Few controllers in the history of video gaming had to do as much heavy lifting as the N64's. It not only introduced Nintendo fans to analog control sticks, it also included a slot for memory cards, and eventually the heavy Rumble Pak accessory. A second screen accessory almost happened too, but instead found its way into another classic console.
If you have even a passing interest in classic console gaming, particularly hardware and accessories that never saw the light of day, it’s worth following Shane Battye on Twitter who shares stories and pics from his impressive collection of retro gaming hardware and development systems. A few months ago he shared images of a rare N64 controller prototype with a joystick design that looked vastly superior to what Nintendo eventually went with, but last week Battye shared an even rarer find that could have made the N64 the console of choice for sports fans.
As featured in an old issue of Electronic Gaming Monthly magazine, apparently a developer named Dane Galden created a second screen accessory for the N64 that added a small display to the controller that could only be seen by whoever was holding it. It was similar in idea to the Nintendo DS’ second screen allowing gameplay elements to be moved away from the main display, and according to Galden it was inspired by his brother’s attempts to cheat while playing an American football video game and peeking at which plays he was selecting. Unlike the DS’ second screen, however, this accessory was completely passive and not only lacked touchscreen functionality, but it was also monochromatic with very limited resolution.
THREAD: A #Nintendo64 ‘secret screen’ prototype
— Shane Battye 🎮 (@shanebattye) January 13, 2020
Despite the hardware limitations, there was certainly some interesting potential for an accessory like this that allowed players to keep in-game selections and options secret from other players. Sports games like football where selecting plays or choosing a lineup can be crucial to victory immediately come to mind, but strategy games could benefit from a second screen as well. Remember that before the internet was commonplace, multiplayer console gaming required everyone to share the same screen – privacy wasn’t an option unless you could trust your friends to close their eyes. (You couldn’t.)
Galden’s second screen accessory never actually went into production and in 2018 it was sold on eBay. But the auction listing included some interesting details about its development, like the fact that since EGM’s writeup of the accessory appeared on the same page as a story about the forthcoming Dreamcast console, Galden believes his creation inspired the Sega engineers to create the Visual Memory Unit (VMU) which was a screen-equipped memory card that connected to the Dreamcast’s controller providing additional functionality, including mini-games. Galden’s claims haven’t been verified, but the timing, including patent filings, seem to indicate that Galden’s creation may have indeed lived on through the Dreamcast, even if he never saw a single penny from his idea.