Nintendo 64 was a commercial failure despite having some of the most influential games of all time

N64 With Cartridges
N64 With Cartridges (Image credit: Rebecca Spear / iMore)

When you think of failed Nintendo consoles, you probably think about the Wii U or Virtual Boy; you probably don't think about the Nintendo 64. However, the N64 was a commercial failure even though its games were incredibly influential and are still revered today.

With many N64 games on Switch thanks to the Nintendo Switch Online + Expansion Pack I've been waxing nostalgic over these classics and musing over their undying influence on the gaming world. They went on to inspire not only the best Nintendo Switch games, but some of the greatest games of all time. If nothing else, the buzz surrounding their return to Switch (whether positive or negative) proves how excited people are for them.

Prepare yourself. We're going back to the 90s to look at the N64's launch, focusing on some of the most important N64 games, and then ending on some karaoke. Yes, really.

Let's take a trip to the 90s

Nintendo 90s Gaming (Image credit: Rebecca Spear / iMore)

Step back in time with me to June 1996. Internet dial-up was still common, Braveheart was best picture, and Homestar Runner was just starting out. Within the gaming world, Nintendo Power magazines were still in print, Pokémon Red and Blue had only just boomed into the U.S. earlier that year, the Nintendo 64 console had just launched, and many game series were taking their first tentative steps into 3D.

For the past decade or so, Nintendo had dominated the gaming world with its SNES console, which had really only seen competition from the rookie Sega Genesis. However, multiple new consoles had entered the market two years ahead of the N64 that would prove problematic for Nintendo: Sony's PlayStation and the Sega Saturn.

The PlayStation sold 102.49 million units, but the N64 didn't even sell half that.

While the latter didn't really amount to much aside from hosting some truly classic games, Sony's system was grabbing everyone's attention with its minimal design, modern game discs, and simple controllers. The N64, on the other hand, looked relatively blocky, still used cartridges, and had these strange sai-shaped controllers that many found off-putting. Those of us who grew up using them didn't think anything of it, even if we hardly ever touched that D-pad for any games, but it became a point of contention.

With consumer attention divided between multiple gaming systems, Nintendo looked like it was behind the curve, and thus was less appealing. PlayStation sold 102.49 million units during its lifecycle, but he N64 didn't even sell half that at only 32.93 million units. However, that didn't stop it from making a lasting impression on those who brought the N64 into their home. In many ways, we have the N64 to thank for the best games available today, both within and outside of Nintendo.

The N64's living legacy

N64 And Games Hero (Image credit: Rebecca Spear / iMore)

The 1990s were a time of change, and the N64 played a huge part in forever revolutionizing the gaming world. There are so many hits I could talk about here: Banjo-Kazooie, GoldenEye 007, Perfect Dark, Star Fox 64, Mario Party, Paper Mario... it's a tough list to cut short. But to illustrate my point without dragging this on too long, I'll just focus on a few N64 titles and their impact today.

Super Mario 64

Super Mario 3d All Stars Super Mario 64 Stars (Image credit: Nintendo)

Let's start with Super Mario 64, which released alongside the system and was the N64's best-selling game. It's known for being a massive experiment that let Shigeru Miyamoto and his development team test the bounds of the console's limits and try new things that had never been done before. This becomes very apparent when you play the game and realize just how varied the tasks and worlds you experience are. Mario's first 3D adventure showed the world just what the N64 was capable of and that Nintendo would confidently step into the world of modern gaming.

Several other 3D Mario games went on to take cues from it including Super Mario Sunshine, the Super Mario Galaxy series, and the most recent Super Mario Odyssey. Not to mention, it inspired countless 3D platformers on various consoles.

Mario Kart 64

Mario Kart 64 Online Multiplayer (Image credit: Nintendo)

Technically Mario Kart 64 was the second game in the series, with the first one having released on SNES, but this was the entry that brought the racing game into the 3D space. It stood out from many similar titles at the time by offering a silly racing experience rather than a serious one. Playing as your favorite Mushroom Kingdom character and throwing cartoony items around to stay ahead provided entertainment fit for sleepovers, friend hangouts, and parties.

The series has continued to be a hit on every Nintendo console. In fact, today Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is by far the best-selling Switch game, at 37.08 million copies sold and has inspired a number of copycats like Nickelodeon Kart Racers and Chocobo GP.

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time

Zelda Ocarina Of Time Shiek (Image credit: iMore)

After a few delays, the N64's magnum opus released in 1998 — The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (OoT). The game certainly had its flaws, but it also introduced so many firsts that have become commonplace. It's no wonder it's repeatedly been named as the most influential game or best game of all time in various listings. As time has gone on, its influence has permeated throughout the entire gaming industry to the point that it's impossible to notice a game that wasn't affected by it in some way.

