Nintendo 64DD - A Brief History - Japan-based Nintendo Podcasts, Videos & Reviews!


Friday, June 8, 2018

Nintendo 64DD - A Brief History

by Danny Bivens

The Nintendo 64 Disk Drive has a long and troubled history. For those not in the know, the 64DD was an add-on for the Nintendo 64 that was created to expand the storage capacity for the system’s cart based games. Not only that, but the DD would also bring other features to Nintendo’s 64 bit system such as web browsing, content exchange (in the Mario Artist titles) and other online capabilities. Released in 1999 after numerous delays, the ill fated add-on’s late release during the Nintendo 64 life cycle sealed its fate and the 64DD arrived dead in the water. The story behind the system and its development is definitely full of plenty of highs and lows…but realistically here, lots of lows. At any rate, let’s take a look at the fascinating yet troubled history and demise of the 64DD.

The Nintendo 64DD was announced at Nintendo’s Shoshinkai (later SpaceWorld) in 1995, but wasn’t revealed to the public in earnest until 1996. The DD would connect to the Nintendo 64 via the “EXT” connector located at the bottom of the system. The 64DD made use of proprietary 3.5 inch disks that were roughly twice as thick as a standard 3.5 inch floppy. They held up to 64 MB of data, significantly more than the capacity of Nintendo 64 cartridges (8-12 MB) at the time. In order to use the system, users had to insert the included 4 MB Expansion Pak which would enhance the RAM of the base N64 unit. The 64DD also featured a real-time clock, online capabilities (more on that later) and a built-in 36 mb chip that contained integrated font and sound files. This chip would give game creators more leeway in development as they didn’t have to worry about putting all of their audio into the carts. This would in turn free up more space for other game content.
While the 64DD couldn’t read disks as fast as the Nintendo 64 could read cartridges, they could read roughly two to three times faster than the CD-ROM drives on the Sega Saturn and Sony Playstation. For the record, the N64 cartridges had near instantaneous data transfer rates of 5 MB to 50 MB per second. The 64DD disks could transfer up to 1 MB per second and Playstation and Saturn disks could do up to 300 kB per second.

Differing from CD technology of the time, the 64DD was a “burst access” machine. Unlike the CD-ROM format which was capable of streaming data to consoles or computers, the 64DD sent the data to the Nintendo 64 in high speed bursts. This was problematic for developers hoping to make use of Full Motion Videos (FMV) or streaming audio in games, however, it wasn’t completely prohibitive. Though compressed, developers were able to squeeze FMVs into Nintendo 64 carts before the end of its lifecycle.
The 64DD disks gave Nintendo 64 developers access to not only more readable data, but also more writable data. 38 MB of the 64 MB on the disk could be used for writable data. This could be used for games with extensive save data (sports game data), in game creations (like race tracks), pictures and so much more. Developers were free to configure the disk data in any way that they pleased within those requirements. Manufacturing cost and time were also less for 64DD disks. N64 carts cost as high as $30 or more to produce per cart, however the 64DD disks cost significantly less but still not as low as CD production costs (which could be as low as $1 per disk).

There were three different ways to develop games for the 64DD. First, developers could opt to make a game run exclusively off of the Disk Drive. Some appeals to this pattern would be to cut costs for production of games and to simply give the developers more space for their titles. Second, it was possible to create a game for the standard Nintendo 64 console and then release an add-on disk with additional content. This had great potential for titles like sports games where developers could release a base cartridge and then release disks in subsequent years with updated rosters and graphics at a cheaper cost for manufacturing and (possibly) to the end user. Multiple titles were in development using this method including an expansion to The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time called Ura Zelda (released later on GameCube as The Legend of Zelda: Master Quest in the West) and the F-Zero X Expansion Kit (which did see a release). The third, more sparsely used option, was to develop a game that makes use of both the 64DD and the Game Boy via the Transfer Pak. The disk only and add-on options were used in the small number of released games, however only two titles were released for the DD that utilized Game Boy connectivity (both in the Mario Artist series) although there were a few in development.
Before release, the Nintendo 64DD promised numerous facets of online connectivity. Teaming up with media company Recruit Holdings, the idea behind Randnet (the online service for the 64DD) was born. Some of the features that were brought to the system were the abilities to do the following: surf the internet, create custom avatars, use online message boards, exchange messages between game programmers and producers, play online against other players in Japan, observe other people playing games, participate in beta tests, access a digital magazine for various kinds of news, access and listen to music online, online shopping and a whole lot more. Ultimately, not all of these features were included in the final version of the Randnet service.

