By: Chris Hodges, editor-in-chief
I know, I know – another article from me about how great Nintendo is. Just hear me out, okay?
The interesting thing about the Gamecube is that it actually seemed to me to take an even bigger beating than the N64, which is ironic since it not only had a far better overall lineup, but still survived almost a full console cycle despite having two legitimate competitors (compared to the N64’s one). While in many ways the Nintendo 64 was technically superior to the PlayStation, the disparity between what was possible with CDs versus cartridges didn’t always make that readily apparent. With the Gamecube, Nintendo had not only built their most powerful console to date, but one with noticeably more horsepower than the PS2. The Xbox was stronger than the GC on paper, but when a developer was pushing the GC to its limits it was hard to argue that the GC wasn’t capable of almost anything that the Xbox was doing. I am confident that Metroid Prime or Resident Evil 4 could stand toe-to-toe with almost anything on the Xbox. I won’t digress on the tech side too much more here, because what matters above all else – and I have no time for anybody who would disagree with this – is software. Even with the N64 being home to all-time greats like Ocarina of Time and Mario 64, I would actually say that Nintendo’s overall GC lineup exceeds what it had on N64, due in no small part to both the reappearance of a key franchise that never showed up on N64 at all, and the introduction of several brand new ones. Lastly, and perhaps most notably, Nintendo took some of its biggest creative chances ever during the GC’s lifespan.
For starters, the GC launched not with a Mario platformer, but with a Luigi-led haunted house game. Say what you will about Luigi’s Mansion as a game, but that was a pretty ballsy move on Nintendo’s part. A shiny new Mario adventure that released day-and-date with a new platform had been Nintendo’s tradition since the beginning, and they completely abandoned it when they launched the Gamecube. Maybe the risk didn’t pay off and left a lot of people confused by and underwhelmed with Luigi’s Mansion as a result, but I admire that they went for it. Plus, Luigi’s Mansion was still a great little game if you gave it a chance. When the true Mario game finally did show up in Super Mario Sunshine, they didn’t just play it safe with “Super Mario 128” which most people would’ve been more than happy with. Instead, they created a slightly offbeat Mario adventure taking place almost entirely in a Carribean-inspired locale with folksy guitar music, a mostly new cast of characters and enemies, and gameplay that revolved around Mario using dual water cannons both as a weapon and a mobility device. The GC’s token Mario Kart also didn’t take the easy way out – just a batch of beatiful new tracks but with the same basic gameplay. Instead, Nintendo created an entirely new dual-driver system that completely changed the dynamic and strategy of how you played the game (most notably the ability for two people to play co-op on the same kart). Mario Kart: Double Dash is also the only Mario Kart game – before or since – that features individualized special attacks unique to each playable character.
When it comes to shocking changes to established franchises, however, nothing compares to what Nintendo did with Metroid and Zelda on the Gamecube. After missing the N64 completely, the long-awaited return of Samus Aran was finally announced for the Gamecube, as…a first-person shooter!? The collective fanboy howl was deafening. Yet against all odds, it not only worked, but it went on to become one of the best-reviewed games of all time, and remains so to this day. They even found time for a sequel, which is another thing not to be taken lightly: two true entries to a Nintendo franchise on a single system. And they not only did that with Metroid but also with Zelda, and unlike Majora’s Mask, Twilight Princess wasn’t just a smaller offshoot game to Wind Waker built on the same engine and reusing a lot of art assets and environments. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find back-to-back entries in any franchise in video game history that looked more different than Wind Waker and Twilight Princess, let alone two entries in a franchise on a single platform. Even though TP was also released on Wii, it doesn’t change the astonishing fact that the Gamecube is home to two full-fledged, full-length Zelda adventures, something not accomplished on a console since the original NES.
Wind Waker was also responsible for the other big earth-shaking change that occurred within a Nintendo franchise on GC, as Link’s usual vast open countryside was replaced with sea-based exploration via sailboat (Nintendo apparently had a thing with water during the Gamecube era). Of course, that wasn’t really even the BIG change; that distinction belongs to WW‘s bright, cartoony, cel-shaded look and Link and company’s complete (borderline unrecognizable) character redesigns. You’d think a simple shift in art style wouldn’t matter that much, but when you are talking about a franchise and characters as venerable as Zelda’s, any big change is likely to be met with resistance, and resist it many did. Those people, of course, missed out on a quest to rival Ocarina’s in terms of scope, ambition, and most importantly, quality. Some even say it surpasses it. Twilight Princess is no slouch in the quality department, either, and while it garnered the most attention for being a Wii launch title, a lot of people prefer the Gamecube version as it a features a more traditional control scheme (the Wii version relies heavily on motion control, and sloppy early Wii motion control to boot). Plus, the really hardcore Zelda fans hated that they changed Link from a lefty to a righty for the Wii version to better suit the fact that the Wii remote – which is used to control Link’s sword – was going to be held in the right hand of most gamers. So, you know, there’s that.
