You Probably Forgot About This Game: RPG & N64

Despite its flaws, I have always been a fan of the N64. In fact, on a personal basis, it’s probably in my top 3 when it comes to my favorite console of all time. Sure, the cartridge format put a stop to a couple of cool ideas (such as the F-Zero track editor or that Earthbound 3D game that was announced but cancelled), and the extra time that had to be spent on making the games made it unappealing to many developers. All of this resulted in a greatly reduced number of games when compared to its competitors at the time. As a comparison, the Playstation has released 7915 titles worldwide, while the N64 has only 396 games to its name.

Of course, this is all tech talk, which meant nothing to me during the N64’s lifespan. I was still in high school, so all I cared about was hanging out with my friends and having fun. This is why the N64 was my system of choice. It provided me with a decent number of classic single-player games, but it really shined when it came to multiplayer action. I have very fond memories of my friends and I shooting each others in the back in Goldeneye, fighting overnight in a 40-men, pin & submission only Battle Royal in WCW/nWo Revenge or goofing around in Battle Mode in Mario Kart 64. That’s not all. We even had fun with the bad games, simply because we could all play at the same time and the resulting mayhem created an atmosphere of pure excitement. We spent more time than we should have playing HeXen, NBA Hangtime and Duke-Nukem 64.

As much as the Nintendo 64 was superb when it came to multiplayer games, it greatly suffered in other departments. One of my friends was a hardcore Playstation fan. I could have been singing the praises of Nintendo’s black box as long as I wanted, there’s no way he would have been convinced that it was the right system for him. I couldn’t blame him, because his favorite genre was RPGs, something that was omnipresent on the Playstation. When I counted how many RPGs were released for the N64, I had to scrape at the bottom of the barrel to find games that could have fitted in other categories, but had a little something resembling RPG gameplay in them. Even then, I could only come up with five games.

Yes, only about five RPGs were released for Nintendo’s 64-bits console, and all but two of them are now forgotten, which means that they all fit nicely in a retrospective edition of this column. Of course, for the sake of having a minimum of content, I will also include the games that had a bit more success. Even then, “success” is a big word because even though one of these titles was showered with praises and huge scores from critics everywhere, it was hard to find in some corners of the world. Even here in Montreal, a city of 2 million people, I had to go on a real scavenger hunt through about a dozen specialized stores before finally getting my hands on it.

Yes, role-playing games did exist on the Nintendo 64. None of them enjoyed much time in the spotlight, but they still deserve the time it takes to read this article. Only one of them was outright bad. As for the rest, I believe it is simply a matter of circumstances working against them. You be the judge.

Aidyn Chronicles: The First Mage
In the realm of real console-style role-playing games, Aidyn Chronicles: The First Mage was completely by itself. This game could have taken the opportunity offered by a clear battlefield to simply conquer the RPG fanatics that were eagerly waiting for something to play, but things did not go as planned. By the time it finally came out (March 2001), the N64 was on its last leg, and the RPG fans that were still playing games of that generation had already fled to the Playstation camp years ago. Aidyn Chronicles was initially planned as an entire series, but as you can guess, all plans were quickly abandoned when the game became a total flop.

Is it the fault of a shoddy product? It is actually hard to judge. No reviews were completely positive, but it did manage to score decently in some magazines – Nintendo Power and GamePro both gave it 3 out of 5, not that you should base your whole judgment on these two publications when making a decision – but most reviews talked of an outdated game with poor music and graphics before complaining some more about the visuals.

On the other side, you have my brother, who kept renting this one each week-end in the hope of finishing it. Oh, did he ever love this game. Even to this day, when we enter a pawn shop or any store where a videogame discount bin is sure to be found, he will check if they have a copy of Aidyn Chronicles for cheap. He even asked me to promise to download it for him should it become available on the Virtual Console. I have no idea why he became obsessed with this game – I’m not even sure he can explain it himself, as he enters a state somewhere between hypnosis and drug-induced trance whenever the title is mentioned – but I have rarely seen that kind of dedication to a game that isn’t even supposed to be any good to begin with.

