The Gleam of the GameCube: A Promising Beginning to the End of the Nintendo We Knew

gamecube-console

By Kevin

Nintendo’s WiiU has been out for almost a year, and the system is finally starting to see a steady stream of quality releases.  Games like Pikmin 3, Rayman Legends, The Wonderful 101, and Wind Waker HD have quickly given new life to the console, while games like Super Mario 3D World, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, Wii Fit U, and Wii Sports Club, and Bayonetta 2 have begun crowding many gamers’ wish lists. Although there is now much more software on the console than I have time to play—I still want to catch up on Pikmin 3, Lego City Stories, Mutant Mudds Deluxe, Spin the Bottle: Bumpie’s Party, Resident Evil: Revelations, and a few more—the WiiU’s first year has been undeniably spotty in terms of releases.  While the launch delivered over thirty titles, the subsequent months were plagued by delays and cancellations, giving WiiU owners much cause for concern.  With two new consoles having, in my opinion, lackluster launch windows on the horizon—the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4 both release in November with not much that interests me—I can’t help but wonder if sparse launch windows might merely be an inescapable reality for early-adopters of modern game machines. This was certainly the case for not only the WiiU but also the DS and the 3DS, whose launches were a far cry from both the well-roundedness of the Wii launch and the essential Mario experiences found at the NES, SNES, and N64 launches.  Considering all of the Nintendo launches, however, I have come to the realization that the GameCube boasted my favorite launch overall, which comes as a surprise, even to me.  While recognizing that GameCube provided one of Nintendo’s most difficult eras with retail success, I feel that system offered a rare launch, full of several high quality games that proved more than the barely passable distractions that populate most console launches.

Coming out of the N64 era, Nintendo had to endure some difficult lessons.  The Sony PlayStation had garnered an enormous chunk of Nintendo’s audience by creating a platform that was more inexpensive and efficient to develop for.  While the N64 featured a handful of high-quality, genre-busting titles—Super Mario 64, Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Goldeneye 007, and Wave Race 64 come to mind—the system never had the third-party support of PlayStation, leaving many of the eras’ classics unavailable on Nintendo’s system.  While Nintendo has come to be known for solving their problems in small steps, their own way, the GameCube’s aim indicated a different breed of Nintendo from what we’d now expect.  When I first began to hear about GameCube, originally code-named Dolphin, all signs pointed toward it being Nintendo’s attempt to get back the attention of the PlayStation crowd—they were finally using a disc format in lieu of cartridges, and they even attempted to capture the essence of their competitors by echoing the names of both Sony’s PlayStation and Microsoft’s rookie challenger, the Xbox.  Though this would be one of the most challenging console generations in Nintendo’s history, this was the era in which they clearly wanted to play-up the idea that Sony and Microsoft’s consoles were their direct competitors.  Nintendo now had two formidable challengers and looked to provide a console that offered similar experiences to those competitors, with the added bonus of Nintendo’s most beloved franchise.  Nintendo had their eyes on the “hardcore” gamer, before such cringe-inducing terms were overused, and I was fairly optimistic about their chances at regaining some of the ground they lost during the Nintendo 64 days.

Armed with all of my enthusiasm for the past sixteen years of experiences with Nintendo’s software and hardware, I dedicated the day and evening of Saturday November 17, 2001 to acquiring Nintendo’s new system.  Although the system would not launch until Sunday at midnight, I scored copies of Luigi’s Mansion, Star Wars Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader, and Wave Race: Blue Storm from a local game shop.  In fact, the local shop had told me they might have a console for me that night, but when I arrived to pick up my games, the owner informed me that they were only getting a few consoles and that each was accounted for by employees and friends.  So, I decided to go with my plan B: spending hours and hours waiting in line at Wal-Mart, a store I usually avoid even for brief shopping needs.   I have never made a habit of shopping at Wal-Mart, but I have relied on their extended hours of operation from time to time for matters of childlike urgency, which often accompanies my love of Nintendo games and hardware.   When I arrived at the store— around 5:30 in the evening—I searched the electronics department until I noticed a small line back near the layaway center.  There were around ten people ahead of me in line.  I knew that I would definitely get one at this point.  A college student in my early-twenties at the time, I had saved a good chunk of my last several paychecks to put towards games and accessories.  My plan was to buy a console, a couple of memory cards, and a spice orange controller.

