|Media type ROM cartridge|
Capacity 32–512 Mbit
Usage Nintendo 64
Developed by Nintendo
Nintendo 64 Game Pak (NUS-006) are ROM cartridges that store game data for the Nintendo 64. Their sizes vary from 4 MiB (32 Mbit; e.g. Automobili Lamborghini and Dr. Mario 64) to 64 MiB (512 Mbit; e.g. Resident Evil 2 and Conker's Bad Fur Day). The Game Pak's design tradeoffs were intended to achieve maximal system speed and minimal system cost, with a lesser storage space and a higher unit cost per game.
- Save files
- Copy protection
- Console cost
- Manufacturing cost
- Manufacturing time
- Storage space
- Critical reception
- Industrial reception
Launched in 1996, the Nintendo 64 was the latest major home console to use a cartridge as its primary storage format, and was considered to be possibly the last up until the announcement of the Nintendo Switch in late 2016. Additionally, Nintendo's data storage strategy had always been to develop a complementary higher-capacity disk-based peripheral to accompany the Nintendo 64 Game Pak. This resulted in 1999's 64DD, an aftermarket peripheral which was launched years late and only in Japan as a commercial failure, leaving the Game Pak as the console's only storage medium.
To complement the company's two previous high-speed cartridge-based console generations, Nintendo had already developed high-capacity secondary storage devices such as the Famicom Disk System and the cancelled SNES-CD. The company had always intended to do likewise with this generation. In a 1994 interview, Nintendo summarized its analysis of the continued advantages of cartridges for its upcoming console, eventually known as the Nintendo 64.
Right now, cartridges offer faster access time and more speed of movement and characters than CDs. So, we'll introduce our new hardware with cartridges. But eventually these problems with CDs will be overcome. When that happens, you'll see Nintendo using CD as the software storage medium for our 64-bit system.
That sentiment was soon revised; also in 1994, Nintendo's vice president of marketing Peter Main stated that "The choice we made is not cartridge versus CD, it's silicon over optical. When it comes to speed, no other format approaches the silicon-based cartridge."
The Great Hanshin earthquake of 1995, which destroyed a major RAM factory in Japan, increased the prices of RAM in the 1990s. Nintendo planned to continue to supplement the use of system RAM through innovations in high speed ROM cartridges. SGI suggested that Nintendo should utilize cartridges to keep the console's costs low and performance high.
At Shoshinkai of 1995, Nintendo announced its development of the complementary 64DD, a rewritable magnetic disk based peripheral with several times faster transfer rates and seek time than competing CD-ROM consoles. In 1997, Nintendo game designer Shigesato Itoi explained, "CD holds a lot of data, DD holds a moderate amount of data and backs the data up, and [cartridge] ROMs hold the least data and process the fastest. By attaching a DD to the game console, we can drastically increase the number of possible genres. ... I think we’ll make the game on a cartridge first, then ... finish it up as a full-out 64DD game." Many Nintendo 64 games were developed in a way that depended upon or were expanded by that device. However, after the device's launch had been delayed several years until 1999 and restricted to Japan, it was discontinued early as a commercial failure.
In 1996, prior to the Nintendo 64's launch, President of Nintendo Hiroshi Yamauchi praised the user experience of the cartridge format:
Many of you feel that CD-ROM is the call of the day ... but look at the latest buzzword in the computer world — plug-and-play — which is nothing but [Nintendo] culture ... Customers [think] having no loading time is a great advantage. More importantly, by using [cartridge], other chips can later be incorporated into the cartridge, which allows Nintendo to offer new game opportunities to game developers.
The Nintendo 64 is the latest major home console to use the cartridge as its primary storage format, although handheld systems (such as the PlayStation Vita and Nintendo 3DS) use cartridges. Most home systems began using disc, flash, and online formats. With the Nintendo GameCube, the company utilized the optical disc format instead of the cartridge format, in a boon to some developers. The company's stated goal was to reduce manufacturing costs; Nintendo did not cite storage space as a rationale. While the new console lacks backwards compatibility with Nintendo 64 Game Paks, Nintendo said players could simply keep their Nintendo 64.