I don’t know if someone got lazy because the game was the only one like it in town, but mostly everything in it is paint-by-numbers. The story is about a young guy who starts his journey being poisoned by goblins before discovering that he doesn’t have a true name. You see, a “true name” is something magical that bounds one’s spirit to a body. From that point, the hero goes on a quest, encounters standard fantasy-style enemies (witches, dragons, demons) and eventually ends up King of the place. Everything in the game has a generic medieval-sounding name with the letters a, k and r being thrown around a lot. With names like Kitarak, Ardra and Alaron, I guess that Bob and Robert are not very popular in fantasy worlds.

As I tried to play through the game, I remember thinking that it just seemed as if the game felt like any other RPG I could have been playing at the time on other consoles. The atmosphere was nothing special, I didn’t really care for the characters and the whole package lacked a lot of polish. In the end, Aidyn Chronicles was too little, too late on a system that had been abandoned long ago by fans of the genre. The result is a disappointing game with a very little audience.

Except for my brother, who would be willing to do some very nasty stuff just for the chance to own this title.

Quest 64

This is the second closest thing to a console-style RPG you will find on the Nintendo 64. This game had been hyped for months in magazines as the first RPG to be released on the system. The console was already two years old, and fans of the genre were getting reckless. This title was probably the only chance they would give to Nintendo’s 64-bits machine. It was “do or die”, but with what had been said in the articles, and judging from the cute art-style shown in the screenshots, there’s no way it could let people down. It had “success” written all over it, as it regrouped all the ingredients gamers liked about the genre: monsters to fight, spells to cast and villages to visit. The previews could not lie.

In June 1998, we were finally introduced to the game and its hero with a weird hairdo. I grabbed my bike, rode to the video club, rented the games, rode my bike back home, played the game for two hours and never played it again. This game was so… unlike everything I was promised. I expected an epic adventure with a lot of exploration and a fun story. All I got was a standard RPG with a straightforward plot and a clumsy battle system. I got tired pretty quickly, as I saw no reason to keep playing. The game was a clusterf*ck of boring fights and things that seemed to happen at random. All I did was run around a grassy plain for the whole time. I will admit that my knowledge of the English language back then was less than stellar, but I don’t think it would have been at fault. The few indications of what needed to be done were pointing to tasks that were feeling like a chore more than a game anyway. Everything I did in this game was tedious and inexplicably dull. My will to play was completely sucked dry by the time I figured out how to save my game, so once I exited the inn, I turned off the N64 never to touch Quest 64 again.

Apparently, I wasn’t the only guy to think like that. The game was more or less a failure, and pretty much spelled the end of RPGs on the Nintendo 64. That’s quite a feat for the first game of the genre released on the system.

Despite a main character that looked charming and likeable, the game couldn’t hide the very bland story of an apprentice mage trying to find his father. The character is of course expected to collect the usual powerful artifacts – amulets in this case – that are necessary to defeat the evil final boss. You will notice that I have no idea what the name of that final boss is, since I never went very far in this game. It looks like I was not the only one to give up early on Quest 64, since I have not found a site that mentioned the boss’ name. Even Wikipedia didn’t care to mention it, so by judging from the “Character histories” section on the game’s page, my guess is that King Beigis is the bad guy in Highland.

Even if the story had been stellar, it would have been brought down by some of the most boring gameplay I can remember witnessing. Fights occur within some kind of geometrical figure, where you mostly run around trying to hit your target without being able to move out of your restraints. It is supposed to be an “action-RPG”, but the battle system makes the action hard to come by. One thing to note is that there is no money in the game. You either find stuff in a treasure chest or it’s given to you. This makes everything in the game feel totally unrewarding.

Sometimes, when a game starts out bad, one has to suck it up and keep playing for a while because the rest of it can be the kind of thing that will blow you away. I will never know if such is the case with Quest 64. However, I am confident that I didn’t miss much by never going back to this game. After gathering tons of information on this title, I have come to the conclusion that the rest of the game is much like its beginning: dull and tedious.

Paper Mario

Super Mario RPG was a great success on the SNES, and it was also the first time Mario had been retooled as a role-playing game. That game was developed by SquareSoft despite being published by Nintendo. When the sequel came around, the developer of the first game was now a Sony exclusive. Nintendo took matters into their own hands and decided that second-party developer Intelligent Systems was to going to create the follow-up. The problem is that without SquareSoft on board, they lost all copyrights to every original characters introduced in Super Mario RPG, including fan-favourite Geno. Therefore, they scrapped everything that could have somehow reminded players of the first game and came up with a brand new concept, only keeping the RPG gameplay.