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As I sat in a line in some lawn furniture the employees had prepared for us, I observed that most of the other line-dwellers appeared to be males around my age, and I remember spending most of the night talking with one of them.  When he and I started to discuss the launch line-up, he informed me that he was only planning on getting Madden NFL 2002.  It took me by surprise that he would wait in line to get only that game—a game which was available on the year-old PlayStation 2 and the three day-old XBOX, among other places— but, nonetheless, I was actually quite charmed by his wanting the game on a Nintendo console.  I told him that I wanted to buy a GameCube because, although it had fewer titles and reduced third-party support when compared to PlayStation, Nintendo 64 had given me a handful of absolute masterpieces—many of which remain some of my favorite games to this day.  I began telling him about my fondness for games like The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, Star Fox 64, Wave Race 64, Mario 64, and Banjo Kazooie, and, sure enough, he quietly admitted to playing and loving all of those. I got the impression that he grew up with Nintendo, just as I did, and still had an admiration and dedication for the company.  But he was clearly feeling conflicted and embarrassed about Nintendo’s growing “kiddy” image.  I often wonder if, or for how long, this guy stuck with Nintendo.  The “kiddy” factor was never an issue for me because, even then, I felt that most “mature” titles provided a much less graceful and sophisticated experience than the typical first-party Nintendo game—not to mention the fact that I happen to love cute characters, bright colors, brilliant controls, and masterful design polish.  Inversely, my new line friend, somehow, came there to buy a Gamecube on launch night, and was most excited about playing Madden on his new machine.  I may be projecting too much into his feelings on the matter, but my memories of him serve as a reminder that while the “Nintendo is kiddy” mantra has been around for quite a while, the early GameCube era was a point in which Nintendo had many loyal fans who might just buy their consoles in the hopes that tons of third party titles would be readily available in addition to their old Nintendo favorites.  Nintendo reclaiming their SNES glory was still very much a possibility when GameCube arrived.

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As the minutes crawled by, the line grew incredibly large.  I noticed some familiar faces behind me—mostly acquaintances and game store employees.   At that moment, I felt like I was a part of the beginning of an important and successful Nintendo console.  Once midnight approached, an employee began asking the lined-up customers whether they wanted a black console or an indigo (a fancy word for purple) console.  I had not yet made the decision about which I wanted, but when all ten customers in front of me chose the black console, I knew what I had to do.  Indigo, it was!  I think this was the moment I decided that I should express my resistance to others wanting Nintendo to tone down their imaginative nature by always choosing the most ridiculous color for my hardware—a tradition I have kept, when possible.  When midnight arrived, a friendly Wal-Mart employee brought me my colorful, new Nintendo system.  I was completely thrilled.  The employee then informed me that we had to take our systems to the front checkouts, where controllers and games would await.  On my way to the checkout I ran into some of those aforementioned acquaintances, including Nintendo Fun Club’s own Ryan.  He and I had some mutual friends, and this moment marked the beginning of our long-standing friendship, based, in no small part, around our love of video games.  With the inciting event of a significant friendship behind me, I walked towards the front.  Like a scene out of my dreams, the checkouts’ impulse-buy section, usually occupied by gum, batteries, and trashy, pop-culture magazines, was lined with GameCube games, controllers, and accessories.  If Wal-Mart was always set up this way, I might just shop there more often.  I had to look carefully, but I did eventually find one spice orange controller.  I, for some reason, was in love with this controller based on pictures I saw on the internet.  I was actually jealous that Japan got an entire spice orange console, but I would have to settle on the controller.  I got my controller and memory cards and got in one of the checkout lines. I noticed a kid, maybe around the age of ten, crying in line behind me.  Comforting him, his dad told him that the store was out of spice orange controllers, and that they would have to find one another day.  I made the not very difficult decision to give the kid my beloved spice orange controller in favor of the indigo one he thought he’d have to settle for.  For some reason, I never did get my spice orange controller, and I still think about it from time to time.  After saving a dad from a trip around town the next day, I bought my GameCube with some supplies and was anxious to get home.

