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Discovering The N64 For The First Time In 2023


I missed out on the N64 the first time around. So I decided to pick one up from Japan while they’re still super cheap, install RGB amp and Gamebox Systems 64HD HDMI video output mods, and check out some of the best games on the system!


Way back in 1996 I was 12 and like many 12 year olds, I was playing games that really weren’t suitable for my age range - stuff like the newly released Duke Nukem 3D and Quake.

Despite that, I think I grew up pretty normal - well, apart from all this, I guess.

Anyway, the reason for that is because we had PCs - my dad needed them for work for boring stuff like email and spreadsheets, and to be honest my parents thought that games consoles were a bit of a waste of time.

So I completely missed out on the N64. Alright, some friends of mine had them and I have vague memories of Mario Kart and GoldenEye and to be honest, thinking they were pretty inferior to the kind of stuff that I was playing on the PC at the time.

But, I was just happy to be involved so I smiled and played along.

These days I’m an enlightened, open minded adult with a retro gaming / computing YouTube channel, and that gives me the perfect excuse to buy all this old stuff that I missed out on, play with it for a bit and then sell it on ebay for a huge profit.

Yup, any day now. I promise.

So, I imported a super cheap N64 and a load of games from Japan and I’m going to mod it to bring it a bit more up to date and then see what all the fuss was about.

But this wouldn’t be ctrl-alt-rees without a bit of a history lesson, so… Let’s do that bit first.

If you’re familiar with the SNES - and I must admit that I’m kind of not for aforementioned reasons - you’ll no doubt be aware of a game called Donkey Kong Country - a game that incidentally has a bit of a local connection to me as it was developed by Rare who are based just down the road from me in Twycross - which incidentally also has a pretty cool zoo.

Anyway, the graphics in that game used a very neat pseudo-3D effect. The 3D models were created by Rare founders Tim and Chris Stamper on powerful SGI graphics workstations and then rendered out to 2D sprites for use on the SNES - and the final result looked pretty good, especially for 1994.

SGI - or to give them their full name, Silicon Graphics International - were more at home in the movie industry, having built the hardware behind cutting edge CG effects in movies like Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park - in fact their workstations were even shown on screen in that film.

Nintendo had a very close working relationship with Rare at the time and were particularly impressed with the brothers’ knowledge and experience with the SGI hardware - partly from Donkey Kong Country but also from their work on the arcade game Killer Instinct, which used the same approach to graphics and even ran on a very similar architecture. So, when SGI approached Nintendo with a new consumer-focussed graphics chip based on that same Reality Engine architecture, Tim and Chris Stamper were asked to head up the project.

…and so Project Reality was born.

The only development hardware in existence at the time was a quarter of a million dollar supercomputer called the Onyx, but Silicon Graphics and Nintendo’s engineers were so confident that they could shrink the technology down into an affordable consumer console that they announced it at that year’s Consumer Electronics Show, calling it the Ultra 64 and even had some playable demos, perhaps most famously this one featuring a shark named Baz.

After a few short delays the N64 was finally released in late 1996 - or early ‘97 here in the UK - and in addition to that custom 3D Silicon Graphics chip, also offered 4 built-in controller ports, a feature not seen since Atari’s 5200 console from 1982, with games like GoldenEye and Mario Kart 64 taking advantage of the powerful hardware to render 4 full 3D scenes at once for splitscreen gaming.

The console was cartridge-based, an unusual decision considering the competing Sony PlayStation and Sega Saturn had gone with optical media, but a canny move that apparently saved $150 per console in manufacturing costs - not to mention making casual piracy more difficult. Rounding out the package was 4MB of RAM, which could be expanded to 8MB with a plug-in module.

Trouble is, Nintendo in their infinite wisdom decided that - despite using the same AV connector as the SNES - they’d remove all but the composite video output. A pretty baffling decision considering the GPU was outputting a perfectly serviceable RGB signal - at least in these early NTSC units.

