Our favorite system is two years old, so it’s time to look back at how well it’s performing and what it needs to improve upon before the next system is ready.
As of this writing, the Nintendo GameCube has been on the market for about two years in Japan and North America, and a few months less than that in Europe. Since it seems fairly certain that the next generation of consoles will be launched in 2005, when GameCube will be four years old, this seems like a good intermediate point to look back at how the system has performed so far in its life cycle.
I’ve looked at several topics pertaining to a console’s performance and given a letter grade to each one. Note that these grades are based on the American system of educational scoring, where A means "Excellent", B is "Good", C is "Average", D is "Poor", and F is "Failing". On with the progress report.
System Sales: B-
GameCube seemed to launch with great sales, then it lagged for a long time, and now it is quickly improving with the recent price cuts around the world. Though the two companies may argue over exact numbers (which constantly fluctuate anyway), the truth is that GameCube and Xbox are very close in this regard, with PS2 way
out in the lead. Nintendo has had to fight very hard to sell as many systems as it has against strong competition, but Microsoft has struggled and strived as well. System sales are currently good enough to ensure that some third-party support will continue through the system’s lifetime, which the N64 could not claim. The
installed base isn’t large enough to make up for some of the system’s other faults though. If the current momentum can be maintained through strong marketing and game releases, GameCube has a fair chance of outselling Xbox in the end, though it will probably still be close.
Exclusive Games: B
Every gamer has his or her own favorite system for exclusive titles, but I’m going to try being objective here. I think GameCube has as many great exclusives as Xbox and even PS2 do. The only difference is that most of GameCube’s exclusive titles are published by Nintendo and rated E for Everyone. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with that, but it does affect other aspect’s of the system’s performance. The only problem I have with
GameCube’s exclusive lineup is that many of Nintendo’s franchise updates, while fun to play, are not much different from previous games. It’s totally forgivable in a game like Majora’s Mask, which was developed on the same system and same engine as Ocarina of Time. But when games like Mario Kart: Double Dash and 1080:
Avalanche are basically graphical upgrades with a couple of new modes added to games that came out six or seven years ago, I have a bit of a problem. There’s nothing wrong with these games per se, but releasing this kind of sequel is something Nintendo promised it would not do on GameCube, and that promise has been repeatedly broken. If franchise sequels don’t start charting more new territory, fans will eventually get fed up and stop buying. Yeah, I love Super Mario Sunshine and gave it a glowing review, because I think it deserves it. But I also think a genuinely new, radically different, revolutionary Mario platformer is past due. Nintendo sets expectations high, and they have to deliver.
Third-party Support: C
Better than on N64, but still not very good. How many times do I have to read a press release for some new game and how it’s coming to PS2, Xbox, and PC? Then there are the games that only come to GameCube six months after the other versions are released, and the publisher is so disappointed with its sales. Sony set a very clear model of how to lure and maintain third-party support, and Nintendo has only learned part of that great example. GameCube has great support from some companies, like Capcom and Ubi Soft, but other publishers are publicly mocking the system or despairing at the awful sales of third-party software on GameCube. It’s anyone’s guess as to why the EA Sports titles are still consistently released on Nintendo’s
console; Sega wised up long ago and pulled the plug on GameCube versions of their sports games. I didn’t blame them then, and I wouldn’t blame them now. With brisk system sales after the latest price cut, Nintendo has an opportunity to go earn new third-party support and bring back those who have left the flock, but I’m not holding my breath.
Sports Games: D
Having most of the EA Sports lineup doesn’t make your system a good choice for fans of sports games. Let’s face it, a huge portion of casual gamers buy sports games almost exclusively. When I go visit my friends and they want to play video games, they don’t mean Zelda. They’re oogling over this year’s newest NCAA Basketball or Madden NFL game. Though some of us hardcore gamers could care less for those games, you can’t win or even compete in the console wars without a strong sports lineup. There’s nothing wrong with EA’s GameCube titles, and in fact they are very comparable with the PS2 and Xbox versions...except in sales. Nobody plays these games on GameCube, seriously. I know it, you know it, Nintendo knows it, and EA definitely knows it.
