Rise and Fall

by Scott McCall - March 9, 2000, 9:57 pm PST

N64HQ's founder, Scott McCall is back on the Nintendo scene with a new editorial! It's kind of an introduction to why he came back, as well as a recap/preview of the 32-64bit wars. Scott disses the N6

Want to watch a good soap opera? Your local network affiliate isn't the only place to find one. The Nintendo 64 itself has followed a soap opera-like script more so than any other video game system in the industry's short history. Nintendo's much-hyped "Project Reality" has gone from a record-setting debut through droughts of games to a culmination with The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and then through a sudden collapse in second half of 1999. What happened exactly, and what does this mean for Nintendo's forthcoming "Project Dolphin"?

I can stake claim that Nintendo 64 meant more to me than any other gamer in the world. I poured my heart, soul, and time into advocating the system for several years of my life -- to the point of burnout, basically. I guess the appropriate analogy for this point in time is that I'm the Dick Vermeil of the video game world. So, yes, I'm coming back to see that Nintendo is the world champion of the 128-bit video game wars -- well, in a limited capacity, that is. But there's no disputing the fact that Nintendo has lost the 32/64-bit wars.

It's ironic that the success of Nintendo 64 has mirrored my habits. Arguably, N64's strongest year was 1998. N64 HQ was no longer covering the system, but it was the year when I purchased the most N64 games. In fact, I purchased nearly 50% more games in 1998 than in 1997, although I eventually sold some of them. And it was the strongest N64 game-buying year for other gamers across the country -- four out of the five top-selling games of the year were on N64.

Much of that success was carried into the first half of 1999. If you recall, games such as Castlevania, Mario Party, Super Smash Bros., Star Wars: Episode I: Racer, Superman, Mario Golf, and Pokémon Snap hit the store shelves and reached the top 10 in sales. Even though my game buying tailed off a little compared to the first halves of the previous years, I still bought more than my share of N64 games.

The second half of 1999 was a different story. Pokémania had reached a circus-like frenzy, and N64 mysteriously was being ignored by gamers everywhere -- myself included. Looking at the TRSTS monthly sales data (consoles only, excluding Game Boy) from The NPD Group, less than a handful of N64 games appeared in the top 20 each month. Pokémon Snap was a mainstay, and Donkey Kong 64 became one once it came out. Sprinkled in there were wrestling games (notably WWF Wrestlemania 2000), Jet Force Gemini, Army Men: Sarge's Heroes, Namco Museum 64, and a few others -- and that's it.

Personally, I only purchased two N64 games from September 1999 through

December 1999 -- the fewest number of games I've purchased in such a period since the first half of 1996 with the Super NES. I bought Madden NFL 2000 and WWF Wrestlemania 2000. So I passed over the likes of Duke Nukem: Zero Hour, Shadowman, Jet Force Gemini, Resident Evil 2, Donkey Kong 64, and many others.

Many other people must have passed on N64 purchases, too, because perennial N64 publishers such as Acclaim, Electronic Arts, Konami, and Midway all disappointingly reported less-than-expected sales of N64 games.

Looking back at fall 1999, I still find it hard to believe that I purchased neither Jet Force Gemini, which experienced quite disappointing sales numbers, nor Donkey Kong 64, which didn't come close to moving systems like Donkey Kong Country did back in 1994. I knew I wouldn't have as much time to play those games, but that never stopped me before. Was I just getting tired of the 3D action games where the only goal is to collect seemingly countless items, or was I just bitter because both Perfect Dark and Pokémon Stadium were delayed to 2000? Maybe a little bit of both.

Strangely, the year 2000 looks to be a strong year for Nintendo games. But one must wonder if it's too little too late? Mario Party 2, Ridge Racer 64, Pokémon Stadium, Excitebike 64, Perfect Dark, Starcraft 64, and Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards are first-half releases. That doesn't even count Nintendo's second-half lineup, which includes The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, Conker's Bad Fur Day, Pikachu VRS, Mini Racers, a new Star Wars game, and a few other surprises.

Actually, taking a quick look back at the decade of the '90s for Nintendo, the even-numbered years always have been much better than the odd-numbered years. In 1990, the NES reached its climax with the release of Super Mario Bros. 3. In 1991, NES sales dropped considerably. The Super NES came out this year, but it didn't dominate the Genesis like was expected. In 1992, Street Fighter II single-handedly propelled the SNES to the top. In 1993, Nintendo had the Mortal Kombat censorship problem and a lack of blockbuster hits. In 1994, Donkey Kong Country was the force that took the lead in the 16-bit wars back from Sega. In 1995, Nintendo released Virtual Boy and saw the Super NES decline in popularity. In 1996, N64 was released and broke nearly every record in the book. In 1997, a games drought and a lack of big-name releases lagged the N64 behind the PlayStation in the systems race. In 1998, Zelda: Ocarina of Time and GoldenEye 007 sold well over two million copies each and many other N64 games were million sellers. In 1999, Nintendo's main platform didn't achieve many sales goals and experienced a sudden drop in popularity. It was the year of Pokémon, however.

Yet I don't foresee myself purchasing more total games in 2000 than in 1999. I just bought Pokémon Stadium, and I'll definitely get Perfect Dark. I'd like to get Conker's Bad Fur Day and The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask. Beyond those games, however, I don't think I'll be making many more N64 purchases this year.

And that seems to be the trend among gamers everywhere. We're eagerly awaiting the release of Perfect Dark and The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, and that's about it. Dreamcast certainly has stolen some of Nintendo's thunder with the impression that platform has made. But, also, N64 games just don't seem to have any "magic" anymore. Much of that has to do with the lack of quality single-player experiences on the system. Let's face it, if you want to play one-player games, then PlayStation or Dreamcast is the answer right now. But if you want multi-player gaming action, then N64 is still king -- and that's most likely what it will most fondly be remembered for.

It's this sudden fall in the N64's popularity that should raise a red flag to Nintendo. As was evident from above, anytime there is a significant drop-off in system sales and game buying, then consumers are ready for the next generation in video gaming. Yet, surprisingly, PlayStation remains as strong as ever. What gives?

First of all, no, the N64 isn't dead yet. Nintendo will probably sell about the same number of systems this year as last. And, no, the system wasn't a failure. With around 30 million systems in homes worldwide, Nintendo has no reason to be ashamed. But Nintendo cannot remain complacent. There's a legitimate chance to take much away from Sony's 70% worldwide home console market share if Nintendo plays its cards right.

Nintendo's Dolphin has the potential to gain a significant foothold in the 128-bit market depending on certain variables. For instance, what does backwards compatibility mean to PlayStation 2? On the surface, it sounds like a very good idea, but as consumers have proven in the PlayStation market already, older, cheaper games often sell better than newer, more expensive games. And although the ability to watch DVD movies is a cool idea, will consumers actually think of PlayStation 2 as more than just a mere video game system and pay the added expense? Finally, if the Japanese launch is any indication, developers are starting to rest on their laurels, and that's something consumers will discern quickly. People are only willing to pay a premium price for something that's revolutionary. That label can't be applied to PlayStation 2 at this time.

The fact that Dolphin won't reach American shores until spring 2001 at the earliest is a potential problem for Nintendo, however. And that's something I'll examine next time: What are Dolphin's prospects when it launches?

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