A Rare Conundrum: Donkey Kong 64 vs the Expansion Pak

All you need is RAM

A Rare Conundrum: Donkey Kong 64 vs the Expansion Pak
Donkey Kong 64's cast of characters. Source: Nintendo.

The Nintendo 64 was Nintendo's third main home console and their first foray into true 3D gaming. Released in June of 1996 in Japan, the N64 showcased where gaming was in the mid-to-late '90s, and what players were expecting the future of the medium to be. The namesake of the N64 is reminiscent of what was seen as important at the time - the "64" is in relation to the number of bits the console's CPU is able to output. Gone were the paltry 8-bit days of the NES, and surrendered to the annex of time were the 16-bit days of the SNES. The N64 was here, and it was bringing with it a 64-bit NEC VR4300 CPU. What exactly does that mean? Frankly, I don't know now and neither did anyone else back then. It didn't matter. What did matter was that the N64 had more bits than the other guys, and more bits meant better graphics. Maybe.

To the surprise of Nintendo fans everywhere, the N64 really struggled when compared to the new kid on the block - Sony's immensely popular PlayStation. Despite being three times faster than Sony's landmark console, the N64 was handily outsold by the PS1 nearly 3 to 1. One of the largest factors contributing factors was the abysmally small number of third-party titles present on the N64, because N64 utilized cartridges rather than CDs like the PS1. Cartridges, on average, are much harder to develop for and significantly more expensive to produce. It cost around $1 USD to manufacture a CD-ROM with game data on it, while it cost nearly $52 USD to manufacture an N64 cartridge. That itself is reason enough to eschew Nintendo's oddly shaped wonder console.

Compounding this was the fact that cartridges held significantly less memory than a CD, thus making it far more difficult to produce a solid product on them. At its absolute peak, an N64 cartridge could theoretically hold a paltry 32 megabytes of data. Compare this to the PS1, whose discs could hold upwards of 700 megabytes of data, and a third-party company deciding which platform to put their new game on is a bit of a non-starter. The situation with games made by anyone other than Nintendo was dire, that is, except for one wonderful company: British video game developer Rare Limited.

Goldeneye 007, perhaps the most famous of all Rare games. Source: CNET.

It's hard to overstate exactly how influential Rare was during their heyday on the N64. They completely revolutionized the way multiplayer was handled with their exceptional Goldeneye 007; essentially created the genre of "collectathon" with their wonderful Banjo-Kazooie franchise; and were even responsible for (in some people's opinions) outdoing Mario Kart with their fantastic Diddy Kong Racing. Rare was responsible for the simplistic joys of so many childhoods, which culminated in their second-best-selling game of all time - Donkey Kong 64.

Donkey Kong was in a bit of a strange place at the end of the 1990s. After having three excellently received side-scroller adventure games for the SNES, the barrel-throwing ape was relegated to handheld outings and rereleases of older gaming iterations. Nintendo trusted Rare to grab hold of the Rare magic that had been gracing the console thus far and churn out a wonderful experience that everybody would enjoy. This was quite the honor, as Nintendo is notoriously fickle with who gets to handle their properties outside of their own development studios. Unsurprisingly, Rare delivered. Sitting at a comfortable 90% on Metacritic, Donkey Kong 64 was released to raucous applause. It was nominated by several outlets for Game of the Year 1999, and even won the 1999 E3 Game Critics award for Best Platform Game.

Donkey Kong 64 may be the pinnacle of thousands of people's childhoods, but before it hit store shelves there was a huge problem: Rare couldn't get the game to run. When running in the N64's standard 4MB memory setup, the game would randomly crash. Despite their best efforts, Rare was unable to figure out what was causing the game to fail. Things seemed pretty bleak, but the answer apparently came in a very unlikely place - the N64 RAM Expansion Pak (at least, this remains the commonly-accepted view).

The Expansion Pak was an optional add-on developed by Nintendo to do exactly what its title suggests. By installing it in the front of your N64, you were able to expand the console's minuscule 4MB of RAM up to an expansive, mind-boggling 8MB of RAM! While this is pretty pathetic by today's standards (you can get a 4GB Chromebook for under $200 USD,) it doubled the N64's capabilities. This extra RAM allowed for a greater resolution, longer draw distances, more detailed graphics, and less muddy textures.

Example of the DK64 box showing the included N64 Expansion Pak. Source: Mario Wiki.

While more than two dozen games could be improved by the use of the Expansion Pak, only three games required it for use: The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, Perfect Dark, and - most importantly - Donkey Kong 64. Although the bug story has been circulating for years (having become the broadly accepted reason for the Expansion Pak's inclusion), the story is apparently a lot more nuanced. Mark Stevenson, Lead Artist on Donkey Kong 64 explains:

"This one’s a myth. The decision to use the Expansion Pak happened a long time before the game shipped, in fact we were called in by management and told that we were going to use the Expansion Pak and that we needed to do find ways to do stuff in the game that justified its use and made it a selling point. I think the bug story somehow got amalgamated into the Expansion Pak use and became urban myth.

There was a game-breaking bug right at the end of development that we were struggling with," he clarifies, "but the Expansion Pak wasn’t introduced to deal with this and wasn’t the solution to the problem. My memory is that, like all consoles, the hardware is constantly revised over its lifetime to take advantage of ongoing improvements in technology and manufacture methods to essentially make the manufacture more cost effective and eventually profitable. I think there we’re something like 3 different revisions of the internal hardware by this point and the bug was unique to only one of these versions. We did eventually find it and fix it, but very late in the day."

Mark Stevenson

Thanks to the difficult nature of game development, along with Nintendo's trust in Rare as a developer, most N64 owners got the expansion upgrade, greatly benefitting the system at no extra cost to them. If you owned an N64, chances were pretty good that you had a copy of Donkey Kong 64, and therefore you had the Expansion Pak. Nintendo sold this two-for-one package as a deal: buy Donkey Kong 64, get a free Expansion Pak! The Expansion Pak was genuinely worth getting, and strictly purchasing this package deal was more than worth your while.

Nowadays, the Expansion Pak still goes for upwards of $60 USD, proving their worth 25 years after they hit the market. We've come a long way from the days of the N64's cartridge woes, but it pays to remember what kind of unforeseeable difficulties plague video game development, and how sometimes, supporting the teams that make these games can create some of the most memorable experience of someone's childhood.


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