is a company whose very name is synonymous with video gaming.
Chances are that you have played on, or at least seen, one of
the three generations of home video game systems the company
has created, not to mention the enormously popular hand-held
game system, the Gameboy. The current system, the
Nintendo 64 (N64), was a technical tour de force when
it was introduced, and still compares admirably to other
consoles on the market.
Nintendo 64 is the third generation of video
game console from Nintendo. It was introduced in
As you read through the next few pages, you will learn how
the N64 was developed, what's inside the box, how the
controller works and how it all works together. You will also
learn about the game cartridges and how they differ from
CD-based games, all in this edition of HowStuffWorks.
History Just as Atari
ushered in the dawn of the home video game, Nintendo is
largely considered to be the company that revolutionized the
industry with the introduction of the Nintendo
Entertainment System (NES) in 1985. An 8-bit system based
on the 6502 processor and some custom chips, the NES came
together with Super Mario Brothers; this inclusion of
an accurate home version of one of the most popular arcade
games at the time turned out to be pure genius. Sales of the
NES were phenomenal. This established Nintendo as the dominant
home video game manufacturer until the late '90s, when it was
eclipsed by the rival Sony PlayStation.
Competition from 32-bit systems prompted
Nintendo to develop the 64-bit system that became known
as Nintendo 64.
In 1989, Nintendo introduced a new 16-bit system dubbed the
Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES). Within a
couple of years, rivals had introduced 32-bit systems that
eclipsed the capabilities of the SNES. So, Nintendo announced
an agreement with Silicon Graphics Inc. (SGI) to
develop a new 64-bit video game system, code-named Project
Reality. Although SGI had never designed video game
hardware before, the company was regarded as one of the
leaders in computer graphics technology.
After several years of development, the system was finally
released in 1996 as the Nintendo 64. But the delays and
shortage of games during the first year of availability gave
the advantage to Sony, who had released the PlayStation over a
year earlier. Nintendo is facing the same situation again with
the Sony PlayStation 2
debuting in 2000, while Nintendo's Gamecube
is not due until Fall 2001.
Console Let's take a look at the components
inside an N64, and what their capabilities are. [Be sure to
check out How Video
Game Consoles Work first for a general introduction to
Similar to the PlayStation,
the CPU in the N64 is a RISC processor. RISC stands for
reduced instruction set computer, and means that the
instructions and computations performed by the processor are
simpler and fewer. Also, RISC chips are superscalar --
they can perform multiple instructions at the same time. This
combination of capabilities, performing multiple instructions
simultaneously and completing each instruction faster because
it is simpler, allows the CPU to perform better than many
chips with a much faster clock speed.
Nintendo 64 uses a customized chip that
handles all the components.
To lower production costs, the CPU, graphics and audio
processors are combined into a single application specific
integrated circuit, or ASIC. Simply put, the ASIC
is a customized chip created to manage all of the components
that would otherwise be handled by three separate chips.
Some special features of the N64 include perspective
correction and trilinear mip mapping.
Perspective correction makes the texture
map resize at the same rate as the object that it is
Trilinear mip mapping is a cool process. In this
form of texture mapping, three sizes of each texture map are
made, a large, a medium and a small version. In essence, it
replaces the appearance of an object with a more detailed
image as you move closer to the object in the game. Let's take
a look at how it uses these maps:
The system calculates the distance from your viewpoint
to an object in the game.
The system loads the texture maps for the object. Our
three maps will be 64x64 (large), 32x32 (medium), and 8x8
The system determines the exact size that the image map
needs to be -- let's say 16x16 for our example here.
Based on the size, it decides which two texture maps to
use. For our example, it might choose the medium and small
It then interpolates (averages) between the two
texture maps, creating a custom texture map that is 16x16,
which it then applies to the object.
mapping is no less amazing. Simple in concept, it means
that reflections of objects are rendered and mapped onto the
reflecting surface. The sheer amount of calculating that is
done by the graphics processor to determine the angle and
transparency for each reflected object, and then render it in
real time, is extraordinary. An incredible number of
calculations have to happen for every single polygon in a
game. And there can be over a hundred thousand polygons on the
screen at any given time!
