Feature: Launching a Console Without Mario

No mascot on day one

In recent weeks we've been looking at console launches, as preparation for the pre-launch hype for Wii U that's set to begin at E3 2012. So far we've explored console launches in general but also the launch of Wii, a system that notably arrived without a Mario title but has nevertheless achieved major sales success. In some cases, however, the absence of a major Mario title has been a source of controversy and debate: various Nintendo systems have launched with the famous mascot, so we've decided to look at the launches of GameCube and 3DS and consider whether the absence of Mario affected the early and long-term success of the systems. Mike Mason and Thomas Whitehead assess both launches and consider whether either suffered without the famous plumber, or whether he would have made little difference to each system's fate. In the case of 3DS the handheld still has plenty of years on the market, while the GameCube has since been vastly overshadowed by Wii.

The Launch of GameCube — Mike Mason

Nintendo's approach with GameCube's launch was similar to SNES' in that it was released with support from an established intellectual property alongside a new one. The difference was that GameCube's existing series was not a Mario title but Wave Race: Blue Storm; not exactly a fair match for Super Mario World. The tables were turned so that Mario's link to the launch was through new series Luigi's Mansion, putting the green half of the Mario Bros. in his first starring role.

Rather than have Mario hog the launch, the spotlight was instead dispersed between these titles and premier third party games such as Star Wars Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader, Super Monkey Ball and Crazy Taxi. In a matter of weeks Super Smash Bros. Melee and another new IP, a little old game called Pikmin, made their way onto shelves. When all was said and done, it took between five and ten months per territory before the prize plumber showed up in his own headline vehicle, Super Mario Sunshine.

The result of this risk and larger reliance on reasonably new properties, less well-known franchises and third parties? GameCube broke sales records. The initial shipment of 565,000 units sold out quickly in North America. Months later, GameCube launched to a rapturous response in Europe; it was declared the fastest-selling home console at launch in the UK, tearing the record from PlayStation 2, no doubt in part thanks to its low price tag of £129.99. GameCube-exclusive software occupied four of the top five chart positions on launch week. If Mario was missed at GameCube's launch, it was only the ghost-hunting Luigi that seemed to notice.

We all know how this story ends, though. Ultimately GameCube found itself tussling with Microsoft's Xbox for a distant second position in a race completely dominated by PlayStation 2. The momentum did not last. By the end of the generation, Nintendo slipped into third place: by sales alone, Nintendo lost that particular battle in the on-going console wars. Not that its profitability would tell you the same tale.

If Mario had played a bigger role in GameCube's launch, would this fate have been avoided? Possibly, but probably not. It might have brought bigger hype or sustained momentum for a lengthier time, but Mario's late arrival to the party wasn't really the big issue for GameCube. When Super Mario Sunshine did turn up it still managed to sell over five million units anyhow.

Its neat, playful appearance did not fit alongside the images of technology brought by Sony and Microsoft; it looked more like a friendly toy than a powerhouse, which wasn't helped by the addition of a handle.

GameCube's troubles began not at launch, but before: a combination of strong competition and Nintendo's own critical missteps with several aspects of the console that made it appear to be less than it actually was. Its name, seemingly intended as a 'me too' emulation of PlayStation's moniker, sounded childish. Its neat, playful appearance did not fit alongside the images of technology brought by Sony and Microsoft; it looked more like a friendly toy than a powerhouse, which wasn't helped by the addition of a handle.

On top of that the system was purple, a shade that had difficulty fitting in with the traditional décor of television cabinets and reinforced the toy image. GameCube was and is an attractive console, but it was not designed with the core gaming audience in mind, in a market that had not yet been expanded. Perception was everything, and unfortunately GameCube's look gave off the wrong impression to many people.

Then there was the decision to go with miniature discs rather than standard DVDs to help lock out piracy at the expense of storage space. The controller also alienated some, despite being one of the greatest inputs created for a gaming system — extremely comfortable and clever in its placement of the X, Y and Z buttons — it had fewer buttons than competitors' efforts and lacked functions such as clickable sticks.

All of which is a huge frustration, given that GameCube could more than stand up to its generational companions in raw power. Though Nintendo did not help itself in its presentation of specifications, either; all too honest, it refused to play the same game as Sony and Microsoft by only releasing statistics about real-time performances with effects activated, thus making it sound weaker than its rivals on paper.

GameCube also had to contend with the small matters of the opposing consoles themselves. PlayStation 2, coming off the back of the hugely successful PlayStation, had huge public mindshare, combined with DVD playback when early standalone players were still relatively expensive. Meanwhile Microsoft, a newcomer to the market after gaining experience by assisting SEGA with Dreamcast's operating system, was able to throw as much money as it wanted behind Xbox and started to push online console gaming into wider circulation.

Yes, perhaps Mario at GameCube's launch would have helped out to some degree. It might have given the system an edge of prestige to have that major franchise there from day one, ready for when the initial sales began to dissipate. But it wouldn't have eradicated the other problems the system faced or the uphill struggle it had against competition that was, at the time, stronger or more free of pocket. Maybe Nintendo was right to try something different and hold Mario back a little longer, given that the system sold so well out of the gate. It was most certainly right when, noting the relative failure of GameCube, the decision was made to push even further in a separate direction and establish a definitive killer app at launch with Wii. As that system proved, though, Mario doesn't automatically need to be that important title.

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