Critics of the Nintendo 64 often say that the console has nothing really good to offer outside of a few triple-A first-part titles like Mario Kart 64, Super Mario 64, Goldeneye 007, and Pilotwings 64. While the system does indeed have its share of stinkers (Superman: The New Adventures, anyone?), there are a number of lesser known games well-worth playing, whether you’re an N64 noob or a longtime fan.
Two such quality titles—Blast Corps and Jet Force Gemini—are mentioned as hidden gems so often that they basically aren’t hidden anymore, so I’ve selected a dozen others, including several that are truly old-school, even for the late ’90s. If you haven’t before, do yourself a favor and check out these entertaining games.
Beetle Adventure Racing (1999)
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: Electronic Arts/Electronic Arts Canada, Paradigm Entertainment
If you like the arcade stylings of San Francisco Rush, check out Beetle Adventure Racing, where you, perched behind the wheel of one of several 1999-model Beetles, cruise at breakneck speeds on six cinematic, beautifully designed courses: Coventry Cove, Mount Mayhem, Inferno Isle (think Jurassic Park), Sunset Sands, Metro Madness, and Wicked Woods. You can stay on course (so to speak) or venture off the track to discover secrets and peril-filled shortcuts. One Player mode offers Single Race, Championship Circuit, and Time Attack action while Two Player features head-to-head racing against a friend. Up to four players can battle it out in Beetle Battle, a competition to find six ladybug icons in several arenas featuring such weapons as mines, rockets, and even magic. This is one of the better (not to mention better looking) racers of the era.
Developer: DMA Design
You are genetically enhanced marine Adam Drake, outfitted in Bio-Mechanical Armor and toting a 12mm semi-automatic pistol. Your helmet doubles as a communications device while your backpack stores what you need to survive the alien apocalypse, which has decimated Earth. In this expansive time-traveling adventure, which you view from a third-person perspective behind your character, you solve puzzles, enter buildings, converse with locals, gather items and weapons, commandeer more than 60 different vehicles (driving and flying), and battle more than 70 different types of aliens. The action takes place in five areas covering 1,000 virtual square miles. Body Harvest was originally planned to be an N64 launch title, but it was delayed. Luckily, it was well worth the wait as a prototype of sorts of the type of mission-based, non-linear gameplay found in Grand Theft Auto.
Gauntlet Legends (1999)
I’ll never forget walking into the Land of Oz arcade at the mall near my house in 1985 and seeing Atari’s Gauntlet, with four players gathered around the cabinet, battling baddies in tandem within a series of scrolling mazes. Gauntlet Legends captures the spirit of that classic multi-player action, but with 3D visuals and the ability for the playable characters—warrior, wizard, Valkyrie, and archer—to level-up and earn experience points for improving ratings in armor, health, speed, and strength. You and your friends will explore more than 30 labyrinthine levels spread over 7 kingdoms as you battle monsters (with standard weapons as well as three-way shots, super shots, and fire breath) and acquire such items as food, keys, magic, runes, and switches to open doors. The game was adapted from the 1998 coin-op semi-classic of the same name, but levels, puzzles, and item locations were changed.
Mischief Makers (1997)
A versatile platformer, Mischief Makers has you guiding robotic maid Marina Liteyears through 50-plus stages spread over 5 worlds while on a mission to rescue her boss, Professor Theo. She doesn’t simply run, jump, and duck; she can also slide, dash, climb, hover, roll, pick up and throw things, ride various vehicles (including a bike and a missile), and use such weapons as a machine gun, a boomerang, bombs, and missiles. Here most distinctive and unusual attribute is the ability to shake things for different reactions. For example, shaking the machine gun lets her fire low, middle, and high shots while shaking certain items and enemies releases gems for restoring health. Marina races, battles Gunstar Heroes-type bosses (it’s developed by Rare, after all), hitches a ride on an enemy-smashing block man, and on and on. There’s a lot going on here. Once you get used to the controls, you’ll have a blast.
Ready 2 Rumble Boxing (1999)
Developer: Midway Home Entertainment
Publisher: Midway Home Entertainment
Get ready to rumble with this punchy pugilist punchout on the Nintendo 64. If you want to jump right to the cartoonish action, select Arcade mode, which lets you fight as one of 17 boxers, ranging from a petite 21-year-old girl to a 358-pound sumo wrestler to a 500-year-old demon from another dimension. In Championship mode, you train using such equipment as a speed bag and weights and work your way up through the bronze, silver, and gold classes. To purchase gym equipment and compete in Title Fights, you must earn money by entering Prize Fights. Easily one of my two or three favorite boxing games, Ready 2 Rumble, which also released for the Dreamcast, PlayStation, and Game Boy Color, was popular when it came out and even spawned a couple of sequels. However, it’s unfairly faded into relative obscurity, which is why I’ve spotlighted it here.
