The Nintendo 64 (ニンテンドー64 Nintendō Rokujūyon), or N64 for short, (originally known as Nintendo Ultra 64), is a 64-bit video game console produced by Nintendo that was released on 23 June 1996 in Japan, 29 September 1996 in North America, and 1 March 1997 in Europe and Australasia. The console was discontinued in 2002.
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At the beginning of the 1990s, Nintendo led the video game industry with its Nintendo Entertainment System. Although a follow-up console, the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES), was successful, sales took a hit from the Japanese recession. Competing consoles from Sega and Sony also increased the need for Nintendo to develop a successor to the SNES. Further complicating matters, the company also faced a backlash from third-party developers unhappy with Nintendo's onerous licensing policies. The company sought to develop a console with high-quality, 3-dimensional graphics and a 64-bit processor. Nintendo's code name for the N64, "Project Reality", stemmed from the bold belief that the hardware's advanced CGI capabilities would rival supercomputers of the era.
Nintendo had only limited experience with 3-dimensional graphics, and worked with outside companies to develop the technology. The Nintendo 64 owes its existence to Silicon Graphics (SGI) and MIPS Technologies, who were responsible for the R4300i microprocessor and the 3D graphics hardware used in the N64. SGI had recently acquired MIPS Computer Systems, and the two worked together to create a low-cost real-time 3D graphics system.
James H. Clark, founder of Silicon Graphics, initially offered the SGI project to Thomas Kalinske, then CEO of Sega of America. The negotiations that ensued have fueled controversy. Sega claimed that their evaluation of the early prototype uncovered several unresolved hardware-issues and deficiencies. They were subsequently resolved; but not before Sega had already decided against SGI's design. Nintendo resisted that assertion, arguing that Nintendo was a more appealing partner. SGI was apparently interested in using its chips in devices other than a game console; while Sega demanded exclusive rights to the chip, Nintendo was willing to license the technology on a non-exclusive basis. Nintendo, falling behind in the console war, expressed interest in SGI's work. James H. Clark met with Nintendo CEO Hiroshi Yamauchi in the spring of 1993 and agreed to develop the project. Thus, "Project Reality" was born. An official announcement regarding their collaboration was made in October 1993.
The console's design was revealed to the public for the first time in late Spring 1994. Pictures of the console showed the Nintendo Ultra 64 logo, a ROM cartridge, but no controller. The final N64 console would retain the shape pictured by the Ultra 64. The system was frequently marketed as the world's first 64-bit gaming system. Atari had claimed to have made the first 64-bit game console with their Atari Jaguar, but the Jaguar only used a 64-bit architecture in conjunction with two 32-bit RISC processors and a 16/32-bit Motorola 68000. Around the same time, Rare (UK) and Midway (USA) released two arcade titles, Killer Instinct and Cruis'n USA, which claimed to use the Ultra 64 hardware. Although Killer Instinct did use the same CPU as the N64, a MIPS R4300i, neither title was powered by Ultra 64 hardware. Killer Instinct featured pre-rendered character artwork, and CG movie backgrounds that were streamed off the hard drive and animated as the characters moved horizontally.
The completed N64 was fully unveiled in a playable form to the public on November 24, 1995, at the 7th Annual Shoshinkai Software Exhibition in Japan. Nintendo's next-generation console was introduced as the "Nintendo 64" (a name given by Shigesato Itoi, who named the Game Boy before), contrary to speculation that it would be called "Ultra Famicom". Photos of the event were disseminated on the web by Game Zero magazine two days later. Official coverage by Nintendo followed later via the Nintendo Power website and print magazine.
In the lead up to the console's release, Nintendo had adopted a new global branding strategy, assigning the console the same name for all markets: Nintendo 64.
The console was originally slated for release by Christmas of 1995. In May 1995, Nintendo pushed back the release to April 1996. Nintendo claimed it needed more time for Nintendo 64 software to mature, and for third-party developers to produce titles. Adrian Sfarti, a former engineer for SGI, attributed the delay to hardware problems; he claimed that the chips underperformed in testing, and were being redesigned.
Nintendo priced the console as an impulse buy, using a strategy from the toy industry. At US$250, the console was cheaper than rival consoles from Sega and Sony.
The console was first released in Japan on June 23, 1996. The North American version of the Nintendo 64 officially launched on September 29, 1996 with 500,000 units sold in the first four months, while the PAL version was released in Europe on March 1, 1997.As of December 31, 2009, the N64 had sold 5.54 million units in Japan, 20.63 million in the Americas, and 6.75 million in other regions, for a total of 32.93 million units. Benimaru Itō, a developer for EarthBound 64 and friend of Shigeru Miyamoto, speculated in 1997 that the N64's lower popularity in Japan was due to the lack of role-playing video games.