Nintendo 64 Game Pak

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Nintendo 64 Game Pak
Open and unopened N64 Game Pak
Media typeROM cartridge
Capacity32–512 Mbit
Read mechanism5–50 MB/s[1]: 48 
Developed byNintendo
UsageNintendo 64

Nintendo 64 Game Pak (part number NUS-006) is the brand name of the consumer ROM cartridge product that stores game data for the Nintendo 64, released in 1996. As with Nintendo's previous consoles, the Game Pak's design tradeoffs were intended to achieve maximal system speed and minimal base console cost—with lesser storage space and a higher unit cost per game. Integrating a CD-ROM drive, with its expensive and slow moving parts, would have drastically increased the console's price and reduced its performance.

As with the Famicom Disk System floppy drive of the 1980s, Nintendo's strategy with the Nintendo 64 had always been to develop a higher-capacity and cheaper medium to complement the Game Pak. This strategy resulted in the 64DD, a floppy drive which was launched two years late in 1999 and only in Japan, leaving it as a commercial failure and the Game Pak as the Nintendo 64's sole storage medium. From the console's first year from late 1996 through 1997, Game Pak sizes are 4 to 12 megabytes with a typical third party retail price of US$75.99 (equivalent to about $130 in 2021), then reaching 32 megabytes in 1998, and finally 64 megabytes from 1999 onward.

Some developers such as Factor 5, Rare, and Nintendo, were fanatically supportive of the high-speed solid-state medium because it is the most effective solution to the universal video game development problem of having preciously limited system RAM. A few developers had vastly heavier designs, especially the cinematic full-motion video of Square's Final Fantasy VII (1997)—but sufficient data compression techniques had not yet been invented and ROM chips were not yet capacious and affordable—so they reluctantly had to target CD-ROM based platforms instead. Many developers preferred the cheaper and more rapid prototyping software development time of cartridge, and others the quicker and cheaper final delivery of the retail CD-ROM disc product. Some development teams eventually achieved ingenious software tactics to avail of the slowly increasing Game Pak ROM sizes, such as the more than 90 minutes of real-time rendered cinematic scenes in the 32-megabyte The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998) or the two CDs worth of pre-rendered full motion video converted to the 64-megabyte Resident Evil 2 (1999), one of the most ambitious console ports of all time.

The Nintendo 64 is the last major home console to have cartridge as its primary storage format until the release of the Nintendo Switch in 2017. Portable systems such as the PlayStation Vita, Nintendo DS, and Nintendo 3DS also use cartridges.


Development cartridge internals


To complement the company's two previous high-speed cartridge-based console generations, Nintendo had already developed high-capacity secondary storage devices such as the Famicom Disk System and the canceled SNES-CD. The company had always intended to do likewise with this generation. In a 1994 interview, Nintendo summarized its analysis of the continued advantages of cartridges for its upcoming console, eventually known as the Nintendo 64.

Right now, cartridges offer faster access time and more speed of movement and characters than CDs. So, we'll introduce our new hardware with cartridges. But eventually these problems with CDs will be overcome. When that happens, you'll see Nintendo using CD as the software storage medium for our 64-bit system.

— Howard Lincoln, chairman of Nintendo of America, Billboard[2]

That sentiment was soon revised in the same year when Nintendo's vice president of marketing Peter Main stated that "The choice we made is not cartridge versus CD, it's silicon over optical. When it comes to speed, no other format approaches the silicon-based cartridge."[3]

The Great Hanshin earthquake of 1995, which destroyed a major RAM factory in Japan, increased the prices of RAM in the 1990s.[citation needed] Nintendo planned to continue to supplement the use of system RAM through innovations in high speed ROM cartridges.[4][failed verification] SGI suggested that Nintendo should utilize cartridges to keep the console's costs low and performance high.[citation needed]

At Shoshinkai of 1995, Nintendo announced its development of the complementary 64DD, a rewritable magnetic disk based peripheral with several times faster transfer rates and seek time than competing CD-ROM consoles.[5][6] In 1997, Nintendo game designer Shigesato Itoi explained, "CD holds a lot of data, DD holds a moderate amount of data and backs the data up, and [cartridge] ROMs hold the least data and process the fastest. By attaching a DD to the game console, we can drastically increase the number of possible genres. ... I think we'll make the game on a cartridge first, then ... finish it up as a full-out 64DD game."[7] Many Nintendo 64 games were developed in a way that depended upon or were expanded by that device. However, after the device's launch had been delayed several years until 1999 and restricted to Japan, it was discontinued early as a commercial failure.