The games come on proprietary ROMs housed in
plastic cartridges. When a game is put in the console, the
You turn the power on.
The console loads portions of the operating system from
ROM into RAM.
The game initialization sequence is loaded into RAM.
You interact with the game via the controller.
As each specific part of the game is requested, the
application code, video, audio and hardware-render geometry
are loaded into RAM.
The CPU coordinates everything. It receives the input
from the controller, pulls the data from RAM and directs the
graphics and audio processing.
You are finally beaten by the game and turn it off.
The trident shape of the Nintendo 64
controller is unique among video game
The controller is the primary user interface for the N64.
With its trident shape, it is probably the most unusual design
for a controller on the market today. The standard N64
controller has 14 buttons plus an analog joystick. The
Four buttons arranged as a directional pad on the top
Start button in the top middle
Six action buttons on the top right
One action button on the front left
One action button on the front right
One action button in the bottom middle
Analog joystick on the top middle
Inside the N64 controller.
Although each button can be configured to perform a
specific and distinctive action, they all work on the same
principle. In essence, each button is a switch that completes
a circuit when it is pressed. A small metal disk beneath the
button is pushed into contact with two strips of conductive
material on the circuit board inside the controller. While the
metal disk is in contact, it conducts electricity between the
two strips. The controller senses that the circuit is closed
and sends that data to the N64. The CPU compares that data
with the instructions in the game software for that button,
and triggers the appropriate response. There is also a metal
disk under each arm of the directional pad. If you're playing
a game in which pushing down on the directional pad causes the
character to crouch, a similar string of connections is made
from the time you push down on the pad to when the character
The analog joystick works in a completely different
way from the buttons described above. Two wheels are
positioned at right angles to each other below the joystick.
Whenever the joystick is moved, the two wheels turn slightly.
Tiny slots are arranged around the perimeter of each wheel.
The wheels are each mounted between an LED (Light
Emitting Diode) and a photo
cell. Light from the LED, shining through the slots in the
wheel on the cell, creates a small amount of current. When the
amount of light changes, the level of current changes. By
monitoring the output of each photo cell, the N64 can
determine the exact angle at which the joystick is being held,
and trigger the appropriate response.
Another feature of the N64 controller is the ability to add
options via an expansion slot on the bottom of the controller.
A popular option is the Rumble Pak, which provides
force feedback. This feature provides a tactile
stimulation to certain actions in a game. For example, in a
racing game, you might feel a jarring vibration as your car
slams into the wall.
Force feedback is actually accomplished through the use of
a very common device, a simple electric motor. The
shaft of the motor holds an unbalanced weight. When power is
supplied to the motor, it spins the weight. Because the weight
is unbalanced, the motor tries to wobble. But since the motor
is securely mounted inside the Rumble Pak, the wobble
translates into a shuddering vibration of the controller
You can save games and high scores by using one of the
memory cards. The card is inserted into the slot on the
bottom of the N64 controller.
The N64 controller uses only three wires to connect to the
console. There's a ground wire, another wire that supplies +3,
6 volts of power, and a third wire that carries all data. The
controller sends the information for each button in sequence,
and then receives data back from the console.
Cartridges are unique to Nintendo 64. They
offer fast load but small capacity. They are more
durable than CDs.
The N64 is the only current system that uses cartridges.
There are advantages and disadvantages to this approach:
Fast load times - Sections of a game are transferred
almost instantly from the cartridge's ROM to the system's
Additional performance features - Since the cartridge
contains a circuit board that is plugged into the main
system, it can contain special hardware-based enhancements
that augment the processing power or special effects of the
Durability - Cartridges are not as easily damaged as
CDs, which can be ruined by a simple scratch.
Small capacity - Cartridges, ranging from about 8 MB to
96 MB, hold significantly less data than CDs (650 MB).
Expense - Because of all the hardware, the cost per unit
to manufacture cartridges is quite a bit more than to make
Audio - Even though the N64 has near-CD quality sound,
it is not utilized to the same degree as in CD-based games
because of the enormous amount of storage required.
Although the N64 had only a few games available when it
first came out, the number of titles has grown to a
considerable library. Used games can be found for less than
$15. Many of the new games can cost between $50 and $75.