Consumers know that you can’t buy Sega Sports games for GameCube, and they know that Nintendo doesn’t have its own sports lineup, so they naturally assume that the system must not be good for sports games. They are totally right, not because the system can’t technically handle sports titles, but because Nintendo doesn’t care about sports. Until the company embraces sports, it can’t embrace casual gamers, and it won’t win back any of its old dominance.
Technical Prowess: A
With its relatively slow processor and strange RAM architecture, not to mention the lower price point at launch, many people expected GameCube to be underpowered right off the bat. Such fears have been destroyed time and time again by the surprising power of Gekko and Flipper. Xbox may be slightly more powerful, but the difference is slight and rarely capitalized on by developers. Games like Metroid Prime and the upcoming Resident Evil 4 truly show off what the GameCube can do.
Connectivity is a total failure at this point in GameCube’s life. There is exactly one online game on the market. LAN modes are plainly or poorly implemented, and are just now arriving when other systems have had the feature for nearly a decade. The only title making decent use of the GameCube-to-GBA link is a free mini-game that Nintendo had to develop itself and give to another company. It’s really, really pitiful. Whether you look at connecting the two systems as a replacement for online features (as Nintendo has often presented it) or a stand-alone feature, it’s no less a dumb gimmick than the e-Reader in the current selection of compatible games. It looks like 2004 may bring more legitimacy to the feature, but Nintendo has been incredibly slow to make GBA connectivity anything more than a neat symbol on the back of the game box.
Public Image: D
"GameCube is a kid’s system. Nintendo isn’t even making a new system, they’re just going to make games from now on." As ignorant as these comments are, I hear them all the time from non-gamers. There’s no doubt that GameCube is respected and supported by hardcore gamers like me, but Sony has proven that the real potential of gaming lies in attracting casual gamers, people who only care about crap like Enter the Matrix. The average
PS2 owner has never heard of Viewtiful Joe and probably wouldn’t want to play it even if you showed it to him. These are the people who control the industry. Nintendo has done a horrible job of reaching out to them and showing them the appeal of GameCube. Stereotypes are created and actively fostered by Sony and
Microsoft, which is smart business for them. Meanwhile, Nintendo has done very little to show the world that GameCube is, in fact, a perfectly good system for adults, and that the company is very much intent on staying in the hardware business forever. There’s a difference between making flashy commercials and creating a
positive public image. Nintendo has improved greatly in its advertising, but there’s more to marketing than just flooding TV screens and electronics stores with your logo. Sony and Microsoft have a very firm grasp on word of mouth, and Nintendo clearly does not.
Nintendo fans awaited GameCube as a chance for the company to fight back into the mainstream of gaming. That has obviously not happened. I still love playing on my GameCube, and there are tons of upcoming games that I’m looking forward to, and I think the system’s exclusive lineup is as good or better than those offered
by PS2 and Xbox. However, many of Nintendo’s promises have not been fulfilled. It doesn’t compete in terms of third-party support. GBA connectivity hasn’t materialized, much less revolutionized. GameCube is most definitely not the coolest system to own. It’s not remotely popular with casual gamers. The general theme for Nintendo so far this generation has been, "We’re learning, but not very fast." It seems like whenever Nintendo fixes one problem left from the N64 era, a new one pops up. Four years ago, I was sick of hearing that things would be
better in the next generation. I’m still sick of hearing it, and I’m finding it harder and harder to believe. There’s no doubt that GameCube is a big improvement over the N64. But the strides Nintendo has made have not been nearly enough to catch up with Sony, and they are just barely keeping up with Microsoft. Some of GameCube’s problems could be remedied in the current generation, like better marketing and some improvement in
third-party support. Connectivity could still be salvaged from its current laughable state. It’s not even too late for GameCube to become a viable online platform. The question is whether Nintendo can become mobile enough to act on these issues and make real changes. Otherwise, Nintendo fans will be left hoping that the next system will be the revolutionary system that GameCube was supposed to be.