Nintendo GameCube Special Edition 
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Written by Bryan Dailey   
Sunday, 01 June 2003

Introduction
Nintendo’s GameCube videogame system was launched in the United States back in November of 2001, so you may be asking yourself, “Why review it now in June of 2003?” When the system was originally launched, there were very few games and it was unclear as to whether Nintendo could even make a dent in the huge market share owned by Sony’s Playstation and Playstation II. There was also the fear that Microsoft’s Xbox could swallow up the entire videogame industry. Fast-forward to today and all three systems are still in production. The Xbox was not the 800-pound gorilla that many expected, Sony still leads the way and Nintendo’s GameCube has survived and prospered, thanks in part to many exclusive Nintendo franchise games not available on any other system. Now that the retail price of the GameCube is an even more reasonable $150 (down from $200) and I think the chances of seeing a $100 price tag before the end of 2003 are strong. I wanted to see if the GameCube could hold its own against the Xbox and PSII, both currently priced at $200.

The GameCube is a compact, lightweight square unit, with a small handle built into the back to make carrying the system a snap. It is very lightweight and measures a mere 4.3 inches tall, 5.9 inches wide and 6.3 inches deep. The fit and finish of the system is far superior to all of Nintendo’s previous systems, including the first-generation Nintendo Entertainment System, the Super Nintendo and the N64. The GameCube has a proprietary CD-ROM-based system and features a custom IBM Power PC Gekko processor running at 485 MHz, with 42 MB of RAM. The sound for the GameCube is generated by a Matronix 16-bit DSP sound card at 48kHz, using Matsushita's Optical Disc Technology. on three-inch 1.5GB Nintendo GameCube discs. The stock connectors on the back of the system are a pair of RCA audio cables and a single RCA video connector, but component video cables are also available as an option.

The GameCube is available in several colors, including the original bluish-purple (called “indigo” by Nintendo), jet black and, for a specified time, was available in a limited-edition “platinum” finish. This is the unit I have, but other than the outside casing, there is no technical difference between the limited-edition system and the standard-colored GameCubes. It is difficult to find the limited edition system in stores, so if your heart is set on having this shiny version, you may need to look for a used one on eBay.

I was quite surprised to find that the game discs for the GameCube are only three inches across, about half the size in diameter of a standard CD-ROM disc. Despite their small physical size, these discs hold 1.5GB of information. Even the largest GameCube games, such as “The Windwalker,” the latest offering in the mega-successful “Legend of Zelda” franchise, fits on a single disc. These small discs will make it very easy for a preteen with small hands to hold the discs on the edges, keeping their grimy fingers off of the data side. However, these discs will be just a little bit harder to find if they fall in between your couch cushions and don’t make good coasters for large cups if you get fed up with a game and don’t want to play it any more.

If you have learned games on a different system and then switch over to the GameCube, it may take you some time to get used to the GameCube controller’s unorthodox button arrangement. The right-hand thumb buttons are based around a large green center button called “A” with a smaller red button called “B” just down and slightly to the left of the “A” button. Above the large green button are oval gray “X” and “Y” buttons. The top of the controller has two large gray trigger action buttons, which are now almost standard on all video game controllers, labeled “L” and “R.” The top right side of the controller has an extra purple trigger button called “Z.” There are three control pads, two on the left side and one on the right. The top left side has a round disc that can spin in a circle, but has a small octagon pattern notched underneath it. This makes moving at a 45-degree angle in sports games very easy to do, taking much of the guesswork out of trying to make a specific diagonal move. Below the round control stick is a small + control pad that will give original Nintendo players a warm and fuzzy feeling. I sported a thick callus on my left thumb from playing “Super Mario Brothers” and “Excitebike” on the original Nintendo game pad and using this part of the control pad feels like a little bit of a time warp back to my youth. The third control stick is a yellow control pad opposite the + pad called the “C” button that is covered in very soft rubber. On many of the demo GameCube systems that I have seen at AV retailers, this yellow piece seems to wear out quickly. The start/pause button is in the dead center of the controller.

The front of the system features space for four controllers, which is quite useful if you want to have a two-on-two game of basketball with three of your friends. Of course, extra controllers are not included with the system and will run you about $20 to $30, or more if you want a wireless controller. Under each of the controller inputs are spaces for memory cards. Unlike Microsoft’s Xbox, which features an internal hard drive, you have to purchase memory cards to be able to save your games. Virtually every game that I’ve ever seen for the GameCube requires a memory card, so buying at least one card is absolutely necessary. When I picked up my GameCube, I found myself quickly back at the store the very next day getting some memory cards so I could actually save my settings and pick up from where I had left off last in the games.