Some Game Paks include internal EEPROM, flash memory, or battery-backed-up RAM for saved game storage. Otherwise, game saves are put onto a separate memory card, marketed by Nintendo as a Controller Pak.
Each Nintendo 64 Game Pak contains a lockout chip (conceptually similar to the 10NES) to prevent manufacturers from creating unauthorized copies of games and discourage production of unlicensed games. Unlike previous versions, the N64 lockout chip contains a seed value which is used to calculate a checksum of the game's boot code. To discourage playing of copied games by piggybacking on a real Game Pak, Nintendo produced five different versions of the chip. During the boot process, and occasionally while the game is running, the N64 computes the checksum of the boot code and verifies it with the lockout chip in the Game Pak, failing to boot if the check fails.
On June 2, 1997, a U.S. District Court issued a temporary restraining order against Games City for its Game Doctor and Doctor V64 products, which allow users to copy from a Game Pak to a CD or hard disk drive. Games City was ordered to stop importing, distributing, advertising, or selling any such devices.
The Nintendo 64 Game Pak medium provides essential benefits alongside a number of drawbacks. While they provide the fastest possible load times and greater durability, the format is more expensive to produce and has less storage space than the competing CD-ROM format.
Nintendo was concerned that a CD-ROM drive would increase the cost of the console in a price-sensitive market. Nintendo software engineering manager Jim Merrick said, "We're very sensitive to the cost of the console. We could get an eight-speed CD-ROM mechanism in the unit, but in the under-$200 console market, it would be hard to pull that off."
Specified at 50MiB/s peak, Nintendo cited the ROM cartridges' very fast load times in comparison to disc-based games. Few contemporary CD-ROM drives have speeds above 4×, and the competing consoles Sega Saturn and Sony PlayStation have 2× drives running at about 300 kBps with high latency. This can be observed on the loading screens that appear in many PlayStation games but are typically nonexistent in Nintendo 64 games. ROM cartridges are so much faster than contemporary CD-ROM drives that data can be streamed in real-time from cartridges as if they are additional RAM, thus maximizing the efficiency of the system's RAM. This was a common practice for developers in many games, such as Nintendo EAD's Super Mario 64 or Factor 5's Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine. Howard Lincoln said, "[Genyo Takeda, the Nintendo engineer working with Silicon Graphics to design Project Reality] and those guys felt very strongly that it was absolutely essential to have it on a cartridge in order to do the kind of things that we wanted to do with Super Mario."
Sega countered by claiming that load times on CD-ROMs could eventually be minimized. "We are finding more and more ways to mask the load factor," Ted Hoff, vice president of sales and marketing at Sega, said. "We are working out ways to overlay or leapfrog the loading time."
Game Paks are far more durable than compact discs, the latter of which must be carefully used and stored in protective cases. It also prevents accidental scratches and subsequent read errors. While Game Paks are more resistant than CDs to physical damage, they are sometimes less resistant to long-term environmental damage, particularly oxidation (although this can be simply cleaned off) or wear of their electrical contacts causing a blank or frozen screen, or static electricity.
Due to complex manufacturing processes, cartridge-based games are more expensive and difficult to manufacture than their optical counterparts. PlayStation CD-ROMs cost $1 to manufacture, while cartridges for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (the predecessor to the N64) cost $15.
Publishers had to pass these higher expenses to the consumer and as a result, Nintendo 64 games tended to sell for higher prices than PlayStation games. While most PlayStation games rarely exceeded US$50, Nintendo 64 cartridges could reach US$79.99, such as the first "pressing" of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Games in Sony's line of PlayStation Greatest Hits budget line retailed for US$19.95, while Nintendo's equivalent Player's Choice line retailed for US$29.95. In the United Kingdom, Nintendo 64 games were priced $80.31 at their time of release, while PlayStation games were priced at $65.69. In the United States, games were priced around US$49.99 at the time of their release.
