I was lucky enough to get a GameCube for Christmas in 2002. Santa had left it for me next to the fireplace and under my stocking. I was so excited for two reasons: one, it meant that the rules governing video game consoles had begun to dissolve and two I was finally caught up to my friends. The GameCube was a world of possibility gleaned through gaming magazines and trips to other peoples’ houses. The incredible jump in 3D from the N64 era felt like the future, even though I know it wasn’t as “powerful” as its generational counterparts. I had the new thing and it was glorious. It was also 5am and no one had heard me get up. I had a small tv in my room with aux hookups since I had been sick with a cold the entire last week. I lugged the GameCube box upstairs with a copy of SSX Tricky and played until my parents could stop me. I didn’t care that I didn’t have a memory card; I couldn’t wait to replay this all again.
I remember the GameCube getting thrashed at the time. We hadn’t reached the Nintendo Wii era so the iteration was a relatively straightforward one. The “console wars” were in full effect (and still ongoing) as fans drew hard lines between Nintendo, Sony and new challenger Microsoft. It didn’t boast the “next generation graphics” like the PS2 and Xbox, there was no online play and the exclusive games didn’t match the popular genres. First person shooters were the new thing as everyone pitted all games against Halo. It was the only console at the time without a second joystick, instead having an odd and smaller “C stick” for occasional inputs, making porting games to it odd and shooters relatively out of the question. Games press and fans bent over backwards to try and create parity where there wasn’t any. Metroid Prime was somehow heralded as a rival to the Halo series despite having no similarities. Players also didn’t take to the Nintendo first party games on the GameCube, sans a few notable exceptions. Mario Sunshine is still seen as the black sheep of the 3D series despite many many efforts to reclaim it. The GameCube just didn’t sell as well leading many to forecast the doom of Nintendo.
The GameCube and Nintendo were always in a separate lane. It wasn’t trying to beat anybody else in some sort of arms race merely trying to carve out their own niche to test out new ideas with 3D. That makes the GameCube a weird thing to look back; I would never say that anyone should have prioritized it over the PS2 (that library is an all time great). The GameCube is such an interesting oddity though, an experiment packaged as a modern home console. It’s a failed experiment on the whole and they learned that they needed to have a unique feature if they wanted to distance themselves from other consoles. The console itself had fucking style though; it was still riding the neon wave from the 90s and came in a small square package. It had a goddam handle, making it easy to cart around to friends houses and play. The GameCube also introduced wireless controllers with the peerless Wavebird. Making a controller connect over radio frequencies is archaic compared to modern controllers but there’s still something so cool about setting the input and the controller to the same channel.
The system was really about facilitating couch multiplayer. It had killer multiplayer games too. There is a reason that the Smash community is still hung up on Melee; it brought a gigantic roster of characters and maps and sped up the fighting by about 20x. Throws were out and hit timing was in turning a fairly rigid platform fighter into its own genre. Mario Kart double dash let you choose two characters for your cart and switch between them. You could pick different types of carts and character combinations to meet your racing style and the game has some of the best courses in the series (DK Mountain anyone?) GameCube also had the best Mario sports game: Mario Strikers. The Mario soccer game is a goddam blast taking FIFA into the Mario world. You picked a character to lead your team (Mario & friends) and played alongside koopa and toad teammates in super fast paced matches. It’s the most dramatic of all the sports games too with powered up shots and slow down for all the intense moments.
The GameCube also had an eclectic assortment of single player games. The Animal Crossing and Pikmin series both debuted in North America on the GameCube. I still remember how exciting it was to move into town the first time and meet my animal neighbors. It also got two Metroid Prime games both which are amazing adaptations of the 2D series. They both had amazing environments and rewarded exploration with lots of hidden power ups and items. The system was an RPG desert in comparison to the PS2 but still locked down action RPG cult classics in Tales of Symphonia. There was also Baten Kaitos, the epic length deck builder that people are still shouting from the rooftops about (god bless them). Just to round off the library, there were PS1 remakes of Resident Evil and Metal Gear Solid (the latter with ridiculous new cutscenes). It also even had the very first 3D Fire Emblem, Path of Radiance.
While it definitely has some all time classics, this period of Nintendo is marked by plenty of weird experimentation. Star Fox was removed entirely from his Arwing and landed in a third person platformer. The game resembles Donkey Kong 64 in its barren and connected overworld and obtuse puzzle elements. It was a sharp left turn that the series still hasn’t recovered from. Nintendo tried to make ground warfare happen with Battalion Wars, an on the ground version of top down strategy series Advanced Wars. It’s like Battlefield right where the options are limited and the shooting feels loose.
Nintendo also got peripheral happy with the GameCube microphone, Donkey Kong drums, and GBA link cables. The link cables in hindsight seem like Nintendo’s first foray into what would become the WiiU. You would plug your GBA into the cable allowing the game to move HUD elements and inventory management to the second screen. A great idea in theory until you realized that only multiplayer games utilized it. Gathering up friends with both enough cables and GBAs to play Four Swords and Crystal Chronicles was a nightmare. I eventually coerced a group of my friends to gather the required items, but our play sessions were always marked by someone losing batteries. There was always some perverse thrill in getting it to work. It felt like we’d worked together to build some sort of complex vehicle until the back wheel suddenly popped off.
I’m left with the enduring feeling that the GameCube deserved more than what it got. There’s not really a cohesive vision behind it the way Nintendo did with the subsequent consoles. It’s certainly not the best at anything but it stuck its neck out way more when it came to game design. It’s sure haphazard and semi rudderless, but there’s a lot of charm to it’s strange failings. It’s a console that wasn’t interested in being what other consoles were at the time and also had to bend over backwards to make third party games compatible. It feels like Nintendo has also backed away from pulling in and updating any of these games for modern consoles. It’s thought of as a big misstep which is a shame because it had a ton of good.