Feature: GameCube - GBA Connectivity and Wii U

Blazing a trail

Nintendo has been known to dip into its past when looking for the future. The 3DS is a good example: while the handheld may be the first glasses-free 3D video game system, it's hardly the company's first foray into the third dimension. The forgotten Famicom 3D System brought pop-out graphics to Nintendo's original home console in Japan back in 1987, and the Virtual Boy famously failed to find an audience for its retro-red 3D in 1995. The idea was always there, but it was perfected with 3DS.

Nintendo's newest home console is no different, and many of the Wii U's most exciting new features have closely related Nintendo antecedents in an unlikely source: the oft-overlooked connectivity between the GameCube and Game Boy Advance. With the GameCube-Game Boy Advance link cable the two systems are able to link up and exchange data, and when used creatively this pairing presents players with gameplay possibilities remarkably reminiscent of the kind seen on Nintendo's upcoming console.

Nearly ten years before Katsuya Eguchi introduced us to Nintendo Land's Luigi's Ghost Mansion at E3 2012 , Shigeru Miyamoto gave us a wonderful example of asynchronous multiplayer with Pac-Man Vs. for the GameCube and Game Boy Advance. One player, using a connected GBA, controls a hungry Pac-Man and tries to gobble up as man Pac-Man pellets as possible before up to three other players, directing their ghosts with GameCube controllers, can catch him. Just like Luigi's Ghost Mansion's asynchronous action on Wii U, the different screens show distinct views: the player with the GBA sees the entire map from a classic top-down perspective, while the GameCube ghosts see only a limited area around their characters.

Similarly, the Boost Mode in New Super Mario Bros. U, in which one player uses the Gamepad to place platforms and stun enemies, and the equivalent feature in Rayman Legends, both call to mind the GameCube-Game Boy Advance link in The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. The GameCube Zelda adventure lets a second player in on the action by using a connected GBA as the “Tingle Tuner”, allowing them to help Link by restoring his health or magic, granting him temporary invincibility, and even setting off bombs on the main screen: all for a small fee in rupees, of course.

The execution may not be as impressive as the dual-screen mechanics in ZombiU or Game & Wario on Wii U, but a number of GameCube games employ the GBA link cable to expand the action to two screens. A relatively common example of this is using the handheld's screen as a map or radar to complement the main game (analogous to the use of the second screen in Pikmin 3 on Wii U); the “Tingle Tuner” in Wind Waker serves this purpose alongside its multiplayer possibilities, and Ubisoft's Splinter Cell features an enhanced radar on the GBA screen, which additionally acts as a slick remote-control interface for detonating certain weapons.

The dual-screen functionality of the GameCube-Game Boy Advance connection was also put to good use in two top-tier multiplayer adventures. Both The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures and Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles require players to use connected GBA systems as controllers in multiplayer modes to take advantage of the multiple screens. In Four Swords Adventures, whenever a Link wanders out of range on the TV view, the action shifts to that player's GBA screen, allowing all four players to explore together or independently as needed. In Crystal Chronicles, the portable screens are used to access player-specific menus without obscuring the gameplay on the main screen. The Wii U Gamepad opens up similar possibilities on the next generation console, though the limitation of two Gamepads per system means that developers will have to get creative to craft these kinds of multi-screen experiences for four players.

Like the system used in Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure's “Portal of Power”, the Wii U's NFC (near-field communication) will allow real-world objects, such as figurines and cards, to have in-game effects. The technology for true NFC as seen in the Wii U was never present in either the GameCube or Game Boy Advance, but the link cable between the two did provide a spiritual predecessor with the Nintendo e-Reader. The e-Reader is an add-on for GBA that can be used to load data and small games by swiping specially printed cards through the reader. When this is linked with the classic GameCube title Animal Crossing, players are able to obtain special items, decorations, and music in their game by swiping Animal Crossing e-Reader cards. The DS and Wii sequels in the series lack an equivalent feature, but the Wii U's NFC capabilities could point to its return in a future instalment of the series.

One of the most unique features granted by the Wii U's design is the ability to play certain games entirely on the Gamepad's screen, without using a television. While the hardware disparity between the two systems ruled out any chance of playing a full GameCube game on your Game Boy Advance, one title in particular showed that Nintendo had been thinking about off-screen play long before New Super Mario Bros. U came along. Nintendo Puzzle Collection, a Japan-only GameCube release featuring 4-player renditions of Dr. Mario, Yoshi's Cookie, and Panel de Pon (Tetris Attack without the Yoshi theme), uses the link cable to transmit scaled-down versions of all three puzzlers to GBA for on-the-go play. The games are stored in the on-board memory of the handheld, where they remain until the system is turned off.

Nintendo wasn't the only company to implement this feature. Sega added portable versions of ChuChu Rocket!, Puyo Pop and NiGHTS (in the form of a single-level score attack) to both Phantasy Star Online Episode I & II and Billy Hatcher and the Giant Egg, which can be sent to a Game Boy Advance over the link cable once certain requirements are met in the GameCube games — while these GBA games are sadly tied to now-unavailable online quests in Phantasy Star Online, they're still obtainable in Billy Hatcher, making that game a sound investment for GBA-owning NiGHTS fans. Similarly, Sonic Adventure 2: Battle and Sonic Adventure DX contain a link feature called “Tiny Chao Garden”, where players can send their virtual pets (“Chao”) from the GameCube games to the Game Boy Advance for portable nurturing and minigames; afterwards, the newly powered-up pets can be sent back to the original GameCube game with their stat changes intact.

The GameCube-Game Boy Advance link was perhaps, like the Famicom 3D System and Virtual Boy, ahead of its time. Dozens of games supported the feature in one way or another, but the effort and high price-point associated with assembling all of the necessary hardware — a GameCube, four GBA's and four link cables for Four Swords Adventures, for example — relegated it more or less to novelty status. The great promise of Wii U is that it integrates all of these features into a single piece of hardware, with superior technology and the potential of opening up a range of gameplay innovations to a wider audience. Even so, hopefully we haven't seen the last of connectivity between Nintendo's home consoles and handhelds. While the idea seems largely to have skipped the Wii and DS generation (save for a few titles such as Pokémon Battle Revolution and Driver: San Francisco), it will be exciting to see where Nintendo takes connectivity between the Wii U and 3DS. With more ways to interact and fewer cables than ever before, the possibilities seem endless.