Originally known as Project Reality, the Nintendo 64 began life as a top-secret collaboration between Nintendo and the graphics wizards at SGI. SGI designed the gaming system around a MIPS R4300i CPU and a custom ‘Reality Co-Processor.' This actually integrated two components - a Reality Signal Processor which worked as a highly programmable vector processing engine, and a Reality Drawing Processor which was responsible for texturing, filtering and rasterization. The processors shared 4MB of RAMBUS DRAM, though a later expansion pack added another 4MB, which was a requirement for some games and opened up higher resolution options in others.
The Nintendo 64 remained cartridge-based at a time when the industry was moving to CD-ROM. This had some positive effects - loading times were short and clever developers could stream textures from the cartridge on the fly - but a number of negative ones too. It made N64 software more expensive to produce and increased the risk for publishers, resulting in less than stellar software support. Technically, it also meant less room for video clips and texture data. Combined with a lowly 4KB texture cache, this meant that many N64 games suffered from bland or repetitive textures, and a less cinematic experience than some PlayStation and Saturn games were offering. The 64DD disc drive that might have alleviated these problems was never released outside of Japan.
As a result, the N64 was a console that played well to the Nintendo faithful but never achieved the popularity of the PlayStation in Europe, the US or even Japan. In many respects, the defection of big Japanese RPG developers like Square and Enix to Sony's system was a disastrous blow for Nintendo over there. Despite this, the N64 stands up because of the sheer quality of the games that were released. Goldeneye, Mario 64 and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time hold a place in any sensible gaming Hall of Fame, and the last two are front-runners for any best game ever contest.