The '96 Van Tour

Just as the seasons come and go, so does the Nintendo Van tour. Showing off the latest in releases for the last part of 1996, this year's offerings were pretty well restricted to one platform... The Nintendo 64. Of course Super Mario 64 and Pilotwings 64 were there, but the main focus was on the new titles: Wave Race 64, Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire, Cruis'N USA, Killer Instinct Gold, Mortal Kombat Trilogy, and Wayne Gretzky's 3-D Hockey. They also had Donkey Kong Country 3 there for the Super NES.

Before getting into the thick of things, I'll cover some of the items which came up in our talks on the van. First off, I asked about current sales projections. Nintendo is pinning a total sell-through on U.S. units at about 1.2 million, possibly more depending on what Nintendo can get manufactured. According the comments by Howard Lincoln, there are hopes to ship over 1.5 million by the end of the year. For reference, Nintendo sold 350,000 units in the first three days of launch, whereas Sega took 32 weeks to match that number for the Saturn, and 13 weeks for Sony's PlayStation.

In the realm of novelty items, hard-core Mario fans will have a chance to purchase the Super Mario 64 soundtrack on music CD via the Nintendo Power magazine. So if you just can't get enough of a good thing, here's your chance.

As for general hardware, Nintendo presented a fact sheet on the 64DD unit. While the document was not the final specs, it did indicated some basic information. The unit will attach to the bottom of the N64. It will use a 3-3/4" magnetic disk that is front-loaded into the unit. It has a storage capacity of 64 MB of data. The 64DD will have an average seek time of 150 milliseconds, and a 1 MB/s data transfer rate. There are also indications that there will be a memory expansion pack included which you will install into the N64 base unit. Although the memory size for this pack had not been completely determined in the document I received, it did note though that it would be either 1 or 2 MB of RAM.

As for other future hardware items, there seems to be no solid plans. I asked about the possibility of a steering wheel, and the Nintendo reps noted that there were no plans on their end, although something could eventually come from a third party controller manufacturer.

Regarding software, the surprise of the lot for me had to be Shadows of the Empire, which I had played at the E3 show earlier this year. I was so impressed infact, that I did a follow-up rental on the game to help cement my opinion that this game is probably the next best reason to own the system (next to Mario). Everything about this game was cleaned up over the show version. The graphics were excellent during the gameplay segments, but the cinemas were a real embarrassment... static screens with text at the bottom... no voices, no animation to speak of. Game control was amazing, and some of the "eye-candy" effects just have to be seen rather than described (ie: Seeker camera turned on). If you can find it -- whether or not you like Star Wars -- you should check out this game.

The next surprise had to be Wayne Gretzky's 3-D Hockey. Going back to E3, both E.Phoenix and myself had been so horrified by this title that we had written it off, and declared that someone had to have been brain dead for allowing it to be shown on the floor. This finished version that I saw on the van was so much better that I couldn't believe it. Play control was reasonable, graphics looked clean... very clean. The sound was good as well. I still need to spend some serious time with it, but my initial reaction leads me to believe this could be a serious contender against both Sony's and EA's hockey titles.

Wave Race 64 comes up next on my list. This game is fantastic eye candy, but doesn't have allot of content for the serious gamer. I must say that the graphics here are mandatory for everyone to check out. The water effects are simply amazing, and you really get the feel of watching water flowing. Another cool thing here is that the water is truly transparent, and you can see all the fish swimming and schooling down beneath the surface. As well, when you are zipping around, the splashes and vapor trails off of your jet ski are too cool to describe. My reactions to playing this on the van sent me home to rent it for a couple of days... unfortunately I solved through all three difficulty levels the first evening of my rental indicating a very poor level of challenge. I wasn't the only one with this problem though, Dr. Otto noted to me that he played a display version (it was a regular machine set up at a gaming store so it didn't have the five minute reset), and he was able to solve through the third difficulty level (Hard) on his first attempt. On the other hand, two-player action in this game is an attraction, but I'm not sure how much staying power this feature provides on it own.

On the down side of things, we had Killer Instinct Gold. Sigh... Someone here obviously thought it would be a swell idea to put 2-D sprites on a 3-D, 45-degree view playfield. Well, it was a bad idea. What I would like to know is why this game isn't 3-D? Obviously, someone, somewhere has 3-D data sets for all of the characters. Why don't they use them to their full potential? Play control in this game was what you would expect, and in all respects, arcade-like. The background graphics where really nice, and the character graphics were really clean, but when you put both together... they left a very clunky looking play screen.

The bottom of the list here had to be Cruis'N USA, if for no other reason but that two years after it was released in the arcade, this home version isn't any better. In fact, I would say it was worse than the arcade. This was so much of a surprise that prior to my viewing of this game, Ferrari Man had set aside cash to buy it sight-unseen. I warned him to rent it first, and based on that recommendation, he rented it and decided that he wasn't going to buy it at all. Play control here is not all that hot, and personally I felt that the graphics just didn't touch the arcade. Ferrari Man argued the point with me, thinking that the graphics were actually better in some respects. That may be a perception issue, but on the subject of play control we both agreed that the game was seriously lacking. My question here is why did it take two years to release a game that is in some ways inferior? With two additional years for development, this title should have blown away its arcade counterpart.

Well, my time with the tour van was limited, and unfortunately I didn't get to spend any time on MK Trilogy, but for those of you interested I'll note Benjamin's most memorable comment... "Shang Tsung is finally a playable character", and leave the rest for you to determine. As for DKC3, I hate to say it, but it's more of the same. Although, I think that this third installment is actually not as visually impressive as the first two.

Nintendo presented a few bright stars in this showing to be sure, and the signs of brighter prospects are encouraging. The biggest concern is the cost of these games. With titles now running with price tags as high as $79 for Shadows (I've seen one store charge $89 on this game and still sell it out) I can't image a cheerful userbase for the platform. Although that discussion is for another article.



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