This month marks the 10th birthday of Nintendo’s Gamecube, the tiny purple system with a handle that spent its entire five year life cycle struggling to carve out a niche against the then-seemingly infallible domination of Sony’s Playstation and the surprise success of Microsoft’s original Xbox. Despite the Gamecube representing Nintendo’s lowest point in terms of popularity and market share, the system is now remembered fondly by gamers for also being home to some of the best games of the last generation. While the system’s overall library was as small as its audience, the Gamecube compensated for it’s lack of third-party support and general popularity with a handful of quality, imaginative titles that let the Gamecube carve out its own unique niche in gaming history. Now, on the 10th anniversary of its release, it seems fitting to look back on the games that made the system so memorable.
The generation that preceeded the Gamecube was a mixed one for Nintendo: While they had ultimately dominated the 8 and 16 bit eras, Nintendo’s time as a market leader came to an end when Sony released the original Playstation in 1995, and gradually began to win both gamers and game developers away from Nintendo, whose newest system, the Nintendo 64, suffered from a long string of delays and a restrictive cartridge format. While the Nintendo 64 eventually became quite popular due to innovative classics like Super Mario 64 and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, it never became the mainstream phenom that the Playstation grew to be, and as Sony cultivated a new market of mature gamers, Nintendo’s outdated, conservative business practices began to catch up to them as gamers quickly began to view the company that as a relic of the past.
So you could say that the Gamecube had the odds stacked against it from the very beginning. With the success of Pokemon, Nintendo was quickly stereotyped as only making games for kids, and when they unveiled the Gamecube, which was encased in bright, purple shell and giant handle, and it’s controller, with it’s simplified, friendly design and giant A button, the system immediately became the butt of jokes from Sony and Microsoft fanboys, who instantly shrugged it off as another kid’s product. The “kiddy” image was something that the Gamecube would struggle with for the entirety of it’s generation, and with the market quickly moving in the direction of mature games like GTA and Halo, and while it had the hardware power to rival its competitors, Nintendo’s reputation and the system’s Play-skool like design probably sealed its fate before it was even released.
But despite it’s… purple-ness, and the seemingly strange controller, everyone who gave the system a fair shot found there was a lot to like. The strange looking controller was actually amazingly comfortable to hold, and the bizarre button layout, while completely ineffective for fighting games, actually worked well with most games– The layout was designed around the idea that in most games, one action takes precedence over others, such as jumping in a Mario game or firing a shot in a shooter, and while the controller did certainly have it’s problems (the tiny d-pad, a lack of button’s when compared to the more complex Dual Shock and Xbox 1 controllers,) it was comfortable even during extended play-sessions, and the non conventional layout proved to be far more intuitive then the traditional diamond pattern that’s been standard on controllers since the SNES. The controller was eventually given a wireless variant, the awkwardly named Wavebird, which was the first console controller to actually make wireless work; previous wireless controllers had constant issues with missed inputs and signal interference, but the Wavebird worked as flawlessly as its corded predecessor. Despite the initial cold reception to the controller’s strange appearance, there’s a large contingent of gamers on the internet who swear by it, and continue to use it to play modern Wii games. The Wavebird, which as long gone out of production, now even manages to fetch a healthy price on the second hand market.
But of course, the real reason that the Gamecube garnered its cult following was its games: Nintendo’s fanbase was shrinking, and instead of going for mass-appeal, casual titles as they did with the Wii, Nintendo, seemingly content with their niche, simply made the games they wanted to make, resulting in some of the best entries in their flagship The Legend of Zelda series, as well as some new, original IP’s like Pikmin. While their experiments didn’t always work out (see the awkward RTS-Pinball hybrid Odama as an example of that,) Nintendo’s new found willingness to try anything resulted in some surprisingly good games like the bongo-controlled platformer Donkey Kong Jungle Beat (which was developed by the team that would later go on to create Super Mario Galaxy, a.k.a. the best 3D platformer of all time.)
