Happy 20th Anniversary GameCube

The little-box-that-could leaves a strong legacy despite ultimately not quite making it up the hill.

The GameCube is an odd little historical footnote for Nintendo. In terms of timeline and sales placement among their consoles, it continued Nintendo’s stumble from the Nintendo 64 into a full-on faceplant, but didn’t sell that much worse than its only real competition for second place, the Microsoft Xbox. It was succeeded by thus far Nintendo’s best selling home console, but it is fondly remembered today by gamers for the ways in which it was not its casual-friendly descendant, the Wii.

Somehow, this 20-million-selling console has had a strong influence over Nintendo and the gaming industry in the last two decades, to the point where the historical footnote has a curiously-sized place in the heads of much of the game-buying audience today.

I personally remember lining up at Wal-Mart for the GameCube launch — this particular store was newly-opened and a little out of the way, so not many people in town knew about it. There were still enough people to create a line to fill out the store’s garden section, much to the bafflement of old couples who were also unexplainably buying large potted flowers deep into November. My brother and I grabbed a black GameCube, having changed our minds last-minute from the default purple, and Star Wars: Rogue Squadron II, a title that in my memories remains one of the best-looking video games ever made.

I tried to remove the box from the bag and carry the newly-gotten gains out of the story by the handle, which itself was attached to the GameCube buried deep within the cardboard, but I was reminded by an employee manning the door that it was past midnight and maybe it wasn’t a great idea to walk through the vacant parking lot with an outward-facing box advertising the system I just bought… and was holding by a limp plastic handle.

Star Wars Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader
Star Wars Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader

After the disastrous Nintendo 64 launch lineup, which only contained one of the most influential video games ever made and also Pilotwings 64, Nintendo tried to make sure that the GameCube’s first few months had a longer tail for engagement. The GameCube launch lineup included Luigi’s MansionSuper Monkey BallCrazy Taxi, and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3, with titles like Super Smash Bros. Melee and Pikmin following shortly behind.

Say what one will about the lack of Mario on the system until 2002’s Mario Sunshine, but no one with a GameCube lacked for things to play in the first few months. It was only when the console’s slow sales, diminutive next to the massive PlayStation 2 and roughly on par with the new upstart Xbox, began to bubble up to the top did the games start drying up too. Western development largely focused on the PC-like Xbox architecture, while pretty much every major game was pledging some kind of exclusivity to the PlayStation, leaving the GameCube and Nintendo on a bit of an island by themselves.

But the legacy the GameCube left far outlived its sales or quixotic third party support. The system’s tightly-packed hardware had a definite aesthetic to the games it produced — especially in Nintendo’s own titles — of round edges, soft focuses, and bright colors. As Nintendo embraced and then desperately tried to fight a lingering “childish game” image from the previous generation, cartoonish and animated titles like The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker are remembered fondly. Even modern games, like the upcoming Pokemon: Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl or Slime Rancher, are described as possessing a GameCube aesthetic, which is somehow identifiable from a glance or a distance despite lacking proper verbiage to characterize it.

Slime Rancher
Slime Rancher, 2017

For a lot of older fans who felt burned by Nintendo’s casual focus on the Wii, the GameCube represented the Alamo of traditional gaming before being subsumed by the inky blackness of motion controls and minigame collections. The small purple (or black, or silver, or spice orange, or Tales of Symphonia teal) box hosted a number of hidden gems and hardcore favorites, like Viewtiful JoeMetroid PrimeF-Zero GX, and Resident Evil 4. Many could, and do, argue that it possessed some of the best games of all time even two decades later, a feeling that likely amplifies the hoisting up of the console’s legacy through the different path of the Wii and even-more-soporific sales of the Wii U.

In a sense, you could probably even say that the Switch is the GameCube’s actual successor. A little less Napoleonic, maybe, but a very similar design ethos to its 2001 relative.

The GameCube was a little console that had a number of big burdens hoisted upon it that it probably couldn’t meet. It was tasked with reversing Nintendo’s fortunes from the N64 era, the harbinger of the end of Nintendo’s dominance in the console space, but without really solving any of the problems that lead to it. It was tasked with tamping down Sony’s newly established dominance, only to come up against one of the biggest successes the video game home console industry had ever seen. It needed to do this, it needed to do that, it needed to rescue Nintendo from itself and save their image.

It didn’t do any of those things. It probably didn’t even really need to. Years later, as the GameCube’s audience is now buying $300 – $500 consoles and making games themselves, the console’s legacy is mostly about the video games that thrived on it. Yes, Resident Evil 4 has been ported to everything under the sun, but nothing ever feels as “right” as the GameCube version. People carry CRTs through airport security to get to Super Smash Bros. Melee tournaments. There’s even an argument to be made that Super Mario Sunshine got a short shrift in its initial evaluation that evened out over the years.

Super Mario Sunshine
Super Mario Sunshine in Super Mario 3D All-Stars

It is not hard to see why the system is loved and it is increasingly difficult to understand why Nintendo disrespects its legacy so thoroughly. The GameCube might end up as Nintendo’s least accessible library among stationary consoles, as the games are slightly too big and complicated to be easily put on modern subscription services but not big or relevant enough to be re-released in bulk. In a way, this adds to the console’s mystique as an isolated moment in time, but it also means no one is ever going to get to play Baten Kaitos Origins legally again and that both sucks and is leaving money on the table.

Ultimately, the GameCube wasn’t really big enough for different groups to touch it and come away with different definitions. But it did provide a home for different audiences to find a shared experience during a golden age of gaming. Even Sega’s Dreamcast refugees found a lot of their console’s DNA stored in the company’s once-unthinkable level of support amongst the GameCube library.

I do wonder if, to some extent, we’ll be eulogizing the Wii U in quite the same way in eleven more years. I suspect, however, that the GameCube is unique in how the industry remembers it, even if it wasn’t the rockstar it wanted to be in its own time.