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N64 collection goes live on Nintendo Switch, and it’s-a me, disappointment

Enlarge / We wish we had better news to report about Nintendo’s first easy-to-access N64 collection in a long time. Alas.

On Monday, Nintendo released its latest collection of emulated N64 games—and its first since the Wii U’s Virtual Console—as a package of games exclusively available on its Switch consoles. Unfortunately, the result isn’t exactly the Super Mario 64-styled “wa-hoo!” we’d been hoping for.

After years of “N64 mini” rumors (which have yet to come to fruition), Nintendo announced plans to honor its first fully 3D gaming system late last month in the form of the Nintendo Switch Online Expansion Pack. Pay a bit extra, the company said, and you’d get a select library of N64 classics, emulated by the company that made them, on Switch consoles as part of an active NSO subscription.

One month later, however, Nintendo’s sales proposition grew more sour. That “bit extra” ballooned to $30 more per year, on top of the existing $20/year fee—a 150 percent jump in annual price. Never mind that the price also included an Animal Crossing expansion pack (which retro gaming fans may not want) and Sega Genesis games (which have been mostly released ad nauseam on every gaming system of the past decade). For many interested fans, that price jump was about the N64 collection.

And as its Monday launch neared, Nintendo remained mum on exactly how this NSO N64 collection would work. A brief sizzle reel highlighted the collection’s biggest games, including Super Mario 64, Zelda: Ocarina of Time, and Star Fox 64. But what about performance, options, and controls? Without a “one month” subscription option to the NSO Expansion Pack, interested fans had no low-cost way to find out. Pay $50 upfront for a full year, Nintendo told fans, or don’t play at all.

Options? More like option, singular

When I found the NSO Expansion Pack gateway on Monday, I also found two purchasing options. One was a full-year purchase for $49.99, minus a prorated discount for non-Expansion NSO subscription time I’d already paid for. The other option was to apply a prepaid eShop gift code. However, that’s when I learned that a 12-month code for the NSO Expansion Pack did not stack properly on top of my existing, non-Expansion subscription. Thus, be warned: if you apply an NSO Expansion Pack gift card to an existing non-Expansion sub, you’ll lose whatever cheaper months you already paid for.

Upon booting into the updated subscription tier, I could now download individual collections for both the N64 and Sega Genesis, much like how the original NSO offers packs for NES and SNES games. The Genesis collection resembles the SNES one: offline mode, online mode, and an options screen that allows players to pick from “4:3,” “pixel-perfect,” and “CRT filter” visual modes. (Quickly: this collection, like many other Genesis-emulation projects, has a few kinks in its sound reproduction. This is a damned shame but not a surprise. Otherwise, the collection’s games appear to play pretty accurately.)

Enlarge / NSO settings for the N64 collection. As in, barely any at all.

The N64 collection interface looks similar, with a default menu made up entirely of original retail boxes. (Toggle “EU versions,” and you’ll see almost twice as many retail boxes in the interface. More importantly, you can choose between certain games’ NTSC and PAL versions.) Go into the options menus, however, and you’ll find a massive difference: no visual toggles. Instead, every game appears to run at 720p resolution whether in handheld or docked mode. Since many N64 games ran with empty space at the top and bottom of expected CRT screens, you’re left with that empty space.

Enlarge / N64 games always had trouble rendering sprites, thanks to the hardware’s default blur effects. The NSO N64 emulator removes some of the default blur, but not necessarily for the better.

Once you’re inside of any N64 game, you’ll see that the telltale N64 blur of old has been punted in favor of up-rezzed polygons and chunky, original-resolution sprites. As an option among other choices, that de-blurred emulation path would certainly be welcome, but as NSO Expansion Pack’s only N64 visual option, the results feel inelegant. These games’ chunky, mildly blurred 240p sprites look abysmal when slammed against higher-res, aliased polygons; Dr. Mario 64 is the collection’s exception, since it runs almost entirely on 2D images and sprites. Consequently, it looks like an era-appropriate mess of blurry sprites, even though a faked CRT filter would be welcome for this game as a result.

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The irony of requesting more N64 blur

Without native N64 gear in my testing suite, I started my tests by loading the emulated version of Super Mario 64 from 2020’s Super Mario 3D All-Stars package. Then I compared its visuals and performance to Super Mario 64‘s new version on the NSO Expansion Pack. The below image comparison shows two major differences:

First off, the NSO version includes native sprites with an incredibly mild blur—so mild, in fact, that they still look like 240p elements on top of a 720p frame buffer. 3D All-Stars reworked those sprites from scratch to better fit the updated presentation.

But more crucially, look at the background of each shot. The 3D All-Stars version better resembles the N64 original, since it includes a substantial grading and blur of background elements. The NSO version doesn’t render any blur at all.

