5 Great Nintendo 64 Games and the Flaws that Make Us Love Them

Posted in Kulturecade by - October 26, 2017
5 Great Nintendo 64 Games and the Flaws that Make Us Love Them

I’ve always maintained the belief that no game is truly perfect, not just because people have different tastes or they might not see things the same way as other gamers or, god forbid, video game journalists. Perfect games don’t even exist in an objective sense because even the greatest games of all time have things about them that are frustrating, tedious, or otherwise just poorly designed — it’s just that when games are truly great, the things that we so love about them are elevated because of the weak spots, while those weak spots themselves become either the stuff of their own legend or simply don’t do enough to detract from the game’s otherwise unrivaled quality.

In many ways, this concept is parallel to my overall journey with the Nintendo 64 library: playing every game the system has to offer, good or bad, whether or not I’ve played them before, all the while knowing which ones I’m looking forward to because they are the reason I love the system so much in the first place. When I play bad games, I don’t think less of the system, but it makes me look forward to and enjoy the good ones even more. And of course, when I play the good ones, the really good ones, the ones that I’ve been obsessed with since I was in elementary school, I appreciate despite their flaws, because those flaws are, in many ways, essential parts of the experience. And when I talk about these games having played them again, it’s entirely possible that I’ll talk about the flaws as much as I praise them, not because I want to disrespect them, but because their greatness usually speaks for themselves, and, of course, because it’s fun to laugh at bad things.

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time – Navi and The Water Temple

Starting off with the paradigm of this concept, Ocarina of Time was the bane of kids everywhere come holiday ‘98 when they returned to Zora’s Domain and were tasked with a beyond tedious amount of pressing switches and swapping footwear in easily the worst-designed dungeon in the entire game, and some would say, the entire Zelda franchise, mostly while having the extra handicap of heavily decreased mobility, whether by swimming or by trudging around in the heavy iron boots below the water’s surface. Not only is the Water Temple an infuriating little speed bump in an otherwise fairly smooth and freely-moving game, but it’s also one of the best examples I’ve seen of what I call the “break period” section of a game: the point at which, regardless of a game’s length, the player is most likely to decide that they need a break before they continue on, and step away for a spell to cool off with something else for a few days.

Of course, there’s no escape from Ocarina of Time’s other infamous annoyance, the accompanying fairy known as Navi. An admirable idea of a feature who, in a perfect world, exists only to help point the player in the right direction, and actually comes in handy on several occasions, such as when offering briefings on enemies, Navi’s downfall is that their need to help the player makes them an insufferable annoyance either when trying to think their way through a particular puzzle that Navi’s hint hasn’t helped with, or when off exploring the still-impressive open world of Hyrule instead of necessarily heading towards the next objective. And in either case, it wouldn’t be so bad if the repetitive soundbite of “hey, listen!” was even a bit less ear-piercing or needy in its tone. But while Navi may be annoying, it’s important to remember that this particular issue is both instantly recognizable, allowing players all over and through the years to complain about it, while also being entirely superficial — an annoying little tagalong that doesn’t actually affect the gameplay much, if at all, making for something memorable but not actual detrimental to the overall game, a concept that Nintendo has done extremely well with over the years and which will become more apparent with other great games on the N64.

Star Fox 64 – Aquas

Star Fox 64 is my favorite game of all time, and a lot of that has to do with the absolutely perfect controls of the Arwing that you pilot for the majority of the game’s levels. Smooth, precise controls that players can easily dial in on are a must in any kind of spaceship-flying game, especially one as arcade-like as Star Fox 64. Even the few levels that put you on the ground with the Landmaster tank are suitably different, given the bulkier, more cumbersome tank over the sleek Arwing, and it certainly helps that one of those levels, Macbeth, is one of the best levels in the entire game for its clever concept and memorable boss that taunts you throughout the mission. But where the Landmaster can easily keep up with the brisk pace that the game has established up to that point, the third Star Fox team vehicle, the Blue Marine, certainly does not.

