29Episode 30
Episode 31Episode 32Episode 33Episode 34Episode 35
Episode 36Episode 37Episode 38Episode 39Episode 40
Episode 41Episode 42Episode 43Episode 44Episode 45
-=-Episode 46Episode 47Episode 48-=-

Super Mario 64 (Pre-Selected)

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History: Super Mario 64 was an N64 launch game that also operated as a tech demo of what could be done with the 3D technology of the system, setting the gold standard for other games to follow. The Mushroom Kingdom's own native son Mario explores Peach's accursed castle, jumping into portraits to be transported to a number of often surreal worlds in pursuit of the power stars stolen by King Bowser. An important trailblazer for Nintendo, the Nintendo 64 console, and the whole 3D platformer genre.

Naturally, it's also a game I've played to death, having been drawn to its visuals from the moment I first saw it in the corner of an Electronics Boutique. It's rare that I stop at anything less than the full 120 stars whenever I start a new file, and as a result it's a game I can more or less play in my sleep these days. I'll level with you fine folks: I selected Mario 64 because it made for an ideal test subject, kicking the tires to make sure that everything was running as smoothly as possible before I die playing a hundred bad Midway ports and shogi sims for reasons not even I am sure of. I guess I also wanted to convince myself that the N64 did have its highlights even if future entries in this series will do their best to argue otherwise.

(If you want to read some deep dives into Super Mario 64's level design, I'll immodestly recommend this series of blogs I wrote back in 2015.)

(Oh, and I checked out its randomizer a little more recently.)

16 Minutes In

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Spending a little time refamiliarizing myself with the controls (which is another way of saying that I was making sure everything mapped to the controller I was using correctly) I hopped into "Bob-omb Battlefield" and sweeped up a few early Stars. I did forget that you can't get the red coins star until you've defeated King Bob-omb because you need the cannon to reach it easily (and the friendly Bob-ombs just remind you that there's a king that needs chuckin') so I wasted a bit of time there, but as soon as the above screenshot was taken at the 16 minute mark I was grabbing the red coins and finishing up the first world.

As predicted, this was like putting on an old pair of shoes. Those movement controls are still buttery smooth even twenty-six years later, perfectly responsive and intuitive enough that I didn't forget a single trick. I still had the button combinations for the long jump, triple high jump, turning high jump, stationary backflip, and slide kick stored in some dusty corner of my gray matter ready to be recalled at a second's notice. It does help that Super Mario Sunshine and Super Mario Odyssey use similar mechanics (with a few extras).

32 Minutes In

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I hit the next level, "Whomp's Fortress," after grabbing the two easy stars from the secret slide. I lost a life from stubbornly refusing to heal after messing up the cannon shot to the star underneath the platform four times in a row somehow, and I almost tumbled off the edge after grabbing the eight red coins and making my way to where the star spawned, so we're not exactly talking the kid from The Wizard here but I'm acquitting myself well enough. While in no real hurry, given the time limit I did want to grab as many stars as I could in this hour and change. "Whomp's Fortress," I'm reminded, is perhaps easier to figure out than "Bob-omb Battlefield" (the exception being that one random piece of level geometry you have to destroy by cannon-blasting into it) and you don't need anything special to get all six stars on your first visit. I also appreciate navigating its verticality more, since it doesn't involve a single boring spiral path.

I'm having a great time, but then I always am with Super Mario 64. Of the vast (well, not that vast) N64 library there's no game I'm more familiar with than this one. I'm not sure I'll ever have the patience to speedrun it though: even putting aside the matter of the prohibitively high level of skill and dedication required, I get this weird FOMO leaving collectibles behind and abandoning stages when there's still work to be done.

48 Minutes In

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I ran into my first memory fart during the "Cool, Cool Mountain" stage as I completely forgot where the eighth red coin was. Dying after poking around for it for too long, I decided shortly after this screenshot was taken to just try a bunch of other levels and get to twenty stars as quickly as I could, including knocking out the "Bowser in the Dark World" boss along the way. I also had more trouble than I recall getting that little penguin back to its mama, when usually I'd grab it and leap off the level at a certain point to fall directly on top of my objective like a seasoned pro. The frozen slide, though, was as easy as ever, including the penguin race immediately after that I used to have so many problems with so many years ago.

