In another article I discussed the relative merits of the two main fifth-gen consoles—the Nintendo 64 and the PlayStation (One)—during their first holiday seasons after launch.
I’ve left out the Sega Saturn and other also-rans because I don’t consider them serious contenders. I’ll start with the advantages of each system before announcing my verdict at the end. So without further ado, I give you Console Wars: The Fifth Generation—N64 vs. PS1. For me, it's about which console left a better retro gaming legacy.
Perhaps the most obvious advantage of the PlayStation over its whole lifespan is the depth of its game library. While only about 387 games were released for the N64, the PS1 offered over 1,100 titles (in North America). To put this in context, the PS1’s library was impressively large for its era while the N64’s was small even by the standards of the previous generation. The fourth-gen SNES had featured 784 games, for instance, while its main competitor, the Sega Genesis, had more than 900 games. The sixth-gen consoles continued to show the Nintendo- PlayStation disparity, with the GameCube offering 646 games and the PS2 sporting easily over 2,000. The Xbox, meanwhile, had 986 and even the ill-fated Dreamcast had 720. Quantity isn’t everything, of course, but it is something, and the wider variety of good PS1 games gives it the edge in this category.
Speaking of variety, the PS1 also wins in third-party support. This has been a classic flaw for Nintendo systems ever since the great video gaming crash of 1983, when a glut of terrible third-party games helped wreck the console industry for years until the NES resuscitated it. Scared away from third-party licensing by that horrible time, Nintendo has been less friendly to third-party developing than its younger competitors (who didn’t live through ’83) ever since. Unfortunately, this became more of a weakness than a strength as the console gaming industry matured and quality third-party games became a major selling point for consoles—Nintendo certainly has third-party games (as the onslaught of crap titles for the Wii made quite clear) but they’re not as good as their competitors at working with the best developers to get the best third-party games, relying instead on terrific first-party titles like Mario and Zelda and, during the N64 era, on the incredible second-party work of Rare (GoldenEye 007, Perfect Dark, Donkey Kong 64, Blast Corps, Diddy Kong Racing, Banjo-Kazooie, Conker’s Bad Fur Day).
This list of Rare-developed N64 games points out what is perhaps the N64’s crowning glory: sheer number of classics. The last cartridge-based console had so many. Aside from Rare’s, named above, there are the defining first-party games Super Mario 64, Mario Kart 64, The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask, Mario Party, Star Fox 64, and of course Super Smash Bros. (I’ll put Pokémon Stadium and Pokémon Snap on this list, as honorary first-party games, too). The PlayStation may have offered a wider variety of developers’ visions of what console gaming could become, but the N64 is a great example of what has kept Nintendo in the game longer than any other console developer: their premiere titles are timeless. I know a lot more people who sit down in 2014 to play an N64 game than who replay a PS1 game. Like great movies, the gameplay of Nintendo’s top-shelf first- and second-party titles stays fun even two decades on, because these games are just so. well. made.
On the other hand, as the fifth generation got deeper into its life cycle, the PS1 began to pull ahead by virtue of being an optical-disc-based system. Around 650MB of data could fit on a PS1 optical disc, as opposed to around 64MB on an N64 cartridge, and many later PS1 games even expanded on that by using multiple discs (oh the joy of opening Final Fantasy VIII and seeing FOUR discs there…). This allowed developers to make longer, deeper, and richer titles as they learned the ropes of PS1 game development, whereas later N64 titles had a much harsher storage wall restricting how far they could take their games. As a result, PS1 gets the nod in terms of graphics, too, because later PS1 games could blow later N64 games away, through the inclusion, for example, of legit full motion video. Discs over cartridges also gave the PS1 the ultimate price advantage, for while the PS1 was $100 more expensive (at $300), games cost on average $10 less than for the N64 because cartridges cost more to produce, so once you’ve bought your 11th game, the PS1 was the cheaper console to play on. This earlier foray into disc-based gaming also meant that the PS1 was paving the way of the future, making third-party developers more comfortable with their processes and giving them an edge moving into future console generations, too.
On the other hand, the N64 had built-in four-player capability. In an era of local-only console gaming, this was huge. The PS1 simply could. not. compete. with something like GoldenEye 007 multiplayer. I know people who still play 007 multiplayer on a weekly basis today. In this and in the gaming library, the N64 was (and is) more attractive to casual and social gaming. I know a lot of people who are a bit overwhelmed by the complexity of today’s (non-Nintendo) game consoles, but most of them are comfortable with an ready to play an N64 (or a Wii, for that matter) in an instant. This is Nintendo’s bread and butter, and the N64 did (and does) a great job inviting people who don’t consider themselves gamers to sit down and play (as did the lower up-front investment in hardware, at only $200). Also in the N64’s favor are the faster load times that came with cartridge (rather than disc) gaming. And finally, as mentioned above, the N64’s enduring value is in replay, which is still fun to this day, in a way fewer PS1 games are.
So in the end, which wins—PS1 or N64? For me, it depends when you’re deciding. If you were only going to own one console during the fifth generation, from the mid-90s into the early 2000s, I’d tell you to get a PS1. The variety of great games, the depth, the cutting-edge tech made it a system of the future and the system that taught me that video games could be more than just entertainment—they could be as meaningful and moving as movies or books (I’m looking at you, Final Fantasy VII).
But if the question is which system to pick up now, in 2014, to give some retro gaming a go, I’d tell you to get an N64. More N64 games have stood the test of time and remain fun decades after their release, in large part because they rely less on cutting-edge tech and focus more on rock-solid gameplay focused on fun rather than tech-savvy progress. This may also be because N64 games tend to be shorter, and when I retro game today, I tend to want a pick-up-and-play experience or short missions rather than a hundred-hour odyssey whose gameplay and tech specs feel dated. I can laugh at the blocky graphics of GoldenEye while still having a blast more than I can the lack of analog-stick movement during a 70-hour playthrough of Final Fantasy VII.
So that’s my verdict: the PS1 as the system of its time, but the N64 as having eroded less since. What do you think?