After the decent but unremarkable Donkey Kong 64, Nintendo’s original mascot returned to his 2D roots on the Gamecube with Donkey Kong: Jungle Beat. It was notable not only for being a 2D side-scroller at a time when that genre primarily resided on handhelds, but for controlling entirely with a bongo drum controller. The whole thing could’ve been a complete mess, or at the very least an amusing novelty that wore thin after five minutes, but that didn’t end up being the case. Not only did the bongos provide some unique gameplay scenarios that wouldn’t have been as enjoyable with a standard controller, the core game itself was a very well-made platformer that rose above the quirk factor of the bongos. The controller’s other primary use was with the music game series Donkey Konga, which were fun but ultimately forgettable rhythm games, especially in a post-Guitar Hero world. Speaking of Mario villains who have their own games, Wario stepped into the console space on the Gamecube with the Treasure-developed pseudo-3D action game Wario World, which received only lukewarm reviews. Most of the criticism leveled at the game stemmed from the fact that it lacked the creativity and puzzle-solving of the Game Boy’s WarioLand series and instead was more or less a beat-em-up with only light platform and puzzle elements. In my humble opinion, though, was still a well-made game that was worth taking for a spin, and again, it was definitely taking a Nintendo character and franchise in an unexpected direction.
The bulk of Nintendo’s other franchises made worthwhile but not overwhelmingly revolutionary appearances on the Gamecube: Smash Bros., Paper Mario, Fire Emblem, F-Zero, Mario Party/Tennis/Golf, Pokemon,Wave Race, and so on. Now, before anybody skips ahead to the comment section and begins an angry tirade about me about having the nerve to lump some of those games in that list with the likes of Mario Party’s uninspired annual entries, let me clarify that I wasn’t trying to downplay the quality of those games or imply that they weren’t legitimate sequels that weren’t good or even great games in their own right. The point here is not to write an entire blow-by-blow history of the Gamecube; rather, I mainly want to dwell on the things that I feel made the Gamecube truly unique, and the sequels that I mentioned in that list – while in some cases fantastic games – aren’t examples of what I think really made the Gamecube something special beyond the usual, expected Nintendo greatness. Although, it should be noted that F-Zero GX was developed by a Sega studio, at a time when we still weren’t terribly far removed from Sega still existing as a first-party game and hardware maker and longtime rival to Nintendo, so that was a pretty big deal and another interesting notch in the Gamecube’s belt of uniqueness.
The Gamecube was also home to a few notable Nintendo franchise debuts, at least in America. One of the Gamecube’s most defining games for me, and the one that I put the most time into that didn’t involve rescuing princesses named Zelda or Peach, is Animal Crossing. It is a game that grabbed me in a way that no other game had before, or even since. I never would’ve imagined the attachment that I’d develop to my town, my home, and my neighbors, and as a result I made sure to play it every single day for what had to be at least two or three consecutive months. Unfortunately, the Animal Crossing series has produced ever-diminishing returns as it has gone on – for me, anyway – with little in the way of significant changes or improvements from one sequel to the next, but that only serves as a testament to the original game’s quality that Nintendo can keep getting away with changing so little and yet still captivating so many (even series veterans). Another big Gamecube debut was Pikmin, Shigeru Miyamoto’s quirky real-time strategy game that was another unique offering from the usual Nintendo fare. After crash-landing on a mysterious alien planet, protagonist Captain Olimar must recruit the local species – the titular Pikmin – to help him find the pieces to his broken spaceship. You must round up the Pikmin and issue them commands, utilizing each of the three different types of Pikmin in various combinations to move obstacles, carry objects, attack enemies, and perform other tasks. This game was way outside of Nintendo’s wheelhouse, and was another great showcase for Nintendo’s commitment to creativity and trying new things on the Gamecube. Pikmin was successful enough to earn a GC sequel – yet another Nintendo sequel on a single platform – and it was widely considered to be superior to its predecessor, specifically because it addressed and fixed the two key complaints about the first game: the time limit and the lack of multiplayer.
Arguably the most oddball Nintendo-produced offering on the Gamecube was Chibi-Robo (developed by skip Ltd. with help from Shigeru Miyamoto and Nintendo). I won’t say much about it since I didn’t personally play it, but I know the basic premise is that you are a small robot who does household chores. It was very well-received and remains a fan favorite that has since spawned several sequels on subsequent Nintendo platforms.
