The early 3D era of video games was a time when developers were lobbed an entirely new axis and had no idea what to do with it. On top of that, the Nintendo 64 was a strange console. Conservative in its insistence to stick to the cartridge format while everyone else was moving to disc, yet unique enough to create a controller that was innovative and incomprehensible in equal measures. The N64 was an over-engineered mess that alienated developers and publishers.
I love it.
It’s not even because of the many great games that came out for it (the PlayStation admittedly had more), it’s just because it was so strange. It’s a console perpetually trapped in awkward adolescence. It is the cracking, pubescent voice of video games.
I consider myself well-versed in the console, personally owning about 70% of its North American library. I’ve plumbed its depths for its dizzying highs and crushing lows. We’ve all heard of Star Fox 64, Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, and Mario Party 2, but there are a lot of other great games in the library that deserve their own parade. Here are ten games that you should check out if you haven’t already.
Note that I’m limiting this list to North American releases. This is also not based on any solid data or scientific study. There are more worthwhile games in the library, here are just a few that should be talked about more.
Hybrid Heaven (1999)
Containing more alien piledrivers than you can shake a steel chair at, Hybrid Heaven is certainly a unique game. On the surface, it’s a very drab title devoid of any personality, but beneath that beats a heart covered in chest hair.
Hybrid Heaven features an almost too-complicated-for-its-own-good combat system that has you and your enemy exchanging wrestling moves in a near-turn-based manner. Featuring individual strength and damage stats for every limb, there aren’t many games that have attempted something as mechanically deep as Hybrid Heaven’s fisticuffs, even if a lot of players probably wound up just repeating the bridge suplex. If they had any sense.
Stunt Racer 64 (2000)
Considering Boss Game Studios was better known for its deeper, more technologically forward racing games like Top Gear Rally and World Driver Championship, Stunt Racer 64 was a pretty wild turn off the edge of an overpass. It’s a bizarre retro-futuristic fever dream of a racing title that helps capture why the early 3D era was the best time for arcade racers.
Featuring strange cars and stranger tracks, it’s unfortunate that more people didn’t have the chance to play it. It was released as a Blockbuster rental exclusive late in the N64’s lifespan. Because of this, it now stands as one of the N64’s most valuable titles on the collector’s market. It’s a fast, fun racing title that gives greats like Beetle Adventure Racing a run for their money.
Rush 2049 (2000)
San Francisco Rush is probably to blame for why I can’t get into simulation racers today. Present me with something as sterile as Gran Turismo or as over-the-top and explode-y as the Rush series, and the choice is clear. The third title in the series to reach the N64, Rush 2049 pulled out all the stops and created an unforgettable racing experience.
Taking a strangely conservative approach to the future, San Francisco Rush 2049 presents a world where cars still have wheels. But also, cars have wings. While previous titles in the series had you crest a slight incline and pray to the Gods of Gravity that your wheels hit the pavement first, Rush 2049 gives you the opportunity to control your fate. Pop out your wings, adjust your angle of descent, and land as gracefully as a fiberglass cat. Or just jam on the joystick and spin your car into an inescapable vortex of sick flips.
Add to that a huge suite of car customization, unlockables for days, and multiple modes to sink your teeth into (including the irresistible stunt mode), San Franscico Rush 2049 was not only an almost-illegal amount of fun, but it was extraordinarily extensive. How this didn’t lead the franchise to continue for years to come, I’ll never know. Probably had a lot to do with how bad L.A. Rush was.
Winback Covert Operations (1999)
Featuring cover-based shooting before Gears of War and over-the-shoulder laser aiming before Resident Evil 4, Winback Covert Operations was way ahead of its time. Featuring a goofy special-ops plot that has shades of Metal Gear Solid, it’s a bit of a weird title.
It’s largely notable mostly for those things I already mentioned. It was especially a joy in multi-player since, at the time, my friends and I hadn’t really seen a game try cover-based shooting. In single-player, it was so dedicated to the concept, that whenever it had you backtrack through previous rooms, it would re-arrange the furniture so it’s better setup for you and the enemies to hide behind things. Truly bizarre.
Winback would later receive an expanded port on the PlayStation 2. Notably, this port would have some of the most hilariously terrible voice acting in the localized version. If I did a separate list for the best bad voice work, that would probably be on there. Unfortunately, the N64 didn’t really have the space for that much dialogue.
