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To Reality and Beyond: Nintendo’s 1994 Steps Toward Next-Gen

by Clay Johnson - September 10, 2014, 10:37 am EDT
Total comments: 5

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.



Ian SaneSeptember 10, 2014

At the time I remember how Nintendo was going to jump directly from 16 bit to 64.  Realistically the N64 is in no way a generation above the PlayStation but to us kids bits was how you defined a console's power even if we didn't know what the hell it actually meant.  Going directly to 64 bit was a major marketing statement.  The present day Nintendo that doesn't even officially reveal their specs while 20 years ago they openly bragged about them.

I remember being really psyched about Killer Instinct and Cruis'n USA.  The PNE is a fair in Vancouver every year and around this time frame there would always be a Nintendo booth that often had games that were not yet out (I played Super Mario 64 in the summer of '96 and totally didn't get it.  I kept trying to move with the d-pad and do things with the C buttons).  One year they had arcade versions of KI and Cruis'n on free play.  COOL!  Except I don't know if I actually played either of them.  I remember getting to Cruis'n and starting a game and then it all shut down for the day.  I got to play for like two seconds.  That still annoys me!

I didn't notice that all the games announced were Western either.  While many of my favourite games at the time were Japanese I hadn't really picked up on that trend.  I started to notice when the PlayStation started getting all the sequels to games that had been on Nintendo systems like Mega Man and Final Fantasy.

I initially didn't pick up on the N64 using cartridges only 1996 or so.  During the Project Reality stages, if I read about that in a mag I rather stupidly didn't process it.  When I did find out the Ultra 64 would use cartridges I thought it was idiotic and I didn't even fully know why.  All I noticed was that every other system was going to use CDs and computers were now using CD-ROM and it was clear that that was the future and cartridges were out-of-date and would become more so as the years gone by.  Even when I was 13 I was start enough to realize that a console released in 1996 had to still seem current in 2000.

Looking back around this time NCL was starting to jump the shark, at least in areas outside of game development itself, while NOA was really in touch with the then current trends.  Leading up to the console's release you wouldn't have thought the N64 would have been labelled as the kiddy system like it did.  The first group of games were an Mortal Kombat style fighter, an arcade racing game and an FPS.  That is super hip stuff for the late 90's.  It was probably Mario's goofy voice that stuck the kiddy label because it wasn't like the rest of the initial N64 stuff wasn't 90's era cool.  Aside from the previous three titles the early titles included Star Wars, jet ski racing and blowing up shit with bulldozers to clear a path for a nuclear bomb.

dlandSeptember 11, 2014

Man, you nailed it. I had never really thought about it before, but you're right. Things did seem much more innovative and exciting back then. Nintendo was going in a new direction and the possibilities seemed limitless. It's a shame that they retreated back to cutesy kid games while Sony and Microsoft filled in the void that most serious gamers found themselves standing in.

I remember the exact moment it happened too. It was the rebranding from Ultra 64 to Nintendo 64. I mean just look at those logos. One is cool and edgy and the other looks like it belongs on a Fisher Price product. And that controller with the super bright button colors...ugh. Even as a teenager I knew something had gone seriously wrong. If only they had had hired me as a brand consultant we could have avoided the last 20 years of missteps. It's not too late Nintendo! I charge $750/hr.

Ian SaneSeptember 11, 2014

Quote from: dland

I remember the exact moment it happened too. It was the rebranding from Ultra 64 to Nintendo 64. I mean just look at those logos. One is cool and edgy and the other looks like it belongs on a Fisher Price product. And that controller with the super bright button colors...ugh. Even as a teenager I knew something had gone seriously wrong.

What's annoying is that there is no reason they couldn't have used the Ultra 64 branding in America and the Nintendo 64 branding in Japan.  Hell, this was the first Nintendo console where the names were even the same!  Why even have foreign branches if you don't trust the locals to know better than you do?  Why have NOA executives, people that lived their whole lives in the USA who are familiar with the culture and what sort of branding and marketing appeals to that culture, if NCL always knows better?  Might as well just have a manufacturing plant and a group of translators.  And if an American was telling Japanese underlings how to do things in Japan wouldn't they think that's completely ridiculous?

Of course for all we know NOA was on board with the more family-focused branding.  If it was up to me I would have used the Ultra 64 branding and redubbed Mario with an actor that sounded more like the American cartoons.  Mario already had a voice that gamers, particularly those that were becoming insecure teenagers at the time, were familiar with.  I personally found the voice shocking when I first heard it coming out of an N64 store demo unit.  Deep down it's also a borderline offensive stereotype.  Doesn't really matter though because the cartridge thing was going to sink things anyway.

I dunno, to me, Ultra 64 sounds like a way sillier name than Nintendo 64, though that may just be because I'm used to the latter through repeated use. And if you're complaining about the "kiddie" colorful logo, go remind yourself what the PlayStation logo looked like back then. Virtually the same thing, but with "PS" instead of "N".

Ian SaneSeptember 11, 2014

Quote from: NWR_insanolord

I dunno, to me, Ultra 64 sounds like a way sillier name than Nintendo 64, though that may just be because I'm used to the latter through repeated use. And if you're complaining about the "kiddie" colorful logo, go remind yourself what the PlayStation logo looked like back then. Virtually the same thing, but with "PS" instead of "N".

That's true about the PS logo.  "Ultra 64" sounds silly to me now because it's such a 1990's kind of name.  But it was the 90's so that's fine.  Or maybe they could have gone with Ultra Nintendo Entertainment System but then all that 64 naming convention wouldn't have worked.

If they went with CDs we wouldn't be having this conversation anyway.  If they did that they would have kept most of their third party support and that would steer the console's image in a more neutral direction.

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