Too Much to Handle
When discussions about NintendoSince 1983 (with the release of the Famicom gaming system in Japan), Nintendo has proven to be a gaming company dedicated to finding what gamers want, even when the gamers don't know it themselves. From dual-screen systems, to motion controls, to convertible home console/portable consoles, Nintendo regularly proves that the weirdest innovation is exactly what the gaming community needs. come up it's to talk about the company as if they are an "also ran" at this point. They don't compete at the same level as the other console companies, focusing on lower-cost hardware and "gimmicks" over trying to be the next big, cutting edge console maker. That is true, but that hasn't stopped the company from continuing to rake in money, generally by doing what other companies don't. Their Switch console merged home and portable gaming and is a smash success for the company, one in a long line of big hits that Nintendo can tout.
The Nintedo 64 was not that same kind of sales success. Although a moderately solid performer, clocking in at a final tally of 32.93 Mil consoles sold during it's lifespan, it was hardly able to compete with the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (49.1 Mil units sold) or Nintendo Entertainment System (61.91 Mil units sold), to say nothing of its direct competitor, the Sony PlayStation (102.49 Mil). It did beat out the other console of its generation, the Sega Saturn (only 9.26 Mil total), but that hardly seems grand compared to Nintendos ambitions for the console. So what happened?
It's fair to say that the relative failure of the Nintendo 64 can be blamed on a number of contributing factors, although they all really amount to a bit of mismanagement on Nintendo's part. There were dreams of what the Nintendo 64 could be but that didn't measure up against the cost of the hardware, the difficulty programming on the devices, and the fact that Nintendo essentially created their own rival. All of these together combined to caste the Nintendo 64 into a mid-tier status against Sony, a hard fall from their grand heights in the NES era.
To start, let's talk about the elephant in the room: Sony. As we've touched upon before, Nintendo had wanted to make a CD peripheral for the SNES. Since Nintendo didn't have anyone in-house experienced with CD tech, and they wanted to put something together quickly, they looked to outside vendors. One such project was the SNES PlayStation, a CD-device for the SNES to play disc-based games. Nintendo and Sony devised the peropheral together but, somewhere along the way, Nintendo got cold feet. Apocraphyl reports state Nintendo was worried about creating their own rival, so they backed out of the deal and went over to Philips instead. And then Soony got made and became Nintendo's rival. Oops. (Of note, this is why the Philips CDi had Nintendo mascot games on that console, all due to that licensing deal that amounted to nothing for Nintendo.)
Whether teh SNES-CD would have worked out or not, Nintendo definitely goofed right there. Had they released the SNES-CD from Sony it's hard to say if that would have kept Sony out of the console business long term. They might have stuck to being a hardware supplier, working with Nintendo and other companies on their devices instead of making their own. But maybe it was inevitable one way or another. Regardless of how it could have played out, Nintendo stirred the pot they way they handled things and certainly caused Sony to get into the business a lot soon than they would have (out of spite) than they might otherwise.
Sony coming along and raining on Nintendo's parade was only one part of the bigger scheme, though. Nintendo did things Nintendo's way (and still does to this day), and their hardware concerns also played to that. One big decision they made that's considered a real issue for the Nintendo 64 was sticking to cartridges when game publishing was moving to discs. Nintendo was worried about piracy, the fact that discs are easier to copy, and they wanted to avoid that so they stuck to the more expensive (and less expansive) carts. Game companies hated this because of those two flaws -- they were both more expensive to buy off Nintendo and afforded the companies less room to make their ever-more-expansive games -- so a lot of companies jumped ship to Sony once the PlayStation became viable.