Released very late in the Nintendo 64’s life, Paper Mario started its own franchise while introducing the world to a new Mario. Now paper-thin in a 3D world, the game used stylized sprites to represent the characters while allowing them to move freely in the polygonal environment. The whole thing is effective as it provides a unique vibe to the game. Combined with an amazing art direction, the result is a world looking lush, vibrant and extremely colourful.

While not being a traditional role-playing game per say, it still uses the conventions of the genre: turn-based battles, hit points and experience points are all part of the gameplay. What makes Paper Mario stand out however is the action parts, with a lot of jumping and platforming going on in the overworld in-between battles. Another stellar feature of the game is its humour-driven story. As it now seems to be the norm in Mario’s RPG games, Bowser has the lion’s share of funny dialogues, but this is truly the title that made him a star after he first showed some real potential for comedy in Super Mario RPG.

On the surface, Paper Mario was the usual Mario shtick, with Peach being kidnapped by Bowser and the plumber collecting star-shaped objects to eventually defeat the fiend. When you dig deeper, the game becomes a work of art where everything you see has a unique personality and things get more complicated as you go. Sure, it’s still Mario vs Bowser, but before you get to that showdown, you must challenge imaginative bosses – including a monster who keeps his heart separated from his body in order to be invincible – and navigate through many puzzles and obstacles. It might look like it’s the same old stuff for Nintendo’s mascot, but it’s what you do to get from start to finish that drags you in and does not let go.

Commercially, I think it is safe to say that Paper Mario was the most successful RPG on the N64. It might not be the greatest accomplishment to put on a résumé if you want to impress the gallery, but even if you take it on its own, it is still a wonderful game. As one of the only title of its genre on the platform, it stands out even more, and it even managed to sell decently when compared with its contemporaries. If you didn’t get the chance to experience this one hands-on during its original run, then by all mean, fire up your Wii and download this sweet piece of N64 history.

Pause

All right, so two out of three real RPGs to be released on the Nintendo 64 were sub-par. That’s a shame really, because the machine held a lot of promises. Originally, SquareSoft and Enix planned the release of Final Fantasy VII and whatever version of Dragon Quest they were up to at the moment on Nintendo’s system. We can argue all day long about the quality of Final Fantasy VII (I hate it), but the truth is that it was a complete success that sold tons of copies and that a game of that magnitude could have given a kick in the ass to role-playing games on the N64. Did Square and Enix abandon the ship after seeing that Nintendo was about to lose that generation’s war, or did they jump to Sony’s platform first and thus paved the way for other publishers and developers to follow? I don’t have the answer to that question. The only thing I know is that a combination of many factors (but mainly a lack of third-party support) led to a disappointing small number of role-playing games. Did it kill Nintendo’s chance in that era? It’s probably not the sole responsible of Nintendo’s woes in the following years, but it certainly didn’t help.

End Pause

Ogre Battle 64: Person of Lordly Caliber

This is where things start to get a bit mixed. Yes, it’s a role-playing game because it showcases every conventions of the genre, namely turn-based battles and leveling up. However, at its heart, Ogre Battle 64 is a strategy game, with a lot of micro-management to be done. You play as Magnus Gallant, a captain in the Palatinus Army, who joins a revolution when war erupts in his country. Along the way, you amass a huge number of units of many different classes, eventually forming small groups lead by other heroes. As the leader of the army, you command these groups to fight enemies, liberate or capture cities and do various other things you would expect in a real-time strategy game.

With controls that were surprisingly intuitive and responsive when you consider that the N64 pad is far from a mouse and keyboard setup when it comes to strategy games, Ogre Battle 64 felt like a second nature once the tutorial mission was over. This game’s biggest quality is that you become so immersed in the story of Magnus and the choices he must make that you truly feel affected by what happens. When you lose a friend because of a bad decision, you really experience the consequences. This is one of the few games where every little decision you take during the course of the game matters, because should you take the wrong one, it will come back and bite you in the ass later on. That is because everything you do and the way you accomplish it adds or subtracts from your invisible Chaos Frame meter, which you cannot see until after you have beaten the game. That number determinates what ending you are going to get, and believe me, it can be really shitty.