So the first thing I decided to install was this RGB amp v1.2, an open source design from borti4938. It cleverly solders directly to the AV port pins, with a few extra wires to pick up the red, green and blue signals as they exit the graphics chip, as well as the sync signal of course.

There’s a solder bridge on the mod to bypass the video amp’s low pass filter which I’ve enabled but it didn’t seem to make much difference if any on my console. Either way, with a high quality SCART cable from Retro Gaming Cables the improvement in video output is pretty striking.

I’ve run both outputs pre- and post- mod through my RetroTink 5X upscaler here, but the main thing I’ll be using this for is gaming on a CRT. It’s a nice easy mod even for those without a lot of soldering experience but I must stress that this particular one only works on these early NTSC consoles - those of us in PAL land need a slightly more complicated setup.

Thankfully, with Nintendo being Japanese, I was quite keen to get my hands on an original example because I’m weird like that.

But I think we can do better - and although there have been HDMI solutions for the N64 for a while now, there’s a brand new lower cost option called the 64HD. It adds some basic filtering and scaling options and output at up to 720P which is more than sufficient for my purposes. But I haven’t seen one installed alongside an RGB mod - so let’s give it a try and see if we can put together the ultimate N64 console.

I ordered this from ZedLabz who I’ve bought some things from in the past. They haven’t sponsored this video or anything, I’m just a happy customer. Oh, and I do like their new plastic free packaging which apparently I was randomly chosen to trial. Looks good!

Anyway, this isn’t an installation tutorial so I won’t go into too much depth here, but essentially we need to solder this very fiddly ribbon cable directly to the graphics chip itself. If you’ve seen my Xbox HDMI mod video, you’ll no doubt be impressed with the improvement in the quality of my soldering, which I mainly put down to using fancy expensive solder and flux this time around.

There’s also a small wire to pick up the controller input for controlling the on-screen menu, and then I plugged the various bits in for a quick test.

It was at this point that I ran into a bit of a weird problem - on the Mario 64 attract loop you can see these weird sparkly bits on Mario’s hat as he starts to fall asleep. They weren’t really visible anywhere else or in any other games, but it wasn’t right so I spent quite a bit of time troubleshooting and even reflowed the solder on the ribbon cable in case I’d shorted something out.

It just wouldn’t go away so I put it down to an issue with the HDMI mod and vowed to report it to the developers - hopefully it’s something that could be fixed in a firmware update. I decided I could work around it in the meantime so I finished putting the N64 back together, including installing the rather neat 3D printed AV port shroud, which positions the new mini HDMI socket directly below the original multi-out. A very neat solution indeed and no need to modify the case.

I also installed this region free mod. Nintendo’s solution to region locking on this console was to make the cartridge slot a slightly different shape, and to implement that as a plastic sleeve with different tabs in the bottom. You can just chop them off, but this is neater and nondestructive. All that said, it still won’t run my local PAL region games even though they’ll physically fit now, but it does open up the option of US NTSC games which at least will be in English.

Anyway, with that all reassembled I hooked it all up again and… The sparklies were gone!

Wait, what?

Yeah… I’m not sure if it was a bad connection somewhere or - perhaps more likely - something not grounded properly. Maybe it was heat related as the heatsinks were just resting on the chips rather than being fully clamped down. But in the hours of gameplay since they haven’t come back so I guess that’s a win. Also, the RGB and original composite output are all still working too, so we really do have the best of all worlds with this setup. Unfortunately I can’t use both simultaneously if I wanted to - say - play on a CRT while capturing over HDMI, as there isn’t enough room to plug both in with the cables that I have. But that’s not a setup I can see myself using anyway.

The 64HD mod adds a few different resolution options up to and including 1080i. Native 480p is apparently useful in conjunction with an HDMI to component adapter for the absolute best quality on CRTs that support component input, which is something I don’t have any way of testing but sounds pretty cool - and of course opens up the option of capturing in 480p or upscaling externally.

