The Nintendo 64 was Nintendo's first steps into full 3d gaming. Designed to compete with consoles like the Sony Playstation and the Sega Saturn, the Nintendo was the only console of this generation to use cartradges instead of CD's. This led to an interesting moment in gaming development. Where the Nintendo was capeable of crisper graphics and no loading times, due to the size limitations of cartradges of the day, it was extremely limited in game size, limited data for full recorded music and sounds, and no fully rendered cut scenes. On top of that, the production of cartradges was both complicated and expensive, not allowing much of the Indi market to develop for the system. Even with these limitations, the Nintendo 64 was not only a huge success, but had a vast array of some of the best games the market had seen to date. Many of which are still beloved and played today.
The Nintendo 64, even with it's graphical limitations, had an edge on much of the market for several reasons. First, it was one of the cheapest consoles of it's generation, costing about $100 less than it's closest competition, the Sony Playstation. On top of that, it was one of the first consoles to utilize fully 3d rendered worlds, instead of just utilizing 3d characters and sprites, with pre-rendered backgrounds. This was apperant in one of the Nintendo 64's launch titles, Super Mario 64. Not only did the fully rendered worlds create an explorable landscape, it also allowed the users full control of the camera, something that was nearly unheard of in gaming to that point. Admitted, sometimes a complete pain, this allowed the players a full view of the world they were playing in, making the games more emersive than ever.
The Nintendo 64 was the first console to come pre-built with 4 control ports. No attachments, and built in to support 4 players on almost every multiplayer game. And of all companies, Nintendo, who lets remind everyone loves to sell you peripherals and attachments, came up with. This gave a great many games a strong emphasis on multiplayer. Many of the Nintendo 64's top titles are heralded to this day for this. Games like Mario Kart 64, Golden Eye, Super Smash Brothers and many others were staples of the multiplayer genre, so much in fact, many of the titles developed at this time, are around in some form or another today.
If there's any 'controversy' surrounding the Nintendo 64, I would have to say the greatest is surrounding the controller. Loved by some, and hated by others. This was the one feature on the Nintendo 64 that galvanized gamers more than anything. I'll start out by saying that I really liked the 64's controller. Yes, it wasn't without it's faults, but it worked perfectly for the games designed for the system. And it was one of the only controllers ever designed that allowed for different options on how to hold the controller. This, however was one of the main complaints against the controller. Where Nintendo was allowing 'choice', many saw this as a limitation as they didn't alway have full access to all the buttons and controlls. The Nintendo 64 was the first console to have a fully analog controller, which was out before Sony's Dualshock by almost 2 years, once again giving an edge to Nintendo in 3D gaming.
Now onto the elephant in the room, the cartradges. Nintendo use of Carts were possibly it's greatest strength as well as it's greatest weakness. The use of cartradges allowed for Nintendo to utilize full 3D worlds, without having to have a loading screen everytime you moved more than 20 yards, which also allowed for sharper in game graphics than most of it's competitors. But cardradges are expensive and complicated to make, negating almost any 3rd party development for the system. In almost all cases, 3rd party developers were forced to make the games along side Nintendo themselves, just to help illeviate much of the cost of development. This was a double edge sword, as it weeded out much of the cheap and crappy titles, and allowed Nintendo a certain level of quality control. But this also stopped almost and of the indipendent market from developing titles for the 64. This was also responsible for ending one of the longest and strongest gaming aliances up to this point, between Nintendo and Squaresoft (now known as Square Enix). Squaresoft was and is one of the largest and most successful makers of JRPG's. They saw there were massive size limitations on Nintendo's cartradges, and Sony had the ability to switch disks mid game as data ran out, thus allowing them to create games accross multiple disks increasing their size immensely.
Something that has always haunted Nintendo, is their love for peripherals. Even with all that's included with the N64 as standard, it was no exception to this fact. The first well known peripheral is the controller memory pack. This allowed for players to save times and ghosts in Mario Kart, Costumes in Bomberman, stuff like that. There were many other peripherals including, but not limited to, the Rumble Pak, Transfer Pak, the VRU and notibly the expansion pak (Nintendo seemed to have an evertion to C's in the 90's... who knew). The Expansion Pak was one of the few peripherals that was necessary to play some games (I.E. Majora's Mask, and Donkey Kong 64). While only a few titles required the Expansion Pak, it added options of higher graphics to many others that didn't.
One of Nintendo's great legacy's are it's quality game titles. With franchises like Super Mario, The Legend of Zelda and Star Fox (to name a few). The Nintendo 64's versions of these titles are so beloved, most are being ported to modern systems today, with several receiving full graphical overhauls, and even making the jump to 3D on Nintendo's 3Ds. Because of Nintendo's quality games, it allowed for the Nintendo 64 to be a heavy weight in a field it should have really been an underdog. The Nintendo 64 was the first steps for many of us into the world of 3D gaming. The N64 is a beloved system for many of us that grew up with the system, and will continue to be played for many years to come.