In 1996, prior to the Nintendo 64's launch, President of Nintendo Hiroshi Yamauchi praised the user experience of the cartridge format:

Many of you feel that CD-ROM is the call of the day ... but look at the latest buzzword in the computer world — plug-and-play — which is nothing but [Nintendo] culture ... Customers [think] having no loading time is a great advantage. More importantly, by using [cartridge], other chips can later be incorporated into the cartridge, which allows Nintendo to offer new game opportunities to game developers.

— President of Nintendo Hiroshi Yamauchi, Billboard[8]

Until the launch of the Switch in 2017, the Nintendo 64 was the latest major home console to use the cartridge as its primary storage format, and most handheld systems except the PlayStation Portable use cartridges. Most home systems since the fifth generation use disc, flash, and online formats. The succeeding GameCube uses an optical disc format, in a boon to some developers.[9][10] The company stated its goal was to reduce manufacturing costs and did not cite storage space as a rationale. Because the new console lacks backwards compatibility with Nintendo 64 Game Paks, Nintendo said players could simply keep their Nintendo 64.[11]


Save files[edit]

Some Game Paks include internal EEPROM, flash memory, or battery-backed-up RAM for saved game storage. Otherwise, game saves are put onto a separate memory card, marketed by Nintendo as a Controller Pak.[12]

Copy protection[edit]

Each Nintendo 64 Game Pak contains a lockout chip (conceptually similar to the 10NES)[13] to prevent manufacturers from creating unauthorized copies of games and discourage production of unlicensed games. Unlike previous versions, the Nintendo 64 lockout chip contains a seed value which is used to calculate a checksum[citation needed] of the game's boot code. To discourage playing of copied games by piggybacking on a real Game Pak, Nintendo produced five different versions of the chip. During the boot process, and occasionally while the game is running, the console computes the checksum of the boot code and verifies it with the lockout chip in the Game Pak, failing to boot if the check fails.[14]

On June 2, 1997, a U.S. District Court issued a temporary restraining order against Games City for its Game Doctor and Doctor V64 products, which allow users to copy from a Game Pak to a CD or hard disk drive. Games City was ordered to stop importing, distributing, advertising, or selling any such devices.[15]


The Nintendo 64 Game Pak medium provides essential benefits alongside a number of drawbacks, in a deliberate tradeoff. Though it provides the fastest possible load times and greatest durability, its solid-state silicon costs more money and time to manufacture and has less storage space, compared to the competing CD-ROM format.[6]

For example, one Nintendo 64 exclusive launch game in the hit Top Gun series was announced in 1995[16] and then canceled five months prior to console launch, partially due to the additional lead time of ordering the more expensive and proprietary cartridge format, plus Nintendo's licensing fees. The game's developer, Spectrum Holobyte, said, "The question is, does Nintendo really think it needs licensees? It seems to want the lion's share of the software sales, possibly as much as two thirds."[17]

In 1997, journalist Alex S. Kasten observed that the issue "goes beyond the economics of the media [because] market strategy and style of game play also factor into the cartridge/CD decision [so] Nintendo has remained cartridge-based for two main reasons: economics and performance."[6]

Console cost[edit]

Nintendo knew that a CD-ROM drive would greatly increase the cost of the console in a price-sensitive market. Nintendo software engineering manager Jim Merrick said, "We're very sensitive to the cost of the console. We could get an eight-speed CD-ROM mechanism in the unit, but in the under-$200 console market, it would be hard to pull that off."[6]: 66 


We use the cartridge almost like normal RAM... So the cartridge technology really saved the day.