I have played through this game three times, which is more than I can say for any other role-playing games I have ever played. Each and every time, I tried to do things better in the hope of providing my main character with a better future, but somehow, I always ended up failing. Many gamers have spent a large amount of time, dedicating hours of their life trying to get the better ending. The thing is that unless you use a walkthrough – or unless you are a compulsive, anal-retentive type who checks out every stronghold three times with different units to be sure to get every single possible dialogue – you will have to try real hard to get the proper Chaos Frame required. Ogre Battle 64“Ëœs difficulty and challenge has become legendary among gamers. It is possible to beat the game quite easily, but you will end up destroying Palatinus and thus bring the apocalypse to your people in the process. To get anything good out of this game, you will need serious skills.

Unfortunately, the game ended up being a commercial failure. Even though it was a critical success (the game has also become a cult favorite on the internet), Atlus didn’t ship a whole lot of copies. The result is the aforementioned scavenger hunt through Montreal’s seedy underground gaming shops before finally finding a new copy of the game. When you are 17 and driving a broken down 1990 Plymouth Sundance, such an endeavor can become quite a pain in the ass.

Still, I have no regrets, and I highly doubt that anybody else who has played this game does. Sure, it’s more of a RTS/RPG hybrid than a real role-playing game, but on a system that is not recognized for offering a lot of either, you cannot afford to be picky. Passing this game up would have been crazy no matter what, as Ogre Battle 64 now sits tightly somewhere in the high spots on my “favorite game ever” list.

Hybrid Heaven

When I said that to find role-playing games on the Nintendo 64, one has to broaden the definition, this is the game I had in mind. Hybrid Heaven looks more like an action game than anything else. You control a character in a 3D environment, making him jump, shoot, crawl and so on. You also solve puzzles in the purest tradition of adventure games, but everything changes once you encounter an enemy.

Instead of simply punching and kicking as you would expect from a game that has you running around an underground alien complex in Manhattan, the game switches to a more strategic mode where your movements are now restrained. You and your opponent move around the provided space until either one decide to attack. At that point, you choose what action will be executed from a menu, while the opponent chooses a defense. The result looks like a stop-motion wrestling game, where you decide every move and plan your next step according to what unfolds after every turn. I’m not kidding when I say “wrestling game”, because the maneuvers you can learn and execute on your enemies include a suplex as well as a deadly Boston Crab.

If wrestling is not your forte, you can also teach your character an approach that more closely resembles martial arts. This is where the other RPG aspect of this game comes into play. Your character levels up, but what he learns depends on what you make him do. If you kick a lot, that’s what you will develop. If you mainly grapple, you will become a close-combat expert. This means that every game you start can have a very unique feel. As if that wasn’t enough, the character you developed can be brought over to your friend’s house for some multiplayer fights, using the same system as you would against the game’s AI. This is very challenging and extremely entertaining.

Oh yeah, just to put some more icing on this already delicious cake, the story is about aliens trying to create hybrids by mixing their DNA with human genes. You are such a hybrid who’s supposed to replace the president’s bodyguard. The aliens plan on conquering the Earth by replacing its leaders with their clones, and the USA are first on the list. It’s your job to get the hell out of the underground bunker in which you are kept and foil the aliens’ plan.

Despite not being a real RPG, Hybrid Heaven has enough ties with the genre to satisfy its fans. Konami did a great job on this one, and while GameRankings.com seems to show that critics thought it was average, this game has my official seal of approval. Not that such a thing actually exists.

In Closing

When it comes to real role-playing games, the Nintendo 64 was dry as a desert. Titles like the ones presented in this article are mere oasis in that barren wasteland. Including Hybrid Heaven on this list is stretching things a bit, but it worked well for the sake of actually having something to write about and professing my love for that game.

If I was to include other games that had some sort of RPG mechanic in them, the list would get a bit longer, but not necessarily better. I would then have to write something up about mediocre titles such as Flying Dragon, and it’s not something I plan to do soon.

Simply put, if you wanted to play role-playing games between 1997 and 2001, the Nintendo 64 was not the console to own. Despite its fair share of classics, the genre simply wasn’t very high on the list of cool things about the console. It looks like Nintendo took the hint for its future consoles, as the Gamecube featured its fair share of RPGs, and the Wii is set to do the same. Maybe they understood something was wrong when they noticed that the N64 had more color schemes than it had role-playing games.