Welcome back, dear readers-of-old-things-I’ve-read! It’s been too long since I took you back to the golden days of video game magazines from the UK, hasn’t it? Blame lethargy, blame my podcast, blame me and my wife for getting pregnant and doing baby stuff, blame the UEFA Euros, blame Returnal for sinking its hooks into me even though it clearly has utter contempt for my skills – it doesn’t matter, we’re back and ready to travel back to July 1997. This month it’s all about Mario Kart 64 – Diddy Kong Racing’s inferior cousin – as review copies hit the UK ready for N64 Magazine and Nintendo Official Magazine to take it for a test drive.
The first thing to note this month is an exercise in how British sarcasm can sometimes go too far to the point that you no longer have any idea of what is real and what isn’t. N64 Mag issued an apology for their tardiness in releasing the issue for sale (apparently not for the first time) and blamed it on resident Otaku, Will. Or, rather, they blamed it on his dog apparently, “eating [most of] the master copy,” of the issue meaning they had to do the whole thing again.
For those worried about this happening in future, they offer, erm, reassurance that, “since the unfortunate mastication incident, Will’s dog has been run over by an articulated lorry, negating the need for James to dispose of it humanely.” Well, that’s a relief then, eh?!
Pocket What? Never Heard of it, Mate
There were some interesting previews this month. I’m hesitant to say most notably – even though hindsight will tell you that it really is most notable – a game called Pocket Monsters 64. What’s fascinating about this, and the reason for my hesitation, is that N64 Mag do not see the game as notable at all, and give it about as much space on the page as a postage stamp gets on an envelope.
The reasons for this are twofold: Pokémon wouldn’t be released in North America for over a year, and not until October 1999 in Europe. Were it not the case in July 1997 that world’s most successful media franchise of all time was still only an impenetrable JRPG that, “sounds a trifle dull,” you can bet your mortgage that a home console version would be front-page news.
The second, and more subjective, reason that Pocket Monsters 64 is veritably ignored is that no screenshots of the game existed at the time, nor did they ever come to exist. For, you see, the game was slated as a 64DD launch title and, in an absolutely shocking and unexpected twist, it never got released. Apply that sarcasm to the fact that it obviously got cancelled because the 64DD was a flop; remove the sarcasm because cancelling a home console Pokémon game any time after 1999 would be utter madness. See? We Brits are a nightmare to take seriously.
Taking things seriously is additionally difficult when reading old magazines’ game previews, especially around the era of the 64DD launch. You have to tightly attune your skepticism, and if you see something you think you’ve never heard of, you’re probably right to assume it died during development. Case in point: NOM report that there’s already a sequel to Pilotwings 64 in the works, with details reportedly revealed at the recent Tokyo Game Show by Shigeru Miyamoto himself.
An IGN report from the following year states that co-developer Paradigm Simulation had presented their new tech to Nintendo, who were positive on it, but eventually conceded that their resources were secured elsewhere. No prizes for guessing that those resources were being absolutely wasted on the development of the 64DD.
Two Sides of the Same Track
I took one look at the scores both magazines gave to Mario Kart 64 this month and expected the reviews to be absolutely glowing, but it’s not quite that simple. American readers may not know, and 11-year-old me definitely didn’t know, but PAL versions of games back in the late 90s were… well, a disgrace. As a kid who just wanted to lob blue shells at my buddies, I wasn’t aware that I was being shafted by lazy conversions – I didn’t even know that 50hz was a thing!
There aren’t many mentions of these issues in NOM (as the official mag it’d be a bit traitorous of them to point out the inequality of the different versions of such a flagship first-party title), but the N64 Mag guys have been playing the import version for months at this point, and they’re not happy. Alongside the added screen borders and higher price point when accounting for exchange rates – “£60? Honestly. Do they still think we’re all rich aristocrats here in Britain, or something?” – they claim the lap times come out as 20% slower across the board, meaning European gamers might as well kiss their dreams of world records goodbye. “Shame on you, Nintendo. We’re not all oblivious here in Europe,” they cry.
NOM touch on the fact that “many reviewers have set out to knock Mario Kart 64,” but the consensus here seems to be that those reviewers are upset that the game is not as pure a racer as its predecessor. “Although certain aspects have been removed, it doesn’t ruin the enjoyment of what is still an excellent racing title,” says reviewer Shaun White, as NOM score the game 90%.
N64 Magazine appear to be in that group of detractors, as the body of their review belies the 91% score – higher than the official magazine – they end up giving it. Complaints, in addition to the aforementioned conversion woes, boil down to their dislike of the single player grand prix modes, and the disappointing battle mode. What’s most interesting is seeing people discover, almost certainly for the first time, the rubber-banding that Mario Kart is now infamous for.
