It was the great group-hang facilitator of the 1990s; if you had four controllers and Goldeneye, you had a party.
Here’s a bit of trivia guaranteed to make you feel very, very old: It has been 20 years to the day since the Nintendo 64 first went on sale in North America. On September 29, 1996, the system hit shelves with just two games in tow: Super Mario 64 and Pilotwings 64. (A third launch title—Strongest Habu Shogi, which centered on a chess-like board game called shogi that's popular in Japan—was somehow deemed a poor fit for a western release.)
Fortunately for early adopters of the Nintendo 64, both Mario 64 and Pilotwings turned out to be worthwhile time-sinks. And while both games are still pretty fun today, you can't really overstate how mind-blowing they seemed on the day they were released. Video game hardware jumps ahead with each new generation, but it's hard to imagine we'll ever see a leap as big as the one from the 2-D sprites of the Super Nintendo to the 3-D polygons of the Nintendo 64—particularly when the character at the center of it all was as universally beloved as Mario.
But as good as those launch titles were, neither actually ended up highlighting what ended up being the true strength of the Nintendo 64: Multiplayer. Arcade games had always contained an element of the social, from the simplicity of challenging a high score to the mechanical complexity of a player vs. player game or co-op-centric title. And there were plenty of home console games that attempted to replicate that experience (as anyone who played Battletoads, Mortal Kombat II, NBA Jam, or Zombies Ate My Neighbors can attest).
But no home console was so deliberately engineered to deliver well-crafted, compulsively replayable multiplayer experiences like the Nintendo 64—a quality that eventually came to distinguish it from the rest of its competition. When you look back on the Sony Playstation, the games that stand out—Metal Gear Solid, Final Fantasy VII, Resident Evil 2—were entirely single-player, designed to deliver an experience that was groundbreakingly immersive but essentially solitary.
The Nintendo 64, of course, had its own single-player masterpieces. (I'd submit Banjo-Kazooie, Star Wars: Rogue Squadron, and two of the all-time great Zelda games, Ocarina of Time and Majora's Mask). But the majority of the N64's truly memorable titles were best when you played them alongside a few friends. In short, the N64 was the first great social console—and 20 years later, it still hasn't quite been surpassed.
Who knows how many friendships were forged by bumping into somebody who happened to have an extra N64 controller—the kid down the street, or the dude down the dorm hall?
The N64's brilliant multiplayer came down to a few key factors. It was the first major console with four controller parts right out of the box, which opened up the opportunity for any ambitious developer to turn their video game into a party. The technology was new enough to both developers and players that game mechanics tended to be both simple and intuitive, which dropped the learning curve on many games to a pick-up-and-play level. And—maybe most importantly of all—technology hadn't yet reached the point when you could play online, so the only way to go head-to-head was by challenging the people sitting on the couch next to you. Who knows how many friendships were forged on the basis over bumping into somebody who happened to have an extra N64 controller—the kid down the street, or the dude down the dorm hall?
But for all the buzz over specs, a great console lives and dies by its games, and the N64 pushed most of its chips into multiplayer. The Mario spinoffs alone were enough to fuel hours of heated, trash-talk-filled matches. Mario Kart 64. Mario Golf. Mario Tennis. Literally any of the Mario Party games (but preferably 2 or 3, so you didn't rip open the skin on your palm playing that stupid tug-of-war minigame). The original Super Smash Bros. was so good that today—more than 15 years after its release—the biggest tweaks in the subsequent sequels have been as simple as adding more to it. And Goldeneye 007 belongs in a category by itself, supplementing a beefy single-player campaign with an endlessly customizable multiplayer mode that allowed friends to experiment with (and argue over) variants like one-hit kills and proximity mines and giant heads.
None of this is to say that the era of social gaming died with the Nintendo 64. There's nothing wrong with today's multiplayer games—like Destiny, Overwatch, or Rocket League, which have taken competitive and cooperative gaming into deep and compelling new directions. But today, two decades after the N64 first arrived on shelves, I'm craving a few rounds of Goldeneye deathmatch. If you have a spare controller lying around, come on over. No Oddjobs.