It's been another hot year for consumer electronics, one that saw Toshiba release an impressive desktop PC, Sony take a first crack at a personal computer and a swarm of companies come out with hand-held devices, including the first really usable palm-top computer from U.S. Robotics. The year also included the nearly incessant squeal of Internet hype--and a stock market that couldn't get enough of hot-concept technology issues. It was all enough to send droves of Americans out to buy...a game machine?
Yes, a game machine. In this year of Internet-TV terminals, PDAs and cell phones, we've settled our prize for best machine on the new Nintendo 64, which has done to video-gaming what the 707 did to air travel. Since arriving on American shores in late September, the 64 has set records for sales, hype and, most important, slack jaws. The pure mix of art and technology implicit in the machine's design and the games that run on it help it transcend the category of mere amusement. It sets, our editors found, a whole new standard in electronic entertainment, smashing barriers that the bug-filled Internet and clumsy personal computers have yet to approach.
There are at least three strong reasons for picking the Nintendo, and we'll begin with the strongest: technology. The N64's greatest miracles come from a specially developed internal processing chip that does one thing--paint rich pictures on your TV--better than any other device in history. Called the Reality Co-Processor, the chip was designed by 3-D special-effects giant Silicon Graphics (of Jurassic Park fame) and built by Japanese chip monolith NEC. Even as computers do more in smaller spaces, there's something extraordinary here: SGI and NEC have stuffed the sophistication of a $10,000 workstation into a $200 box.
The second reason for our choice is in what all this bit power has been harnessed to achieve: simply the most realistic and compelling three-dimensional experience ever presented by a computer. The machines' first hit game, SuperMario 64, paints from an electronic palette so rich that using the game machine on your TV almost seems as amusing and entertaining as renting a movie or watching a ball game. The 3-D effects are what game pros call immersive, that is, real enough to make you forget the 4-ft. space between you and your TV. Nintendo's smart-chip technology, blended with terrific software, has created a virtual world so compelling that the plastic game box moves from novelty to full-fledged revelation.
No surprise then that the world--or at least the world's allowance-bearing teens--are beating a track to Nintendo. The 64-bit machines show every sign of being the over-the-top smash-hit consumer-electronics item of the year. Released on Sept. 29, the machine has sold half a million units in just over a month; in its first week alone, it sold as many units as its competitors combined did in all of September.