This issue rears its head much more often in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, which avid speedrunner ZFG1 detailed at length in a seven-hour stream shortly after the NSO Expansion Pack went live. The pack’s issues with inaccurate blur become immediately evident in that classic game’s opening zone of Kakariko Village. In that zone, the looming Deku Tree normally hides in a massive field of fog above hero Link’s head. In the current NSO version, on the other hand, the blur is absent, revealing an unseemly low-resolution sprite. Worse, Nintendo originally used selective fog placement as a way to guide players’ attention towards points of interest in the village, yet these fogs have now been erased.

Anyone who’s looked into the NSO Expansion Pack’s launch has almost certainly seen ZFG1’s most glaring discovery, as well: the game’s Water Temple battle against a “shadow” version of Link, which takes place in a foggy, open-air zone surrounded by reflective water. (If the above embed doesn’t display, click here for the same telling social media post shared by ZFG1.) On Switch, this room pares back the fog effect almost entirely. Worse, it fails to properly cast reflections on the water’s surface, which changes the aesthetic tone of the subsequent, harrowing battle.

Input on apparent input lag

In his video, ZFG1 also comments on the NSO version’s noticeable input lag. Some players may fairly shrug this off, as his perspective is colored to some extent by regularly speedrunning the game on original, lower-latency hardware. Software emulation generally introduces both input and audio lag—albeit usually in ways that are hardly perceptible. (If you’d like to see for yourself, another Zelda speedrunner posted an informative lag-comparison video. It pits original hardware against a Switch connected to a high-speed monitor. I’ve embedded the slow-motion video above.)

And ZFG1 freely admits that this version runs better than its Virtual Console release on Wii U. I can confirm the same good news, mostly because the Wii U’s N64 emulation was notoriously awful across the board. This wasn’t just due to noticeable input lag but also the emulation’s wildly dark and inaccurate color reproduction.

Still, Ocarina of Time received far superior emulation releases from Nintendo on both GameCube and the original Wii (along with its 3DS remaster, which is a rebuilt game, not emulation). The original game was brilliantly designed around its hardware limitations, and that means its fog effects were used to either communicate to players, guide them, or build atmosphere. Compare that to a dev using fog to mask the system’s limitations (which the N64 had plenty of, particularly in high-speed N64 games like the Extreme-G series). The same complaint applies to the reduced fog subtlety in Star Fox 64‘s newer emulation, along with the newer version’s unrealistic water reflections.

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In better news, emulation-based lag appears to vary on a game-by-game basis, and that means response times generally feel nimble enough on the rest of the collection. That’s great news for Mario Kart 64 and Star Fox 64, which can each feel smoother than their N64 originals at their best. But even when lag doesn’t strike, the collection’s issues with analog-stick control might make N64 novices wonder why people loved these games in the first place.

Just like on 3D All-Stars, the NSO version of Mario 64 includes an all-too-jumpy scaling from 0 to 100 percent on its analog stick. Ocarina of Time has similarly jumpy analog performance, which can make it hard to do simple things like direct Link to pick up a particular object or pot inside a village interior. Worse, this touchiness makes weapon aiming in the Metal Gear Solid-like WinBack an absolute chore, and it turns the kid-friendly platforming of Yoshi’s Story into an unwieldy mess, since average joystick taps will send Yoshi into a full-speed burst into either 2D direction. All of those complaints are compounded by the smaller joysticks found in Joy-Con gamepads.

If you want to see the C-buttons…

Speaking of controls: hoo boy.

The N64’s unwieldy gamepad has always presented trouble for emulation and porting projects, thanks to its array of C buttons. Since these rest next to the controller’s primary A and B action buttons, their functionality can vary. In some 3D-specific games, they work like a modern, secondary joystick, dedicated largely to camera controls. In more action-oriented games, these melt into other buttons to create a Genesis- or Saturn-like six-button array.

On the NSO Expansion Pack, eight of the games in the initial nine-game selection bolt the C buttons onto the right joystick. Tap any direction, and it will correspond to pressing its identical C button (C-up, C-down, etc.). This is ideal for a game like Super Mario 64, which relegated C-button taps to camera controls—the kinds that you’re not frantically pressing in the middle of active maneuvers, since the game’s default camera automatically tracks and rotates. And in games like Mario Kart 64, the C buttons are nonessential, since its triggers handle hopping/drifting and firing weapons.

But in Ocarina of Time and Star Fox 64, constant C-button access is imperative for proper control in ways that don’t suit removing your fingers from the primary A and B action buttons. Yet instead of making those crucial C buttons available at all times, Nintendo bolts only two of them on the ABXY array. Players are then required to use an awkward shortcut system to access those buttons: hold the “ZR” button, which temporarily “shifts” the ABXY array to become the four C-button directions.

On Switch, you can’t expect to rely on the same N64 muscle memory.

Worse, if you look at an N64 controller, you’ll notice the A and B buttons are arranged differently. Place your thumb on the A button, and the B button hovers above and to the left, with C-left and C-down available with a mild roll of the thumb to the right. But notice how the C buttons and B and A are assigned spatially on average Switch gamepads. Thanks to this, the default button orientation is a 90-degree counterclockwise rotation of the controller’s original layout.

