Happy 25th birthday to the Nintendo 64! Released on June 23, 1996 in Nintendo’s native Japan, it was the first console to properly embrace 3D gaming with analog stick control, paving the way for modern gaming as we know it today with Super Mario 64 and a host of classics.
The likes of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and the original Super Smash Bros. remain tentpole, legendary games in their respective genres even to this day, and they also had a huge influence on brand new titles hitting the most modern, technically-advanced consoles.
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But good luck celebrating this quarter-century milestone on Nintendo’s current hardware, the Nintendo Switch.
A rare thing
At the heart of this strange reality is Microsoft’s deal with Rare.
Rare, the golden child of Nintendo’s third-party developers right from the days of the original NES, were purchased by Microsoft for $375 million on 24 September, 2002. Though Rare is best known today for Xbox multiplayer star Sea of Thieves, which has just received an ambitious Pirates of the Caribbean crossover, the studio was the brains behind many huge N64 franchises, including Banjo Kazooie and Perfect Dark.
By acquiring Rare, Microsoft gained access to these famous franchises – not only the ability to make all-new games in these universes (see the upcoming Perfect Dark Xbox Series X title and recent Battletoads game), but also to publish the old ones. It means that a number of remakes and remasters of many Rare games are now on Xbox, including all the Banjo Kazooie games, Perfect Dark, Killer Instinct Gold, Jet Force Gemini, the Conker games and Blast Corps, among others. Rare also made Donkey Kong 64 and Diddy Kong Racing, but as these feature licensed Nintendo characters, Microsoft does not have them on its consoles.
In addition to the Rare titles, many third-party N64 games have been remastered, re-packaged and re-released over the years. This is primarily on PC, but because of the Xbox Series X’s close family heritage with PC gaming, many have made their way to the console, too. This includes the likes of Doom 64, Duke Nukem 3D and the Turok Dinosaur Hunter games.
And with Doom owners Bethesda now part of the Xbox publishing family, just like Rare, Doom 64 joins Banjo, Perfect Dark, Conker and more on Xbox Game Pass. Not only that, but most have been remastered for full HD displays, and some, like the Banjo series, even output at a crisp 4K – far higher than the current resolution Nintendo Switch is capable of (though a Nintendo Switch Pro could change that).
Yes, of course, first party Nintendo titles will always be missing from Microsoft’s console. Hell will freeze over before Ocarina of Time lands on Game Pass, as those mascot characters are Nintendo’s eternal cash cow. But you could argue that Banjo, Kazooie and Perfect Dark’s Joanna Dark were just as synonymous with the N64 as Mario or Link were.
For those with a bit of gumption and no fear of the law, you could even emulate all the classic Nintendo games on an Xbox Series X, even Nintendo consoles beyond the N64. We don’t encourage it, and Nintendo sure as hell won’t either. But that’s the current state of affairs – Xbox is the best modern home console for Nintendo 64 games today.
Somewhat surprisingly, it’s a far less rosy picture on the Nintendo Switch, Nintendo’s current top-of-the-line console. It’s almost as if it’s forgotten about the Nintendo 64 entirely, which will come as a huge disappointment to many.
While the Nintendo Switch Online membership gives you access to a respectable amount of NES and Super Nintendo classic games, the console is almost entirely bereft of N64-era titles.
By our count, the only N64 games playable (and purchasable) on the Nintendo Switch are Doom 64, Duke Nukem 3D, the two Turok Dinosaur Hunter games, and Star Wars Episode 1: Racer. Maddeningly, you can’t even get Super Mario 64 any more – Nintendo made it a time-limited release as part of the Super Mario 3D All-Stars compilation that went offsale on March 31, 2021, meaning you’re likely only going to be able to find that in a second hand purchase.
Given Nintendo’s previous commitment to publishing older games on Wii and Wii U, where a huge number of NES, SNES, N64 and even GBA games were freely available, it’s frankly ridiculous, knowing that Nintendo is fully aware everyone wants these titles, but is keeping them locked in its vault, until they’re ready to be milked some time in the future .
With a big anniversary like the N64’s 25th birthday now here, you’d think the timing would be perfect to drop a cache of Nintendo 64 titles onto the Nintendo Switch store, or even announce an N64 Mini. But that’s looking unlikely.
All we can currently hope is that, when the long-rumored Nintendo Switch Pro does arrive, the Nintendo Switch Online membership is upgraded to include that treasure trove of Nintendo 64 titles. But for now, as of today, you’re better off playing N64 games on Xbox consoles.
- Best Xbox Series X games: do Rare's titles make the cut?
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Gerald is Editor-in-Chief of iMore.com. Previously he was the Executive Editor for TechRadar, taking care of the site's home cinema, gaming, smart home, entertainment and audio output. He loves gaming, but don't expect him to play with you unless your console is hooked up to a 4K HDR screen and a 7.1 surround system. Before TechRadar, Gerald was Editor of Gizmodo UK. He is also the author of 'Get Technology: Upgrade Your Future', published by Aurum Press.