The Gamecube Turns 15

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The Gamecube turns 15 in Japan this week and will turn 15 in North America in November. I don’t think I’ve ever gone in-depth about my experiences with the system: why I bought it, what it was like owning one as my only console during that time, and how that formed my opinion on why it couldn’t wrest any market share back from Sony (and in fact lost some to Microsoft).

In the years prior to the Gamecube’s release I only owned an N64 during its life cycle. I spent a lot of time looking from the outside in at all the neat third party games that made the original PlayStation as appealing as it was. People back then (and today) complained about Nintendo not making enough “mature” games, but the real problem was always a lack of support from the third party developers who would make those kinds of games for a more varied library. It’s why N64 owners ate up C-tier stuff like Quest 64 — there were basically no other RPGs on the system. I followed up the N64 years with a brief but unforgettable time with the Dreamcast. When it became clear the Dreamcast was on its way out in 2001, it was time to decide what would be the one console I would be able to afford that generation.

2001 is when the PS2 really started to shine. Just look at this image: the original Devil May CryFinal Fantasy XMetal Gear Solid 2Grand Theft Auto IIIGran Turismo 3Ico, etc. But at the time I still didn’t feel I could live without Nintendo’s franchises like Mario or Zelda or Star Fox. I haven’t been hyped for many games the way I was hyped for Super Smash Bros. Melee leading up to its release. Although the first images I ever saw of of Halo: Combat Evolved made my jaw drop, it wasn’t enough to pull me away from the other two options, and at the time in the console market there was still somewhat of a slight stigma against western-developed games.

Ironically what tipped the scales towards Gamecube for me were a couple games not developed by Nintendo. The first thing was the announcement that Soul Calibur II would be a multiplatform game. I’m sure Soul Calibur was a cornerstone of the Dreamcast for a lot of owners, but what if I told you that franchise tipped the scale in three of my console purchases, including the Gamecube? Knowing a console would have both Soul Calibur and my favorite Nintendo games was a great way for me to return to what was familiar while retaining something I loved from the Dreamcast days. The second thing that convinced me to get a Gamecube was the demo kiosk of Star Wars Rogue Squadron II. It’s still impressive how that game managed to push the Gamecube hardware more than most of what came out in the following five years. It even looked better than most Wii games through 2012 and still looks pretty decent today. It was probably the first Star Wars games to make me believe a game could match the audiovisual fidelity of the movies.

I would say for the most part the Gamecube era was still another five years of looking in at all the cool exclusives the other consoles got, but it did get more multiplatform games than the N64, and Nintendo did begin to repair its relationships with Japanese third party publishers. If you didn’t only own a Gamecube during this time you have no idea how it felt in the Nintendo fanboy community to see franchises like Soul CaliburResident Evil, and Capcom fighting games come back, however briefly, to Nintendo consoles. Some of the goodwill from those relationships endures among Nintendo buyers today.

Capcom vs SNK 2 was the first Capcom fighting game released on a Nintendo console since the Super NES version of Street Fighter Alpha 2 six years earlier. The Nintendo Power magazine ads advertised this fact. To a Gamecube-only owner it didn’t matter that the Gamecube controller fought against the game, or that this version wasn’t arcade-perfect. All that mattered was that I had a new game with Ryu and Ken in it. The Dreamcast was a monster of a console for arcade fighting games. Soul Calibur was followed-up by the first Capcom vs SNKMarvel vs Capcom 2, a bunch of other stuff, and Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike. Nintendo consoles in comparison were a desert, and CVS2 was its oasis until Soul Calibur II came out. Oh wait, I spent the spring of 2002 already starving for more Gamecube games and salivating over screenshots of the Gamecube version of Bloody Roar 3 because it was vaguely anime-looking and the N64 had almost no vaguely anime-looking games in a time when anime popularity in the west was on the upswing.