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You can’t lay a thumb on the A button and expect to rely on the same muscle memory for where the B button is. And neither this nor any other button mapping as chosen by Nintendo can currently be remapped. As a result, the default button language of rolling the thumb for certain active midgame maneuvers—like Star Fox 64 speed bursts or Ocarina of Time item use—is broken for anyone who grew up with these games. Nintendo has deprived fans of any method to remap additional buttons as they see fit. Weirdly, the expansion pack always dedicates a button to both the N64’s L button and Z button, even though holding an N64 controller in a way that makes L and Z accessible at the same times is all but impossible.

Plus, ugh, Nintendo puts the Z button on the modern “ZL” button. This creates an asymmetrical shoulder-button situation when using the shoulders to, say, finely steer a spacecraft in Star Fox 64: left index finger on the trigger, right index finger on the bumper. (Again, remember, ZR is a “shift” button for Nintendo’s default C-button solution. Press that at the wrong time, and your crucial bomb attack becomes an unintentional speed burst.)

Until Nintendo tells us otherwise, the most elegant solution to this issue is to buy a new, Nintendo-branded, and Switch-compatible N64 gamepad for $50. (Whenever it’s back in stock, at least.)

Visual stutter, online woes, and “controller pak” limits

If you look at all of the above notes and hope that a more powerful console like the Switch can at least nimbly upgrade these older games’ processing power, you’re unfortunately in for more uneven results. The problem arises primarily with what appears to be improper frame pacing or timing depending on the game. Games like Star Fox 64 avoid frame rate dips that used to plague the less powerful N64, only to hitch and stutter in completely different gameplay situations. These hitches are rare but noticeable. Additionally, Yoshi’s Story now includes frame rate hitches that were not found in either its original N64 incarnation or its Wii emulation.

Enlarge / When you start an online instance, this is what happens when anyone on your friends list joins a single-player game in progress. You can then jump through various menus as “player one,” including higher-level NSO menus, to change modes and games while keeping the party intact.

The collection also includes online versus options by default. That means you can create an instance, invite anyone on your friend list, and have them natively join as “player two,” “player three,” and so on. Our anecdotal tests among Ars staffers with Switch consoles plugged into hardwired Ethernet were satisfactory enough: some noticeable frame drops and hitches in Mario Kart 64, smoother performance in Star Fox 64, and seemingly perfect performance in Dr. Mario 64.

But these were two-player matches via wired connections. We’ve seen much worse test results shared via social media, in which frame rates tanked, sound glitched, and button commands were lost. If you can’t connect to Ethernet-connected friends, we imagine you can expect similarly low-grade performance, based on whatever client-server relationship Nintendo is establishing with its current N64 online infrastructure.

Enlarge / Most NSO games include built-in save functionality. But certain features don’t work without recognizing the optional, detachable “controller pak.”

Like on NSO’s other game collections, N64 games include “save state” options, which make it easier to freeze and restart the likes of Star Fox 64. However, Nintendo’s emulation system does not support the original hardware’s memory card, dubbed the “controller pak.” That means players can neither save Mario Kart 64 time-trial ghost data nor save their default WinBack campaign progress. This is arguably due to the fact that original hardware couldn’t support both the controller pak and “rumble pak” at the same time. But even if you disable “rumble” in system menus, the ability to save in these games still doesn’t appear. Thus, we assume the same will apply to future N64 NSO games, as well.

Verdict: This needs serious Nintendo attention

With any other game publisher, we might list these bugs and woes and give the company in question the benefit of the doubt. But this is “release it and forget it” Nintendo we’re talking about here, and that makes us highly skeptical that the laundry list of issues we’ve presented here will receive substantial attention, let alone any at all. A company spokesperson did not immediately respond to Ars Technica’s questions about possible updates or bug fixes for the N64 collection. We’ll keep an eye on the situation and add any encouraging news if we receive it.

Until then, it’s a shame to look at Nintendo’s first official N64 emulation option for Switch, then glance at people who own the console’s “1.0” version (which can be exploited with a simple jailbreak), and see how much better RetroArch’s community-driven options work on the same hardware. When using RetroArch’s Mupen64Plus core, you can expect more accurate “three-sample” bilinear filtering, more accurate fog and blur effects, more customizable control options, and fewer latency issues with both controls and sound.

RetroArch is not a perfect emulation solution, to be clear. N64 emulation remains a tricky realm, and even the most powerful PCs can’t simply brute-force their way into more accurate N64 emulation, let alone the comparatively strained Tegra X1 chip on Switch. But if anyone might flex their savvy in understanding and translating original N64 hardware calls, we would have imagined Nintendo would be the company to do so—especially for an emulator that only has to translate nine games at the moment. Sadly, that’s not currently the case. Until Nintendo proves otherwise, we advise interested N64 fans to look elsewhere for quality access to their favorite 3D classics.