Game Paks took longer to manufacture than CDs, with each production run (from order to delivery) taking two weeks or more. By contrast, extra copies of a CD based game could be ordered with a lead time of a few days. This meant that publishers of N64 titles had less flexibility to forecast demand for their titles. Publishers had to attempt to predict demand for a game ahead of its release. They risked being left with a surplus of expensive Game Paks for a failed game or a weeks-long shortage of product if they underestimated a game's popularity.
Sony used this shortcoming to appeal to publishers. Andrew House, vice president of marketing at Sony Computer Entertainment America, said "They can manufacture the appropriate amount of software without taking a tremendous inventory risk associated with the cartridge business."
During the Nintendo 64's development in 1995, Nintendo reported that the then-realized maximum cartridge size was 96 megabits (12 megabytes), with a theoretical maximum at the time of 256 megabits (32 megabytes). As fifth generation games became more complex in content, sound and graphics, they pushed Game Paks to the limits of their storage capacity. In practice, the few largest vintage Game Paks can hold up to 512 megabits (64 megabytes) of data, whereas CDs can hold over 650 MiB. Games ported from other media may utilize more aggressive data compression (as with Resident Evil 2) or altered content (as with Spider-Man and Mortal Kombat Mythologies: Sub-Zero) so that they may be released on the Nintendo 64. Exceptionally large games on CD-based systems can be made to span across multiple discs, while most Nintendo 64 games are contained within one Game Pak, as the use of an additional Game Pak or of one maximally sized Game Pak was often considered prohibitively expensive, and the 64DD expansion drive was released late and discontinued early.
Due to the Game Pak's space limitations, full motion video is not usually feasible for use in cutscenes. A notable exception is Resident Evil 2, which contains the equivalent material of the two CD-ROM discs of the original PlayStation version, plus some expanded content, plus higher quality audio samples and unique surround sound technology, making it what IGN calls "the best version of the game". Some games contain significant cinematic scenes whose graphics are generated by the system in real-time, as with The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Nintendo downplayed the importance of studio-prerendered videos, with software engineering manager Jim Merrick saying, "Full-motion video demos really well on a CD-ROM, but once you get into the software, as a gamer, you're thinking 'let's get on with the game.'"
Nintendo also countered that developers did not generally use the full 650MiB capacity of CD-ROMs, stating that the smaller storage space encouraged developers to focus on gameplay rather than flashy visuals. Many CD-ROM games are known to simply consist of cartridge sized games alongside a prerendered audio track, or just a copy of a game already released on cartridge. The relatively few games that have ever been released based on full motion video, typically have very high production costs and timeframes.
CD-ROMs are known for relative ease of illicit copying on personal computers, whereas Game Paks are physically proprietary and more difficult to copy.
John Ricciardi, writing for Electronic Gaming Monthly, called Nintendo's decision to stick with a cartridge format for the Nintendo 64 stubborn. The author called it a major contributor to the company's competitive disadvantages, even more so than the failed partnership with Sony to create a CD format and console. EDN Magazine said that the Nintendo 64 Game Paks are "bulky and expensive, eating into Nintendo’s profit margins compared with competitors’ inexpensive CD and DVD plastic discs". The Los Angeles Times praised Nintendo's choice of the cartridge medium with its "nonexistent" load times and "continuous, fast-paced action CD-ROMs simply cannot deliver", concluding that "the cartridge-based Nintendo 64 delivers blistering speed and tack-sharp graphics that are unheard of on personal computers and make competing 32-bit, disc-based consoles from Sega and Sony seem downright sluggish". Describing the quality control incentives associated with cartridge-based development, the Times cited Nintendo's position that cartridge game developers tend to "place a premium on substance over flash", and noted that the launch titles lack the "poorly acted live-action sequences or half-baked musical overtures" which it says tend to be found on CD-ROM games.
As part of the controversial technological tradeoffs between storage and performance, which has been endemic to the entire computing industry, and which Nintendo had faced since the Famicom's cassette and floppy disk systems, the selection of a cartridge format for the Nintendo 64 was essential to several developers' ability to deliver top quality games. However, the choice of cartridge format coupled with the commercial failure of the supplemental 64DD were also key factors in Nintendo losing its dominant position in the gaming market. Some of the Game Pak's advantages are actually nullified by its disadvantages.