Since it never had the popularity of the Playstation 2 or the Xbox, the Gamecube received little in the way of third-party support, and what little support it got was mostly limited to kids’ titles and licensed games. But there was still the occasional multiplatform hit that managed to make it’s way to the Gamecube, like Ubisoft’s Prince of Persia series and Beyond Good and Evil, and of course, Capcom’s Resident Evil 4, which was undoubtedly one of the (if not the) best games of the entire generation.
Alas, it was a shame that so many missed out on the handful of wonderful titles that were available on the Gamecube, but thanks to the Wii’s backwards compatibility (one of the few redeeming features of that system’s hardware,) these games now have a second chance with a new, substantially larger audience. While the following list is by no means definitive, I think I’ve managed to narrow down the 10 games for the Gamecube that are as good today as they were when they were released.
The Top 10 Gamecube Games (in no particular order)
Resident Evil 4
While it’s no surprise that RE4 is on this list, there were plenty of surprises in RE4 when it was first released: the game completely reinvented the then-stagnant series with new, action-based gameplay, and a new, behind the shoulder perspective that would revolutionize third person shooters and lay the groundwork for modern hits like Gears of War. The game was also a technical marvel at the time, and despite being on weaker hardware, RE4 has managed to age more gracefully than some of the early 360 games with which it was contemporaries with. As I wrote about in my recent review of the new HD-remastered versions of RE4 for the Xbox 360 and PS3, the game is still every bit as exciting, beautiful, and tense as it was when it was originally released on the Gamecube, and it definitely should be regarded as requirement for anyone who wants to call themselves a “hardcore gamer.”
Super Smash Bros. Melee
While the Smash Bros. series originated on the Nintendo 64, it was perfected on the Gamecube; the original game was a fun diversion, but it’s sequel was when the series truly came into it’s own, with a set of deep mechanics that, while retaining its party-game roots and accessibility, made it arguably as deep and as viable for competitive tournaments as traditional fighters. The cast was expanded to not just include core Nintendo icons like Mario or Link but also older, more obscure characters like the Ice Climbers and Mr. Game and Watch, and it also served as America’s introduction to Fire Emblem. Melee’s tiny disc was absolutely loaded in content, with many times more characters, levels, and items than the original, plus a virtual museum’s worth of bonus materials chronicling Nintendo’s rich history. The game received a sequel, Smash Bros. Brawl for Wii, which while a solid game in its own right, never quite managed to capture the magic of Melee, which is still played a sizable, dedicated group competitively to this very day.
Phantasy Star Online: Episodes 1 and 2
Speaking of games with long lifespans, here’s Sonic Team’s premiere action-based dungeon crawler, which pioneered online play on consoles and also helped to spread the popularity of “loot-based” RPG’s to a wider audience. Like Melee, PSO still has a dedicated fanbase who continue to play the game today, despite Sega taking down the official servers for the game over half a decade ago (online play continues via fan servers, the most popular of which is Schthack,) and it makes sense that people are still playing this game, because there’s simply years worth of content to experience.
PSO was one of those rare instances where the developers managed to get the balance perfect: rare loot drops a rate that’s rare enough for new gear to have a genuine feeling of value and reward when acquired, but it also drops often enough that the game doesn’t feel like a pointless grind. This balance, along with a slick, 80’s anime-esque aesthetic, and addictive, action based gameplay made Phantasy Star Online into a game that you’d sink hundreds of hours into while enjoying every second of it. It’s impeccable balance and feel have never been replicated, even by Sonic Team themselves.
While the upcoming Phantasy Star Online 2 for PC looks to be leagues better than the disappointing Phantasy Star Universe for PS2 and Phantasy Star Zero for DS, you can bet that even if PSO2 is a hit, there’ll still be people playing the original, still excellent game, still searching for some rare weapon or elusive piece of armor that will complete their character.
The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker
In many ways, Wind Waker is the game that defines the Gamecube, and not just because it was a great game, or because it was the motivation for a lot of people to buy the system in the first place, but because the game’s history mirrors that as of the system it was made for: with its bright, cartoony visuals and cute, “super deformed” characters reminiscent of a Genndy Tartakovsky (Powerpuff Girls, Samurai Jack,) work, Wind Waker was instantly labelled as more kiddy-fare from Nintendo, and the new, more whimsical art style caused many to swear off the series forever.