I arrived home around 12:45 AM on November 18, 2001, and quickly called one of my best friends, who was not a loyal gamer but wanted to come check out my new system.  He had no interest in playing, but he watched me play my new games for hours.  I started with Luigi’s Mansion.   While GameCube’s launch turned out to be an incredibly memorable and solid start, at least in terms of the quality of some of the software, the lack of a Mario game was nothing short of shocking at the time.  I remember seeing many previews and impressions of Luigi’s Mansion on IGN fairly often leading up to the release of GameCube, but no matter how much I read about the game I still had the impression that this would end up being  the vast, ambitious centerpiece for Nintendo’s new console.  It was impossible for me to picture a Nintendo launch without a superb Mario-caliber game, so even when the game journalists of the time were telling me what the game was,  I was still unable to truly imagine exactly what Luigi’s Mansion would be like.  In fact, I can remember the Friday before I finally picked up the game, I went to Toys R Us to try the Luigi’s Mansion demo, only to find a group of teenagers already playing it.  As I stood watching them play, one of them turned to me and said, “It’s Shigeru Miyamoto’s dark masterpiece.”

His early impressions proved false.   As for me, I found Luigi’s Mansion to be a fun and well-crafted tech-demo of sorts that, while short and not particularly ambitious relative to past Mario launch games, was a whole lot of fun.  The game was Nintendo’s attempt to make a game in the format of Resident Evil, but they did it in their own way.  It seems that Nintendo were, quite specifically, trying to educate themselves on some of the types of games that had become popular outside of their console—yes, I know Resident Evil 2 was available on N64, but I think most people associated those games with and experienced them through PlayStations.  At the beginning of the GameCube generation, however, Nintendo seemed to be using games like Luigi’s Mansion as part of their effort to reconnect with a segment of would-be Nintendo fans.  Although we’d have to wait for Mario, Luigi’s Mansion was an interesting and cute distraction.

Next up was Wave Race: Blue Storm.  I absolutely adored the Nintendo 64 version of Wave Race—it remains my favorite racing game of all time—and this game was certainly a beautiful sight to behold.  The graphics were fantastic and the control was fabulous.  Yet, while I didn’t play this game for too long on launch night, I knew right away it would be one of my favorite games to go back to throughout the inevitable Nintendo draughts.  I think I beat this game within my first two days as a GameCube owner—not and easy feat—and then went on to regularly play stunt mode, just, like I did with its predecessor.    The water physics created an incredibly unique and versatile palette for a racing game, and I don’t remember any feeling of disappointment with this sequel.  I thought Blue Storm was, thankfully a tight and well-crafted experience, and I would love for Nintendo to follow it up some day.

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My final launch night game to experience was Star Wars Rogue Squadron II:  Rogue Leader.  I am a huge Star Wars fan, and have historically enjoyed even mediocre games that used the license.  Like the previous Rogue Squadron for N64, this game was anything but mediocre.  Rogue Leader looks nice even now in 2013, but it looked completely astounding to me in 2001.  As if directly answering the prayers of many Star Wars fans who had played and loved the Hoth battle a few years earlier in Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire for Nintendo 64, this game provided the unfathomable wealth of fan service, all based around Star Wars vehicular combat.  Making that Death Star trench run for the first time was nothing short of a fulfillment of a childhood dream.  In my opinion, neither this game’s predecessor nor its sequel can compare.  While this game’s extraordinarily difficult final two levels prevented me from ever beating it, I think this game safely qualifies as one of my favorite launch titles of all time.   

Like my first three games for the console, the next few games I purchased were games that I feel were worth all 50 dollars I paid for them.  After reading the intriguing reviews and impressions for Sega’s Super Monkey Ball, I simply couldn’t pass up the title.  This game was the first game I ever heard referred to as a “party game,” and I can’t think of a more appropriate phrase.  Although the single-player mode was solid enough for me to play it through to completion, the multiplayer modes on this title—and even more so its spectacular sequel—became a mainstay of social gatherings among a particular group of my friends.  One of the other launch titles that I played exhaustively was Tony Hawk Pro Skater 3.  I had played, but never owned, the first two games in the series, but this was the entry in the series that dominated weeks if not months of my gameplay habits.  This game was addicting, silly fun.  Like Wave Race before it, I was hooked on continually besting my scores.  I also purchased Madden NFL 2002 that holiday season.  I play one Madden title each generation—a tradition I have kept so far—and I found this to be the go-to title for when I played games with my brother and cousins.

