Looking back at the 64DD on its 20th anniversary

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by: Hairball

The Nintendo 64 console has a fascinating history and it's a story that can't be told without the 64DD. One of the things that is often overlooked and forgotten is the 64DD - the Nintendo 64 Disk Drive. The 64DD was released in Japan on December 1, 1999 - and today marks the 20th anniversary. The 64DD was never released in any other region.

64DD - the Nintendo 64 disk drive on its 20th anniversary
Nintendo 64 Disk Drive - 64DD (Source: @ultra_sixty4)

Although, add-ons have not been unusual for Nintendo consoles, it did kind of give the impression that the N64 was perhaps not a "finished" product. Oddly, the 64DD was an add-on that was announced before the N64 had arrived on store shelves.

The 64DD is a writable magnetic disk add-on for the N64. It used proprietary disks that appeared similar to the Zip disks that were semi-popular in the late 1990s. Nintendo was very skeptical of optical based media - at the time, compact discs. The main issues were slow load times and risk of piracy. Indeed, the leading console at the time was the PlayStation and piracy was rampant.

The decision for Nintendo to use expensive cartridges for the N64 was challenging to game developers - the ROM cartridges used ranged from 4 MB to 64 MB, compared to a CD that can hold around 700 MB of data. Perhaps this 64DD disk add-on was a way to counteract the space limitations.

I remember one of the things that was a "feature" was for the 64DD was the addition of a system clock, which sounds almost bizaare to describe as such right now. A real time clock would allow games to have different environment depending on the time - persistent gaming worlds. From my understanding, the Animal Crossing games make use of a clock to have different gameplay. However, this has never been done on Super Mario game, despite all the N64's successors having real-time clocks.

It would be a nice little enhancement if more games were able to at least have a day/night mode, I'm not sure why we don't see this more often with console titles. In Super Mario Odyssey for the Switch, some stages have different environments, but this isn't triggered by the time or season, but by certain in-game situations.

I last wrote about the 64DD back in 2001, which at that point was a few months before the GameCube was released. Since that time, the concepts that the 64DD promised have actually come to fruition. The 64DD allowed for the ability to have game add-ons which are essentially like today's downloadable content (DLC). Unfortunately, the F-Zero X expansion was the only 64DD "DLC" that has ever come out.

There had long been rumours of a Super Mario 64 2 coming for the 64DD, it would be the "must buy" that would deliver sales for the add-on, but this never happened.

The N64 had slightly disappointing sales, and Nintendo was pretty half-hearted with the efforts on the 64DD, it's like they just decided to release it in Japan to save face, despite it being a disaster. Only a handful of games ever came out for it, and hardly anything was worthwhile besides Mario Artist (based on Mario Paint), the F-Zero X expansion and SimCIty 64.

For the longest time, I felt that the 64DD should have been the N64. By that, I mean that the N64 should not have been using cartridges, if this writable disk concept is truly what they wanted to do, why not just make the main console use them?

Perhaps Nintendo had encountered developmental challenges, or the price of the disks was just far too high, but cartridges themselves were quite expensive at the time too. But by again developing a big ticket add-on, have they not been weary since the SNES CD-ROM they developed with Sony ended up becoming the PlayStation?

We probably won't ever see something like 64DD again, nowadays computer and video game technology is far more powerful, storage is cheap, and it makes more sense to deliver updates via the Internet anyway, it's cheaper and faster. There's no need to have something like the 64DD. Despite being a failure, the 64DD was an interesting concept that was before its time. Much like the Virtual Boy, the 64DD is a part of Nintendo's history they'd rather bury and forget.


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