Video game websites are great, no question, but I wouldn’t have wanted to write for one if I hadn’t grown up reading some brilliant and inspirational magazines when I was growing up. While some do exist in 2021, the number of gaming magazines compared to back in the 90s and early 00s is depressingly low, while the number of gaming websites and YouTube channels now is almost innumerable.
The choice and spread of gaming outlets are now better and more convenient to access than ever, but it can never match the sound of this month’s magazine dropping on your doorstep and that inevitable fresh-page smell. Growing up in the UK, I was treated to a host of truly irreverent and idiosyncratic gaming mags, and now my fond memories of them can be yours as well. In what will serve as both a history lesson and a nostalgic view of 90’s British games journalism, I’ll be comparing the N64 (and maybe GameCube if I don’t outstay my welcome or die before we get that far) era’s two best Nintendo magazines, month-by-month. I’ll dive into reviews, news, previews, and any relevant features from the time to really get into the zeitgeist of the past and probably laugh at how excited people got over games that ended up being total bollocks.
With all due respect, the Nintendo Official Magazine (NOM) was the lesser of the two I’ll be comparing (it was more focused on hints and tips and was aimed at a younger audience), but it’s definitely not without its merits, and it’ll be a useful tool to analyze the different review scores given out for titles to get a better grasp of the general vibe of the era. My fondest memories, however, are of N64 magazine – in my opinion, the absolute mecca of gaming mags, and one I followed throughout its life until its final guise of NGamer closed the doors back in 2012.
What better place to start, then, than the launch months of the Nintendo 64 in the UK – March and April 1997. N64 magazine’s first issue dropped in April, while NOM had a month’s head start on coverage of Nintendo’s new powerhouse console, as well as 54 issues covering the Big N to date. Therefore, in this one instance, there will be coverage of NOM issues 54 and 55 alongside N64 issue 1. My old media studies university lecturers may have been sounding the death bell for print media ten years ago, but I still refuse to listen to it.
The More Things Change, The More They Stay the Same
Console scarcity is absolutely not just a 2021 thing, although it might well be a perennial Nintendo thing. Both mags were at pains to dampen their coverage of N64 launch day with the disappointing news of how near-impossible it was to get one of the mere 20,000 consoles released in the UK on 1st March 1997. That’s just one for every 2,920 people in the country at the time. Remember that this was a time before internet shopping was anywhere near what it is now (Amazon only started selling internationally in 1998), so these were still the days of reserving your console at the local store. N64 reported that no store in the UK – HMV, Curry’s, Electronics Boutique (remember them?!) et al – had an allocation of more than 25 units, with most of them limited to just five!
It could be worse, however, as apparently, France hadn’t received any consoles at all yet. Both magazines had reporters based out in Japan and the US to report about their respective launches which were veritable ancient history by the time ol’ blighty got the machine. N64 mag explained that the console was really slowing down in its native land where, after initially selling a million units in the first 10 weeks, a lack of RPGs was really hurting it, and Final Fantasy VII’s release meant it was almost impossible to get a PlayStation.
In fact, the N64 was set to drop down to ¥16,800, which equates to just £85. While this was a desperate, extreme measure it points to something that has never got enough press for me and my UK brethren – exchange rate disparity. According to NOM, Germany was being charged Dm399 (yes, that’s Deutsche Marks), which was worth £155, while the UK price for the console was £249!
Over in the US, the record-breaking release was nonetheless beset by, according to N64 mag, ‘the savage, frenzied, clamouring idiocy that followed its unusual launch.’ In a move straight out of 2020, the mag reports that, while the launch date was set for Sunday 29th September 1996, several retailers began selling it three days early on Thursday, ‘throwing US gamers into a tizzy and Nintendo into a blissful stupor.’ Yikes, how we’ve all grown, eh?
The 64DD is (kind of) a Lie
One of the prevailing stories getting multiple mentions this month was that of the 64DD, which is not something I expected to see in a launch issue for the N64 itself! Hindsight of all the delays could cause the assumption that the disc system was unheard of in 1997, what with it being years away, but it had actually been announced some two years earlier. At this stage in the console’s life, there was still considerable hype for the ultimately doomed add-on.
N64 Mag couldn’t help themselves getting all pie-in-the-sky fantasizing about potential uses for the future useless. On their wish list was update discs with things like extra Mario Kart courses, level editors for games like Doom and Turok, downloadable games, and evolving characters based on how people play the game. None of this, of course, would happen. ‘The 64DD sounds like a very desirable add-on indeed’ they said. Bless ‘em.
Zelda 64, as it was then known, was originally slated to be a launch title for the 64DD, but the cracks in that plan were already beginning to appear. N64 Mag reports that the delays the system already endured, combined with Nintendo’s desire to satisfy Japanese fans with an RPG, meant that the game was most likely to ship earlier and on a normal cart. Good luck with the wait for that, lads.
NOM went one further with rumours talking about Mario 64DD. According to their story, ‘there are even rumours circulating that the game will feature multiple controllable characters.’ They also weighed in on the Zelda 64DD debate, suggesting it was mooted to have a town-building element were it to ever come in disc form. Truly a shame all round, and unlikely to be the last disappointingly false rumor we’ll hear about the 64DD until it flops in 1999.