So something else I'm going to throw in with these entries, when applicable, are Retro Achievements. RetroArch integrates the website that generates these (well, people generate them, the website just aggregates them) and I figured I might as well stick them on to see what all those inventive cheevo nuts have conceived as accolade-worthy accomplishments. There's 132 in total for Super Mario 64, so if you ever needed another reason to play it back-to-front that's plenty for you to be getting on with. Of the more interesting challenges, there's a group that involve finding all the 1-Ups in any given level. Some levels even have more than ten 1-Ups, which surprised me: I'm aware of some of the more elusive ones, like the shapeshifting butterflies in Tiny Huge Island and the Castle Exterior, but that's quite the scavenger hunt. Another set involves finding every coin in a level, not just the 100 needed for the bonus star. If I'm ever playing another well-known N64 game that accommodates this system, I'll let you know what kind of unusual tasks it sets for you.

64 Minutes In

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And there we have it, right on the dot I got a sneaky twentieth star from this generous Toad standing next to the "Hazy Maze Cave" entrance and was happy to conclude the playthrough at a nice round figure (by which I mean Toad's gloriously bulbous head). It's not like I was going to speedrun the whole game in an hour after all, not without practicing that crazy backwards long-jump trick with the stairs beforehand, so I'm satisfied leaving it here. The basement levels are where the unpleasant mechanics start to pop up between the lava in "Lethal Lava Land," the quicksand in "Shifting Sand Land," and the obfuscated labyrinths of "Hazy Maze Cave" (boy, these were some literal names, huh).

You know when you have so much to say about a game and so little that hasn't already been said? It's why I tend to gravitate towards the more obscure stuff in general, like my beloved unknown Indie games I keep picking up for a song, but I try not to let that get in the way of my enjoyment of paragons like Super Mario 64. They're classics for a reason. One thing impressed upon me in this playthrough is that this game always offered a lot of freedom: you can go pretty much anywhere on the ground floor after just three stars, and you have access to eight whole worlds and some bonus areas after eight stars (and defeating Bowser once). That degree of non-linearity is extremely rare for platformers, especially at the time (excepting the Mega Man games).

How Well Has It Aged?: Superbly. Not for nothing is Super Mario 64 is considered timeless, even if its once-impressive visuals continue to lose their luster with each successive console generation. I still submit that the ingenuity of the game design and the precision of the controls is more integral to the game's lasting legacy than the groundbreaking impact of a 3D Mario, the latter obviously becoming less remarkable as the years roll on. It's all downhill for 64 in 64 from here, I suspect, though I'm excited to find out more about the games on this shortlist of personal selections. Less so the many unfortunate raffle draws to come, as we'll see in just a moment.

Chance of Switch Online Inclusion: Pretty good, since it's already on there. My selection process will try to avoid extant Switch Online inclusions in order to make this section relevant. After all, I'm looking to see what else they can (or should) put on there.

Retro Achievements Earned: 6 (of 132).

Eikou no St. Andrews (Random)

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History: If there's one genre the N64 wasn't lacking for it was sports games. There's a huge number of the things for the system, ranging from football to soccer to baseball to pro wrestling (which sorta counts) to, of course, The King's Game itself. Following the golf genre over the lifespan of the SNES gave me a fairly good impression that many practitioners of Ball Chess desire as high a degree of realism as possible from their golf games; not just for the sense of verisimilitude either, but because a closer approximation of a real course makes it easier to mentally line up shots and judge distances. The common top-down look made figuring out the necessary direction and power a bit too abstract, and while later 16-bit games with their behind-the-golfer perspective made it clearer where to aim the lousy draw distance was often a debilitating factor. I always preferred the sillier fantasy golf games, but alas for every Kirby's Dream Course we had to have ten Lee Carvallo's Putting Challenges.

What all this baseless conjecture is leading towards is that Eikou no St. Andrews ("Glory of St. Andrews") is very much continuing that realism trend for the new generation - a "serious" golf game by SETA Corp, best known at the time for their dry PC games, and the first of its genre to be released on the system. Glancing at the list of other games they developed for the N64, I sincerely hope this is the last time we see them (it won't be - I rolled up another of theirs for the next game too).

What did surprise me is that there's a fan translation patch floating around for this game. It's not absolutely required to play the game since the menus were the only things that needed localizing, but it's welcome all the same.

16 Minutes In

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I'll later regret this decision but I determined the best way to suss this game out - and make the best use of the sixty-four minutes - was to start a standard 18-hole match and just learn by doing. Progressing through the set-up, I was immediately drawn to this figure in a cowboy hat who called himself "Technician." I figured if I'm going to play like an absolute tool I should probably look the part.