But upon it’s release, critics of Wind Waker’s unique visual style were silenced by it’s gameplay: it took the basics laid out by classic Ocarina of Time and expanded upon them, with faster, more fluid combat and an entire ocean to explore. While sailing through long stretches of empty ocean eventually became tedious, Wind Waker managed to impart a sense of adventure of child-like wonder that most games back then (and now) are missing, giving a generation of cynical, jaded gamers a brief, fleeting taste of youthful excitement and a sense of wonder that I wish more games would aspire to. With it’s charming cast of characters and whimsical, carefree style (as well as the most surprisingly bad-ass end to a final boss ever,) Wind Waker proved all of its critics wrong and managed to create a wonderful, colorful experience that, like a good Pixar film, could be enjoyed by anyone of any age.
The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess
While most people probably think of Twilight Princess as a Wii game, it began it’s life as a Gamecube game, and the original Gamecube version (which was released with a lower print run than it’s waggle-enabled counterpart,) is considered the “canon” version of the game. A direct response to fanboys who wished for a return to the style of Ocarina of Time after the more experimental Majora’s Mask and Wind Waker, Twilight Princess takes everything that was great about Ocarina of Time and refines it, polishes it, and then completely blows it out of the water with an adventure that is several times longer and a new vision of Hyrule that is easily the biggest and most content packed version of Nintendo’s iconic constantly-troubled kingdom ever.
Of course, you can’t ever really make fanboys happy, and upon release they complained that Twilight Princess was too much like Ocarina of Time… and in a way, it is, but is that really such a bad thing? Twilight Princess takes the traditional Zelda formula to it’s absolute zenith, with some of the series most memorable boss fights and impeccably designed dungeons, as well as a return to the slightly more mature, darker themes of the Nintendo 64 era Zelda games. With the upcoming Skyward Sword set to revolutionize the series with new motion controls and a surprising amount of RPG elements and changes to the general game structure, Twilight Princess may very well be the last “traditional” Zelda game we’ll ever see, and if it is, it’s one hell of a send-off.
Super Mario Sunshine
Super Mario 64 on the N64 set the standard for what a 3D platformer should be, and was one of the first 3D games to have controls that didn’t suck. Super Mario Galaxy on the Wii absolutely and undeniable perfected 3D platformers, and had pixel-accurate controls that were so good, it made every other 3D platformer’s controls feel sucky by comparison. Super Mario Sunshine for Gamecube… well, it did none of those things. It’s sort of a weird middle child, stuck in the shadows of it’s pioneering older brother and it’s over achieving successor, but despite that, its still a pretty good game in its own right.
Sunshine central conceit revolves around the water-powered jetpack that Mario equips throughout his adventure in the tropical Isle Delfino, where he once again has to (surprise) rescue the Princess from the clutches of Bowser. The water pack can be used to extend Mario’s jumps, give him a limited hover ability, and is also used to clean up the noxious paint that has been spread over the island’s exotic locales by Bowser’s minions. While the game sought to shake up the Mario formula with some of the uses of the jetpack, the game is at its best when it sticks to the traditional Mario platforming formula. While it’s not as innovative as Mario 64 or as polished as Galaxy, Sunshine is still worth playing for platforming fanatics looking for a solid, lengthy, and challenging experience.
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
In 2003 Ubisoft’s reboot of the classic Prince of Persia franchise came out of nowhere to wow critics and win Game of the Year awards from almost every major gaming website and publication, and now, almost a decade later, it’s still easy to see why. The original 2D game was infamous for it’s trial-and-error nature; one wrong move and the titular Prince would meet his end at the bottom of a chasm or on the end of a spiked trap, and Ubisoft’s new re-imagining of the franchise still retained to that constant sense of danger, but it alleviated the sense of frustration that was so common in the old game with an innovative new gameplay mechanic: The Dagger of Time, which could be used to rewind time and undo the Prince’s mistakes.