Factor 5[18]

Specified at 5 to 50 MiB/s,[1]: 48  Nintendo cited the ROM cartridges' very fast load times in comparison to disc-based games. Few contemporary CD-ROM drives have speeds above 4×, and the competing consoles Sega Saturn and Sony PlayStation have 2× drives running at about 300 kB/s with high latency. This can be observed on the loading screens that appear in many PlayStation games but are typically nonexistent in Nintendo 64 games. ROM cartridges are so much faster than contemporary CD-ROM drives that data can be streamed in real-time from cartridges as if they are additional RAM, thus maximizing the efficiency of the system's RAM.[5] This was a common practice for developers in many games, such as Nintendo EAD's Super Mario 64[19] or Factor 5's Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine.[18] Howard Lincoln said, "[Genyo Takeda, the Nintendo engineer working with Silicon Graphics to design Project Reality] and those guys felt very strongly that it was absolutely essential to have it on a cartridge in order to do the kind of things that we wanted to do with Super Mario."[20]: 512 

Sega countered by claiming that load times on CD-ROMs could eventually be minimized. Ted Hoff, vice president of sales and marketing at Sega, said "We are finding more and more ways to mask the load factor [...] We are working out ways to overlay or leapfrog the loading time."[6]


Game Paks are far more durable than compact discs, the latter of which must be carefully used and stored in protective cases. It also prevents accidental scratches and subsequent read errors. While Game Paks are more resistant than CDs to physical damage, they are sometimes less resistant to long-term environmental damage, particularly oxidation (although this can be simply cleaned off) or wear of their electrical contacts causing a blank or frozen screen, or static electricity.[4]

Manufacturing cost[edit]

Due to complex manufacturing processes, cartridge-based games are more expensive and difficult to manufacture than their optical counterparts.[21][better source needed] PlayStation CD-ROMs reportedly cost US$1 (equivalent to about $2 in 2021) to manufacture, while cartridges for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System cost $15 ($26)[22] and Nintendo 64 cartridges reportedly cost more than $30 ($52).[23]

Publishers had to pass these higher expenses to the consumer, so Nintendo 64 games tended toward higher prices than PlayStation games.[24] The maximum price of most PlayStation games was $50 (equivalent to about $86 in 2021), and some Nintendo 64 cartridges were $79.99 ($133),[21][better source needed] such as the first pressing of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.[25] Games in Sony's line of PlayStation Greatest Hits budget line retailed for $19.95 ($33), and Nintendo's equivalent Player's Choice line retailed for $29.95 ($50). In the United Kingdom, Nintendo 64 games were priced £54.95 at release, and PlayStation games were priced at £44.95. In August 1997, Kelly Flock, president of Sony Interactive Studios America (SISA) said "Most N64 carts are costing consumers $55 to $70, compared with $20 to $50 for a PlayStation CD."[26] In the United States, the typical price of a third-party game was around $75.99 ($128) in the system's first year on the market in 1997, though this dropped incrementally after Nintendo reduced wholesale prices on the cartridges.[27] George Harrison, Vice President of Nintendo of America, was enthused about the increasing third-party cartridge orders placed after that price drop.[28]

Manufacturing time[edit]

Game Paks took longer to manufacture than CDs, with each production run taking at least two weeks from order to delivery.[29] By contrast, extra copies of a CD based game could be ordered with a lead time of a few days. This meant that publishers of Nintendo 64 games had less flexibility to forecast demand. Publishers had to attempt to predict demand for a game ahead of its release. They risked being left with a surplus of expensive Game Paks for a failed game or a weeks-long shortage of product if they underestimated a game's popularity.[29][26]

Sony used this shortcoming to appeal to publishers. Andrew House, vice president of marketing at Sony Computer Entertainment America, said "They can manufacture the appropriate amount of software without taking a tremendous inventory risk associated with the cartridge business."[6] Sony's Kelly Flock added, "And the CD allows smaller manufacturing runs with very short lead times. ... The CD allows the publisher to take creative content risks—not inventory risk."[26]

Storage space[edit]

Throughout the fifth generation of video game consoles, even during development of Nintendo 64, Nintendo repeatedly revised its estimates of maximum cartridge size. In late 1995, the maximum deliverable cartridge size reportedly had been recently thought to be 64 megabits (8 megabytes), and was then currently revised to 96 megabits (12 megabytes) with a future theoretical maximum of 256 megabits (32 megabytes).[30]: 26  By 1998, the few largest vintage Game Paks ever officially made are 512 megabits (64 megabytes),[14] whereas CDs can hold more than 650 MiB.[31] Storage sizes range[14] from 4 MB (32 Mbit) such as Automobili Lamborghini (1997) and Dr. Mario 64 (2001),[32] to 32 MB (256 Mbit) such as The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998),[28] to 64 MB (512 Mbit) such as Resident Evil 2 (1998) and Conker's Bad Fur Day (2001). Games ported from other platforms may utilize more aggressive data compression (as with Resident Evil 2[32]) or altered content (as with Spider-Man and Mortal Kombat Mythologies: Sub-Zero) so that they may be released on the Nintendo 64. Exceptionally large games on CD-based systems can be made to span across multiple discs,[28] but most Nintendo 64 games are contained within one Game Pak, as the use of an additional Game Pak or of one maximally sized Game Pak was often considered prohibitively expensive, and the 64DD expansion with 64 MB floppy disks was released late and discontinued early.

