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By Mary Eisenhart

Mamma Mia! Mario Goes 3-D

Mamma Mia! Mario Goes 3-D

Already playing to sellout crowds in Japan and the US, the new Nintendo 64 looks to be one of the stars of this year's holiday season, with availability the biggest obstacle to colossal sales figures. The first result of a collaboration between the gaming company and Silicon Graphics, the new system brings near-VR immersive environments to your TV set and offers a tantalizing look at the migration of high-end graphics technology to the home.

Selling (when you can find one) for just under $200, the Nintendo 64 uses RISC processor technology developed by SGI's subsidiary MIPS. The R4300 CPU and Reality Co-processor allow unprecedented freedom of movement in complex 3-D gaming environments. While the graphics in Paradigm's Pilot Wings flight simulator (one of two games currently available for the platform) are noticeably simpler and jaggier than their counterparts in SGI's high-end Reality Engine-based Visionarium environment and multimillion-dollar military simulators, the game is no less instantaneously responsive.

Says Jim Foran, SGI's director of engineering for the Nintendo project: "The graphics technology is the same type we've been putting into our workstations for some years; it's been scaled-down to drive the home television at a consumer price point by using the most advanced semiconductor technology in the world.

"The technology can evolve very rapidly. On a home television monitor, there's a limit to how many dots on screen we're able to exploit, but our object was to bring as much of the experience of the Reality Engine into the product as possible, and I think we've done a pretty good job of it."

Quality Experience, Wide Appeal

While there are currently only two titles available for the system--Pilot Wings and Super Mario 64, with Wave Race, a jet-ski themed adventure, just appearing in Japan--their immersive quality is proving irresistible to veteran gamers and long-time game-resisters alike.

The three-dimensional Mario has entirely lost the tape-loop quality of previous generations. He has a full range of movements, a complex world in which to maneuver, and no matter what dire catastrophe befalls him, the indomitable little guy dusts himself off and sets off for another round of fire pits, ill-tempered creatures, and geometric shapes with bad attitudes.

Pilot Wings' designers aren't a gaming house at all--historically they've done military-class flight simulators, but defense-spending cuts encouraged them to try new markets, with outstanding results.

The relatively low number of titles is no accident, says Perrin Kaplan, Nintendo America's director of corporate affairs: "We're being really selective. When you've got a game like Super Mario 64, where it sells at a near 1-1 with hardware, that's mega, and we want all our games to be in that category.

"For the Nintendo 64, our mantra is quality vs. quantity. We have far fewer games than our competitors, but real blockbuster potential. Sony PlayStation has 130 games, and 50% of their revenues are based on the sale of ten different games."

She adds: "We've been looking the world over, working with developers who have worked with us in the past who have a proven record, and also trying to find some new developers." The quest has led to some interesting works in progress, including Ken Griffey Baseball, currently in the works at San Diego's Angel Studio, which previously worked on Peter Gabriel's videos and the movie Lawnmower Man.

"For us," she says, "the bottom line is the game. People don't go to the movie theater because of the theater, they go because of the movie that's being played.

"We're trying to find the best developers in the world. It's a brand-new technology; a lot of developers aren't able to develop for it--they don't know how to yet. It takes immense skill. So for Nintendo the biggest challenge is making sure to find and train developers who have a great creative idea in their mind, and finding a way to apply it technically to our system, so the outcome is Super Mario 64."

Going Diskless

Unlike PC-based games, which these days tend to utilize a combination of your hard drive and CD-ROM, Nintendo 64 software comes on silicon-based cartridges, a far cry from the tape cartridges of yesteryear. This allows for blazingly fast play.

Foran explains: "The silicon-based storage device has the ability to be read very quickly; it's entirely solid-state and electronic, no moving parts, and it's capable of much higher rates of information transfer." Kaplan adds: "CD-ROMs are basically a storage device, and there's lag time in transferring data in any kind of game. The silicon-based cartridge allows for really smooth movement--there's no load time."

Net? Not Yet

Since SGI's technology is also used in products like the Sony PlayStation and WebTV, which at least hint at a future of interactive online gaming, it's natural to ask about Nintendo's plans for, say, interactive Net-based aerial dogfights.

However, there's likely to be a bit of a wait. Says Kaplan: "Nintendo's main focus, and the thing we've had success on, is giving the player a new gaming experience. Until technology allows for people to have online gaming in a truly instantaneous way that brings something brand-new, that they can't get on a regular console at home, we won't be entering that market. But we're examining all angles of it all the time."

She notes that for some time Nintendo systems have had more ports than they actually use, just in case somebody comes up with some cool new application, and that over the long life of a platform--as she points out, the '80s-vintage NES system still sells over 100,000 units a year--applications emerge that were undreamed of at its inception. "We think Nintendo 64 is going to have a really healthy life-cycle, which is important to the average consumer." So, in the long term, online gaming certainly isn't out of the question.

Foran adds: "This is only the beginning of what people will do with this platform. This is a complete leap in technology, and as time goes by people are going to figure out how to get more and more out of it--that happens with our workstations. We're going to see a lot of games produced, and they're going to keep getting better and better."

Copyright © 1996 by Mary Eisenhart and MicroTimes. All right reserved.

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