The ability to manipulate time may have been the game’s most advertised and celebrated new feature, but the core platforming that made up the majority of the game was what truly made the game great: navigating the game’s treacherous, trap filled palace felt fast, fluid, and intuitive thanks to accurate controls and smooth animation, and the game single-handedly introduced gamers to the concept of “parkour,” setting the stage for future games like Mirror’s Edge and Assassin’s Creed. As if the polished gameplay and unique mechanics weren’t enough, the game also had one of the best written stories to appear in a game at the time, with a small but lovable cast of characters, including the condenscending but well-meaning Prince, and dialogue that was actually deeper than the usual 90’s action movie style one-liners that you usually hear in games. Sands of Time isn’t a long game, but like a good fairy tale or fable, it’s one that you’ll always remember and one that’s worth coming back to again and again.
People used to think that you couldn’t do a Metroid game in 3D. Castlevania, which also shared Metroid’s 2D, non-linear platforming/adventure structure, had attempted to make the jump to 3D before Metroid and had mostly failed every time. So when Nintendo announced that it was making a 3D Metroid game for the Gamecube, fans were skeptical. When Nintendo later announced that the game wasn’t being made by the traditional Metroid team in Japan but rather a new and untested development team called Retro Studios in Texas, fans were outraged.
But then the game came out, and to everyone’s surprise, Retro pulled it off: despite being in first-person, the game’s platforming felt as natural as it did in 2D, and the game’s lock-on based combat had more in common with Zelda than Halo. Most importantly, despite the change in dimensions and viewpoint, the game still felt like Super Metroid, only now it was full realized in detailed, beautiful 3D graphics. The game was still focused on non-linear exploration and puzzle solving, and thanks to an excellent soundtrack and moody visuals, managed to maintain the Metroid’s series’s trademark feeling of isolation and mystery. The Metroid series would eventually be handed back to Super Metroid’s director, Yoshio Sakamoto, who would collaborate with Tecmo’s Team Ninja to create the disappointing Metroid: Other M, the highlight of the franchise still remains the game that was made by a bunch of Texans with no connection to the original 2D games that fans revered so much.
Star Wars: Rouge Leader
There’s been a lot of Star Wars games, and most of them have been pretty bad. There’s been a handful of good ones, even one that’s better than the game I’ve listed here (that game would be Knights of the Old Republic, by the way,) but as far as games that allow you to re-enact your favorite scenes for the original trilogy (i.e. the dream of any Star Wars nerd,) there’s no game better than the Gamecube’s premiere launch title, Rogue Leader.
From the very first level, a perfect recreation of the original movie’s climactic Death Star battle, it becomes clear that this game is a wet dream for anyone who grew up playing with toy X-Wings and TIE Fighters. The game perfectly manages to recreate the sights, sounds, and feel of the original (a.k.a. the good) trilogy, and was the first game to let players experience the epic battles of the movies without any compromises; the Battle of Endor looks identical to the battle from Return of the Jedi, with the space above the forest moon completely crowded with capitol ships and enemy fighters. I’ve never met a nerd who didn’t at least like Star Wars a little bit, and I’ve never met a Star Wars fan who didn’t like this game. Even if you’re somehow not into the franchise, the game is a polished, fun arcade style shooter on it’s own merits, with tight controls and a challenging but balanced difficulty curve.
The “other” Gamecube launch title is also one of it’s most under-appreciated gems. Luigi’s night stuck in a haunted mansion is a fun, inventive game in it’s own right, but at the time of its release it was was unfairly treated by fans and critics, who resented the game for not being the standard Mario platformer that they wished the Gamecube had launched with. Still, despite not being a “real” Mario game, Luigi’s Mansion still has plenty going for it: its still beautiful graphics were a showcase for the Gamecube’s power then, and now it’s a good example of how creative art direction can compensate for aged hardware. The gameplay was a mixed puzzles with action, as you not only needed reflexes to suck ghosts up with Luigi’s Ghostbusters-esque Poltergust-3000 (really little more than a vacuum cleaner,) but you also needed to observe the environment and use it to your advantage in order to get the ghosts into a vulnerable, capture-able position. Come at it with the right expectations, and Luigi’s Mansion will give you a night full of memorable, whimsical puzzles and boss fights. At the very least, it’s still the closest anyone has ever come to making a good Ghostbusters game.