As the saying goes, "never put the cart before the horse"... Or in this case, never put the console before everything else!
NOTE: This article is subject to become outdated due to the burgeoning N64 collector's market, as of this article's initial uploading.
So, you're skimming through sites and lists, looking for another fun and hopefully cheap console to play. Suddenly, you come across the Nintendo 64, that seldom loved Nintendo console. Yes, it was once expensive in retail chains in the days of yore, but times have changed... In fact, they will continue to change. In this new addition to the Micro-64 feature collection, we will be exploring the subject of purchasing a Nintendo 64 console and some of its accessories. Controllers, games and the 64DD are far too complex to fit into this same article, so they will be covered separately.
NOTE: Just to clarify, all price examples are for loose, North American N64 systems, which consist of the control deck, controller and hookups. Complete in Box systems are usually extremely expensive and Japanese systems are usually less than their North American counterparts.
The first item you'll need to enjoy N64, is a Control Deck (what Nintendo calls the main system). They come in a very, very wide selection of colors, but hardly any functional differences. The standard Charcoal Gray N64, typically valued at around $20 - $30, is also the most common version of the system. So common in fact, it will probably be your first N64. The colored systems, such as the transparent funtastic series, the special Pikachu consoles and the ever luxurious gold system range in value, but typically float anywhere between $40 and $100, depending if the memory expansion slot cover and/or matching controller is included. The gold system usually came with two likewise colored controllers, mind you.
Though out of the scope of this article, it's worth mentioning that there are a couple of modifications that depend on certain N64 motherboard revisions. If you are buying an N64 with the intent of modding it, we currently have a guide for Overclocking Your N64. It's very thorough and takes you through all the steps required for the procedure.
The next step, albeit short, is the video cable. This subject is a bit beyond the scope of this feature, but to make a long story short, buy yourself a $5, dedicated S-Video cable, as in it's the only video signal it supplies, no composite plug. The reasons for this recommendation are explained in our S-Video: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly feature.
After that is, yet another, short step; the controller. We recommend either the official controller, Mako 64 / Superpad 64 or Hori Mini controllers.
Next on the laundry list, there are some miscellaneous accessories which you must take into account. First up, is your N64's memory expansion slot. In this slot, you can install the cheap and ever so common Jumper Pak, or the $20 - $25 Expansion Pak. What is the difference? Well, the former does nothing but allow your N64 to start up. The latter on the other hand, adds 4 Megabytes of extra contiguous RAM to your N64, so games that support it look and play better. Three (USA) games even require it, those being Donkey Kong 64, Zelda: Majora's Mask and Perfect Dark. Plain and simple, invest the extra $20 and get yourself an Expansion pak, preferably the official version. It is money well spent. Stay away from the third party Expansion Paks though, they are quite finicky and some have overheating issues.
As for the other oddball hardware bits that should be taken into account, are "Paks" which utilize the slot in the controller. The first of them is the Controller Pak, which is nothing more than a memory card. On average, they're valued at around $5 each. Lots and lots of third party games use it, so if you're going to be venturing outside the Nintendo and Rareware mainstays, think about getting a few of these. Third party controller paks offer more memory but tend to be finicky and unreliable.
Next is the Rumble Pak, which just adds force feedback to your gaming experience, if the game supports it. Most do so this isn't a problem. The Nintendo version takes two AAA batteries while third party models do not. The official version can be had for about $10. There aren't really any quality differences between the first and third party rumble paks, except for the off-brand memory card/rumble combo paks (such as the Tremor Pak), who's memory side shares the same unreliability as the standalone versions.
Lastly, there is the Transfer Pak, which has a slot for a Game Boy game. It's not a very expensive controller add-on, usually floating between $5 and $10. Most notably, in Pokemon Stadium 1 (1st gen support only) and 2, you could import your Pokemon from any of the Game Boy installments for battle on the big screen. The handheld Pokemon games themselves could also be played through the N64 like a Super Game Boy. Other games like Mario Golf, Mario Tennis, Mickey's Speedway USA, Perfect Dark and many Japan-only titles could import data from compatible GB games, but no Super Game Boy-like functionality was ever provided for these games. If you aren't interested in Pokemon or don't have many Game Boy games, you won't really need the Transfer Pak.
Aside from possible Japan-only and third party controller plug-ins, there isn't much else to cover in hardware. We here at Micro-64 hope that this guide will provide enough information for both the beginner and the prospective buyer to step into the world of Nintendo 64, and maybe even develop a burning love for it as much as we do! The next part in this feature series will most likely be controllers. See you there!
Written by Aaron Wilcott
April 27 2012