Wednesday, October 18, 2006


Not a Bang, But a Whimper

As Nintendo starts shopping around for a nursing home to stick the Gamecube and Game Boy Advance into, ready to pass the baton to a newer, sexier generation of home electronics, I look back on the systems and their respective libraries and try to figure out what defined their existance. Every video game system, I'm sure you'll agree, has its own personality or spark, a feeling that you get when you remember the system. When I think back on the Dreamcast, for example, I think wacky fun (The Typing of the Dead and Samba de Amigo), great music (Shenmue and Sonic Adventure), inspired peripherals (VMUs, fishing controllers, and maracas!), and free, delicious internet connections. When I think of the Super NES, I get that feeling of perfect balance between raw horsepower and old-school fun. Super Mario All-Stars and Sim City. And the RPGs -- Super Mario RPG and Earthbound spring immediately to mind.

So what are my memories of Gamecube and Game Boy Advance like?

The System About Nothing

During the reign of the Nintendo 64, I was a hardcore Nintendo fan. Whether it was simply the indiscretions of my youth or something that Nintendo did differently, I preached the gospel of Nintendo far and wide. They were infallible in my eyes, and I revelled in everything they did, even the stuff that I didn't actually like.

Then... Well, the Gamecube came out. And Nintendo started a long, slippery slide out of the realm of my total undying devotion.

The tone of the system was sort of broken right from the start. Instead of launching the system with a new Super Mario game, they started us with Luigi's Mansion -- a short, somewhat repetitive non-platformer game. It's not really bad per se -- after I sold my copy, I found myself lonely for its ghostbusting action and had to rebuy it -- but it's not a game for the ages like the Super Marios of old.

They persisted for some time with the idea that they needed to create some new intellectual property. Not necessarily a bad idea, but most of the new games they created were essentially flashes in the pan. Where Super Mario Brothers and The Legend of Zelda defined new directions for the video game industry and became the center of discussion for players of all ages, experiments like Pikmin, Cubivore, Custom Robo, and Wario World (not to mention third-party offerings like Viewtiful Joe, Geist, and Eternal Darkness) were ultimately forgotten in a generation that was dominated by the likes of Grand Theft Auto and Halo. The only new IP that the Gamecube introduced (to Western markets anyway) that gained any sort of real momentum was Animal Crossing. Though a good game, it's a little disappointing to think that Nintendo's biggest gift to a new generation of gaming is a video doll house where the biggest challenge you face is to deliver a comic book to a penguin.

Then their tried and true blockbusters blew up in their faces. Super Mario and The Legend of Zelda had always been sure things to look forward to on previous Nintendo consoles, but this time around it simply wasn't to be. Mario didn't leave the impact he should have -- he was late on the console, and people balked at his crazy new waterpack contraption. Then The Legend of Zelda arrived, carrying the albatross of a new, cartoonier image. It was a time of unprecedented damage control for Nintendo fans everywhere as they clung to the idea that they loved the new style, like an abused woman who tries to convince herself that she still loves her husband in spite of his drunken beatings. Almost as proof that Nintendo realized their mistake, The Twilight Princess was announced with an edgier tone that would more appeal to the fans, but coming so late in the system's life (the better to convince people to pick up the flashier Wii version), it can't do much to change the tone of the system.

A Bridge to Nowhere

So new ideas were hard coming, and the old tricks weren't working like they used to. Ah, but Nintendo had an ace up their sleeve. They could differentiate themselves from the competition with their Game Boy Advance linkup.

... Yeah.

See. Nintendo designed the Game Boy Connection Pak or whatever they called it for the Nintendo 64 with only one idea in mind -- to allow players to get their Pokemon into a Nintendo 64 game in the hopes that Pokemon fever could give the flailing N64 a boost. Sure, the Mario Sports games made good use of it, and Perfect Dark would have if it weren't for Columbine, but if any other games actually used it (especially as a central part of the gameplay), I haven't heard of it.

So Nintendo launched the Gamecube with the promise that it would link up directly to the Game Boy Advance, opening up unlimited worlds of gaming possibilities.