Aquas is the only level in which Fox is forced to head underwater in the team’s submarine-like ship, and as you might imagine, the pace of the level is a near stand-still compared to the high-intensity flights of the previous two levels on its route, Corneria and Sector Y. What’s more, the smart bomb weapon, a limited use item best employed strategically to wipe out large groups of enemies in other levels, is replaced in the Aquas level by an infinite supply of torpedoes, which while not as devastating as their delayed-detonation cousin, have the ability to home in on the singular enemy they are targeting, while also being necessary to light up large sections of the dark underwater depths with their luminescence. The result of these differences from the rest of the game is a level that blubbers forward at a much slower pace while the player’s use of the ship’s main laser is constantly interrupted by the need to fire off another torpedo as soon as the last one lands, in an odd rhythm that feels much less skill-oriented than in other levels. Of course, the saving grace of Aquas is that it is only one bad level in a game containing a wide variety of other, more enjoyable missions, much like the singular bad temple in Ocarina of Time. If Star Fox 64 had more than one level like this one, it would be far more detrimental to the game’s flow and serve up much more dread upon the prospect of even a single playthrough, a mistake that its closest follow-up, Star Fox Assault for the GameCube, would make a few years later with the repeated inclusion of tedious, open-area ground missions played on foot rather than in vehicles.

Mario Party – Mini-Games That Hurt Hands and Break Controllers

Everybody who played the original Mario Party back in the day came out of it with the same woes: analog sticks that began to loosen and flop every which way, hurting the precision and functionality of the controller, and ugly welts on the palms of their hands from the force with which they pressed down on the stick’s hard, grooved top. I myself can still picture a penny-sized circle of bruised, broken skin I had for a couple of weeks after a particularly intense round with one of the infamous stick-spinning games that have become one of the defining memories people have of the original Mario Party. Now, to be fair, the original Mario Party, as a whole, is not all that kind on your controllers, whether you’re mashing the face buttons in Piranha’s Pursuit, excitedly smashing the button in time with Mario Bandstand, or smashing the thing against the wall because Slot Car Derby is stupid, but the rough, early design of the groundbreaking analog stick was simply not made for the relentless rotation required by the destructive trinity of Tug-o-War, Paddle Battle, and Pedal Power.

What’s even worse than simply coming away with the temporary scar of a particularly intense round of mini-games is that the damage it can do to your controller can create an handicap in the title’s other mini-games such as Crazy Cutter or Cast Aways, wherein a precise feel on the stick is mandatory for those close-to-perfect scores you need to come away with a win in a four-player round, not to mention the trouble it might cause when playing other games. Although others with greater connections to other entries in the franchise might not put as much stock into these games, it’s my opinion that without this blemish that only three mini-games creates, the original Mario Party would easily be the best in the series, due to how consistently memorable the entire library of mini-games is. However, due to the fact that some of those memories are so negative, and still, to this day, pose a risk to the health of its players and controllers, Mario Party 2, which does retain and improve some of the best games from the original (except Slot Car Derby which is still trash), makes for a solid tie as the best title in the series.

Goldeneye 007 – Oddjob is Cheap and Natalya Has a Death Wish

Another game that was the subject of countless playground discussions, Goldeneye’s legacy as the great innovator of the console FPS is well-known, and even today, I myself will swiftly come to its defense at the suggestion that it isn’t what it was in 1997, but I will admit that the “No Oddjob” rule is vital to its enjoyment two decades later. Now, to be fair, Oddjob’s inclusion can come in handy quite easily, essentially acting as training wheels for inexperienced or underskilled players who can be granted special permission to use him for the sake of a level playing field, as he is the only character in the game short enough to escape the auto-aiming mechanic in a game that predates the precision of later, more refined games in the genre. This does mean that Oddjob is only cheap in the sense that he’s hard to hit specifically while using the default control scheme, something that a lot of FPS fans might actually have trouble using nowadays, but it’s also still common practice to abandon modern sensibilities around the FPS genre in favor of playing Goldeneye the “traditional” way, and it won’t ever stop people from talking about the inclusion of a character that is simply straight-up “cheap.”

