Nintendo 64 Online Could Have Been Amazing

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By Abram Buehner on October 29th, 2021


I’ve always been a staunch Nintendo 64 defender. If I were stranded on a desert island and could only bring one system with me… well I’d bring my GameCube. But if I couldn’t bring my GameCube, I’d have to think long and hard about whether I’d bring my Switch or my Nintendo 64. Regardless, the N64 is comfortably among my all-time favorite Nintendo consoles. It’s perhaps the pinnacle of Nintendo’s innovative design influence and the device which catalyzed Nintendo’s continued stranglehold over local multiplayer. Pound for pound, Nintendo might have released more timeless masterpieces on Nintendo 64 than any other machine.

Just about every Nintendo series received an absolutely beloved entry. And, for every Ocarina of Time and Star Fox 64 there was a Super Smash Bros. or Mario Tennis. New franchises and spin-offs were born, injecting a lot of fresh blood into the mix of roundly ambitious and excellent sequels. I genuinely believe that this is one of Nintendo’s best exclusive libraries despite being the smallest, especially when you add Rare’s contributions into the mix. And, I believe that the overwhelming majority of these titles still stand up today. That’s a bold claim, and one that many disagree with due to how questionably many fifth generation games have aged overall. From my perspective though, 3D’s growing pains apply to only a small number of the Nintendo-published 90s gems.

Team Star Fox in Star Fox 64

Justifying such an assertion used to be a real struggle because N64 games were not readily available for the longest time. Sure, Nintendo 64 Virtual Console on Wii was great for a while, but that storefront is dead and buried. Wii U still has those games for sale, but considering its tiny install base, that has never been a suitable avenue for most players. To truly illustrate why N64 rocks, we needed these games on ubiquitous modern hardware. Finally, Nintendo delivered just that with the first Nintendo 64 – Nintendo Switch Online content drop.

Unfortunately, while good on the whole, the service does not stick the landing that I’d hoped for. The release of N64 Online could’ve been the moment where tens of millions of players finally experienced this library and realized its greatness. Likewise, this could’ve been the opportunity for the millions of us who already love N64 to reconnect with old favorites. Instead, Nintendo 64 Online has turned into a convoluted flashpoint for endless outrage farming and binary narratives which perpetuate controversy. If you ask one crowd, N64 Online is an unplayable mess. If you ask the other, N64 Online is a wonderful service that we should be grateful for. The truth, as per usual, lies somewhere in the middle.

the lauch day rollercoaster

Last Tuesday, after a very long day of work, I returned home to the late evening release of Nintendo 64 Online. Upon downloading the app and getting started, I spent my night with Star Fox 64 and Mario Kart 64. At first, I was having a blast with the service. I blitzed through the Lylat system, revisiting my favorite game of all-time. Then, I hit the track with Mario and friends. This was my first time playing Mario Kart 64 and I truly enjoyed it. I both gained access to old favorites and exciting new experiences, solidifying the value of N64 Online immediately.

Mario Kart 64's Rainbow Road

I was markedly impressed by the clarity of the emulation; by the sharpness of the textures and the pop of the colors. Save for fog effect errors – as we’ll discuss – this truly is the best that these games have ever looked. The higher-res presentation reveals a level of detail that I never saw before, one that brings these classics to life in a new way from a visual perspective. After just one session, I was ready to become fully invested in this catalog, combing back over familiar delights and uncovering overlooked oddities, like Yoshi’s Story. The ease of access and beauty of the emulation reminded me why the Nintendo 64 was so special, and I was truly excited to play more. 

Then, I woke up the next day to absolute chaos on my Twitter timeline. Apparently, Ocarina of Time looked like garbage and had such bad input lag that you had enough time to angrily post about it online before Link responded to a button press. Allegedly, Super Mario 64 was in a similar state, and Mario Kart 64 operated between two and six frames per second online. And, to make matters even worse, the service didn’t emulate the Controller Pak for save data, controls couldn’t be rebound, and Doug Bowser would literally brick your Nintendo Switch if you even thought about having fun with these games.

But that was only half of the Twitter pandemonium. Apparently, Ocarina of Time looked breathtaking and had absolutely no input lag. Allegedly, Super Mario 64 was a gift from the gods themselves, and Mario Kart 64 ran at no less than 120 frames per second. And, if that wasn’t exciting enough, the game lineup was magical, the controls were perfect, and Shigeru Miyamoto himself would literally brick your Nintendo Switch if you had an even somewhat critical thought about the service.

Sector Y Star Fox 64

I’m being hyperbolic of course, however the discourse on this subject has become a total mess. There is some truth to it all. Demonstrably, there is input lag in Ocarina of Time, but it’s probably not noticeable unless you’re a speedrunner or you’re running side-by-side version comparisons. The fog effect that masked draw distance issues is effectively gone, and some texture work is quite abrasive as a result. This much is true. That roughly applies to Super Mario 64 as well, and mileage will vary (pun completely intended) as to Mario Kart’s online frame rate as the net code is delay-based. For a more technical breakdown of all this, Chris Scullion over at VGC did some great reporting that cuts through much of the noise.

tangible troubles

While much of the most-circulated criticisms of N64 Online are some shade of either untrue or applicable to select use cases only, the less-discussed flaws are absolutely real and arguably more detrimental. N64 Online does not emulate the Controller Pak, which means that any games which save data to it simply cannot save said data. The most frustrating example of this for me personally is Mario Kart 64’s use of the Pak for ghost data. Time Trial mode is effectively useless now, and that is simply unacceptable.