First of all, no. Second of all, when Sonic Adventure 2: Battle premiered, offering players a chance to bring their Chao Garden with them, the official first-party links were missing in action. Right from the start, it was clear that Nintendo had no plans to actually support this brilliant idea that they came up with. If they built it, so their reasoning went, developers would come.

I remember playing the Pokemon Ruby Version, and a description when you examine a Gamecube notes that it's using a Game Boy Advance as a controller. "Yeah." I thought. "They wish."

The number of Gamecube games that actually used a Game Boy Advance as a controller can be counted on one hand. The number of games that actually made intelligent use of this innovation can be counted on one finger. I mean, sure, when you give a player a GBA, you take away two face buttons, two analog sticks, and you take the analog out of the shoulder buttons, but think of everything you gain! An entire screen for each player!


If there was ever any real reason to have a game where players needed their own screen to play, Nintendo never actually stepped up to the plate to demonstrate it. In the end, if a game required that sort of private display, it just made more sense to release that game for the Game Boy Advance in the first place.

Well, okay, fine, GBA as a controller is a wash. But think of what you can do by transfering data from GBA games to Gamecube games!

Yeah, fine. So we got another generation of Pokemon Stadium and Mario Sports games where you could transfer character stats. Oh, and don't forget all of those really cool and innovative "unlock something in your game by proving that you've purchased a copy of it for both systems" bonuses we got.

But hey, you can download mini-games and play them on the go! Why stick a cartridge in your GBA and play a full-featured game when you can boot up your Gamecube, wait for it to load, find the download section buried in the menu, and spend a minute downloading a tiny sliver of a game that most old NES games can put to shame?

No one cashed in on the full potential of the Gamecube game link. Here it is folks, five years too late. You have some sort of game where building character stats is important. This game is made for the Gamecube, understand. As you're reaching the end of your playtime, you download a mini-game that lets you continue to build those stats up while you're on the road. When you return home, you upload your improved character back into the game. Amazing Island had a system like this. No one else. No one.

In the end, Nintendo had to start bribing developers to use the feature, and what we ended up with was a bunch of stupid, uninspired gimmicks. After hyping up the feature for so long, Nintendo finally, quietly, folded it up and stuck it away. But the ordeal left a bad taste in the mouths of many, many fans.

Mario Does the Weekly Shopping

And then, the final thing that the Gamecube will be remembered for -- it was the console where Mario jumped the shark.

Of course, Mario has been doing cameos and spinoffs practically since his birth. And most of them were pretty good games, deserving of their own series -- Dr. Mario, Mario Paint, Super Mario Kart, Mario Party, Paper Mario, and so on. But this generation, it started to feel a little tired.

We got sequels to the Mario spinoffs that have proven to be most popular in the past -- the Mario Party, the Mario Kart, the Mario Golf and Tennis. Well fine. We got some more Mario sports -- baseball and soccer. Eh. On Game Boy Advance we got Mario Pinball Land. Yuck.

Then we got Dance Dance Revolution: Mario Mix.

See... Hmmm.

Not that it's a bad game, mind you. It's perfect for a beginning DDR player, someone who's interested in playing the game but not in intense competition. And the first-party dance mat is one of the nicest music game peripherals it has ever been my pleasure to use. But to see the trappings of a DDR game married to the aesthetic of the Mushroom Kingdom is, at best, unnatural. It sends a very clear message: Nintendo is afraid of new things. They're afraid that a game won't sell without their mascot on it. Mario is their face -- people won't associate something with Nintendo if he's not on it.

And let's not even think of the third-party sports games that Nintendo imposed the Mario Brothers upon to attract some attention to them.

So in the end, what was the Gamecube? An experiment in ideas that went nowhere. Evolutionary dead-ends left and right, a weakening of the ideas that used to work so well in the past, and an ever-stronger reliance on the ever-diminishing brand power of Super Mario.

But hey, the Game Boy Advance was a pretty popular system. That must've done better, right?