Due to the Game Pak's space limitations, full-motion video is not usually feasible for use in cutscenes. A notable exception is Resident Evil 2, which contains the equivalent material of the two CD-ROM discs of the original PlayStation version, plus some expanded content, plus higher quality audio samples and unique surround sound technology,[32] making it what IGN called "the best version of the game"[33][34] and what Eurogamer called "one of the most ambitious [and impressive] console ports of all time".[35] Some games contain significant cinematic scenes with graphics generated by the system in real-time, as with The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.[36] Nintendo downplayed the importance of studio-prerendered videos, with software engineering manager Jim Merrick saying, "Full-motion video demos really well on a CD-ROM, but once you get into the software, as a gamer, you're thinking 'let's get on with the game.'"[6]

Nintendo also countered that developers did not generally use the full 650 MiB capacity of CD-ROMs,[6] stating that the smaller storage space encouraged developers to focus on gameplay rather than flashy visuals.[37] Many CD-ROM games are known to simply consist of cartridge sized games alongside a prerendered audio track, or just a copy of a game already released on cartridge. The relatively few games that have ever been released based on full motion video typically have very high production costs and timeframes.

Copy protection[edit]

CD-ROMs are known for relative ease of illicit copying on personal computers, whereas Game Paks are physically proprietary and more difficult to copy.[20][page needed][38]

I've seen speculation about how [the choice of cartridges] was some plot to control third-party publishers. That's completely nonsense. There is just not a grain of truth in that thing. No discussion like that ever occurred; that was never an issue. It was strictly technology and counterfeiting.

— Howard Lincoln[20]: 512 


Critical reception[edit]

John Ricciardi, writing for Electronic Gaming Monthly, called Nintendo's decision to stick with a cartridge format for the Nintendo 64 "stubborn". The author called it a major contributor to the company's competitive disadvantages, even more so than the failed partnership with Sony to create a CD format and console.[39] Brian Dipert, writing for EDN Magazine, said that the Nintendo 64 Game Paks are "bulky and expensive, eating into Nintendo's profit margins compared with competitors’ inexpensive CD and DVD plastic discs".[40]: 47  On a more positive side of the topic, Aaron Curtiss of The Los Angeles Times praised Nintendo's choice of the cartridge medium with its "nonexistent" load times and "continuous, fast-paced action CD-ROMs simply cannot deliver", concluding that "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 [Saturn] and Sony [PlayStation] seem downright sluggish". Describing the quality control incentives associated with cartridge-based development, Curtiss cited Nintendo's position that cartridge game developers tend to "place a premium on substance over flash", and noted that the launch games lack the "poorly acted live-action sequences or half-baked musical overtures" which he believed were usually found on CD-ROM games at the time.[37]

Industrial reception[edit]

As part of the controversial technological tradeoffs between storage and performance, which has been endemic to the entire computing industry, and which Nintendo had faced since the Famicom's cassette and floppy disk systems,[41] the selection of a cartridge format for the Nintendo 64 was essential to several developers' ability to deliver top quality games. However, the choice of cartridge format coupled with the commercial failure of the supplemental 64DD were also key factors in Nintendo losing its dominant position in the gaming market. Some of the Game Pak's advantages are actually nullified by its disadvantages.[42]

That generation's primary competitors, the Sony PlayStation and the Sega Saturn, rely completely upon 2× CD-ROM drives[5] for game storage.[24] These discs are much cheaper and faster to manufacture[20][page needed][21] and distribute, resulting in lower manufacturing costs to third-party game publishers. As a result, some game developers who had traditionally supported Nintendo game consoles prior to Nintendo 64 were now developing games for the competition.[24]