Notably, the game is built to take full advantage of the N64's analog stick, which it uses to decide the power of the player's swing. The player holds the stick in their preferred shot direction and then releases when a constantly shrinking and expanding circular indicator on the ball - which determines hit accuracy, the smaller the circle the better - is the ideal size. It occurred to me that the analog stick must've been a novelty for console owners in 1996: barring the bulky and undesirable PlayStation Analog Joystick, the first handheld PS1 analog controllers wouldn't appear until the following Spring. Nintendo probably encouraged a lot of its third-party developers to take advantage of it, much like they'd do with the DS touchscreen and the Wii's motion controls.

You know what's surreal? Playing a game made in Japan, released only in Japan, set in a destination half a day's drive from where I currently live. What's less surreal - and in fact all too real - is how goddamn lousy I am at video golf. We will get into that.

32 Minutes In

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I got a chip-in birdie on Hole 8! It's my first hole that scored less than a double-bogey however, and extrapolating from the holes to follow I'm now certain it was pure luck. All the same, I just about have a handle on the basics of this game if not quite mastered the nuance of its controls just yet; at this point it's more a matter of making smart choices when choosing a path to the hole and divining how far back on the analog stick it wants me to pull for the necessary amount of power. I can see why golf games immediately went back to the button-press sliding power gauge after this: it's just too tricky to accurately deduce the right amount of pullback.

I dunno, I'm usually inclined to blame everything besides my own skill level because that's just how this particular player rolls but I do think the level of precision required for Eikou no St. Andrews is perhaps far too punitive. It's not an issue when you're trying to get to the green because you can hold the stick all the way back to full power with those shots - the CPU helpfully auto-picks the club with the max hitting distance closest to the hole distance - but my short game is absolute trash. I can't admit that I'm motivated to get any better either, even with the foreboding risk of other N64 golf games on the foggy horizon; at least they're going to have had the benefit of learning from Eikou no St. Andrews's mistakes, since it was the first.

48 Minutes In

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I gotta call bullshit on these bunkers, man. I've not been to the real course but I can't imagine every bunker on St. Andrews is a five foot deep hole. Did a team of archaeologists sweep through here before the Masters? If so, I hope they found enough early Celtic arrowheads to justify all my suffering caused by having to chip the ball the opposite way from the hole so I could get it out of there and back into the sunlight again, or at least the closest approximation of sunlight Scotland can muster.

As a serious golf sim, Eikou no St. Andrews also requires you to have somewhere for your golfer to stand before you're allowed to take a swing: it's not enough that you narrowly missed hitting a tree if it means you can't make another shot because the golfer has nowhere to golf from with said tree in the way. This is a problem later golf games will fix, I'm sure, perhaps with some kind of immersion-breaking "floating incorporeal golfer" tech.

64 Minutes In

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I got it in the bunker again, but by smacking it directly against the cavernous wall of this damn Sarlacc pit it moved just far enough to the side to pop back out onto the fairway. I think in golfing terms that's called "a lateral," right? As in, "I'm laterally going to die if I play any more of this golf game."

After completing the full eighteen hole course, I decided my strategy of "learning by doing" could use some work and I took a quick gander at the practice mode with what little time remained. Dang, did I pick up a lot in a hurry: that mode gives you a widget that lets you see the actual power of your swing based on the stick movement and it's so enlightening that I'm struggling to understand why it isn't in the standard game mode (unless it vanished due to an emulation error, perhaps). It also explained why I was hooking shots so often: I kept holding the stick left, when you're supposed to hold the stick down for a straight shot. The reason I was holding left, for the record, is that my golfer was on the left side of the screen pulling his club left when he was about to swing; something about that animation made holding left feel like the intuitive thing to do. I don't think I'd be a whole lot better if I did the full course again, but I might not hit it into quite so many sand traps. Well, I suppose I can chalk this up as a learning experience for someone who doesn't play a whole lot of golf games that don't involve Kirby. I can say I got that much from the playthrough at least.

How Well Has It Aged?: Terribly. That's not really the game's fault though; the realism of these serious sports sims is forever advancing, leaving those from generations past in the dust with nothing else going on for them. It's not like St. Andrews is a particularly obscure golf course that video games won't visit again.

Chance of Switch Online Inclusion: Small to non-existent. SETA got absorbed by Aruze/Universal some years ago and those guys have more or less bowed out of video games to focus on gambling machines (what is traditionally called "pulling a Konami"), possibly after being soured on the industry by a legal altercation with the new owners of SNK (to whom they originally sold the SNK library). It sucks, because Universal also owns the Shadow Hearts IP, which I'm guessing won't ever see the light of day again unless Yuri and pals show up in a pachinko machine spitting balls at demons. I don't think Eikou no St. Andrews is going to be a priority for Nintendo at any rate.