Before the launch of Randnet and the 64DD, a registration period was held between November 11, 1999 and January 11, 2000. Up to 100,000 people could register to utilize the service. Finally, after numerous delays, the 64DD released in Japan on December 1, 1999. Upon release, the system was available to purchase through a subscription service with two different configurations. Interested gamers had a few different ways that they could pick up one for themselves. For ¥2,500 a month, players would receive the 64DD unit. Another configuration, set at ¥3,300 per month, would offer the 64DD as well as a special black translucent Nintendo 64. Both offered access to the Randnet service and what was called the 64DD Starter Kit. The Starter Kit included the 64DD unit, a modem, a modular cable, the 4 MB Expansion Pak and games that would be delivered every few months. Nintendo also allowed for the purchase of a 12 month flat-rate plan at local retailers across the country. ¥30,000 would get you 64DD Starter Kit, Randnet service and games while ¥39,600 would get you all of this plus the translucent black N64. After the initial year was finished, the Randnet service would be available for ¥1,500 a month.
There were a total of ten disks released for the 64DD. Here are all the titles that were released for the system chronologically from December 1999 to August 2000:

Mario Artist: Paint Studio (December 1, 1999)
Doshin the Giant 1 (December 1, 1999)
Randnet Disk (February 23, 2000)
Mario Artist Talent Studio (February 23, 2000)
Sim City 64 (February 23, 2000)
F-Zero X Expansion Kit (April 21, 2000)
Japan Pro Golf Tour 64 (May 2, 2000)
Doshin the Giant: Tinkling Toddler Liberation Front! Assemble (May 17, 2000)
Mario Artist: Communication Kit (June 29, 2000)
Mario Artist: Polygon Studio (August 29, 2000)

Initially, Nintendo planned to send Randnet subscribers 64DD disks bi-monthly. While they more or less held to this, some games saw slight delays and others were made available at retail.

A wide variety of games from numerous game makers were in development for the 64DD. Unfortunately for the add-on, as time passed, the need of the device grew less and less. Several big name tiles were originally in development for the 64DD including the likes of Mother 3 (aka Earthbound 64), Seaman, Dragon Quest VII, Fire Emblem 64, Resident Evil 0, Mario 64 2 and so many more. The planned titles were either released on cartridge, moved to other platforms, or canceled entirely.

Several factors led the untimely demise of the 64DD and Randnet service. The numerous delays definitely played a part in this. The further away gamers got from the Nintendo 64 release in 1996, it was also getting more difficult to explain to consumers and publishers alike what benefits the 64DD brought to the table when compared to CD based formats. In an interview with Shigesato Itoi two years before the 64DD launched, Miyamoto went on to say, “It would have been easier to understand if the DD was already included when the N64 first came out. It’s getting harder to explain that after the fact. (laughs)”
As storage sizes for N64 cartridges increased in the latter part of the N64 lifecycle, the 64DD was less relevant than when it was originally conceived. To compound matters, by the time the 64DD was available to the public, next generation systems like the Dreamcast, Playstation 2, Xbox and the GameCube were out or just around the corner. With sluggish sales and general disinterest in the product, the announcement came in November 2000 that the Randnet service would be discontinued as of February 28, 2001.

When it was all said and done, the Nintendo 64DD certainly didn’t light the world on fire. It won’t be remembered by gamers for its great line-up of games and it certainly won’t be remembered for being able to deliver on all that it set out to do. However, some of the concepts behind the system and the games that were being developed for it still live on to this day. Online gaming and online services, a few things that Nintendo really wanted to try with the 64DD, are both mainstays of modern gaming to this day. Even game concepts that would go on to make Animal Crossing started out based on the idea of the game releasing on the 64DD. Nintendo certainly took some risks with their add-on that didn’t pay off in the short term, however, the 64DD does deserve at least a tiny mention in the annals of gaming.

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