The GameCube has the option to connect an Ethernet cable to play online games, the most notable being “Phantasy Star Online.” “Phantasy Star” is a role-playing game series created by Sega for their original Sega Master System, but now that they are out of the video game console manufacturing world, they have decided to create software for the current game systems instead. Although I have not played this particular version of “Phantasy Star,” I am very familiar with the series, and I can tell you that it is the biggest black hole of time in video games. Playing it online against players around the world could potentially be even more of a time burner.

The GameCube falls between the Xbox and Playstation II in terms of processing power and doesn’t have the benefit of also being a CD or DVD player. This made the price tag for the GameCube seem a tad steep, especially after Sony lowered the price of PS2 to $200. Microsoft followed suit with Xbox and Nintendo smartly dropped the GameCube to its current price of $150. During the period that I picked up my GameCube, they also ran a special offering one $50 game for free with the purchase of a GameCube. Chances are that you will see a similar type of offer come toward the Christmas shopping season, if not a possible drop to $100 in preparation for the next generation of GameCube.

Playing the games
As of this review, there are over 360 games listed on the official Nintendo website for the GameCube, and by this holiday season, that number will certainly be well over 400. As you first pop one of the tiny game discs into the GameCube and press the power button, you can’t help but be impressed that this diminutive system is capable of such beautiful graphics, even without using the component video cables. The GameCube logo that precedes each game is bright, vibrant and rock-solid on the screen of my 36-inch Sony XBR television monitor. I hooked up the GameCube through one of the video inputs on my Kenwood VR-5700 receiver and despite the fact that the GameCube does not come with a 5.1 digital audio output, the Dolby Pro Logic II that is on most of the game does a more than adequate job of making you feel like you are in the middle of the action. The Playstation II features DTS sound as an option, something I’d love to see on the GameCube.

“Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater III” was the first disc I fired up and I’m certainly glad that I’ve already honed my skating skills on “Pro Skater III” for the Playstation II. After quickly figuring out which buttons on the GameCube correspond to the PS2 controller, I was shredding it up in skateparks, factories, schools and anything I could get my hands (or board) on. Jackass fans will have fun skating with Bam Margera, one of the stars of the MTV show and recently-released feature film. He’s got some serious street moves and actually looks like himself in the game, as do most of the professional skaters, thanks to the GameCube’s crisp graphics.

Having played “Pro Skater III” on the Xbox, PS2 and the GameCube, I have to say that the GameCube version looks and plays as good as the other systems. It also benefits from fast loading times. The GameCube is very quick to load levels into RAM and to switch back to the main menus when asked to do so. In the end, it’s very hard to tell the difference between the PS2 version and the GameCube version, which I consider a small victory for the lower-priced GameCube. The GameCube edition looks as good, plays as good, the game was $15 in the store and any differences between the game play in the two formats were essentially nonexistent.

If you have more spare time than you know what do to with, you may want to give “The Legend of Zelda: The Windwalker” a try. Every Nintendo system has had at least one version of “Zelda” and it goes without saying that “Windwalker,” using the GameCube’s power and large disc capacity, is by far the biggest and most ambitious of the series. This game has a very slow beginning, as do most adventure games of this nature. Nintendo’s game designers have developed a clever way of using the first level of their games to actually train the game player how to actually play the game. This is great for those of you who do not like to read instruction manuals, although it can be a bit annoying to be spoon-fed tasks and commands rather that just getting right into the game if you are a more advanced player.

With bright, bold colors and a look that is more anime than the past “Zelda” games, “Windwalker” has smoothly scrolling graphics and an unbelievably vast lineup of creatures to fight, riddles to solve and lands to explore that will keep kids and adults busy for weeks if not months, depending on your gaming prowess. The characters and backgrounds may be a little too “Pokemon”-looking for adults to take seriously, but if you have kids who are into adventure games and solving puzzles, you’ll definitely want to look into “The Windwalker.”

Up next is my personal favorite GameCube game, “Metroid Prime.” Based on the incredible side-scrolling Nintendo game for the original system, “Metroid” has been given the 360-degree, 3D treatment on the GameCube and the results are stunning on this first-person shooter. “Metroid” has the same basic game-play style as “Doom,” “Quake” and other PC games but has the Nintendo touch to it that makes it more than just an endless kill fest. Puzzles must be solved, strategy must be used and patience is a necessity as you wander through the deepest, darkest reaches of outer space in at attempt to save the universe. It becomes sensory overload as bizarre-looking monsters flood the screen, attacking you from every direction, but the GameCube handled the onscreen action better than the technically more powerful Xbox on the comparably busy “Star Wars” sci-fi game “Obi-Wan.”