Equally unacceptable is the lack of in-app controller rebinding. I know Star Fox 64 inside and out, but I struggled to match my average score due to the wonky button mapping. This is a pervasive issue across the entire suite of games, and one that should’ve been ironed out, especially since Wii U Virtual Console allowed for control reassignment. While the Switch does have hardware-spanning button mapping options, those should also be present within NSO itself – having to reassign the Joy-Con on a system level is just such an inconvenience. And, I can’t even rectify the issue by purchasing that fancy N64 controller, because it sold out instantly.

Luigi's Circuit Mario Kart 64

These are the sorts of problems that put legitimate dents in the overall N64 experience regardless of your use case. The added latency in Ocarina of Time is probably tangible only to the most elite players. It’s still an issue, undoubtedly, but it’s nowhere near as damaging as the complete lack of button options or Control Pak simulation. How blatant oversights like these slipped through the cracks is beyond me.

And unfortunately, these issues are exaggerated by the fact that only nine games are available as of now. Of course, they’re some of the all-time greats. Super Mario 64, Ocarina of Time, Star Fox 64, and Sin and Punishment (please play Sin and Punishment) alone will keep players occupied. Nonetheless, the selection feels a bit barren when contextualized against how many games we received immediately for both the NES and SNES Online launches. If only we knew when the next six confirmed tiles (many of which I absolutely cannot wait for) were hitting, then the rollout wouldn’t feel so empty – or at least not so aimless. 

goodness, but not greatness

I’m disappointed because Nintendo 64 Online should’ve been amazing. That’s doubly frustrating because I’m having a genuinely great time with the service in spite of its numerous issues. These games are truly exemplary in a vacuum and the intrinsic form factor of the Switch makes each even more playable than ever before. Having these games available portably is just lovely. If not for the aforementioned glaring issues, N64 Online would be the definitive way to play these classics. 

This is especially true because of how excellent the online multiplayer can be. To reiterate, the multiplayer connection relies on a delay-based format. So, its stability will be directly dictated by the quality of each respective player’s Wi-Fi signal. This is not ideal in a landscape where rollback net code exists, which compensates for variable signals, but we have what we have. And if you have stable internet, or better yet, ethernet, then N64 Online is a great time. 

Bowser's Court Mario Tennis

My friend and I played across suburban Nebraska Wi-Fi and Massachusetts college dorm Wi-Fi with uneven but absolutely playable connection. Getting to experience Mario Kart 64, Dr. Mario 64, and Mario Tennis online was – pardon my language – an indisputable hoot. This was the modern realization of N64’s 90s appeal that I had hoped for upon the announcement of the service. I can’t overstate how greatly these games benefit from online play. When the next round of multiplayer titles hits, F-Zero X in particular, I’ll have an absolute field day.

Ultimately, it’s hard to squarely recommend N64 Online, even though I’m having a great time. I don’t regret the upgrade, and I eagerly await the next batch of titles. But simultaneously, I’m gutted by the fact that these games have returned to the modern landscape in their current state. While they’re far more playable than some would lead you to believe, Nintendo absolutely botched the launch. The service could’ve demonstrated precisely why these 90s gems are some of the best titles in Nintendo’s back catalog, but that didn’t come to pass. The service has become an optical nightmare that obscures everything that N64 Online does right.

And, as I’ve hopefully demonstrated, it does a lot right. Under optimal conditions, online multiplayer breathes a new life into these old classes and reinvigorates them completely. That single play session with my friend alone reinforced why I’m comfortable with my decision to support the NSO Expansion Pack.

The vibrant colors and sharp textures of the emulation augment artistic vision too, bringing you closer to these N64 worlds than ever before and making them far more palatable visually in 2021. Of course, there’s also the fact that we now have this rich game library readily available on Nintendo Switch. That alone counts for a lot. While the lineup may be light now, the promise of F-Zero and Majora’s Mask and Banjo-Kazooie and Pokémon Snap and many others all make the future seem so bright. But, this launch moment is blemished by avoidable oversights. The service is far better than many online give it credit for. But, it’s not as good as I was expecting it to be. 

We’ll have a second look at things later today from the other side of the fence with an article written by Josh Nichols. In there he will give a bit more of a critical look at Nintendo’s offerings, and discuss why so many are up in arms by what they have presented with the Expansion Pass.

Abram is a part-time student and a full-time dork from the East Coast of the United States. He spends much of his time discussing video games, film, and comics... that is, when Abram isn't playing games, watching film, or reading comics. When Abram's not doing that, he is probably busy with college, dual-majoring in English and Film & New Media Studies.


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