Robotron 64 (1998)
Publisher: Crave Entertainment
Developer: Player 1
Based on the brilliant Robotron: 2084, which Williams released to the arcades in 1982, Robotron 64 features the same type of basic gameplay, but with a ¾ perspective instead of the traditional top-down. You guide a freely moving polygonal character (a “genetically enhanced scientist”) through a whopping 200 grid-levels, firing in all directions at dozens of evil robots while rescuing humans that run around aimlessly on the grid. Saving innocents isn’t required, but you get extra points (translating to extra lives) for doing so. Unlike the coin-op classic, there are power-ups, such as a flamethrower and simultaneous multi-directional fire. Also unlike the original, this game is easy, even on the “insane” difficulty (you’ll breeze through the first 50 levels in normal mode). The action gets repetitious, but it’s still a lot of fun. And it’s certainly an improvement over Robotron X, which was the PlayStation version.
Rocket: Robot on Wheels (1999)
Publisher: Ubi Soft
Developer: Sucker Punch Productions
If you’re tired of running around on two legs in 3D platformers, take the helm of the one-wheel title character—a maintenance robot at a high-tech theme park—in Rocket: Roboton Wheels. You will roll around, jump high in the air, swing from ledges and trees, solve puzzles, collect tickets and tokens (the latter of which lets you perform advance moves, such as freeze ray, slam, and double and triple jump), commandeer seven different vehicles (including a SpiderRider, a DuneDog, and a HoverSplat), repair broken machines, and brandish an upgradeable tractor beam used for throwing and smashing objects. You can even build your own roller coaster. The game’s physics engine, which gives the action a relatively realist feel as different objects have a different feel and weight, helps it stand out from the pack. Rocket is fun and creatively designed, but note that it does emphasize exploration over action
Shadow Man (1999)
Want a break from all the kid-friendly fodder on the N64? Check out Shadow Man, a third-person action/adventure game that casts you in the title role of a mysterious figure who can travel between the land of the dead and the land of the living. As the mortal Michael LeRoi, you’ll battle enemies with traditional weapons. As the Shadow Man, you’ll command voodoo powers and fire zombie-killing ghosts out of your gun. You can also survive long falls with impunity and swim underwater indefinitely. The game, which boasts tons of cutscenes and in-game speech, takes place in such locales as the Louisiana Swampland, a Texas Prison, and a New York Tenement. To advance, you must gain new abilities and gather an assortment of voodoo artifacts for use in solving various puzzles. Dark Souls, some of which are difficult to find, act as gateways to new areas. If you like horror combined with Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time-style adventuring, Shadow Man just might be your guy.
South Park: Chef's Luv Shack (1999)
Make no mistake, South Park: Chef's Luv Shack is not a great game. In fact, I’m not even sure it’s a good game. All I know is that I always have a lot of fun and a lot of laughs playing it. Based on the irreverent, often satirical South Park cartoon series, the game lets you and up to four players answer pop culture and general trivia questions from such whacky categories as “Hippie Crap,” “Mighty Hermathphrodite,” “My Fart Will Go On,” and “A Form of Herpes.” Humor is lowbrow to be sure, but if you’re in the right mood with a party atmosphere and good friends, it can be downright hilarious. There are mini-games as well, including clunky, lazily programmed (but somehow still entertaining) rip-offs of Asteroids, Super Sprint, Warlords, and Donkey Kong. Is this game truly a gem? I’m not sure—I just know I truly enjoy it.
Space Invaders (1999)
Space Invaders is one of the most famous and most influential video games in the history of the industry. So, how can it be a hidden gem? Because virtual no one thinks of Space Invaders, a simple, fixed 2D screen shooter, in conjunction with the Nintendo 64, a console known for its 3D games and first-party titles that are much larger in scope than the old coin-op classics. “Space Invaders 64”, as you might want to call it, adds to the simple “move right and left and fire upward” formula by incorporating such elements as bosses, motherships, cooperative play, planetary progression, and power-ups (diagonal blasts, swarm missiles, laser beams, and the like) into the action. The game is more about brute force shooting than the careful timing and aiming of the coin-op classic, but it’s still a lot of fun. If you want to play the original game, you can unlock it somewhere within this reimagined/upgraded version.
Virtual Chess 64 (1998)
Whether you’ve always wanted to learn chess or you consider yourself a master of the cerebral game, Virtual Chess 64 delivers a convincing representation for your home console. An interactive tutorial system helps noobs with the basics (as well as advanced tactics) while experts will receive ample challenge (12 difficulty levels are available) and can study the replays of three Grand Master chess matches. A 3D mode is offered, including a comical take on battle chess, but most gamers will likely prefer 2D mode, which lets you select from a variety of game piece and board designs. An edit mode lets you position pieces anywhere you like on the board for practicing various scenarios. You don’t typically see board games on a list of hidden gems, but who says Old School Gamer Magazine is typical? And besides, this is a quality game you rarely hear people talking about.
Publisher: Ocean Software
Developer: Zed Two Game Design Studio
In this offbeat and creatively designed puzzler, you rotate and drop randomly shaped objects that appear at top of the playfield and guide them into position on a piece of land that is suspended in the middle of the screen. The objective is to construct barriers/raised edges to prevent water from leaking out and into a drain meter. As the action progresses, rain begins falling, making your task more difficult. Earthquakes, ice blocks (which freeze the water), bombs (which create dangerous holes in the walls), fireballs (which vaporize the water), and other variables add to the fun. Once the meter is full, it’s game over. Wetrix began as a water flow tech demo for a game called Vampire Circus, but the developers enjoyed it so much that they turned it into a complete game. I think you’ll enjoy it, too.