Many games are available for all three major systems, but it is the original Nintendo franchise games that set the GameCube apart from the rest. If you have been playing “Super Mario Brothers” for years and want to keep up with the adventures of Mario and Luigi, you aren’t going to be able to with an Xbox or a PS2. “Zelda,” “Donkey Kong” and “Metroid” are just some of the other Nintendo originals that aren’t available on the other platforms. As you might have guessed, these are some of the titles that are geared towards younger children, but that doesn’t mean you have to be a young ‘un to enjoy the GameCube. Nintendo built their empire without having to create many violent shoot 'em up games and the tradition continues on the GameCube.

Speaking of violent shoot ‘em up’s, the next game I popped into the GameCube was the WWII simulation game “Medal of Honor: Frontline.” This game is available on virtually every current game system, as well as for Macintosh and PC computers. The opening mission, storming the beach at Normandy, is exceeded in intensity only by Steven Spielberg’s opening scene in “Saving Private Ryan.” As you move your soldier through the game, diving into bunkers, sneaking onto submarines and shooting Nazi soldiers with a sniper rifle, this game will give you flashbacks, even if you have never engaged in real-live combat. The GameCube’s processor easily handles the graphic duties of this complex game. As enemies off in the horizon fire their weapons, small flickers and puffs of smoke rise up in the air with incredible detail. With the long-range sniper gun, you can zoom in on guards in their watchtowers, see them going about their duties, then with amazing accuracy, you can quietly pick them off one by one as you move from building top to building top. The game has already inspired one sequel and I would not be surprised to see more games using the same internal architecture, perhaps “Medal of Honor: Operation Iraqi Freedom.”

The Downside
Although the GameCube is the smallest of the current gaming consoles, it is tough to implement into many rack systems because of its top-loading flip-up top. It would be possible to install in a rack by rotating it so the flip top faces towards you rather than up, but this would then make changing controllers or adding additional memory cartridges to the system quite difficult. A slide-out rack shelf would probably be the best option if you choose to rack-mount your GameCube.

The lack of a DVD player on the GameCube is another downside that was a bigger drawback when it carried the same price tag as the PS2 and the Xbox. Now that the price has been lowered to a more realistic sum, it is a little tougher to knock the GameCube for its lack of a CD or DVD player, but it would be a cooler system if it were able to play these formats.

Like remote controls for receivers or TVs, game controllers often receive much criticism and the GameCube controllers are certainly not perfect. If you have large hands, you are going to find the GameCube’s controllers to be a touch on the small side. I’m coming to the GameCube with the Xbox being the system I played the most and to switch from the biggest controllers on the market to one of the smaller ones takes a bit of getting used to. If I had to choose the best controller between the three major systems available, the GameCube’s would fall in the middle, with the PS2’s brilliantly designed dual shock two being the best and the big clunky first-generation Xbox controller brings up the rear.

The last major downside of the GameCube is its lack of an internal hard drive. Each game’s plastic case comes with a slot to hold a corresponding memory card, but at $10 to $20 a pop for additional memory cards, it would get quite expensive to have to shell out extra money to have a card for each of your games. You can of course save more than one game on a card, but then you’ll have to remember which games go with which cards. By not having a hard drive, Nintendo was able to make the GameCube very small and light, but you’ll end up having a pile of memory cards. The one benefit of this is that you can take your cards to a friend’s house and, as long as you have the game and card with you, it is easy to pick up from where you left off. With the Xbox, there is a way to transfer the games over to portable cards, but it is a clunky process and requires an additional memory cartridge.

Conclusion
At its original price of $199, the GameCube was overpriced. Now that it’s in the more realistic price range of $150, with a wide selection of games, some priced as low as $10 to $15, the GameCube is a viable alternative to the Xbox or PS2. It’s certainly the best choice for family entertainment, as the Microsoft and Sony systems seem to be geared more towards the adult audience. There is no “Grand Theft Auto” for the GameCube. This is not to say there aren’t violent games for the GameCube, but if you have young children and want to be certain that you can get games that will be appropriate for their age, the GameCube is going to be a safer bet. The smaller controllers could also be better for young hands.

For the adult gamer with the dough, the GameCube offers games that simply aren’t made for the Xbox or PS2 and, with the lowered price of the system and small physical size, you can make an argument for having this system as well as the others. I have all three and find myself going to the GameCube as much now as any of the other systems. Nintendo has been a part of the lives of many a twentysomething and getting to play the modernized versions of Nintendo games I grew up on is a cool thing that can’t be done on the Xbox or PS2.
Manufacturer Nintendo
Model GameCube Special Edition
Reviewer Bryan Dailey





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