So what made OoT so special anyway? Where Mario 64 had been a more lighthearted experiment that was important for understanding the technology at the time, OoT was a far more refined action RPG, one of the first to really take advantage of all that new space. Stepping onto Hyrule field for the first time made the world feel huge and filled with endless possibilities. Instead of just mashing buttons, Link uses his gadgets and weapons strategically to get through the game's nine main dungeons and bosses. As part of this, the Zelda team implemented a refined lock-on mechanic, the likes of which hadn't been seen before. If you've ever used a targeting mechanic in a game, you have OoT to thank. Plus, you could even ride a horse in that large space, which hadn't really been done yet.

The Legend Of Zelda Breath Of The Wild Blood Moon On Horse (Image credit: iMore)

The Zelda team implemented a refined lock-on mechanic, the likes of which hadn't been seen before.

OoT seamlessly slips from being a relatively simple game to being a complex story that requires skill to take on more intense puzzles and bosses. Link even transitions from being a kid to being an adult during the process, driving that point even further. OoT set the standard by which other games measure themselves despite landing itself on a "failed" system.

Then two years later, the Zelda team released the even more ambitious Majora's Mask, a complex title that centered around time travel and setting chains of events in motion. It really was ahead of its time, but it wouldn't have existed if not for the success of OoT. For decades after, Nintendo seemed bent on trying to recapture the magic of OoT and created other classics like Wind Waker and Twilight Princess. However, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild has been the most like OoT in spirit, as it completely revamped the series and set new standards for open-world gaming, just like OoT did in its era.

Super Smash Bros.

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate (Image credit: Nintendo)

The N64 was also the first console to host Masahiro Sakurai's crazy-yet-genius concept for a crossover fighting game. The idea of seeing Mario take on Pikachu, Link, Star Fox, and other major Nintendo characters from other games was so novel at the time and grabbed everyone's attention. Since then, Smash games have been some of the most anticipated and best-selling titles on any Nintendo console, allowing it to become one of the biggest series in Nintendo history.

These days, it's gotten to the point where external gaming companies like Capcom, Square Enix, and Microsoft wanted their characters to be involved in the Switch's Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. Now we have Smash fighters that we'd never have dreamed of having before, like Sora from Kingdom Hearts, Sephiroth from Final Fantasy, and Steve from Minecraft. And all because of that first crazy N64 game that caught players' imaginations.

Now time for a song break

N64 Titanic Nintendo Switch (Image credit: iMore)

There are so many other N64 games I could talk about, but we'll stop there. I've been so affected by this trip back in time, that I couldn't help but think of the perfect way to express my excitement for the N64 and its undying legacy in song. I threw in a few hip phrases from back in the day for good measure. Read it to the tune of that epic, late-90s ballad, My Heart Will Go On.

N64 games live on

(To the tune of My Heart Will Go On)

Every day in the 90s

I'd see you, I'd play you

Never really knowing you'd bombed

Far across the decades

and systems between then

You've proven you're actually the bomb

These cart-ridges and 'trollers

So much contained in those polygons

Now they're coming back once more

They are here on my Switch

These games are never really gone

Zelda made an impression

that lasted a long time

influencing numerous games

Titanic N64 Switch (Image credit: iMore)

Banjo and Kazooie,

Smash Bros., Majora's Mask.

So many classics from back then

These cart-ridges and 'trollers

So much contained in those polygons

Now they're coming back once more

They are here on my Switch

These games are never really gone

I'll play the entire day

Beating my absolute faves again

More games are still on the way

If you haven't played them yet

You ought to give them a go

You're never gonna keep me down

The N64 might not have done quite as well as its contemporary consoles did in the 90s, but those classics had cult-staying power that kept them relevant over the past three decades. Many modern hits have these bulky polygons to thank for the mechanics and gameplay styles figured out during that time. Thank goodness we get to play them again on Switch.

Rebecca Spear
Gaming Editor

Gaming aficionado Rebecca Spear is iMore's dedicated gaming editor with a focus on Nintendo Switch and iOS gaming. You’ll never catch her without her Switch or her iPad Air handy. If you’ve got a question about Pokémon, The Legend of Zelda, or just about any other Nintendo series check out her guides to help you out. Rebecca has written thousands of articles in the last six years including hundreds of extensive gaming guides, previews, and reviews for both Switch and Apple Arcade. She also loves checking out new gaming accessories like iPhone controllers and has her ear to the ground when it comes to covering the next big trend.