Feature: Remembering the GameCube
Posted by Mark Reece
A decade of cubed gaming
Every company in every industry will have a few years in its history that don't quite stack up to the rest. With the mammoth success it had enjoyed with the SNES, Nintendo must have had quite the shock when Sony's PlayStation proved to be a huge overnight success in the mid-Nineties and poached many publishers, developers and — most importantly — consumers away from the N64. Of course, a distinct lack of quality third party software and a hefty price tag didn't help matters, and with the PlayStation 2 on the horizon and Microsoft's Xbox on the way, Nintendo needed to really push its new console for the new millennium.
That console was the GameCube.
Launched in late 2001 in Japan and North America — and arriving in the European and Australian markets in May the following year — the GameCube was different from the norm in quite a few ways. First off Nintendo opted out of using the standard DVD's that PS2 and Xbox games came on, instead releasing GameCube titles on its own proprietary format: 8cm wide discs that would not only help prevent piracy, but also reduce production costs and loading times. It wasn't only the discs that were small either: the console itself was dinky, and was certainly dwarfed by the reinforced table-requiring Xbox. Unfortunately, while this presented the benefit of the GameCube not taking up much room, those tiny dimensions, its bright purple hue and the presence of a carrying handle on the back cemented a kid-friendly image, that didn’t do Nintendo or the GameCube much good in the long run.
It’s normally the games themselves that are the major contributing factor when it comes to how well a console stacks up, and in this area Nintendo, arguably, didn’t quite reach the expected heights: the GameCube did see many changes to long-established franchises, however. In much the same way that the N64 brought many of the Big N's franchises kicking and screaming into uncharted territory and the 3D age, the GameCube saw Nintendo stalwarts evolve further still, or appear in ways that none of us could ever have predicted. Opinions were — and still are — well and truly divided by Fox McCloud stepping out of his Arwing and trying his hand at the action-adventure genre in Star Fox Adventures, or Link's more cartoony, cel-shaded appearance in The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. Likewise, Samus Aran — who had skipped the previous home console generation as far as a starring role was concerned — exploded back onto the scene, albeit this time mixing her classic adventuring and exploration with first person shooting in Metroid Prime. Kirby joined in with some high-speed racing antics in Kirby Air Ride.
As stated above, these radical decisions certainly split fans down the middle, with some faring better than others. Link's alternative design has since been used in many of his portable adventures and Metroid Prime was critically and commercially successful enough to spawn a GameCube sequel and Metroid Prime 3 on the Wii. Star Fox Adventures on the other hand, along with Star Fox Assault and Kirby Air Ride, proved that Nintendo diverting away from what made its fans fall in love with its games doesn't always go completely to plan. Nintendo did still play it relatively safe with many of its properties, resulting in efforts like the sublime platformer Super Mario Sunshine, the frantic four-player fighter Super Smash Bros. Melee and extreme sports offerings 1080° Avalanche and Wave Race: Blue Storm.
The rejuvenation and rejigging of Nintendo franchises in terms of gameplay wasn't the only way that GameCube games differed from their predecessors: the developers taking on these projects also changed, with Nintendo doing a few deals with third parties which resulted in them putting their own new slants on old favourites. The aforementioned Star Fox Assault was developed by Namco, while Treasure took on Wario World and F-Zero GX was handled by SEGA's Amusement Vision subsidiary. Speaking of SEGA — who had gone third party since the sad demise of the Dreamcast — the GameCube saw a terrific amount of support from the company, which not only ported old favourites such as Crazy Taxi and Sonic Adventure 2 to the console, but also developed brand new franchises for it, like Super Monkey Ball and Billy Hatcher and the Giant Egg.
SEGA weren't the only ones showing support for the GameCube upon its release. Nintendo had learned from the mistakes it had made with the N64 and openly sought to rejuvenate its relationship with third party publishers and subsequently got its hands on a slew of exclusives. A lot of these came from Capcom: Resident Evil 4 was inarguably the most high-profile of the bunch, and was joined by efforts such as P.N. 03 and Viewtiful Joe. Another result of Nintendo's new-found ways and the support of third parties was the large number of multi-format titles that made their way onto the console.
The plethora of old Nintendo names, big blockbuster third party exclusives and multi-format titles was also accompanied by some brand new Nintendo properties.
The plethora of old Nintendo names, big blockbuster third party exclusives and multi-format titles was also accompanied by some brand new Nintendo properties, which quickly became firm favourites among fans. For example, Pikmin and its sequel presented a duo of unique action-adventure/strategy hybrids that players are still clamouring to see for a third time. Other all-new games came by way of a bongos peripheral, with two Donkey Konga games keeping the rhythm-action bases covered, while Donkey Kong: Jungle Beat gave players the opportunity to control an action game in a way no one had ever thought of doing.