Of course, there’s no escape from weak design in the campaign either, as an equally innovative set of single-player missions is bound to have its fair share of hiccups in its wide variety of missions that replicate the secret agent experience. The fact is that escort missions have often been seen as the lowest form of game design in terms of variety, although by this point they hadn’t been particularly overused, and adding them into an FPS wasn’t quite the cop-out it might be nowadays. The mission in question starts out cleverly enough, of course, with the player having to use their magnetic watch to snag a set of keys off of a jail cell wall to begin the escape for James Bond and his new associate, Natalya Simonova. Unfortunately, Natalya soon becomes your biggest hindrance, as her safety is a vital component of the mission despite her complete lack of survival instincts. She constantly stands between James and his enemies, soaking up gunfire, and moves with absolutely zero sense of urgency, causing you to question her loyalty at this point. Oddly enough, she’s more than capable of handling a weapon as she displays later on, particularly in the Jungle level, but manages to be your biggest obstacle through a lack of competent AI in her first level in Severnaya.

Interestingly enough, both Oddjob and Natalya’s respective shortcomings are essentially the result of programming limitations that have only gotten more obvious with age. And yet, they’re both so deeply ingrained into the lore of Goldeneye’s innovations and revolutionary status that they do little more than add to its mystique, despite their status as objectively bad features of an otherwise amazing game from just about every angle.

Banjo-Kazooie – Grunty’s Furnace Fun

Finally, the game that I played the most recently that got me thinking about this oddball subject. Banjo-Kazooie is still one of my absolute favorite games of all-time, a collection-based platformer that might seem tedious to some, but is so good within its genre that I consistently claim that it is on the same level as Super Mario 64, an absolutely groundbreaking game that I legitimately tried to find a flaw in for this list and haven’t yet (though I may think of one for a sequel). But while Super Mario 64 successfully builds itself along a solid and reasonable difficulty curve and crescendos with a skill-testing final battle with Bowser, the penultimate challenge that awaits you as you make your way through Gruntilda’s Lair is… a trivia challenge.

I swear, man, it never gets any easier to talk about this stupid thing. Grunty’s Furnace Fun is the last section of Banjo-Kazooie leading up to the final boss battle with Gruntilda atop her castle, and while that fight has also been the source of a great amount of rage, it at least comes from a solid test of the moves that the player has been learning and using up to that point. Grunty’s Furnace Fun is none of that, acting as only 10% actual familiar gameplay (which is still made up of challenge portions the player has already done, albeit now with a tighter time limit), and 90% memorization quiz about identifying locations, characters, and music from the rest of the game, most of which you wouldn’t likely have been paying much attention to since you probably weren’t expecting to be prepping for an exam the whole time. But of course, the worst questions of them all are those which based on secrets that Grunty’s sister Brentilda has been giving you at various points throughout Grunty’s Lair. Did you think that was just for humor? No, Rare wants you to remember that Grunty washes her hair with spoiled milk, you dunce! You only get so many tries with these questions, as a wrong answer will deplete one honeycomb from your health bar, but, of course, if you get a wrong answer or fail a challenge on a space with a skull, it’s one and done, and you’ll have to start over.

I get that Rare spent a lot of time perfecting Banjo-Kazooie with its clever writing and all that on top of the excellent gameplay, but requiring the player to memorize the minute details about it rather than simply being allowed to enjoy it seems cruel and pointless, especially when it is bound to come as a surprise to anyone who hasn’t played the game before. And yet, for all the frustration and stupidity that comes out of Grunty’s Furnace Fun, not once have I ever dreaded it to the point that it takes away from the rest of the game leading up to it. This last playthrough, I still went about every level normally and enjoyed every second of it as much as I ever have, and still think that as a platformer, Banjo-Kazooie has held up tremendously. It’s just that a trivia challenge has never been and never will be a good idea to use as a last or second-to-last level in a platforming game, no matter how much it fits the character administering it.

This post was written by
He is a video game staff writer and dreamed of being a video game as a young boy. Then somebody told him that you can't really do that, so he compromised by doing a bunch of stuff related to that, playing video games, reading about video games, writing about video games, working at a video game store, and all those good nerdy things. Aside from video games, he's also a dork of all trades, with an interest in heavy metal music, wrestling, sports, and Magic the Gathering.
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