Speaking of scaling there’s an integer mode if you want things to be pixel perfect or maybe apply scaling afterwards, a stretch mode which… Yeah, just don’t. And TV mode which fills the picture vertically and is the mode that I’ll personally be using. You can also adjust for overscan and change the audio sampling mode, although I’m not really sure what this setting does as it made no difference on my setup.

There are also smoothing and sharpening filters and the ability to adjust the brightness, but I decided to leave all of this off. Deblur is of course essential for those lovely crispy pixels - the N64’s graphics chip applies a slight blur effect by default for antialiasing purposes but a lot of people don’t like it, myself included. Again, it’s cool to have the option.

Finally we have scanlines of course, and these are something that I have a bit of a love / hate relationship with. They’re supposed to approximate the look of a CRT on modern displays while disguising some of the jaggedness of these old low resolution machines. At the moment I’m out of love with them, so I’ll leave them turned off. But they’re actually a pretty nice implementation here - although I’m sure YouTube’s compression will completely screw them up - and there are a few different options to play with offering lines of varying intensity, which is always nice to see.

The main takeaway being that if you want a nice crispy, clean 720P HDMI output from your N64 with all the convenience that comes along with it, the 64HD is a really nice mod, and for me the configurable extras are just the icing on the cake.

So… With the video side of things sorted it’s finally time to get to grips with this weird controller - something that I always thought looked like it was designed for people with 3 hands.

“You make me wish I had 3 hands!”

The weirdest part to me back in the day was the positioning of that central analog thumbstick and the corresponding trigger button on the back, although the fact that Nintendo later repurposed this layout as the Wii nunchuk was a pretty nice callback to their earlier days.

Oh, and the controller for the teleprompter that I use for my videos is a cheap knockoff of the same design too.

Although a lot of game cartridges have a built in save function, the controller does have an expansion slot for a memory card or - alternatively - a rumble pack that takes 2 AAA batteries. Unfortunately though, not both - like the mighty Dreamcast.

But of course, it’s really all about the games. So I thought I’d quickly check out some of the most popular and highly rated games on the system and finally see what 12 year old me missed out on.

First up is F-Zero X - and this game is pure unadulterated, unfiltered arcade racing action. Everything you could want in an arcade racer, in fact - it’s fast, it’s tight, and it really sucks you into the action. I actually ended up spending a whole evening playing this and it will be in regular rotation from now on. A very strong first impression and I can’t believe I missed out on this back in the day.

This is Wave Race 64 - and I actually played this one briefly when it came to the Switch recently and didn’t really get into it. I remember people talking about how awesome the water physics were in this game back when it was new. Funnily enough, I recently saw a video by MVG that showed that it was all actually smoke and mirrors, but it’s still kind of fun, although I did find the lack of control a bit frustrating at times, and found myself enjoying the less turbulent races a lot more.

Doom 64. I love Doom - I love it so much, in fact, that I have a pretty extensive Doom collection which even includes the original mail order only release. I think AVGN said it best.

Anyway, if you’re thinking this doesn’t look very much like Doom you’d be right, and back in the day people complained that this wasn’t the Doom that everyone knows and loves, but it seems it’s had a bit of a resurgence in recent years including a remastered release, so I was prepared to give it a chance.

This game is atmospheric AF - as the kids say… It doesn’t have the banging metal soundtrack of the first 2 games, just creepy atmospheric sound effects and they certainly do the job.

I’m not really sure how they expected the controls to work - strafing is on the shoulder buttons, movement is the analog stick or D-pad and firing is the rear trigger, while A and B change weapons and the right yellow button opens doors and activates switches and whatnot. There’s no way any person with the standard issue amount of human hands (ie 2) can be in a position to press all of these at any one time.

“You make me wi-”

Yeah, I’ve already done that joke.