Some third-party developers switched to the PlayStation. This includes Square which had produced a Final Fantasy technology prototype using the same SGI-based development platform used by Nintendo,[43] and Enix which had initially pre-planned Dragon Warrior VII for the Nintendo 64 and its yet-unreleased 64DD disk drive peripheral at least by 1996,[44] but reluctantly migrated due to the developers' increasingly ambitious use of storage space with their fundamentally cinematic game format.[43] Shiny Entertainment had been planning to develop MDK for the Nintendo 64, but switched to PC when they found the cartridge space was insufficient for their plans for the game and Nintendo failed to produce the promised 64DD in a timely manner.[45] In November 1997, Nintendo of America VP George Harrison acknowledged that Square was a "significant" loss, impacting the Nintendo 64 library's dearth of role-playing games, especially in Japan.[28]

When we discussed designing the field scenes as illustrations or CG based, we came up with the idea to eliminate the connection between movies and the fields. Without using blackout at all, and maintaining quality at the same time, we would make the movie stop at one cut and make the characters move around on it. We tried to make it controllable even during the movies. As a result of using a lot of motion data + CG effects and in still images, it turned out to be a mega capacity game, and therefore we had to choose CD-ROM as our media. [In] other words, we became too aggressive, and got ourselves into trouble.

— Hironobu Sakaguchi, the creator of the Final Fantasy series[46]

Some developers who remained on Nintendo 64 released fewer games for the system. Konami was the biggest example of this, releasing 29 Nintendo 64 games but more than 50 on the PlayStation. Overall, new game releases were less frequent for the Nintendo 64 than those for the PlayStation.[42]

Aside from the difficulties with some third parties, the Nintendo 64 supports some of the most popular, genre-defining, and critically acclaimed games such as Super Mario 64, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, and GoldenEye 007, having given the system a long market lifespan. Much of this success was credited to Nintendo's strong first-party franchises,[47] such as Mario, which had strong name brand appeal, and by Nintendo's own second-party developers such as Rare.[42][44]

When interviewed by Computer & Video Games at Shoshinkai 1995, about how the theoretical use of CD instead of cartridge could have impacted its past game development, Rare said that "Blastdozer would require more time and much more RAM", and that "Goldeneye would require twice the RAM".[30]: 26  In the 2013 Director's Commentary video about Conker's Bad Fur Day, after observing the imperceptible loading times and the "seamless" transitions between major scenes of the game, Rare programmers declare that "the thing about cartridges is … it's solid state ... so it's actually a much more advanced, better medium than discs. You can't have as much [content] on there—or, rather, you can but it's very expensive—but as a medium, cartridge is [vastly] ahead in superiority to any blu-ray or disc … [or] hard drives."[48]: 5:50 

In November 1997, Star Fox designer Jez San lamented that "Very few third-party developers are actually working with N64", for several major business reasons plus the extra time of optimizing a game for constrained cartridge space.[49] At that time, Nintendo of America VP George Harrison acknowledged the historical problem of price.[28]

Upon Factor 5's introduction to the Nintendo 64, the developer had already delivered highly optimized multiplatform games for almost a decade, ranging from 8-bit home computers to 32-bit CD-ROM. After having developed innovative techniques for CD-ROM media in two different LucasArts releases for PlayStation, Factor 5's cofounder Julian Eggebrecht said this in a February 1998 publication:

We immediately liked the N64 because we didn't have to deal with CDs. You shouldn't underestimate what a battle it can be to make a CD game on the PlayStation. You have to fill it, you have to burn it — which takes an hour every time you want to see a new version of your game, you have to work around loading errors, and so on. CDs can be a real pain.[50]

Eggebrecht identified RAM, not storage, as the key bottleneck for any console; so he identified CD-ROM performance of the day as exacerbating that bottleneck and favored cartridges to virtually eliminate the bottleneck.[50] Even after having designed Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine for personal computers equipped with hard drives, Eggebrecht significantly attributed the technologically and aesthetically superior nature of Factor 5's Nintendo 64 port, to his programmers' aggressive optimization for cartridge speed.

The big strength was the N64 cartridge. We use the cartridge almost like normal RAM and are streaming all level data, textures, animations, music, sound and even program code while the game is running. With the final size of the levels and the amount of textures, the [8 megabytes of] RAM of the N64 never would have been even remotely enough to fit any individual level. So the cartridge technology really saved the day.[18]

[T]he N64 is really sexy because it combines the performance of an SGI machine with a cartridge. We're big arcade fans, and cartridges are still the best for arcade games or perhaps a really fast CD-ROM. But there's no such thing for consoles yet [as of 1998].[50]

See also[edit]


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