Just so you don’t think I’m selectively picking the good stuff to talk about, I’ll concede that there were a few serious missteps from Nintendo on the Gamecube. The two attempts at Star Fox fell flat, the Punch-Out series was completely ignored for a second consecutive console cycle, and Kirby’s Air Ride, well…the less said about that, the better. And while I had a lot of fun playing Pac-Man Vs. and Four Swords Adventures the few times that I actually had the friends, the accessories, and the set-up time required to do so, there’s no getting around the fact that Nintendo’s much-touted Gamecube-to-Game Boy Advance “connectivity” was a complete bust, as was the promising but ultimately mishandled and underused e-Reader peripheral.
Which brings us to third-party support, an area that much of the gaming press and community really took the Gamecube to task on, unfairly so if you ask me. Speaking strictly in terms of true third-party exclusives, the Gamecube no doubt ranked third for its generation behind the PS2 and Xbox. There are really only a few even worth mentioning: the excellent Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem, Sega’s solid volleyball title Beach Spikers, the second and third entries in the Star Wars: Rogue Squadron series, the underrated Billy Hatcher and the Giant Egg from Sonic Team, the Treasure shmup Ikaruga, the sublimely weird Cubivore, the previously-planned-for-N64 Resident Evil Zero, and some RPG love in the form of Baten Kaitos, Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles, and Tales of Symphonia. The Gamecube also had the honor of hosting a few noteworthy remakes ranging from more simple upgrades like Skies of Arcadia Legends and the two Sonic Adventure titles to full-blown, from-the-ground-up reimaginings of Resident Evil and Metal Gear Solid. This list of important Gamecube exclusives would contain a few more key titles if not for a few of those previously-promised “exclusives” eventually making their way to other systems (Capcom, I’m looking at you). Resident Evil 4, of course, would’ve made for a lifetime of bragging rights as it is a frequently nominated contender for the best game of its generation, and like Metroid Prime, ranks among the best-reviewed games in history. Yet it did eventually come to the PS2 and, later, just about everything else.
Still, the point remains that RE4 is, in fact, on the Gamecube, which again leads me to point out that third-party non-exclusives don’t just get taken off the table when discussing the value of a console’s library. In fact, when you look back at the highest-regarded games of that time, there isn’t a terribly high number (first- and second-party Sony and Microsoft software notwithstanding) that missed the Gamecube completely. I’m going to resort to just making another no-frills list to prove my point, but I think this roster of third-party Gamecube games speaks for itself: Prince of Persia: Sands of Time/Warrior Within/Two Thrones, Medal of Honor Frontline, Lego Star Wars I-II, SSX Tricky and 3, Alien Hominid, Beyond Good & Evil, Baulder’s Gate: Dark Alliance, Burnout 1-2 , Crazy Taxi, Def Jam: Fight for New York, Gun, Hitman 2, Splinter Cell 1-3, Viewtiful Joe 1-2, NBA Street 1-3, Killer 7, Phantasy Star Online 1-3, The Sims, Super Monkey Ball, Timesplitters 2, X-Men Legends 1-2, and 007 Everything or Nothing. And if you throw in overall big-name franchises that had a presence on Gamecube, that list grows to include Madden and most of EA’s main sports franchises, Tony Hawk, Need for Speed, Mortal Kombat, Harvest Moon, DDR, Bomberman, Call of Duty, and retro compilations showcasing Midway, Mega Man, and Sonic the Hedgehog. Again, PS2 and Xbox’s respective lists are far more impressive, but it doesn’t discount GC’s, especially when many of the era’s absolute biggest and best multiplatform games – RE4, Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, Beyond Good & Evil, et al – showed up on GC as well.
So, about the provocative question that serves as the title for this article–well, the truth is, I can’t answer that with a completely indisputable “yes.” While I do think I could make the case for it holding its own against both the N64 and even the SNES, I still believe that Nintendo’s best overall system is the NES. However, while the Gamecube may not have been Nintendo’s best system, or even the best system of its generation, the criticism that it is often leveled at it is unfair and short-sided. Maybe it took an even harder beating than the N64 simply because the competition was so much stronger, and also because people didn’t appreciate the chances that Nintendo took with its revered franchises. The statement I will make, and stand by, is that the Gamecube is Nintendo’s most creatively diverse system to date, and if you have a problem with the path of playing it safe and catering less to the hardcore gamer and more to the casual crowded that began with the Wii, well, maybe you shouldn’t have been so hard on them and resistant to change when they tried to be different on the Gamecube. I liken the Gamecube to the Dreamcast: Both systems saw their respective parent companies at their most creative, daring, and unrestrained, making some of the best and most original games not only of their own catalogs, but in gaming history in general.
So, in closing, whether or not the GameCube is Nintendo’s best system is hard to say–but I can most definitely say it is my favorite.