At the end of the nineties, the Nintendo 64 was starting to struggle. It had been proven that their decision to go with cartridges for the console back in 1994 was a mistake, with third-parties developing for the PlayStation, primarily because of the cheap costs in disks.
It was thanks to the developers at Nintendo, alongside Rare and others, who would keep on developing games for the system until its demise when the GameCube debuted, such as Zelda: Majora's Mask, Perfect Dark and many more.
But there was also another aspect that helped, and that was the Expansion Pak. A small cartridge that slotted towards the front of the console, it would help lift the load of certain games by expanding the RAM, while also allowing new graphical features to be enabled.
With that, here's why the cartridge ironically helped expand the longevity of the Nintendo 64.
The ’Expansion Pak’ launched for the holiday season of 1998, as a way for developers to take advantage of the 4MB of memory that was on this cartridge. It expanded the total memory of the console to 8MB, so it allowed a game to display more textures, higher resolutions, and even higher frame-rates.
While this guide shows exactly which games worked with the expansion pak, there were infact three games that couldn't run without it.
- Donkey Kong 64
- Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask
- Perfect Dark
Perfect Dark was infamous for only having 30% of the game playable without the ‘Expansion Pak’, and even then it would be a very slow, very limited game. Games were expanding, and developers needed that extra RAM to make their vision of the game become reality.
It was the device that was needed for the N64, and nothing like it has come since. It was similar to adding RAM in a PC; beefing something up from 8GB to 16GB to play more of the new season of Fortnite for example.
But it’s also telling that nothing like it has come since. To me, it was more proof that it was a console behind its times, and ironically it took a cartridge to help make the games run better.
It was able to run other games such as ‘Banjo Tooie’ and ’Star Wars: Battle for Naboo‘ at a great frame-rate, but you were seen as the lesser of a console owner if you didn’t have the ‘Pak’ sticking out of your N64 at the time. It was a surreal time, but it was something that the console simply needed as it headed into the millennium.
It helped extend the life of the console by eighteen months, to two years at best since its launch. The PlayStation 2 and Dreamcast were in the midsts of launching, and Nintendo’s ‘Dolphin’ project, soon to be GameCube, would debut in 2001. There was going to be a slight overlap, and the N64 needed to go out with a bang, and the ‘Expansion Pak’ definitely helped with that.
Nintendo learned a valuable lesson in its time with the N64, and that was to listen to its audience when it counted; don’t use cartridges. While also to make sure that there was enough specs for developers to spread their wings on. It’s the definition of a product of its time, and nothing like it will come round again.