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As GameCube turns 20 in North America today, many players will have fond memories of the system that came third behind PS2 and Xbox, selling just 22 million units.
Even though its commercial performance was disappointing, It’s still the system that introduced Animal Crossing, Pikmin and Luigi’s Mansion, that perfected Smash Bros. and introduced arguably the house of Mario’s greatest traditional controller.
Its exclusive software library was the envy of nearly any other system, with genuine classics like Resident Evil 4, Metroid Prime and F-Zero GX, and even its wonderful experiments – playing Donkey Kong with plastic bongos, and 4-player Zelda using Game Boy link cables – are treasured to this day.
But as a platform, Gamecube was also Nintendo at its most frustratingly conservative. Its third-party relations were at an all-time low, online gaming was virtually non-existent and its proprietary mini discs – designed to ease internal concerns over piracy – offered a fraction of the storage DVD did (not to mention no movie playback).
But GameCube’s biggest flaw, according to one man who helped create the console hardware, was that it didn’t offer a meaningful enough differentiator from its competitors.
“In order for a console to ‘win’, you need to do everything right and then you need to have one more thing, a killer feature that nobody else has,” developer Martin Hollis told VGC. Hollis – who’s probably best known as the director of Rare’s GoldenEye 007 – spent six months at Nintendo of America in 1999, consulting on the creation of ‘Project Dolphin’, which would eventually become GameCube.
“Nintendo had suffered quite a punishing defeat with the N64. They made nice money, but they lost the majority market share, and the reason was because they didn’t have a CD drive – really it’s as simple as that,” he explained.
“So that’s something that they got right on GameCube and it was also a lovely machine to develop for. But that wasn’t enough… it didn’t have that ‘one more thing’. It didn’t have a gimmick, a secret weapon or that one sizable feature that nobody else had.
“The handle and the idea of carrying it from house to house, I think could have been great, but we just couldn’t think of a way to make that a big deal… I never really felt like we made a success out of the handle. It was just nice to have, and that’s it.”
Marketeers involved in the launch of GameCube told VGC that in hindsight – and with knowledge of the huge success that followed with the mass market Wii and DS – they probably should have positioned GameCube more broadly than their often macho marketing managed.
“With hindsight I don’t think we should’ve been trying to go after the same audience [as Xbox and PS2], going head-to-head against competitors who had squarely positioned 16-34-year-old products and who ours maybe didn’t chime as much with,” said Dawn Paine, who was Nintendo UK’s marketing director from 2001 to 2012, and now CEO of creative agency Aurora.
“Personally, I loved the GameCube, but even the look of it made some people perceive it more for kids than a wider appeal,” she added. “If we could do it again, we would probably be less 16-34 and play to our strengths and gone after a more overtly family and kids audience.”
Across the pond, Nintendo of America’s former comms bosses look back at GameCube’s sales performance with a more positive spin, suggesting that it paved the way for the eventual successes of Wii, DS and now, Nintendo Switch.
“I actually think it was the first ever system to appeal to beyond hardcore gamers,” said Perrin Kaplan, who was Nintendo of America’s VP of marketing and corporate affairs from 1992 to 2008, and is now co-founder of marketing firm Zebra Partners.
“Where I believe Nintendo continues to be very brave and smart, is that any company who creates something that’s brand new doesn’t always succeed. But it inspires an idea, and I think with each console Nintendo has started something new.”
In the summer of 1999, Martin Hollis, the game director behind legendary N64 shooters GoldenEye and Perfect Dark, had quit his job and was taking a vacation in Southeast Asia, when he received an unexpected phone call. It was Genyo Takeda, Nintendo Japan’s head of R&D.
Nintendo was working on its next console codenamed Project Dolphin, Takeda explained, and he was looking to recruit a consultant who could bring a Western developer’s perspective to its creation.
Hollis had previously tested N64’s silicon graphics chip, after being nominated by Rare to fly out and evaluate the system’s capabilities in the mid-90s. This experience – combined with having created arguably N64’s biggest hit – meant that the recently unemployed designer ticked all the right boxes.
“I remember I was standing outside a youth hostel in Singapore, and he was explaining what the advantages would be to work for Nintendo,” Hollis reminisced.