“When you’ve been playing for a while, the way your N64 decides in which order the CPU karts are going to finish the cup before the first race has even started becomes all too transparent,” laments super sleuth reviewer Jonathan Davies (not that one). “But, nevertheless,” he adds, “I adore it. I’ve played it more than all the N64’s other games put together, and, six months after plugging it in for the first time, I still love it as much as ever.” Aw, that’s nice innit?
Dud of the Month!
In the first of this segment I’ve just decided is a segment, our winner is actually a dud publisher of the month. Step forward, Midway, and collect your prize for sharting out two rubbish games at once. We already know that N64 Mag wasn’t a fan of Mortal Kombat Trilogy when they got hold of the US import, and time-plus-PAL-version doesn’t equal a winning formula here. “Surely there should be some evidence we’re dealing with an N64 game, here,” begs reviewer Tim Weaver. “What, in fact, we have is a conversion of the PlayStation game with n-o-t-h-i-n-g added. Nothing. No extra visuals. No extra speed. NOTHING.” They scored it a pitiful 34%.
Lazily converting 2D games with zero endeavour isn’t a winner, then, so how about an arcade port of their new 3D fighter War Gods (which I’d previously never heard of)? Still terrible, apparently. It seems the game was designed to effectively test out Midway’s new 3D software before using it for Mortal Kombat 4, so they basically just made an MK game without the worry of sullying the series’ name like… well, like they did with Trilogy two magazine pages earlier.
Reviewer James Ashton isn’t fooled, however. “Mortal Kombat might have been new, shiny and exciting seven years ago, but endlessly repackaging it, renaming it and reflogging it is not the way forward … this is the same old tat – 3D or not – and I want no more of it, thanks all the same.” Still, it slightly outperforms Trilogy, bringing home a below-average score of 46%. Small gains and all that.
I Now Serve Only The Scorelord
Well, this section might as well have been titled ‘Tell us you’re shit at N64 games without actually telling us you’re shit at N64 games.’ First lesson I learned: don’t ever do this again without first checking the scores you’re trying to beat to avoid totally embarrassing yourself. Second lesson: git a lot gud-er. For those unacquainted, here’s a recap of my efforts.
Let’s pull off the band-aid and compare the scores I achieved in the challenges set by NOM in June ‘97.
- Super Mario 64 – Fastest time to defeat Koopa the Quick in Bob-Omb Battlefield.
My score: 29.9 seconds.
Some kid in the 90s’ score: 11.8 seconds.
- Pilotwings 64 – Fastest time to destroy all ten targets on B-Class Gyrocopter, Test Two.
My score: 2 mins 35.85 seconds (I genuinely thought this was good).
Some kid in the 90s’ score: 1 min 45.98 seconds.
- ISS Deluxe – Best win as England vs. Germany in a normal exhibition match.
My score: I gave up after finally scoring a goal and winning 2-0 because fuck that game.
Some kid in the 90s’ score: 83-0. Like… what? 83-0?! Mate, just go outside or something.
With that self-esteem-crushing exercise over with, I’ve now got some fresh challenges to undertake, but NOM seem to take months and months to actually announce any winners, so I’ll probably do them one at a time. For a little teaser, one thing to note is that Turok 64 has the worst control scheme ever devised by man. Using the C-buttons to move and the analog stick to look around (the ‘reverse Goldeneye’) is heresy, and whoever thought that up should burn for all eternity.
Also, Wave Race 64 is still excellent. The handling remains tighter than an elephant’s scrotum, and the music remains rad af. However, it’s really hard. When you’re set a challenge of getting the best stunt mode score on a course you’re not even good enough to unlock, you know you’re in trouble. Wish me luck. Or don’t, if you’re the god-tier child prodigy from 1997 who definitely already kicked my ass.
Run and Get Your Quarters in
In a really cool final feature of N64 Mag this month, they tasked their ‘man in Tokyo’ Max Everingham with producing a feature on the popular arcade games in the Land of the Rising Sun. With arcade ports still a huge element of console gaming in ’97, there was very much an eye here on the potential N64 games of the future. As far as I know, none of them came out – certainly not in the west – but some still caught my eye.
The game I want to play the most, by far, is Sega’s Top Skater. I believe this also came out in the States, but there’s absolutely no way I was getting a chance to play this down the beach in Hunstanton. Namco’s Alpine Racer 2 apparently looks more fun, with its giant ski pole controllers, than it actually is, as Max explains, “it just isn’t very interesting. You start at the top and go down to the bottom. Hmmm.”
Armadillo Racing also looks pretty fun, with control of your armadillo achieved as you ‘frantically palm’ a trackball forwards for 60 seconds. Short and sweet. Of course, it wouldn’t be Japanese arcades without train simulators, horse racing games and Pachinko, but I certainly didn’t expect to see that the number one arcade machine in the country was a game called My Angel Child Care Quiz. As a father-to-be, I’m thinking this might come in handy. Who wants to start a campaign with me to get it fan translated?
That’ll do it for July 1997, I’m off to bash my head against Wave Race 64 to try and beat some faceless child of the past in a competition they already won.