Super Mario Regress

One of the biggest criticisms about the Game Boy Advance was that it was a port machine. A disappointing number of big-name Nintendo titles that came out for the system were either developed by a different company (Mario & Luigi, The Minish Cap) or recreations of old NES and SNES games (Super Mario Advance, Kirby: Nightmare in Dreamland, A Link to the Past). This is to say nothing about the NES e-cards or the Classic NES game series. Nintendo was really phoning it in for this system, and they weren't the only ones. Quicker than you could say "portable SNES", companies started churning out ports from their classic libraries to make a quick buck on the GBA. At least Sega had the guts to authorize (even if they didn't exactly make them themselves) recreations of classic Dreamcast games on the considerably less powerful GBA hardware.

And, of course, we got updates to some of our favorite series. Disappointing updates. Updates that sucked all of the fun out of game series that I used to treasure. First, Warioland 4 failed in every way to live up to the huge and fascinating adventure that was Warioland 3. Then Pokemon Ruby and Sapphire killed off the fun of Pokemon collecting. And then Mario vs. Donkey Kong made a sheepish attempt at the magnificence of 1994's update to Donkey Kong on the original monochrome Game Boy. And Mario Party Advance.


If it hadn't been for the birth of the Wario Ware series, I daresay Nintendo would have dropped the Game Boy Advance as thoroughly as they did the Gamecube. Fortunately, there he was, big burly Wario, with a complete wardrobe makeover and a gaggle of crazy developers, ready to jam a potato up Nintendo's tailpipe and crash the party with the weirdest and coolest collection of video games ever committed to silicon.

And fortunately, he wasn't the only one.

Diamonds in the Rough

The Game Boy Advance wasn't a bad system by any means. If you knew where to look, you could get past all of the rehashed garbage that flooded the system and find some real treasures. Advance Wars was a welcome addition to the list of intellectual properties that Nintendo finally decided the West was ready to enjoy. Mario & Luigi Superstar Saga was a more worthy addition to the Mario RPG series than the completely first-party Paper Mario for Nintendo 64 had been. Rayman 3 quickly became one of my favorite platforming games of all time, 2D or otherwise. Ham Ham Games was an unexpected pleasure. And The Tower SP -- terrific little skyscraper-building sim, if you could find it.

And then there was the terrific selection of anthology packs. Best of all was Activision Anthology, a collection of 56 Atari 2600 games, complete with full online instructions. Nintendo gave us the best Game & Watch Gallery yet, with fully 20 playable Game & Watch classics, including ground-breaking games like Climber, Bombsweeper, and Zelda, not to mention 11 Modern mode games. And Telegames brought us their Ultimate collection cartridges: Ultimate Brain Games, Ultimate Card Games, Ultimate Arcade Games, and Ultimate Puzzle games. There was no lack of games to pick up and play on the Game Boy Advance.

Good Night, Sweet e-Reader

But let's not forget what was lost. The e-Reader could have been so much cooler than it was. There's something marvelous about having a deck of cards that can be used to make video games come to life. It was a case of going only halfway with a good idea -- it was underused both as a platform for game development and as a means of updating existing games with new content. A good idea in the hands of a company that didn't actually want to do anything with it. And that, ultimately, seems to be the story of Nintendo, for the most recent generation of video games anyway.

So those are my personal memories of Nintendo for the Gamecube and the Game Boy Advance. We had a giggle, but for the most part, I look back on both systems as being pretty bland and uninspired. Very little of it stuck with me the way their older classics did.

So why do I remain a Nintendo fan if I was so disappointed by the last generation? Partly it's just blind brand loyalty -- I haven't stopped craving video games, and the other big companies haven't done much to demonstrate that they can be everything that I want Nintendo to be. But partly it's because Nintendo is really redeeming themselves with the lineup on the DS. They're branching out with some decidedly original and welcome new series in the Touch Generations line and attracting the funky third party games that I crave -- Feel the Magic, Cooking Mama, Phoenix Wright, Trauma Center, Pac-Pix, and so on.

I still have my misgivings about the Wii. It has some amazing potential, but it's going to take some very creative minds in the industry to unlock it. And frankly, sometimes I wonder how much creativity is still out there. Still, it's bound to be a change from the last generation. And change is good.


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