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Two key titles released very shortly after launch, Pikmin and Super Smash Brothers: Melee, also made their way into my game library as Christmas presents.  Both were top-notch first party Nintendo titles.  The fact that both, along with the two other first-party games, Luigi’s Mansion and Wave Race Blue Storm, were released within the first month of the system’s lifespan is unfathomable in this age of slow console starts.  Both titles would grow to be formidable Nintendo classics in the eyes of many fans.  Pikmin provided a fresh, innovative experience and would spawn two much-loved sequels, becoming a fan favorite.  Super Smash Brothers: Melee has gone down in history as the ultimate title in the wildly-popular series for many ardent fans.  Somehow, Nintendo was able deliver an extensive amount of their own titles in the early months of the console, and their ambitions made for an exciting introduction to the console.

Nearly a year after the release of the PlayStation 2, and just three days after the launch of Microsoft’s first foray into the console market with Xbox, Nintendo launched an attractive purple (or black) cube with a mysterious handle.  This system would prove a major disappointment for Nintendo in many ways.   In an era when many gamers consider Nintendo’s lack of technological prowess and aggressiveness to be an eternal truth, I find it interesting that just over a decade ago, Nintendo’s main console was a somewhat of a technological wonder.  Seeing superb visuals from games like Metroid Prime, F-Zero GX, and Resident Evil 4 come from that relatively tiny cube was shocking to some. The system was more powerful than PlayStation 2 in most ways, and was capable of some visuals that rivaled those of the Xbox.  Unlike the Wii and WiiU, the GameCube was capable of doing most of what the other consoles could.  The controller, additionally, goes down in history of one of the most beloved in the history of games.  The GameCube was, in its day, the type of system that many Nintendo critics think they should always make—a system capable of epic, cutting-edge first-party games and exclusives, to rival Sony and Microsoft, all while receiving some of the essential multi-platform titles.  It’s true that GameCube didn’t have some key titles, such as GTA, Metal Gear Solid 2 and 3, Final Fantasy X, and Halo, but I was able to play competent and competitive versions of Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, Beyond Good & Evil, and various sports titles.  To those Nintendo critics who site the company’s lack of technological ambition as the reason why WiiU has thus far failed to flourish, Nintendo would no doubt offer the retail failures of GameCube as evidence to the contrary.

While GameCube never maintained the popularity levels of PlayStation, or even Xbox, I found GameCube to be a wonderful console full of the usual first-party gems as well as several exceptional exclusives.  I would never have been able to predict the troubling fate of GameCube based on my wonderful experience with the system’s launch, however.  Six of the system’s thirteen launch titles, and two masterfully designed games released the following month, were demanding huge amounts of my time, and I could not have been more pleased to meet those demands.  Luckily for me, I was in my final year of college, and only worked part-time—a pair of responsibilities which left me more time for gaming than any of time period in my life—by far.  Had GameCube released now—while I am in my mid-thirties, work full-time, am married, and have a daughter—I wouldn’t have had the time to enjoy so many of the amazing games that sculpted its fantastic launch.  The games that I played in the opening months of that system convinced me to want to make GameCube my primary system, which proved challenging during certain points of the console’s lifespan.  GameCube does not define that era in the history video games—far from it.  But I do think, for better or worse, that era saw Nintendo implementing strategies we haven’t seen since, and may never again.  Nintendo came out of the gate with a great deal of energy that generation, but it seems to be a key moment in the pattern of perceived exclusion, in which many gamers feel Nintendo is not the company for them.   This reality would cause Nintendo to change course to a blue ocean, where their success rests on whether or not they can offer something unique instead of comparable.  They have had successes and failures with this change of course, but I think it seems unlikely they will ever go back to where they were in November of 2001.  I can see both the positive and negative in that scenario, but all that really matters to me is that the people at Nintendo keep making the types of games they make and keep challenging themselves to find new ways to entertain players of all ages.  And with the GameCube, they were certainly doing just that.

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3 thoughts on “The Gleam of the GameCube: A Promising Beginning to the End of the Nintendo We Knew

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