This year we’ve taken a look back at the thirtieth anniversary of my favorite Nintendo home console, the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. It is also the case, however, that another Nintendo system is celebrating a big birthday this year, and it happens to be my second-favorite system from the Big N.
By the year 2001, Nintendo had fallen hard off their perch atop the video game mountain. The SNES had been a big hit and had won the 16-bit wars over SEGA, though the number of SNES consoles they sold ended up fewer than the number of NES systems (roughly 50 million to the NES’ 60 million). For their follow-up, the competition expanded to include Sony (a classic “villain of the hero’s own making”) and their new PlayStation console. Looking back now, we think of the original PlayStation as a juggernaut of the 32-bit era, but it actually took a while for the CD-based system to catch on. Nintendo technically had a window in which to launch the SNES’ successor and grab the victory once again in the console wars. All it would take was a system that could do what the PlayStation offered, aided by Nintendo’s killer library of franchises. I say that in hindsight, however. At the time, Nintendo had little reason to think about learning from Sony’s success since, as said, the new Game makers hadn’t had any particularly noteworthy success while the N64 was being developed.
It’s easy to look back and chastise Nintendo for choosing to release the N64 with a cartridge drive instead of a CD-drive, and while even then it was seen as a failure to evolve, you can at least see how, from Nintendo’s perspective, it was a move not worth taking: CD games were easily pirated and Nintendo is first and foremost about protecting their IPs and turning a profit, two things affected by piracy. Sony had tons more cash on hand it was willing to spend than Nintendo, and was willing to eat the losses that might come with a CD format. The move allowed the PlayStation to scoop up major third-party support, drying up the well for Nintendo and pushing the N64 to the backburner for gamers.
The N64 was still a profit-maker for Nintendo, though it sold far less than its predecessors (roughly 30 million units). It was a distant second place system in the console wars, beating SEGA’s Saturn (which sold fewer than 10 million systems) but getting walloped by Sony, whose PSX moved over 100 million systems.
Technology evolved pretty rapidly in the late 90s, and the early 2000s promised video game consoles that would produce graphics considered photo-realistic at the time. Sony was first to the market, which proved decisive. Okay, technically SEGA’s Dreamcast was first, buuuuut everyone who bought a Dreamcast did so only to tide them over for a PS2, and those who didn’t buy one were reluctant to take the plunge because they were waiting for the PS2. SEGA’s final system was brilliant but it was on life support basically from day one. The real battle of the 128-bit generation would be between Sony, Microsoft (the new player with their X-Box) and Nintendo. And, again, Sony getting the PS2 to market a full year ahead of their two biggest rivals proved decisive. Releasing the system with a DVD player (at a time when such players were stupidly expensive) remains one of the smartest sales/marketing tactics of the past fifty years.
Nintendo would need something big to reclaim their crown and, spoiler alert, they weren’t able to. Sony would win the generation for a second time, but that doesn’t mean Nintendo’s offering in 2001 was a disappointment. It might not have moved the number of systems the company wanted (only about 21 million), but over its five-year lifespan, Nintendo released some of their greatest games ever for that little purple lunchbox.
In my opinion, the Gamecube offers, pound-for-pound, the best library of games on any Nintendo system. The SNES might’ve had more great games in its library of over 700 titles, but the Gamecube (GCN as it is abbreviated), with just 500 games released, had a higher percentage of gems to be found. Some of video games’ most beloved franchises released some of those franchise’s best and/or most beloved games, and many new franchises (and would-be franchises) began here as well. Among those were launch titles Luigi’s Mansion and Rogue Squadron 2. Pikmin was born here, Super Smash Bros was arguably perfected here with Melee, Resident Evil was REmade here (as was Metal Gear Solid), and again, was arguably perfected here with RE4. Metroid was resurrected here with Prime 1 and 2, and I don’t what to say about Eternal Darkness other than it’s my favorite game for the system, one of my favorites of all time, and a game that deserves, at the very least, a re-release if not an outright remake.
And that doesn’t even cover the litany of third party games that came to the system (the kind of games that would have been passed over in the N64 era) like Prince of Persia, the full version of Tony Hawk 3, Timesplitters 2, Viewtiful Joe, Sonic, Super Monkey Ball, Madden, NFL 2k, and Soul Calibur 2. And let’s not forget Mario Sunshine and Zelda: Wind Waker. The biggest problem for fans of the N64 was the long droughts in between game releases; with the Gamecube, the system was always overflowing with top games to get into. The above list only scratches the surface.
As for the hardware, the GCN was the last console Nintendo released where they put a concerted effort into pumping out great visuals. The system was roughly 1.5 times more powerful across the board than the PS2 and measured up in almost every metric with the beast that was the X-Box. It offered the most functional and comfortable controller thus seen in gaming, with its primary, secondary, and tertiary face buttons, analogue triggers, and handles that just sort of melted into your hand, and it provided the first functional (keyword “functional”) wireless controller for a home console.
Was the system perfect? No, but it brought us from this…
Pretty hard to hate for a kid like me.
Happy twentieth “little lunch box that could.” You gave it your all, lost handily, and made me a ton of happy memories along the way.