The bongos weren't the only peripheral to see the light of day on the GameCube either. The Game Boy Player was a black slab of plastic that the console would sit on top of, and acted in the same way as the SNES' Super Game Boy had done two generations ago, only this time the attraction was seeing Game Boy Advance games on the big screen. Truth be told, many saw no point in the device — just as they'd shirked the idea almost a decade prior — but at the very least it gave players another option when it came to enjoying their favourite handheld titles. Another way that the GBA became intertwined with the GameCube was by way of a link cable that could be used to enhance certain games. Mostly, this boiled down to exchanging minor bits of data between the two systems — for example, players could port their raised Chao creatures from Sonic Adventure 2: Battle into the equivalent space in Sonic Advance. The biggest and most interesting GBA/GameCube connectivity came in the form of four-player adventure games, The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures and Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles. In both titles, each player was required to have a GBA plugged into the console, the handheld acting as their own personal screen that would display their location should they leave the other players behind, and any relevant menus so as to not disrupt the flow of gameplay. Sadly, this was something that was never fully capitalised on, but hopefully we'll see similar ideas come to fruition on the WiiU next year.
However, despite seemingly having many of the ingredients required for success — third party support, big-name Nintendo titles (both old and new), connectivity with its handheld of the time and a low asking price — the GameCube didn't perform nearly as well as Nintendo would have hoped. Since the N64, Nintendo had lost a sizeable chunk of its market share to Sony, which is reflected in the GameCube's sales. During its lifetime, the GameCube managed to sell around 22 million units compared to the mind-boggling 154 million PlayStation 2 units that Sony has sold. Even Microsoft — who were, at the time, newcomers to the home console market — made something of a dent, selling around 24 million Xbox's before discontinuing the console. This less than stellar performance led to many third party exclusives jumping ship to other consoles in order to achieve more sales — Resident Evil 4 among them — while some publishers halted support of the GameCube altogether. In fact, by the time the Wii had waggled its way onto the home console scene, the vast majority of third party games were lacklustre movie tie-ins, released on the console for the sole purpose of the game potentially penetrating every facet of the market, as opposed to the publishers chasing any meaningful sales figures.
The reasons behind the low sales and lack of support late into the GameCube's lifespan can likely be attributed to a number of factors, many of them technical. For starters, those tiny discs were only able to hold around 1.4GB of data, while the Xbox and PlayStation 2 were able to utilise dual-layer DVD's if required, with a storage capacity up to six times larger. This led to many multi-format games either looking noticeably worse on GameCube than other versions due to higher video compression, or lacking so much content that buying them above their PS2 and Xbox counterparts would seem foolish to knowledgeable consumers. Additionally, the GameCube's lack of things such as DVD playback — outside of the Panasonic Q; a GameCube/DVD player hybrid that never saw release outside of Japan — or widescreen support for many games didn't help matters either, as these were also both features that Nintendo's competitors could boast.
Another major factor in the GameCube's lack of success came from the advent of online play. This was quickly becoming the must-have feature for console games, and while Microsoft was — and still is — constantly refining and building upon a unified online hub for its Xbox brand, Nintendo showed little to no interest in the idea, seemingly content to release modem and broadband adapters for the GameCube and let third parties do the rest. Indeed, only four games with support for online play were ever released for the GameCube; three of these were Phantasy Star Online titles and the fourth, Homeland, was never released in Western territories. A great deal of multi-format games available for GameCube also featured online play if bought for the Xbox, so while the industry buzzed with talk of playing games and chatting with friends and strangers alike across the globe, Nintendo sat back and watched Microsoft and Xbox Live eat into its market share while making minimal efforts to strike back.
The console will forever be fondly remembered by the fans who saw past Nintendo's faults and embraced what was perhaps the defining characteristic of the GameCube: it dared to be different.
The GameCube story isn't all doom and gloom, however. While it was undoubtedly some poor decisions made by Nintendo, as well as its reluctance to properly adapt to the evolving marketplace and consumers that ultimately saw the GameCube underperform, the console will nonetheless forever be fondly remembered by the fans who saw past Nintendo's faults and embraced what was perhaps the defining characteristic of the GameCube: it dared to be different. Those tiny discs, that peculiar controller, the even weirder idea of having a bongo peripheral, the lack of online play and the brightly coloured design — including that infamous handle — may all have had negative impacts on how well the GameCube performed commercially, but the main thing we're all looking for as long-time fans, when we bring one of the Big N's consoles home, is a myriad of quality Nintendo titles to suit different tastes. In that regard, the GameCube was every bit as successful as its predecessors.