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The Nintendo 64 is one of the company’s most popular home entertainment consoles. It retains a core following of dedicated players even in 2022, a full two decades after the industry produced the last new models in this series. Although it is an older console, the N64 shares some similarities with many of its more modern counterparts. It includes a gaming controller, can interface with certain modern televisions, and players can add accessories to the controller to enhance their options during gameplay.
Unlike many of the consoles of the current generation of video game systems, however, the Nintendo 64 uses cartridges instead of discs to store game data and progress. Cartridges have been a staple of many of Nintendo’s products since its early days in the video game industry. The company seems to have kept that trend going with each new product it has put into development.
This is true even when some of Nintendo’s competitors were already using optical discs as the primary means of delivering game data to their respective systems. We’ll explore why the company decided to keep using cartridges in its Nintendo 64 console.
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Although we cannot know every variable that went into Nintendo’s decision to stick with the cartridge when the company released the N64, we can look at the state of technology to discuss some of the major factors.
Although the use of optical discs for game data storage would become relatively popular around this time, Nintendo had already released other consoles that also used cartridges. It is possible that the company decided that gamers would appreciate sticking with something familiar to them, particularly when other companies were already moving away from this storage media in favor of discs.
Fans of Nintendo would have experience with their favorite games in cartridge format for the original Nintendo and Super NES systems that came before this one.
The technology in cartridges at the time meant they could load game data quickly. On balance, they could do so faster than their optical disc counterparts. This meant less wait time for gamers who wanted to start a title quickly, and there would have been less waiting for levels to load everything.
Part of this is that a video game’s code on a cartridge would behave similarly to random-access memory in a traditional computer. Because of this, the console could load and process display data quickly, just as needed on a computer.
Cartridges can save data right to themselves. Although you can write on a compact disc, video game consoles using them would also need their memory cards. These would be separate accessories that gamers would need to ensure were present if they wanted to save any game progress. The cartridge for the N64 would eliminate this step.
Cartridges can hold a lot of data, and it would have been harder for anyone to make working yet unofficial copies of Nintendo 64 game titles. Nintendo may have felt that sticking with cartridges was a good way to protect their investment in the console and keep game sales high.
With enough successful game and N64 console sales, the company would be able to keep researching and developing its next big release.
Although the first version of Sony’s PlayStation proved quite successful, other disc-based systems during this era of video games did not sell well enough for the industry to consider them commercial successes. The PlayStation was still relatively new when Nintendo chose to release its N64 console, and it would have been newer still during the N64’s development phase.
Executives at the company may have felt that one example of success was not enough to risk moving away from a game storage media option that they knew could already be successful.
No, there isn’t a way to test a Nintendo 64 console reliably without some cartridge. To better illustrate this point, we can contrast the unit with its more modern cousins. With contemporary consoles, you can turn on and power them up without any optical disc inside at the time.
The operating systems will boot up, and the devices will display splash screens with logos before going to their main menus to allow you to select options. Part of the reason for this is the multimedia nature of most gaming consoles today. You can use them for things besides playing games, so they operate as functional computers when there is no disc present for them to read.
Older consoles that use cartridges don’t have these capabilities. Developers designed these units only to play games, and they need something to read for you to get any definitive tests on their hardware.
The Nintendo 64 won’t even display the typical bright logo screen before each game unless you have a cartridge inside it when you boot it up. Without any game, you won’t have a way to see if the display or sound configurations have the proper settings.
No, not all Nintendo 64 cartridges have their own batteries. With cartridge-based technology, many developers would include special batteries inside the unit to save data and game progress as you went through various levels. The only N64 cartridges that would use batteries would be the ones that featured SRAM technology.
SRAM data is a type of volatile memory that loses what information it stores if there is any loss of power. To get around this problem, Nintendo installed batteries on any cartridges that used this form of memory.
Most of the games Nintendo released for the N64 do not require batteries directly on the cartridge to save data. If so, some gamers may wonder why the company did not simply use EEPROM as a standard for all of its games, particularly when it did this for most of them.
While we cannot know for sure, it is possible that Nintendo saw that, at the time, SRAM was the least expensive option that still had enough storage space to hold the necessary data for a few of its titles. Therefore, Nintendo used SRAM and batteries for the few games that needed this space. EEPROM had smaller storage space options by comparison, but it still worked for most games.
While it may be difficult to give exact parameters here, N64 cartridges tend to be quite durable. As a general rule, cartridges of this type are much more durable than their optical disc counterparts. Players need to store discs carefully to prevent any damage to them, and small scratches or imperfections could render a game on a disc unplayable.
N64 cartridges may not be indestructible, but durability is part of the reason the company decided to stick with this format. Everything necessary for storing and reading game data hides behind a plastic shell, making game cartridges highly resistant to physical damage.
This format is not without its faults, and N64 cartridges could be at risk of damage if one exposes them to the elements long enough. However, much of this corruption would come in the form of oxidation, which most gamers can clean off to restore the cartridge to good working order.
Static electricity would be a much bigger issue, making protection from such risks a concern for N64 owners. Further, the electrical contacts inside the game cartridge might wear away and lose their effectiveness over time.
The answer to this question may depend on which kinds of N64 titles we’re discussing. Some need batteries to keep track of save data or in-game events, but most do not. The batteries need very little power, and you can expect them to last several years.
It would not be out of the question for a cartridge with a new battery to last at least a decade or more, assuming there is no fault in it somewhere. Even if your battery does run out, the game should still function normally. You would need to replace the battery to restore the title’s ability to save your progress.
With cartridges that do not use batteries for any purpose, it would not be unreasonable to suppose that they could last for several decades. Many cartridges from gaming systems far older than the N64 still work, even if no one has stored them properly.
With examples like these, it may be possible that current N64 cartridge owners can pass down their games to other generations of players in the future. There is always some concern that the connectors themselves could erode. However, with proper care, these games should last a very long time.
Theoretically, Nintendo 64 cartridges may be able to get wet and still survive. However, it depends on what level of moisture got inside the cartridge. You can wipe it away without worrying if anything gets wet on the plastic shell. If water gets inside the part of the unit that deals with the game and its inner components, you may need to clean it more thoroughly.
In any case, it is essential to let the cartridge dry completely before you put it in a console. Any excess moisture that still remains could damage the game or its system. If the cartridge had exposure to a lot of water for a long time, corrosion may have appeared. If you find this to be the case, you may need to clean the corrosion off the contacts before the game works.
Although Nintendo switched to discs with its GameCube console, it was not ready to do so when it released its N64. At the time, cartridges were still a robust and cheap way to manufacture most games, and the company didn’t want to take additional risks by switching to optical discs. The durability, longevity, and resistance to damage make cartridge-based games as popular in some portable systems today as they were during the launch of the N64 console.