Nintendo re-enters the game Toys: Next-generation machine, ad blitz set the stage for a 3-D battle royal with rivals Sony and Sega.


Sunday, and for years afterward, thousands of parents will cringe reflexively at a simple declarative sentence uttered by a comical animated man: "It's me, Mario!"

Yes, the rotund little plumber is back to step on enemies and collect gold coins, but he's also the standard bearer of a new Nintendo video game system that will likely be one of the most asked-for items this holiday season. Nintendo 64 is a powerful descendant of the Nintendo Entertainment System and SuperNintendo game consoles that lurk under television sets in more than 20 million U.S. households.

Nintendo 64 has an important difference from its predecessors and competitors: It's the first home video game to harness 64-bit processing power, which yields graphics and movement that surpass the "arcade-quality" benchmark.

Sega and Sony, which released 32-bit game systems in 1995, have enjoyed both technological and sales advantages over Nintendo, the industry leader in the late '80s and early '90s. Nintendo 64 changes all that; it's as if the smallest kid on the block returned from summer vacation 6 inches taller and 50 pounds heavier than everyone else.

In SuperNintendo, as with its competitors, designers used subtleties of color and light gradations to mimic a three-dimensional landscape. Gameplay was limited to two dimensions, although the more powerful Sega Saturn and Sony PlayStation 32-bit systems were able to combine richer graphics with smooth movement that SuperNintendo couldn't match.

Nintendo 64 allows players to operate in a fully three-dimensional environment. Mario scampers through floating landscapes that can be viewed from all sides because players also control the cinematography.

He slides down brick walls into pools of water, splashes through the waist-deep water to a tiny ramp only visible when the player alters the perspective. A small thumb-controlled joystick sends Mario bounding on his way.

In Pilotwings 64, the other debut game, the joystick lets players control a hang glider, mini-copter and rocket belt that soar around an island.

While Super Mario 64 is infinitely more fun than Pilotwings 64, a sophisticated flight simulation similar to the best PC-based games, both trail

the high-wow factor appeal of Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire, scheduled for a Dec. 2 release. This game combines the flight simulator aspect of Pilotwings with the first-person viewpoint of a game such as Doom, the violent shoot-'em-up that is the best-selling PC game ever. This will likely be the game that parents buy for themselves.

Other games will roll out gradually before the end of the year: WaveRace 64, out Nov. 4, which accurately mimics the nuances of Jet-Ski riding. This will be the first racing game for the system, but players who want to compete will have to fork over $30 for an additional game controller. This is one reason why WaveRace will get its own $4 million ad campaign.

Cruis'in USA, out Nov. 18, is a home version of the popular arcade driving simulation that enables players to choose from a variety of cars and courses.

Killer Instinct Gold is a Mortal Kombat clone that hopes to win points in the head-to-head battle genre.

Wayne Gretzky Hockey is a realistic game simulation that is licensed by both the National Hockey League and the players union. That seemingly unimportant legality allows the game to match on-screen players with the names and uniforms of their on-ice counterparts, a touch of video verite that adds appeal to the game.

Nintendo is readying a $20 million television ad blitz that will pepper MTV, Nickelodeon and the Fox networks with four waves of ad campaigns. Nintendo 64 is expected to sell for about $200 -- about the same as its less powerful competition -- with games available separately for $60 each.

Pub Date: 9/28/96

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