Naturally, with a brand-new console and magazine, there was all the glory of the N64 launch lineup to be reviewed, and what a lineup it was. In 2020 the PS5 launched with basically the same Spider-Man game again, a remake of a 12-year-old game and a tech demo, and Xbox launched with… well, nothing. In 1997, UK gamers padded out their N64 collections with Pilotwings 64, Super Mario 64, Turok: Dinosaur Hunter, and Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire to a (mostly) rousing reception.
Super Mario 64 is obviously the big attraction of the month, and back in 1997 it was available to buy for longer than six months – imagine that! Needless to say, both magazines absolutely gushed about it. NOM (the previous month) claimed, ‘it’s difficult not to go dewey-eyed and start blubbering about how excellent the game is,’ and proved themselves immediately correct by adding, ‘SM64 is quite simply the best game I’ve ever played on a home console.’ The review ends with the quote, ‘SM64 sets the standard for videogames right into the 21st Century,’ with a final score of 95%.
N64 mag decided to keep themselves nice and grounded, starting their enormous review with the statement that, ‘not since Julius Caesar has one little Italian had so much impact on the world.’ It’s not all hyperbole, though, with a caption on the famous intro screen declaring that ‘Mazza’ looks a little bit smug so, ‘you’d better … summon the magical Glove Cursor of Humility [to] pinch at his jowls or pull on his ‘tash until he resembles a passport photo by Salvador Dali.’
Beautifully making their irreverent bed right before they lie in it for 59 further issues, N64 mag took the editorial decision to sum up the most important game of the generation with the immortal line, ‘Swahili holds the only word to sum it up. SM64 is absolutely tsufufum,’ before awarding the game 96%. Googling tsufufum will pretty much only get you links to people referencing this very review, and I have thus found out that tsufufum isn’t even a real word. Reviewer Zy Nicholson may well be the greatest games journalist ever.
Pilotwings 64 ‘won’t gain you friends at school, nor will it have your work mates listening on intently as you recount the majesty of its landscapes or the splendour of the gyrocopter,’ claims N64 Mag. It is, however, ‘a wondrous, tireless example of a game that combines superior technical achievement with endless, summer-long bouts of enjoyment.’ Now if that doesn’t sum up Nintendo magic, I don’t know what will. N64 gave it a score of 89% and labelled it ‘a breathtaking showcase for the N64.’ Meanwhile, NOM was a teeny, tiny, little more lukewarm on the game, winning the Obvious Award for claiming it’s ‘not as immediately appealing as Super Mario 64’ and described it as ‘an outstanding game and a unique experience, but it probably won’t be to everyone’s taste.’ They awarded it 84%.
In a somewhat surprising twist on a personal level, Turok: Dinosaur Hunter seems to have garnered a lot more praise than I both remember and believe it deserves. I am subsequently compelled to play a game that N64 describes as ‘ludicrously violent’ and ‘marvelously entertaining’, and NOM laud as ‘the best one-player 3D shoot-‘em-up I’ve ever seen.’ They even go so far as to call it ‘as good as Mario, but for different reasons,’ usurping N64’s 91% rating with their own SM64-equalling 95%. Hey, I guess the point of a positive review is to persuade the reader to play the game, so I guess they’ve both succeeded, even if it’s purely because I don’t buy it!
Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire understandably fared the worst of the four launch titles, with N64 claiming it’s ‘basically solid, but lacking the innovation and brilliance of Nintendo’s other launch titles,’ and giving it 78%. NOM was a little more forgiving, saying that it ‘is a mix of rough and smooth, but overall it adds up to a great game,’ giving it 86% and therefore ranking it above Pilotwings 64. Controversial!
Elsewhere, N64 Magazine adhered to its pledge to cover every game available, both home and abroad, and smashed through a whole heap of import titles. The most important of which is easily the Japanese version of Mario Kart 64 – an ‘extremely entertaining game’ which bagged itself a respectable 91% with a caveat that it ‘isn’t … as ‘perfect’ as the original Super Mario Kart, with success depending too heavily on the random appearance of useful power-ups.’ I’m sure the series won’t make that mistake again moving forward though…
There were respectable scores for J-League Perfect Striker (soon to be released in the west as International Superstar Soccer – one of my favourite games of all time), which bagged 89%, eclipsing fellow sports titles NBA Hangtime and Wayne Gretzky’s 3D Hockey, both of which were robbed with scores of 52% and 70% respectively – the latter especially so.
Finally, there were two entries into the hall of crap games (my name, not theirs). First up was Mortal Kombat Trilogy -‘vastly over-rated as a game and an extremely poor use of the N64’s powers’ and receiving of a pathetic 34%. This was equaled by Cruis’n USA as N64 Mag sarcastically points out that ‘the computer-controlled cars … behave entirely believably – you’ll often round a bend to discover that a large group of them have driven head-on into a fire engine,’ and claims that ‘the only reason Cruis’n has any challenge is because the controls are so crap.’ Let’s be honest, reviews of terrible games are just as fun to read as the ones of the classics, if not more so.
With that, April 1997 has been sufficiently revisited, and my hunger for an N64 at the time was building towards uncontrollable. I’d have very little choice as an 11-year-old but to wait until Christmas for my parents to finally concede defeat and buy me the console, so I had to make do with reading these magazines religiously in anticipation. You don’t have that burden, you can go play your N64 right now. So maybe let’s all go see if Turok: Dinosaur Hunter really is a game that is 95% good, and I’ll see you in May 1997.