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Nintendo throws rare bone to modern EU gamers via N64 60 Hz toggle

Enlarge / We’re well past the days of CRT TVs by default, and Nintendo Europe’s latest welcome update acknowledges this.
Aurich Lawson | Getty Images

On Monday, Nintendo of Europe announced a very region-specific—and era-specific—tweak for its upcoming collection of N64 games on Switch: an option to switch between the video standards PAL and NTSC. While the announcement may sound ho-hum to outsiders, anyone in Europe with a vested interest in classic gaming will appreciate what the toggle affords.

The issue boils down to differences between NTSC and PAL, the leading video broadcast standards on CRT TVs during Nintendo’s ’80s and ’90s heyday. North American and Japanese TV sets were configured for NTSC, which has a refresh rate standard of 60 Hz, while PAL sets dominated Europe with a slightly higher pixel resolution and a lower refresh rate standard of 50 Hz.

Should you merely watch TV series or films on both NTSC and PAL sets, the difference between each is noticeable yet mild. But for much of the ’80s and ’90s, many TV video games, especially the ones made by the largely Japanese console industry, suffered in PAL because they were coded specifically for NTSC standards. In order to port them to PAL, developers generally didn’t go back and reconfigure all of the timings, especially in the case of early 3D games. Instead, their internal clock speeds were often slowed down 83.3 percent to match European TV refresh rates. This meant both slower gameplay than originally coded and slower playback of music and sound effects. (These also often shipped with NTSC’s pixel maximums in mind in such a way that they were squished to fit on PAL displays, as opposed to being optimized for them.)

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Mario aus papier gemacht

Nintendo Direct, September 2021, European edition. The timestamp you want for 50 Hz N64 games is 21:16.

Sure enough, last month’s announcement of N64 games on Nintendo Switch Online put fear into European classic-gamer hearts. That region’s reveal video included slightly slower timings of classic N64 games compared to videos posted by Nintendo of America and Nintendo of Japan, since they were emulating the original European retail releases. At that time, Nintendo of Europe did not immediately reply to social media questions about whether European Switch owners would get an option for 60 Hz N64 gameplay—especially in an LCD TV era, where such CRT-related restrictions no longer technically apply to most EU and UK TV owners.

Monday’s announcement confirms that European players will get a 60 Hz option by default for every N64 game in the Nintendo Switch Online “Expansion Pack” collection, along with the option to access a game’s original 50 Hz version if it launched with multi-language support. Reading between the lines, we believe this means that if a European N64 game only had English language support, its Switch Online version will be the North American NTSC ROM.

On a more global scale, however, we’re still waiting to see exactly how authentic Switch’s N64 emulation will be, especially on original hardware that rarely nailed its frame rate targets. Will we get faithful reproduction of ’90s frame rate chugs, or will Nintendo’s newest emulator smooth out those processing bumps? Last month’s video reveals don’t necessarily clarify either way. Previous N64 Virtual Console releases on Wii U included noticeable processing improvements, though that emulator was also cursed with infamously dark color reproduction.

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Enterprising ROM collectors have found simple ways to modify European releases of NES, Super NES, and Mega Drive games in order to convert their refresh rates from PAL to NTSC, but the same cannot be said for games on popular 3D consoles like N64, PlayStation, and Saturn. Thus, the fact that Nintendo won’t apply a special 60 Hz patch to, say, the German-language version of Paper Mario checks out.

Speaking of PlayStation: the 2018 PlayStation Classic miniature console shipped in all regions with a curious PAL issue, in that nine of its included games were sourced from their European CDs, not their North American ones. This was arguably done to increase built-in language support and make the device easier to ship in more Western regions, but that also left affected fans with the dubious option to jailbreak their PS Classic consoles and upload NTSC ROMs to the hardware, instead.

The Switch Online Expansion Pack still does not have a release date or price (beyond having a confirmed additional fee on top of the existing $20/year Switch Online fee), and Nintendo of Europe now describes its launch as coming in “late October.” Additionally, Nintendo has yet to show us exactly how its accompanying N64 controller will look, which will launch for $50 at some point. We’ve seen the front, but what about the back? Will it come with the three-pronged controller’s original expansion slot? Perhaps a built-in “rumble pak”? We’re still waiting to see.