That was the era when Capcom became a trusted friend to Nintendo gamers. The remake of the original Resident Evil had a unique level of quality production for a third party Ninendo console exclusive, or really a third party Nintendo console game at all. I remember being glad reading impressions from PS2 and Xbox owners who were convinced to get a Gamecube after trying Resident Evil. The PS2 was getting exclusives of such quality left and right, and too many Gamecube versions of multiplatform games felt like they didn’t have the same attention paid to them as other versions.

Ubisoft (ironically one of Nintendo’s staunchest supporters these days) was a major offender here. The Gamecube versions of Tom Clancy games were often drastically inferior to the Xbox versions. It was kind of like the difference between the PS4 and PS3 versions of cross-generation games like Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor. To be fair the PS2 versions of these games had many of the same issues, but the Gamecube versions often got less attention, usually being straight ports of the PS2 code even though some other multiplatform games proved the system was capable of graphics closer to the Xbox. Some other multiplatform games from other publishers had the same feeling of inattention, and Gamecube owners knew it, or at least felt it. That’s where the vicious cycle of disappearing third party support started. Publishers would claim their games don’t sell that well on Gamecube as an excuse to stop releasing them or to put less effort into them, but putting less effort into them is what discouraged a lot of Gamecube owners from buying them.

Companies like Capcom, SEGA, and Namco made Gamecube owners like me feel like they were treating the system’s user base with respect. SEGA in particular readily ported its Dreamcast classics to the Gamecube along with the other consoles but also let its internal teams independently make games specifically for the Gamecube like a Phantasy Star Online port (with four-player split screen) and F-Zero GX. Nintendo Power went really in-depth with its coverage of Soul Calibur II and I’d like to think that it along with the inclusion of Link as a character helped that version of the game outsell the PS2 version for a while. Tales of Symphonia probably made new fans of the franchise out of Gamecube owners who’d been starved of RPGs since the Super NES years. Capcom built a base of Resident Evil fans among Nintendo fans that paid off when the Wii version of Resident Evil 4 did triple the company’s sales expectations. Did you know Ridge Racer spin-off R-Racing Evolution was the closest thing to a racing sim game that existed on the Gamecube when it came out? I think EA’s Nascar 2005 a year later was the only other one.

By the end of that console generation though, I’d come to terms with why the Gamecube saw limited success in combating the PS2 and Xbox. Simply put, it had nothing to offer publishers.

I remember reading articles circa 2001 about how Nintendo was banking on the Gamecube’s easier development environment (compared to the N64 and PS2) to attract third parties. It didn’t however predict the Xbox’s equally easy environment along with the influx of western developers into the console space. It didn’t predict how the Xbox would eat into the western market that the N64 had actually done a good job of retaining. It didn’t have Xbox’s online gaming service and it didn’t have the PS2’s sales numbers. The people at Nintendo reportedly hated doing the same thing as everyone else during those years, and doing so didn’t get the attention of developers, but rather turned the Gamecube into the third wheel of that console generation. I still blame some of that on publishers not giving the Gamecube user base a legitimate shot, but Nintendo didn’t make it easy for them compared to Sony and Microsoft.

Still, the Gamecube was host to some of the best games of its era. Melee is played at tournaments to this day. Metroid Prime is still considered an all-time classic not among Nintendo games but among games. The Gamecube was the debut platform of probably the best game of that entire console generation — Resident Evil 4, which paved the way for the modern era of third person shooters that now dominate the game market. The Gamecube was also still a profitable system for Nintendo.

BULLETS:

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2 thoughts on “The Gamecube Turns 15

  1. Matt says:

    That makes me feel old! I still remember the day I bought it and how, on the following day, I took Super Mario Sushine with me to school to show it to my friends and invite people to come over to my house and play it. Those were the days!

    I love the system. It got very good third-party support, and it houses some of my favorite Nintendo titles of all time: Wind Waker, Metroid Prime, and Paper Mario 2. Not to mention F-Zero GX, which you listed.

  2. I remember playing Metroid Prime, Resident Evil 4, and Luigi’s Mansion on mine. Can’t believe it has been 15 years already.

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