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Published November 22, 2010

Thursday marked the 9th birthday of what is arguably Nintendo’s least successful console*, the GameCube. Not exactly the most noteworthy milestone, but it’s still amazing to me how quickly that purple lunchbox has been forgotten, even with the four Cube ports built into every Wii. After rediscovering my GameCube library earlier this year, I’ve found a much deeper appreciation for Nintendo’s uniformly excellent software and thoughtful game design. Hell, even without a motion controller, the GameCube period should probably be remembered as the company’s most unconventional and innovative, and last week’s non-event seems as good a time as any to explain why.

*Not counting the Virtual Boy as a console, folks.

Familiar Franchises?

Looking back on the Cube’s launch day, Nintendo’s “big” flagship release, Luigi’s Mansion, was pretty indicative of what owners could expect down the road. Instead of offering running and jumping typical of the Mario franchise, we were offered a cartoony survival horror game with more emphasis on puzzle solving than twitch platforming. Luigi had to clear out his new mansion by sucking up ghosts with a vacuum cleaner, which obviously bears more of a resemblance to “Ghostbusters” than Mario. Suddenly, Bowser was out and Professor E. Gadd was in, much to the chagrin of my fellow Packmates and others.

You don’t need to like the game, but I feel sorry for anyone who isn’t delighted by the Game Boy Horror.

It’s not hard to see why Luigi’s Mansion was maligned by so many, and even this huge fanboy will admit that the game has aged a bit, but it’s still unlike anything that had come before or has come since. The horror sub-genre is crowded with games that take themselves way too seriously — see all of Resident Evil‘s Umbrella storyline — and I still find Luigi’s Mansion to be a lighthearted response to that. For a brief time, Nintendo wasn’t about just giving fans what they wanted; they tried to offer something new, and “new” doesn’t always translate in NPD figures.

Of course, Nintendo did milk its franchises, but the end results were often not at all what we had come to respect. The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, for instance, had traditional dungeon design, but the gratuitous sailing and incredibly fluid “toon-shading” had some practically rioting in the street. Super Mario Sunshine didn’t inspire the same hatred, but Mario’s ridiculous water pack was still an odd departure. Even Mario Kart: Double Dash!! was met with apathy in some parts. As someone who spent his entire undergraduate career repeatedly driving up DK Mountain, I was always blown away that there were some people who’d rather go back to one-man karts, but sales for Mario Kart Wii have proven me wrong. Anyway, in all three instances, the Cube entries were of extremely high quality but remain controversial today.

Luckily, the one sequel that everyone could agree on was Metroid Prime. After nearly a decade of dormancy, Samus made her triumphant return. Many of you probably know about the game’s “sordid” development history — Retro Studios had to cancel all of its other projects, and it took a long time to figure out the first-person perspective — but all that matters is that the end result remained true to the series, while also showing how to do first-person platforming correctly. Every time rain would trickle down Samus’ visor or steam would obscure her vision, the game was just as engrossing as her 2D trips to Zebes from years prior. Though the game plays much better with the Wii controller, Metroid Prime was more immersive than any of its peers at the time.

Obligatory Chibi Robo Love (and More!)

Other Nintendo series that received unique-yet-excellent updates included F-Zero, Animal Crossing**, Smash Bros., Paper Mario and Custom Robo**. But for once, the company should also be given credit for not just sticking with big names. Nintendo also published games that were almost guaranteed to die the moment they hit store shelves. (In this sense, the console reminds me a lot of the Dreamcast in its waning days.) Could it have expected anything but dismal numbers for Chibi Robo, an adorable adventure game in which you earn “happy points” for cleaning up after a dysfunctional family? What about Odama, Yoot Saito’s voice-activated military pinball simulator? Is there even a Japanese market for voice-activated military pinball simulators?

**These debuted on the N64 in Japan, so they’re technically returning.

Miyamoto did manage to create at least one new hit series during the Cube years, which came in the form of Pikmin. Both Pikmin and Pikmin 2 were almost-RTS games in which the starring Captain Olimar led the titular plant creatures to all manner of  mundane knickknacks. In the first game, he was stranded on a “mysterious” planet***, while the sequel had him return to raise money for his bankrupt company.

The golden age of in-game advertising!

***Was there ever any question that this planet was Earth?

Though some developers have managed to make RTS controls work well enough on the console, Miyamoto scrapped the interface entirely, creating instead something much more streamlined but still allowing for gameplay depth. Using the c-stick, the player could control an army of 100 with relative ease. (Pikmin 2 in particular has such an elegant design that I may be writing about the second game once I’ve completed it 100%.) Though Olimar hasn’t enjoyed the same fame as Mario or Link, he’s one of the few memorable new characters to come out of the company in the past decade. I love my Wii, but new faces are long overdo.

Drumming to a Simpler Beat

Of course, the Wii has had no trouble getting by on Wii Sports and Wii Fit. They may not have mascot characters on their packages, but the simplicity of control is a major selling point. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that we saw Nintendo experimenting with this accessibility mantra on the GameCube. It has always been a goal for the company, but with the Super Nintendo and Nintendo 64, it was obvious that games had become exclusionary to newcomers. That’s why we started seeing stuff like Kirby’s Air Ride at the end of the Cube era. This racer was unique (and reviled) because gameplay only required the use of a single button. This didn’t really appeal to the Nintendo faithful, but I wonder how Air Ride would have fared on the newbie friendly Wii.
How exactly do you control all of this with just one button?

Donkey Kong Jungle Beat got that second chance and didn’t fare so well, but its bongo controls still work beautifully. At first glance, Jungle Beat looks like a typical platformer, with plenty of fur-shading to go around. However, the hook is that players are forced to mash the bongo to traverse through each level. Hitting the left drum moves DK left, and the right moves him right. Jumping requires both drums and clapping causes him to grab bananas and smash enemies. Doesn’t sound too hard, right? But by preventing players from jumping and running at the same time, the developer forces them to constantly think about maintaining momentum. For such a simple game, there’s an extraordinary amount of skill required to excel. It’s too bad that Jungle Beat never caught on with Cube owners (or Wii owners, for its rerelease).
The Little Lunchbox that Couldn’t

These games are the cream of the crop, and I am admittedly leaving out a lot of mistakes from these years. (Four Swords Adventures is totally worth the transfer cable tangles, but I still don’t understand what Nintendo was thinking with the GBA connectivity.) Overall, though, the GameCube remains a personal favorite because it represented Nintendo at its bravest. I welcome the families that the Wii introduced to gaming, but at the same time, we’ve gotten almost everything we expected when the remote was first unveiled. With the GameCube, the results were never certain, but the experiences were always as distinctive as the system’s trademark handle and purple paint job.

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