Retro Tech: Inside the Nintendo 64, on its 20th birthday

The 64-bit legend goes under the knife, and we remember its important contribution to our lives.

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A 64-bit beast

20 years ago this month, Nintendo launched its first 64-bit console, the Nintendo 64, in Japan. This powerful follow-up to the Super NES represented a quantum leap in polygonal 3D graphics technology. While the N64 suffered competitively due to its reliance on cartridge media, the system played host to many groundbreaking games such as Super Mario 64 and The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time.

With this anniversary in mind, I thought it would be fun to open one of these dark-gray beauties on my workbench to see what makes it tick. Out of all the consoles I’ve disassembled, I’ve never taken apart an N64 until now. It’s time to rectify that.

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Credit: Benj Edwards
RAM expansion

Before we dig in, let’s take a brief look from the outside. The Nintendo 64 shipped with a feature unlike any before it: the ability to increase the amount of system RAM via a plug-in module, which can be installed in a bay near the front of the unit.

Ordinarily, the N64 includes 4MB of RAM and a placeholder “Jumper Pak” (the black module with a maroon label across it) in the slot. But if one plugs in an Expansion Pak (the module with the bright red edge), it brings the system RAM up to 8MB and allows additional features in certain games such as a higher graphical frame rate or resolution. Some games, like Donkey Kong 64 and Majora’s Mask, require the Expansion Pak to be played at all.

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Credit: Benj Edwards
An improvised tool

Since the NES, Nintendo has been infamous among hobbyists for its consistent use of security screws over the years, which are designed to eliminate tampering with the hardware by requiring a special tool to remove them. To take apart the Nintendo 64, you have to remove six of these stubborn screws (one of which can be seen here, inset right).

If you don’t have the special tool for removing the screws—as I don’t in this case—you can make your own tool by melting the bottom end of a ballpoint pen over the screw head (seen to the left). That forms an impression of the screw head in the plastic that can then be used to unscrew them. MacGyver used the same trick to escape from being chained to an explosive N64 in episode 140. Or so I hear.

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Credit: Benj Edwards
Cracking the case

Using the special tool I just made, I have now opened the Nintendo 64, revealing a dense and compact motherboard assembly featuring significant aluminum heat sinks, RF shielding, and the motherboard itself. You can also see the tops of the four controller ports. The two round black things are the plastic “feet” from the bottom front of the unit. With those removed, the N64 has no chance of escaping.

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Credit: Benj Edwards
Motherboard extraction

After removing several more screws, I can now pull the motherboard assembly from the plastic case, which becomes a mere shell of its former self. The motherboard is shrouded by a massive (by 1996 console standards) aluminum heat sink designed to pipe away heat from the powerful graphical and CPU chips inside the unit.

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Credit: Benj Edwards
The naked motherboard

At least another nine screws later, I finally remove the aluminum heat sink (seen in the upper-right of the image) and the RF shielding. This shielding is required to meet FCC requirements regarding radio and TV interference. As we can see here, the heat sink was directly screwed into three smaller heat sink blocks on the motherboard that are adhered to the graphics chip, the CPU, and the system RAM. Heavy-duty stuff! This represents an end to the non-heat-sinked, passively air-cooled chip era of the Super NES and prior.

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Credit: Benj Edwards
The motherboard up close

Taking a closer look at the motherboard, we can see several features that stand out. The black connector in the upper-left mates with the power supply that plugs in to the back of the unit. The other black connector is for the system’s AV output. The silver slot near the top of the board is the game cartridge slot, and the smaller slot next to the red LED up front is for the Memory Pak expansion. Here we can also take a closer look at the impressively shiny aforementioned heat-sink blocks atop the major chips.

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Credit: Benj Edwards
Beneath the motherboard

The bottom of the motherboard is notable because of another connector I haven’t mentioned yet. It’s the extension port, which was intended to allow users to connect the 64DD magneto-optical drive expansion unit to the N64. The 64DD was only released in Japan for a limited time, however, and no accessories used the extension port in the United States.

And wow, look at those teeny-tiny surface-mount components (all the little gray and black nodes on the motherboard). The use of a two-sided board and surface-mount technology is another reminder of how much more advanced and densely packed the N64 is over Nintendo’s previous consoles.

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Credit: Benj Edwards
The heart and soul of the N64

As we reach the end of our journey, let’s take a moment to look a little closer at the real brains of the N64—its “Reality Engine” CPU (labeled CPU-NUS, the big black square in the upper-center of the image), its “Reality Co-Processor” graphics chip (labeled RCP-NUS, down and to the right of the CPU), and the two RAM chips to the left of the graphics chip.

The CPU is a 64-bit R4300 running at 93.75MHz—a RISC CPU fabricated by NEC. Once-mighty graphics workstation manufacturer Silicon Graphics designed the graphics chip, which was the most capable 3D graphics chip in a game console until the Dreamcast in 1999.

But as with all Nintendo consoles, the specs of the N64 were but a tool to enable the creativity of game designers—especially those at Nintendo—to craft cultural works with widespread influence that have had a lasting effect. To that, I tip my hat and wish the N64 a very happy 20th birthday.