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PERSONAL TECHNOLOGY

New Nintendo 64 Is a Technical Wonder

Leisure: The cartridge-based game machine boasts blistering speed and super-sharp graphics.

September 30, 1996|AARON CURTISS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Corporate bravado aside, the folks at Sega and Sony should be afraid--very afraid--of Nintendo's new 64-bit video game machine, which hit store shelves Sunday after months of rumor-filled delays.

At $200, the cartridge-based Nintendo 64 delivers blistering speed and tack-sharp graphics that are unheard of on personal computers and make competing 32-bit, disc-based consoles from Sega and Sony seem downright sluggish.

Still, until its library grows beyond the current two games, it will be tough to tell whether Nintendo's new console--developed in conjunction with Silicon Graphics--is strong enough to win a vicious fight for the fickle hearts, minds and wallets of a shrinking video game market.

Overall video game industry sales dropped from a high of $5 billion in 1993 to about $3.3 billion last year, and the number of people playing console-based games dropped from 93 million to 45 million over the last three years as many enthusiasts moved to multimedia PCs.

This year alone, Atari and 3DO dropped out of the game console race, and some analysts predict the field will narrow even further, from the current three to just two. So for Nintendo, the importance of the Nintendo 64 can hardly be overstated.

While its 16-bit Super Nintendo Entertainment System and its portable Game Boy continue to sell well, both are primitive compared with newer machines from Sega and Sony. Nintendo has re-released fancy versions of Game Boy in recent years, but its only new product--the headache-inducing Virtual Boy3-D system--was a flop.

In Japan, Nintendo 64 has sold more than a million units since it was introduced there July 1. Nintendo executives estimate similar demand in the United States but say they will be able to ship only about 600,000 units by Christmas.

Technically, the machine is a wonder. Its 64-bit, RISC-based processor runs at 93.75 megahertz--just under three times faster than Sony PlayStation's 32-bit processor. (Bits describe the number of pieces of data a processor can handle simultaneously, so a 64-bit processor can handle twice as much in the same time as a 32-bit processor.) In addition, the N64 sports a separate processor that handles nothing but graphics and sound.

Speed is further enhanced by the fact that Nintendo 64 uses traditional cartridges rather than CD-ROMs, which take longer to transfer data. Sticking with the limited storage capacity and high price of cartridges while other game makers flocked to CD-ROMs was a big gamble for Nintendo: The biggest game in the first set of N64 titles--the "Star Wars"-based Shadows of the Empire--uses only 12 megabytes of data, while a CD-ROM can hold about 660 megabytes.

But Nintendo's strategy is to appeal to game players who want the kind of continuous, fast-paced action CD-ROMs simply cannot deliver. Software engineering manager Jim Merrick said programmers facing the space constraints of a cartridge are more likely to design games that place a premium on substance over flash.

Indeed, anyone who has ever played games on disc-based systems quickly notices how much of the CD is devoted to poorly acted live-action sequences or half-baked musical overtures. Both of the N64's introductory titles--Super Mario 64 and Pilotwings 64--are remarkable in their elegant and efficient use of space.

For more memory-intensive titles--role playing games, for instance--Nintendo plans to release a peripheral next year that will include a magnetic disk drive similar to zip drives for PCs.

The basic N64 system is small--about the size of a hard-bound dictionary--and light, just 2.4 pounds. As with its 16-bit predecessor, the Nintendo 64 is built for heavy play by kids. Unlike the relatively fragile Sega Saturn, the N64 has almost no parts that can be broken off or jammed by little fingers.

In terms of play, the machine is, quite simply, the fastest, most graceful game machine on the market. Load times are nonexistent. The processors spit out graphics and motion effortlessly.

While a few 32-bit games--such as Crash Bandicoot on PlayStation and Nights on Saturn--are now approaching the look and feel of Nintendo's two launch titles, they are third- and fourth-generation games. Neither platform boasted this kind of play in its first year. And if Nintendo's game developers match the historical learning curve of other systems, next year's titles will make the technical grace of this initial lineup look clunky by comparison.

Clearly, the biggest problem with the Nintendo 64 is the dearth of games. There will be only two until November, and Nintendo expects to have just 12 titles ready by Christmas.

Among the problems: Because of Nintendo 64's technical demands, developers won't be able to swap games across platforms as easily as they do now. In Nintendo's favor, though, is the company's penchant for perfection. While other platforms offer quite a bit of junk, Nintendo routinely orders game developers back to the boards to fix less-than-perfect titles.

That desire for quality shines in Nintendo 64, which was delayed to make sure it was just right. It was worth the wait.

Aaron Curtiss can be reached via e-mail at aaron.curtiss@latimes.com

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