The biggest defection, but a country mile, was Square (soon to be Square-EnixFormed from the unification of Squaresoft (home studio of Final Fantasy) and Enix (creators of Dragon Quest) this combined company is the largest game studios in the world. From action to adventure titles and, of course, JRPGs, Square Enix has become one of the biggest names in gaming.). They felt hamstrung my not only the N64's carts but also by Nintendo's policies. Sony was more laissez-faire by comparison affording Square more freedom for their games. Plus, their next title, Final Fantasy VII, was so large there was no way it could have fit on a single cart (it took up three discs in its final form). That was the final nai in the coffin and Square moved over to Sony's console, giving them one of the biggest system sellers of the generation. The impact of Final Fantasy VII cannot be over-stated as that game was a giant smash hit for Square (and Sony) and went on to sell nearly 10 Mil copies on the PlayStation alone (while also being credited with selling six million consoles in the process). That was a huge hit to Nintendo.
The hardware, though, didn't help matters either. Nintendo wanted something cutting edge for their next big console (anticipating, rightly so, that this generation would be a turning point for the gaming industry). They invested heavily in Silicon Graphics workstations, trying to develop cutting edge graphics that would stand up against all comers. They did help to foster the 3D revolution of video games, and pushed gaming past the point of sprite-based games for many years to come. Sony's box wasn't as good at 3D graphics, but by comparison the PlayStation could crank out prettier 32-bit graphics than Nintendo's cutting edge 64-bit hardward. Sure, the PlayStation's 3D abilities were limited but the console was easier to program for and developers could get a lot of milage out of the PlayStation. Nintendo's games, meanwhile, all had the same 3D look to them, across the board.
Now, I say this as a Nintendo fanboy who spent years playing his Nintendo 64: that consoles games are pretty ugly. Nintendo was on teh cutting edge with 3D graphics, yes, but that also meant they were forced to make up the territory as they want along. They could create 3D worlds that were a delight to explore, but those worlds also ended up looking chunky, flat, and rather pixelated. The texture maps weren't as good, rounded shapes were hard to make, and everything on the console had a very flat and weird look to it. I still love to roll out some of the classics of the console (Super Mario 64, Mario Kart 64, Super Smash Bros.), but I have to admit that the games just don't look all that great now, years removed (and they kinda looked bad even then).
I'm not pissing on the Nintendo 64, to be sure. That console had some really great games. Super Mario 64 redefined platform gaming while GoldenEye 007 showed how first-person shooters could be done (and done right) on a console. These were games that played as well as they did because they were on the Nintendo 64 (and it helped that they were made by either Nintendo themselves or a trusted 2nd-party development studio). Still, it's hard to go back and play these games when there are newer versions, or sequels, or the like out there that both play better and look fantastic.
When I think about the graphics of the Nintendo 64 I compare it, and the consoles that came after, to the steady growth from the earliest consoles (like the Atari 2600) through the NES to the SNES (which was sprite-based graphics perfection). Once Nintendo switched to 3D graphics there were going to be growing pains again. Sony had some of these same issues but, again, programmmers found ways to work around some of the technical restrictions (or used 2D graphics to get around them) making for a prettier experience. When it comes to consoles, pretty counts for a lot.
I suppose I should also mention the odd-ball controller at this point. Nintendo makes great controllers, ones that feel natural in your hands. Their GameCube controller lives on, even now, as the Classic Controller and it's belovd by fans. The Nintendo 64 controller, though, is just strange. It's a three-pronged device that, most of the time, meant you were gripping the middle and the right side leaving the left side completely ignored. It did feel good in the moment, and handled well, but that weird shape (while distinctive) was yet another thing people held against the console. It wasn't intuitive and that hurt the Nintendo 64.
The Nintendo 64 was a turning point for the game company. They invested heavily and didn't play to their usual strengths; where normally they spent wisely and looked at making hardware that could perform well on a budget they instead got caught up in performance and graphics and tried to go big. It failed, in a way, not only leaving the Nintendo 64 as a lesser console for the game company but also dropping Nintendo's own profile in the gaming market. Their follow-up, the GameCube, was a strong console but still continued Nintendo's silde (only selling 21.75 Mil units against competition from both Sony and Microsoft), and after that they hardly tried to compete on the same level again.
In a way, though, that was best for Nintendo as it allowed them to go back to doing what they do best: developing things the Nintendo way.