The advent of 3D game consoles introduced gamers to a wide range of innovations that all took place within a short 5-year span during the mid-1990s. You had PS1, the first CD-based console and the first mainstream console to use memory cards (Neo Geo did it first but was much rarer). Then, you had N64 with its Rumble Pak and Controller Pak.
Can you save games on an N64 without a memory card? You absolutely can, but certain games like Quake II require a Controller Pak accessory to save player progress. A lot of N64 games just save data to the SRAM/ EEPROM within their cartridge, like every other cartridge-based home console of that time.
If you don’t have a Controller Pak, certain games such as Aero Gauge, Rainbow Six, and Turok: Dinosaur Hunter simply won’t save (you can find the entire list here). Not all N64 games use the Controller Pak for saving, but they still require one to function properly. Games like Mario Kart 64 save to cartridge but require the Controller Pak to save non-game related data (such as Ghosts from Time Trial races).
Can You Save Games On An N64 Without A Memory Card?
Yes, but there is a caveat. Some games require the Controller Pak accessory to function properly. For example, Ghosts in Mario Kart 64 are saved on the Controller Pak memory.
All other types of progression and player data are saved to the cartridge. N64 developers used the Controller Pak as an additional memory bank, and not just a saving device. This is because many N64 games came with EEPROM/ SRAM chips to store player data.
Some games even let you choose where you want to save, and how you want to split the saves. For example, Perfect Dark lets you put your character saves in the cartridge and game saves in the Controller Pak. Controller Pak units are basically an SRAM chip and battery, contained within a plastic shell.
You have 32,768 bytes of SRAM that needs to be powered by a battery (since it’s volatile memory). This battery lasts for 15 to 20 years, but once it dies- all your saved files will go with it. N64 cartridges used EEPROM, SRAM, and even FlashRAM in some rare cases.
Cartridges with SRAM have the same storage capacity as the Controller Pak (32,768 bytes). They too have a battery that must be replaced once it dies. Cartridges with EEPROM have much smaller storage capacities for saving data (512/ 2048 bytes), as EEPROM was quite expensive back then.
To sum things up, some N64 games save directly to the cartridge while others require a Controller Pak. Then, you have games that can save to either cartridge or memory card. Finally, you have games that require a memory card but use it as a storage space for additional data (Mario Kart 64).
What Do I Need To Save Games On N64?
It all depends on which game you’re playing, so check out this list. Some games like Harvest Moon 64, WWF: WrestleMania 2000, and Resident Evil 2 come with built-in save space on the cartridge itself. Others, like Mario Kart 64 require a Controller Pak to store Ghosts for Time Trial races.
Games like Perfect Dark let you choose where you want to save- cartridge, or Controller Pak. Most of the time, you have a lot more storage space on the Controller Pak. However, certain games take up a lot of space.
The 32,768 bytes on a Controller Pak are divided into 123 “pages” and you’re limited to just 16 different save files. Sounds manageable, until you realize that Mario Kart alone can take up 121 out of 123 pages. Back in the day, this would have proved very expensive if you intended to switch between lots of games while simultaneously retaining the progress for each one.
Does N64 Need Memory Expansion?
Apart from the Controller Pak, N64 also received a memory expansion cartridge that would slot into the top of the console. It doubled the amount of RAM, from 4MB to 8MB. In comparison, the PS1 had just 2MB of general-purpose RAM along with 1MB of VRAM.
Certain games like Donkey Kong 64 and The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask require an Expansion Pak to work. It allows these games to function at the intended resolution and scale while applying certain graphical effects that otherwise wouldn’t be possible with N64’s default hardware. Some games will work even without the Expansion Pak, but you’ll lose out on content and graphical fidelity.
For example, Resident Evil 2 runs with better textures and resolution if your N64 has the Expansion Pak. Perfect Dark will run without the Expansion Pak, but you need it to unlock parts of the single-player campaign and specific multiplayer modes. Starcraft 64 needs the Expansion Pak to unlock Brood War levels.
Why Won’t My N64 Games Save?
There are three possible reasons why your N64 game won’t save. You might have a faulty game cartridge with dirty connectors. In this case, you should open up the cartridge and clean those metal contacts with some brass polish/ 91% isopropyl alcohol.
It could also be a lack of sufficient space. If your N64 Controller Pak is out of slots (it has 16 total), you need to delete certain saves. Sometimes, your game cartridge will also run out of memory.
Finally, it could be a dead battery. CR2032 coin cells are used in both N64 cartridges and the Controller Pak accessory. Check out this guide to learn how you can replace an N64 cartridge battery (basic soldering skills are needed).
How Much Storage Was On A N64 Game?
N64 games varied in size between 4 to 64MB, with Resident Evil 2 tipping the scales at exactly 64MB. It’s really impressive how Capcom managed to fit a twin-CD game made for PS1 on a single 64MB N64 cartridge. Granted, they had to cut some corners with textures and cinematics but it’s still an impressive feat.
In addition to ROM storage, some N64 cartridges also had SRAM/ EEPROM for saving data. Many publishers skipped this to cut manufacturing costs and hoped that players would spend money on Controller Paks.
Why Is The N64 Considered A Failure?
N64 launched nearly 1.5 years after PS1 and sold nearly 33 million units worldwide. Sounds impressive, until you take a look at PS1’s sales data which tells us it sold over 3 times as many units at 102.49 million. Part of this is due to the PS1 arriving first, and getting a lot of media attention with its 3D graphics.
Even though N64 is more advanced than PS1, it lacks a CD drive which made 3rd party developers reluctant to program games for the system. Memory limitations and the increased manufacturing costs of cartridges made it less lucrative for developers to side with Nintendo over Sony.
Plus, Sony’s PS1 also doubled as a CD player for those customers who weren’t interested in games. While N64 is a pure gaming machine, PS1’s CD playback function meant it could be used as a home entertainment system in your living room.
While Sony wiped the floor with Nintendo in hardware sales, software sales were more of a mixed bag. In fact, N64’s best-selling game (Super Mario 64) shipped more copies than PS1’s best-selling game (Gran Turismo). Nintendo remained very competitive with Sony in software sales despite selling 1/3rd as many consoles, which tells us that N64 owners were buying a lot more games proportionally.
I hope this article helped you understand how the N64 saves games, and whether you need a memory card. It all comes down to the specific games you’re playing, but safe to say that a memory card will enhance your N64 experience. Games like Mario Kart won’t work without it.
And if you can grab a memory expansion (Expansion Pak), it will help you enjoy titles such as Donkey Kong and Majora’s Mask. Resident Evil 2, Perfect Dark and many other N64 classics will run with better graphics. And you’ll gain access to content that otherwise remains locked if you don’t have the memory expansion.