Following the breadcrumbs from Project Reality to Nintendo Ultra 64 back in ‘94.
The Super NES was really hitting its stride in 1994. Fantastic first-party titles like Super Metroid and Donkey Kong Country joined thrilling third-party classics such as Final Fantasy III and Mega Man X over the course of the year. There wasn’t any inherent reason to be displeased with the state of Nintendo’s 16-bit system.
However, as Sega locked itself firmly into legitimacy as a fierce competitor for mind and market share, a host of additional companies began lining up at the gates bearing technologically superior next-gen systems. Sony, Atari, and 3DO were just a few of the companies looking to make a splash in the increasingly lucrative and penetrable video game industry.
And so, throughout ‘94, Nintendo dropped a series of breadcrumbs to build anticipation for its next home console. As a young fan during this time period, I can testify that it was fascinating to pick up these little tidbits as the months rolled by, my imagination prodded to further dream about what my favorite video game company could do with even more advanced technology. With each new piece of info, a more concrete vision of the future came into view.
Going into the year, it was already known that Nintendo was partnering with Silicon Graphics, Inc. (SGI) to create a new system. The endeavor was known as Project Reality, and Nintendo was saying it would churn out “super realistic 3-D graphics and CD quality audio.” They also boasted that they would “skip a generation” by leapfrogging past 32-bit to 64-bit and thus would be the first “true 64-bit” console.
Keep in mind that SGI was known for producing high-end computer graphics workstations used for some of cinema’s most cutting-edge special effects up to that period, including Jurassic Park and Terminator 2. Meanwhile, home consoles were just testing the waters of polygonal 3D graphics and the now-quaint aesthetics of games like Star Fox and Virtua Fighter seemed mind-blowing at the time.
Nintendo had already claimed they could deliver this advanced tech to consumers for $250 at the most, blatantly contrasting its forthcoming hardware with predicted $500+ price points for competing 32-bit systems. Its next move was to confirm in early 1994 that Project Reality’s games would be delivered via a cartridge-based format. The company elected to eschew CD-ROMs ostensibly due to slow data retrieval (read: load times) and the comparably high price of CD-ROM drives, though behind the scenes there were also distribution and manufacturing control issues at play.
In the end, though, all this tech talk was a bit esoteric for a young kid to follow. So things became a bit more concrete to my young mind when info regarding actual games began to emerge. Of course, one might have expected early news on this front to focus on, say, a new next-gen Mario title -- after all, the groundbreaking game that eventually sold the Nintendo 64 was just that. But Nintendo was in a different mind-set, and their approach to Project Reality software was fascinating.
The first game announced for the system was Killer Instinct, an arcade fighting game developed by Rare and published in a joint venture by Williams and Nintendo. The game was to be released first as an arcade machine running on Project Reality hardware and would eventually be a title for the home console upon its release.
Think about it this way: fighting games were sort of the genre du jour for “hardcore” and “mature” players at the time. Mortal Kombat had been a hugely controversial title for Nintendo and a catalyst for some of its decline in mind and market share due to their handling of the game’s ultra-violence.
Yet here was KI, a western-developed fighting game co-published with the Mortal Kombat people, drenched in blood, steeped in ‘90s “cool,” and sporting impressively futuristic visuals. In so many ways, the announcement of Killer Instinct as the first Project Reality game would be like the modern-day Big N announcing a new home system with its first title as a hardcore first-person shooter with boundary-pushing graphics made in partnership with Activision. To be frank, it was all strangely captivating for a teenager embroiled in arguments about Sega being cooler than Nintendo.
Roughly mid-way through the year, Project Reality became a bit more real when it got an official name: Ultra 64. More games were announced, including the arcade racer Cruis’n USA (another title under Nintendo’s partnership with Williams) and an Acclaim-published Turok game that turned out to be a first-person shooter. Lemmings developer DMA Design (now Rockstar North!) and Texas-based Paradigm Simulation signed on to develop for the system. I didn’t notice back in the day that these were all western developers.
Nintendo maintained that the Ultra 64 would hit retail shelves in late 1995, and that didn’t happen. In reality, we know how everything turned out with the system: it got pushed back to a 1996 release, was rebranded as Nintendo 64, and shipped with a groundbreaking analog controller used to control the innovative and system-selling Super Mario 64.
But for a brief period in the latter half of 1994, we got what were essentially being hailed as paid demos for the Ultra 64 in the form of arcade cabinets for Killer Instinct and Cruis’n USA. These games would supposedly be arcade-perfect when they released on Ultra 64, though ultimately it turned out they weren’t even running on that system’s hardware.
Nevertheless, these titles were the first new arcade games associated with Nintendo to come out since the mid-’80s. Considering the company’s arcade heritage with Donkey Kong as its springboard to success, this is rather amazing. And here were two games so western-focused, so different from the output Nintendo was becoming increasingly known for at the time. It felt like anything could happen with the Ultra 64. Not necessarily in a good or bad way, but it felt like the company was searching for something.
When the Nintendo 64 finally came out in 1996, its draw was arguably far different from what Nintendo was selling two years prior. But in that moment in ‘94, the horizon was unclear and Nintendo was only beginning to define its coming identity. As a young fan, it was a fascinating thing to watch the future slowly came into focus during one of the company’s more experimental periods.