How Does the N64 Work?

Nintendo is a brand that has become linked with video games. You’ve probably played or at least seen one of the company’s three generations of home video game systems, not to mention the wildly popular Gameboy handheld game system. The current system, the Nintendo 64 (N64), was a technological marvel when it was released, and it still holds its own against rival platforms.

You’ll learn how the N64 was designed, what’s inside the box, how the controller works, and how it all works together as you read the next few pages. In this episode of HowStuffWorks, you’ll also learn about game cartridges and how they differ from CD-based games.


Nintendo is widely regarded as the business that changed the industry with the release of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) in 1985, much like Atari did with the home video game. The NES, an 8-bit system based on the 6502 processor and some special chips, was released alongside Super Mario Brothers; including a faithful home version of one of the most popular arcade games at the time proved to be pure genius. The Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) was a huge hit. This cemented Nintendo’s position as the leading home video game manufacturer until the late 1990s, when it was surpassed by Sony’s PlayStation.

Nintendo released the Super Nintendo Entertainment System in 1989, a new 16-bit system (SNES). Within a few years, competitors had released 32-bit computers that surpassed the SNES’ capabilities. As a result, Nintendo announced a partnership with Silicon Graphics Inc. (SGI) to create Project Reality, a new 64-bit video gaming system. SGI was recognised as one of the leaders in computer graphics technology, despite the fact that it had never produced video game hardware.

The Nintendo 64 was finally released in 1996, after several years of development. However, Sony, who had introduced the PlayStation over a year earlier, gained an advantage due to delays and a lack of titles during the initial year of sale. With the Sony PlayStation 2 releasing in 2000 and Nintendo’s Gamecube not scheduled until Fall 2001, Nintendo is once again in a similar scenario.


The controller is the N64’s principal user interface. It has the most distinctive design for a controller on the market today, with its trident shape. The N64 controller comes with 14 buttons and an analogue joystick. The buttons are as follows:

  • On the upper left, there are four buttons arranged as a directional pad.
  • The start button is located in the upper-middle of the screen.
  • On the upper right, there are six action buttons.
  • On the front left, there is a single action button.
  • On the front right, there is a single action button.
  • In the bottom centre, there is one action button.
  • On the top middle, there is an analogue joystick.
  • The N64 controller from the inside.

Despite the fact that each button can be customised to do a unique action, they all operate on the same concept. Each button, in essence, is a switch that, when pressed, completes a circuit. A small metal disc beneath the button is pressed against two strips of conductive material on the controller’s circuit board. The metal disc conducts electricity between the two strips while it is in contact. The controller detects a closed circuit and communicates the information to the N64. The CPU compares the data to the instructions for that button in the game software, and the appropriate response is triggered. A metal disc is also located beneath each arm of the directional pad. If you’re playing a game where pressing down on the directional pad causes the character to stoop, a similar chain of events occurs between the moment you press down on the pad and the time the character crouchs.