Still a bloody good take on the Doom formula, and now I’m glad that they didn’t just create the original Doom in this engine - which they definitely could have - because that means that this interpretation wouldn’t have existed, and that would be a shame.

It was nearly my bedtime at this point and I didn’t want to have nightmares, so I decided to check out launch title Mario 64. I love a bit of Mario, and I have played this on the DS, so I was interested to see how it worked on the original hardware. This game was pretty revolutionary for its time and invented a lot of stuff that we still get in 3D platformers today.

OK, this wasn’t the first 3D platformer - that credit generally goes to a game called Alpha Waves on the Atari ST way back in 1990. But Mario 64 is considered the be the first 3D platformer that got pretty much everything right.

Of course this game’s legacy lives on, and while I haven’t played the latest instalments, I do honestly think that Super Mario Galaxy on the Wii is one of the finest games ever made, and that everyone should play it.

That said, I found the controls to be a bit imprecise in 64 and Mario games are generally known for being very intuitive and pick-up-and-play, while this one had a lot of reading. My Japanese reading skills don’t really extend beyond the first few modules of Duolingo, so I felt like I was missing out on some important information. Not the fault of the game of course.

I thought I’d give Pilotwings 64 a go and I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve never played a Pilotwings game before. If you’re not familiar with the concept, basically you work your way through a series of flight-related challenges in either a hang glider, jetpack or gyrocopter. The flight physics and inertia feel really nice and it’s loads of fun. I ended up spending a few hours on it. The only real drawback is that insanely low resolution, but I guess that wouldn’t have been a problem back in the day on a small CRT and I suppose they were optimising for draw distance. But your eyes soon get used it and your imagination fills in the blanks.

Finally, what would an N64 roundup be without GoldenEye, from our good friends at Rare! Widely touted as one of the best games on the system and a pretty revolutionary console shooter back in its day. Oh, and the intro music is absolutely banging too, as is the rest of the soundtrack.

To be honest there’s not much I can say about this game that hasn’t been said before but this is the first time I’ve really seriously played it since playing it with my best friend and his little brother 20-odd years ago, and it’s aged surprisingly well. It probably doesn’t look quite as nice as Doom 64 but it controls well and it’s still very playable. I reckon I’ll have to have a playthrough of this one once this video’s done.

Of course in this day and age the N64 is well covered by the emulation community, even in RetroArch alongside - well - pretty much everything else, and those emulators often include modern niceties like the ability to remap controls, and fancy upscaling and shader options. It’s also recently been announced that there’s a MiSTer core in the works and I must admit that I do use my MultiSystem here for pretty much everything from the 8 and 16-bit eras because it’s just so convenient.

But there is a lot to be said for the original hardware in the humble N64’s case. Those lovely chunky, tactile cartridges, that big chunky power switch, and the weird 3 handed controller. Not to mention the fact that the boxes look really cool on the shelf if you’re into collecting physical stuff like I am.

So, it’s great that there’s new hardware in development for this old console that will keep it running for years to come. But that’s pretty much it for this video, thanks to my patrons, channel members and Ko-Fi supporters whose names you see on screen as I speak, thank you for watching, I’m off to go and complete GoldenEye so I’ll hopefully see you next time.

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Relevant Links:
N64 RGB Amp:
RetroGamingCable RGB SCART Cable:
64HD HDMI Mod:
MVG Wave Race 64 Video:
AVGN Doom Video:

Duke Nukem 3D Gameplay:
Quake Gameplay:
UK N64 Launch Ad:
Killer Instinct Gameplay:
SGI Onyx Image from Retro-Computing Society of Rhode Island / Wikimedia Foundation:
“Baz” Demo Info / Footage:
Mario Kart 4 Player Gameplay:
Alpha Waves Gameplay:

Terminator 2, Jurassic Park & Total Recall movie clips are property of their respective owners and used for parody / commentary purposes under applicable fair use / fair dealing law.

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