Goemon’s Great Adventure (1998)
Konami was always hesitant to bring the Ganbare Goemon series to the West, but we still somehow ended up with two of the N64 titles. Goemon’s Great Adventure was the second, and as was common in the series, it was entirely different from the preceding game. While Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon was an adventure more akin to Zelda, Goemon’s Great Adventure was entirely a side-scroller.
It maybe worked out a bit better. I love Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon, but it was rough in a lot of ways. Goemon’s Great Adventure is just a solid side-scroller. Since it takes place in a lot of fantasy environments, you lose a bit of that “tourism through wacky feudal Japan” appeal, but that feels negligible when it manages to just be a solid game.
Battletanx Global Assault (1999)
According to creative director Michael Mendheim, the original Battletanx sold pretty well, but its follow-up, Battletanx: Global Assault, didn’t succeed quite as well. That makes me angry, because Battletanx: Global Assault expands on the original in every way, creating a game that’s more fun and more ridiculous.
It’s not just its campaign that got built up, though that is one of its stronger points. The multi-player also manages to be bigger and better. With more tanks, more weapons, and more diverse levels, it’s one of the best four-player experiences on the console.
I’m not typically one to seek out puzzle games, but Tetrisphere is something special. While “Tetris” is front and center of its name, it doesn’t have much in common with the wall-building game. Instead, it plays more like a 3D, spherical match-3. However, Tetrisphere stretches the playing field into a sphere, and everything explodes while awesome techno music plays.
Tetrisphere is less like trying to organize boxes and more like digging a hole. You match up your tetrominoes to blow them away, trying to tunnel into the core of the sphere. As you dig, you come across bombs. If you stack your bombs, they become more powerful until you can nuke a huge chunk out of your sphere. It’s often played competitively, which means you’re trying to dig faster than the other person. It’s not a puzzle game with a massively high skill ceiling, but that doesn’t matter when it’s so appealing in concept.
Beetle Adventure Racing (1999)
I was hesitant to include this because I’m not certain if Beetle Adventure Racing qualifies as being overlooked. It certainly received acclaim from critics at the time, but it’s difficult to say if that translated to sales.
If you haven’t played it, Beetle Adventure Racing is another example of the N64’s great selection of arcade racers. Rather than just being a straightforward drive around a track, you need to collect point crates while doing it. These are scattered through the tracks’ various divergences and shortcuts, which means you need to explore every nook and cranny to gather points, while still staying ahead of the pack.
On top of that is a light and jazzy presentation that you just don’t see in other racing games. Beetle Adventure Racing was truly something special.
Rampage 2: Universal Tour (1999)
Midway revived the classic 1986 arcade game, Rampage, with Rampage: World Tour in 1997. It was a fun but repetitive expansion on the kaiju destruction formula, and the 1998 N64 port just doubled down on the repetitiveness by removing any actual skill required. You had infinite continues, so you could just grind on until the game ended about a million samey levels later. It was fun, especially if you had a couple friends to play with, but it lacked any variety or challenge.
Rampage 2: Universal Tour was a console-exclusive sequel to the arcade game developed by Avalanche Software. While the gameplay remains much the same as World Tour, its progression feels better suited to consoles. You tear a path of destruction to rescue any of the three original monsters, but you had to do it within the limited continues. This meant that you couldn’t just soak in all the ammunition the army could throw your way, you actually needed to learn to survive. If you were playing with friends, this meant you couldn’t be greedy and had to distribute food to the people who needed it.
Rampage: World Tour gets a bad rap for being repetitive, and while those problems carry over to Rampage 2: Universal Tour, the small changes made to the formula make a big impact on how worthwhile the experience is.
Mischief Makers (1997)
Legendary developer Treasure could do no wrong, except for the few times where it totally did some wrong. Mischief Makers wasn’t one of those times. Or it was. It was one of the non-wrong times.
Widely dismissed for being a 2D game during the time when excitement over polygons was high, Mischief Makers is an extremely weird platformer on the N64. You play as mighty android Marina, who repeatedly has to rescue her perverted creator from some deeply strange villains. All this takes place on a world of perpetually hapless inhabitants and environments made of abstract blocks and balls.
It’s difficult to explain, and even after you experience it, you may take a while to fully click with it. When you do, you’ll no doubt find that Mischief Makers is a unique and unforgettable experience you won’t find elsewhere.