That generation's primary competitors, the Sony PlayStation and the Sega Saturn, rely completely upon 2× CD-ROM drives for game storage. These discs are much cheaper and faster to manufacture and distribute, resulting in lower manufacturing costs to third-party game publishers. As a result, some game developers who had traditionally supported Nintendo game consoles prior to Nintendo 64 were now developing games for the competition.
Some third-party developers switched to the PlayStation. This includes Square who had produced a Final Fantasy technology prototype using the same SGI-based development platform used by Nintendo, and Enix whose Dragon Warrior VII was initially pre-planned for the Nintendo 64 and its yet-unreleased 64DD disk drive peripheral at least by 1996, but reluctantly migrated due to the developers' increasingly ambitious use of storage space with their fundamentally cinematic game format. Shiny Entertainment had been planning to develop MDK for the Nintendo 64, but switched to PC when they found the cartridge space was insufficient for their plans for the game and Nintendo failed to produce the promised 64DD in a timely manner.
Some developers who remained on Nintendo 64, released fewer games for the system. Konami was the biggest example of this, releasing more than thirteen Nintendo 64 games but more than fifty on the PlayStation. Overall, new game releases were less frequent for Nintendo 64 than those for PlayStation.
Aside from the difficulties with some third parties, the Nintendo 64 supports some of the most popular, genre-defining, and critically acclaimed games such as Super Mario 64, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, and GoldenEye 007, having given the system a long market lifespan. Much of this success was credited to Nintendo's strong first-party franchises, such as Mario, which had strong name brand appeal, and by Nintendo's own second-party developers such as Rare.
When interviewed by Computer & Video Games at Shoshinkai of 1995, about how the theoretical use of CD instead of cartridge could have impacted its past game development, Rare reportedly said that "Blastdozer would require more time and much more RAM", and that "Goldeneye would require twice the RAM". In the 2013 Director's Commentary video about Conker's Bad Fur Day, after observing the imperceptible loading times and the "seamless" transitions between major scenes of the game, Rare programmers declare that "the thing about cartridges is … it's solid state ... so it's actually a much more advanced, better medium than discs. You can’t have as much [content] on there—or, rather, you can but it’s very expensive—but as a medium, cartridge is [vastly] ahead in superiority to any blu-ray or disc … [or] hard drives."
Upon Factor 5's introduction to the Nintendo 64, the developer had already delivered highly optimized multiplatform games for almost a decade, ranging from 8-bit home computers to 32-bit CD-ROM. After having developed innovative techniques for CD-ROM media in two different Lucasarts releases for PlayStation, Factor 5's cofounder Julian Eggebrecht said this:
We immediately liked the N64 because we didn't have to deal with CDs. You shouldn't underestimate what a battle it can be to make a CD game on the PlayStation. You have to fill it, you have to burn it — which takes an hour every time you want to see a new version of your game, you have to work around loading errors, and so on. CDs can be a real pain."
Eggebrecht identified RAM, not storage, as the key bottleneck for any console; so he identified CD-ROM performance of the day as exacerbating that bottleneck and favored cartridges to virtually eliminate the bottleneck. Even after having designed Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine for personal computers equipped with hard drives, Eggebrecht significantly attributed the technologically and aesthetically superior nature of Factor 5's Nintendo 64 port, to his programmers' aggressive utilization of the cartridge format.
The big strength was the N64 cartridge. We use the cartridge almost like normal RAM and are streaming all level data, textures, animations, music, sound and even program code while the game is running. With the final size of the levels and the amount of textures, the [8 megabytes of] RAM of the N64 never would have been even remotely enough to fit any individual level. So the cartridge technology really saved the day.
[T]he N64 is really sexy because it combines the performance of an SGI machine with a cartridge. We're big arcade fans, and cartridges are still the best for arcade games or perhaps a really fast CD-ROM. But there's no such thing for consoles yet [as of 1998].