So a couple days ago I came across this this rather intriguing tweet from a guy who managed to get his hands on a Nintendo 64 Disk Drive Development Kit that looks effectively brand new in the box.
It was sent to him by a private (unnamed) collector for verification and documentation. Thankfully, all of that wonderful documentation has been provided for free to all of us via The Internet Archives in the form of massive, hi-res images.
So what was the 64DD?
Well, it was a planned expansion drive for the Nintendo 64 that just never quite got off the ground. It was intended to provide additional content for games, not unlike modern downloadable expansions. Those of you who have owned an N64 may have noticed an extra slot on the bottom where this machine would plug in to your existing console.
I love coming across stuff like this.
It’s a reminder that the wheels are always turning, both long before and long after the popular games and systems are actually in our hands. We can postulate both on what Nintendo’s plans were for this device before they even released the N64, as well as what may have come had it actually come to market. They sold a couple units in Japan, but it was so late, it never picked up enough attention to actually create meaningful content. Most of what has been made available through the dev kits is very limited, though some sources say it would have allowed for personalized content creation; like taking screen recordings, making 3D animations, and even producing music. It’s fun to imagine what would could have been if we had that kind of creative freedom back in the 90s. Maybe we’d have seen additional content for popular games like Ocarina of Time, or Majora’s Mask, as well. Maybe there are entire games that simply never came to be because of the technological limitations of data storage in the 90s, which may have been solved by a device like this.
It didn’t stop some dedicated modders from making their own attempts at expanding some legendary games with this hardware, however.
It’s this kind of creativity that leads to new innovation. One of the reasons why I love digging up old games and hardware is because there is no limit to where people’s imagination will go. Between the speedrunners, the enthusiasts and the modders, entire genres and subgenres have been spun out of completely separate and original IPs. It’s no secret that modders have been the lifeblood of the gaming industry as we know it. Games like DOTA, Day Z, and Counter-Strike began their existence as fan-based add-ons, only to evolve into their own franchises which in turn inspired entire genres.
Even in recent history, Rockstar paid a modder $10,000 for fixing GTA Online’s load times. Mods quickly become part of the ethos of many popular games, and sometimes are even made more popular for it. Skyrim was made infinitely better by the modding community, and it is arguably its most compelling feature. And of course, I would be remiss in failing to mention the fan-made and Valve-approved Half-Life remake, Black Mesa.
It doesn’t always have the most positive, history, however. Remember when Steam tried to turn their Workshop into a marketplace and it lasted… oh about 48 hours? Sadly, Bethesda doubled down on this idea and tried to charge for mods as well, leading to allegations of theft, due to modder’s hard work being put on their store without permission.
Unfortunately, code theft is common within the modding community, because a) mods are by their nature, open source and b) the original owner of the game being modded ultimately has the final say in what code is allowed to exist within the framework of their game. If you add code to their game, and they decide to use it themselves, they are really under no obligation at all to pay you for your time, or even acknowledge that you did. So, kudos to Rockstar for paying out.
Modding isn’t always strictly above ground, either, since it sometimes does require some reverse engineering, especially when ripping from a current console game. Of course, that certainly didn’t stop the modding community from almost immediately getting Breath of the Wild working on PC. Mere weeks after it officially launched with the Switch, people were already inserting other and non-Nintendo characters and creating more hype for a game which, ultimately could only have helped Nintendo sell more copies of the game, and more Switch consoles through popularity alone.
I truly believe this power is underestimated even by the largest and oldest establishments in gaming. Especially since you see the influence of mods, and even emulators everywhere you look, even from the big guys like Nintendo.
Don’t believe me?
NES/SNES Online has a full-time save-state feature. You can stop a game at any moment: right before a boss, during a cutscene, whenever– save it, and instantly return to that spot at any time you want. I first saw that feature in old console emulators when I first stated trying to play SNES and PS1 ROMs on my PC in the early 2000s. Yes, I’m talking about nearly 20 years ago. You can thank the emulation community, largely accused of “stealing” games, for plenty of optimizations over the years.
While I don’t necessarily condone piracy, purely based on the fact that I am myself an artist, and I believe in supporting other artists, I also don’t see it as the ugly underside it is often decorated as. Not only do I believe that information should always be freely available between people, but time and time again, it has been proven, especially for the gaming industry, that piracy can actually increase sales.
It may seem like a strange phenomenon, but it actually makes a lot of sense from an economics perspective when dealing with digital content. For example, piracy is still as available as it was 15 years ago (albeit, you definitely want to use a VPN these days, which are plentiful), yet far more people are willing to pay to stream video and music content. Why? Because streaming is insanely convenient. That’s what Daniel Ek, for all his faults, set out to do when he created Spotify in the first place. He wanted to create a better service than piracy could provide, and people were willing to pay for it. I thoroughly believe this is how the free market ought to work, if it is truly to be called free.
I can admit that I pirated a number of games when I was young and broke. Mostly because I was broke. So as a broke kid, I got to play, Civ V, Skyrim, and Mount & Blade and XCOM… all games which I have bought and paid for since. That’s the other thing, too. Piracy doesn’t negate the possibility that someone will buy the game later. It could be used as a demo of sorts. Plus, it’s far harder to ensure reliable updates, and online service is usually spotty or unavailable on pirated copies, so it behooves the player to buy the game in order to get the complete experience. I also firmly believe that most people who pirate a game without eventually paying for it were never going to buy it anyway. That makes it hard to justify the assertion that it counts as lost profit. Piracy also acts as a potential counterbalance to exploitative practices like platform exclusivity, or arbitrarily raising prices of AAA games. For better or worse, piracy is a form of free speech and freedom of information. Like drugs, its prohibition just leads to it being associated with seedier practices, but it cannot prevent it from happening.
Again, where would we be without the people who crack into software and share their findings and creations with the rest of us?
Despite the disappointment of Blizzard shutting down the private WoW Classic servers, I bet they would never have built their own version of it otherwise. I also bet there’s already another more secret one out there somewhere as well. Where there is a will, there is a way, as they say. The City of Heroes private servers still go on, even after having been revealed to the public, likely because NCSoft has no future plans for the franchise. So, in hearing that those severs are ever closed, it might be a sign of renewal, which could ultimately be a good thing. To that end, piracy is actually creating competition and demand, or at least revealing to companies that there is a market for something they didn’t originally have faith in producing.
So, how does this all tie back to the 64DD? Well, it could have been a modding platform for the N64 back in the 90s, had it released on time and in the West. It most certainly is now. Nintendo may not have been too happy about it, since it was also tied to an online subscription service, which would have been costly to maintain in the 90s with dial-up internet, and modders would have most certainly looked to circumvent that. But we may also have seen content creation similar to what we see now, just far earlier. Nintendo was very nearly way ahead of the curve on that one. It’s what I appreciate about them, in the end. Even if they don’t always hit the mark, you can rarely accuse them of sticking to conventions and following the crowd.
At the end of the day, innovation is what drives the market to reach for new heights, develop new game ideas, and design new hardware concepts. It’s why Nintendo is still so prolific after more than 35 years in gaming. It’s also why modding and emulation will always have their place in gaming history.