Retro Achievements Earned: N/A.

Tetris 64 (Random)

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  • Amtex / SETA Corporation
  • 1998-11-13 (JP)
  • 144th N64 Game Released

History: There are perhaps three Tetris games that are familiar to N64 fans and Tetris 64 isn't one of them. Those would be Tetrisphere, with its novel take on a 3D Tetris; The New Tetris, in which you're very very slowly building the seven Ancient Wonders of the World with every line you make; and Magical Tetris Challenge, which was Capcom finally running out of ideas for the Disney license they still had kicking around. Tetris 64 never left Japan and, for some reason, included one of those heart rate sensors that streamers sometimes use for horror games: the sensor would increase the speed of the game as the player relaxed and decrease it as they got stressed, with the idea being to maintain a perfect emotional balance. Suffice it to say, I won't be testing out that peripheral today.

Tetris 64 was produced shortly after the 1996 acquisition of the Tetris brand by The Tetris Company, which meant it was suddenly open season for any developer who wanted to make their own version provided they could cough up enough for the license and adhered to their draconian rules regarding trade dress and visual language consistency. While SETA's a known quantity (see above), Tetris 64's developer Amtex is a complete mystery: this appears to be the only game they ever worked on and I've not been able to pick up anything on them from either the English or Japanese gaming web. While Tetris 64 is fairly standard beyond its pack-in peripheral gimmick, it is one of the few early Tetris games to offer a four-player mode as well as a couple of less conventional single-player modes.

16 Minutes In

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Wow, yeah, there's a reason no-one bothered to localize this. It's a real cheap and cheerful take on everyone's favorite Soviet industry sim. The backgrounds are all poorly digitized photos of famous landmarks - Pang beat them to the punch nine years prior - and it doesn't even use the analog stick, though perhaps that's for the best. Obviously it's from an older generation of Tetris where you didn't have T-spins or could hold blocks just yet, though there's a small amount of aftertouch afforded if you're off by a tile or something. This is some bare minimum stuff so far, but there are other game modes I'm going to try once this session is over.

32 Minutes In

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I crashed and burned after level 24 - the speed setting looped every nine stages, but starts on a slightly faster trajectory with each loop - so now I'm checking out the Giga Tetris mode like the Giga Chad I am. Already this is terrifying: I expanded the playing field as far as it will go and yet it's kind of crazy trying to fit all these small tetrominos around the gigantic ones. The larger tetrominos are also affected by gravity, but only if an eliminated line cuts them up into smaller pieces. It's chaotic and extremely difficult, even with the widened field: a single four-by-four square could come down at any moment and completely ruin your day. One of those "the designers were so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn't stop to think if they should" scenarios.

48 Minutes In

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And now we have the third and final mode offered by the game: Bio Mode. I selected this thinking it would just be the standard game without the "bio-sensor" peripheral subtly modifying the game speed but then I started seeing the three- and five-block shapes coming down and instinctively curled up into the fetal position. I've had anxiety dreams a lot like this. If the intent of these mutants was to boost the player's heart rate to make that feature more pronounced, then congratulations are due to the game designers for figuring out how to make Tetris even more stress inducing. It's like the anti-Tetris Effect.

64 Minutes In

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A perfect image to end on. The weird shapes offered by Bio Mode proved to be a double-edged sword, because for every cross-shaped nightmare to deal with there was a piece with only two or three blocks that's super easy to squeeze in anywhere. There are also five-piece straight blocks, but I was never able to complete a Super Tetris (Quintis?) with one to see if anything exciting happened. The only other thing I noticed different was that were badly digitized space jpegs instead of badly digitized landmark jpegs so that's... that's something.

How Well Has It Aged?: Not so great. Tetris itself is as compelling as ever - one strange website even awarded a version of Tetris "Game of the Year" recently - but none of the ideas of Tetris 64 really took off, excepting perhaps the four-player mode which would've happened eventually regardless. It's also really cheap-looking; the sort of thing you'd find in a Flash game portal website were they not all defunct now.

Chance of Switch Online Inclusion: Minimal. It is, I can now say, the fourth best Tetris game for the system. I've already discussed what happened to SETA above, and I think if Nintendo were to put a Tetris game on their service it'd be one of those other three that are far more beloved (though maybe not the one that requires an awkward phone call with Disney).

Retro Achievements Earned: N/A.

Current Ranking

  1. Super Mario 64 (Ep 1)
  2. Tetris 64 (Ep 1)
  3. Eikou no St. Andrews (Ep 1)
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