“He basically did an excellent job of selling it. I’ve always had a fascination with hardware, and I like to understand everything. So it was an opportunity to take a change of direction and get a lowdown of how this new platform worked so I could get a head start on making a game. That’s how I looked at it at the time, anyway.”
Hollis ended up joining Nintendo Technology Development (NTD), a US-based team established to assist with the creation of software technologies, hardware tools and development kits. NTD’s first employee was Howard Cheng, the same former SGI engineer to who Hollis had provided feedback years earlier on the creation of N64.
From September 1999, Hollis worked for six months feeding back on a wide range of Project Dolphin’s creations including hardware design, the operating system, the developer’s manual, and even the final name of the system.
“There were around ten people in the team and it’s kind of hazy to work out what their responsibility was,” Hollis recalled. “Of course, it had a technical leaning, and much of the GameCube’s operating system was written there too, in collaboration with Japan.
“But it wasn’t just tech… we’d even discuss off-focus things like marketing. That’s just how Nintendo operated, really… if you had to summarise it, NTD’s role was to steer the hardware partners. So you had IBM doing the CPU, Rambus doing the RAM and ArtX doing the GPU. But the system had to work together and it had to perform.”
According to Hollis, Nintendo’s “clearly stated goal” for GameCube was to make a machine that was primarily developer-friendly, after many companies were seen to have dropped support for N64 due to the perceived difficulty of creating games for the platform.
“They believed that easy and economical hardware would lead to success and it was solid logic,” Hollis said, adding that he didn’t personally understand developers’ complaints about the previous console.
“I don’t know why people said [N64 was hard to develop for]. It made sense to me. For a developer working on a PlayStation and an N64, the PlayStation was only simpler to program for because it did less. It had no filtering of any kind, much more rudimentary texturing… really, it did less. N64 had more than 100 features in the graphics pipeline. But you didn’t have to use all of those.”
“I arrived in Kyoto, went into the big building, and Mr. Miyamoto and his team straight away took me to this empty meeting room and sat me down in front of a television”
GameCube’s technical performance was also ahead of PlayStation’s competitor, though Nintendo mostly avoided pushing this in its messaging. It was also a surprisingly small and affordable console, launching at an unprecedented $199 / £129.
“The size and the price go together, pretty much,” Hollis explained. “As you optimise on cost, you optimise on the space as well. That was Nintendo’s concept from the start: they had this idea that they wanted a small machine. Although they weren’t explicit about this in public, they didn’t want to compete on performance or be seen using numbers like polygons in a kind of marketing battle.
This time around, Nintendo had a new competitor in Xbox, which was planning to launch its first games console alongside GameCube.
“Xbox was really very similar to GameCube,” Hollis said. “I think Nintendo actually could have said a lot of sharp things that they didn’t say, as to how come the Xbox copied all the primary technical decisions of the GameCube? They wisely kept their mouths shut about that.”
Hollis recalls one business trip to Nintendo’s Kyoto, Japan headquarters when he was given a personal reveal of some of Project Dolphin’s final features – and the revelation that he may have directly influenced them.
“I arrived in Kyoto, went into the big building, and Mr. Miyamoto and his team straight away took me to this empty meeting room and sat me down in front of a television,” he recalled. “They switched it on, and Miyamoto told me to press the A button on the controller. I pressed it and the purple rolling cubes appeared on screen with the boot up music that we now know so well, revealing the GameCube name.”
Hollis then suspected that the unexpected meeting wasn’t actually spontaneous. “As the on-screen reveal happened, Mr. Miyamoto stared at my face intensely! That was my initiation, which was maybe because I’d actually suggested the name ‘Cube’ during my time at NTD. Months earlier I did a sheet of paper at Nintendo of America with a whole load of suggestions for names and one of them was ‘Star Cube’ or something like that.”
‘Star Cube’ was in fact trademarked by Nintendo in 1999, but Hollis isn’t totally convinced he inspired the name of Nintendo’s iconic box. “Maybe there was some other guy out there who simultaneously had the same idea,” he speculated. “That does happen all the time.”
In early 2001, Nintendo of America’s marketing team were called into their main conference room, which was codenamed ‘N64’ at the time. Spread across the large conference table were a rainbow variety of Nintendo GameCube shells.
“We were called in to rate which colours we liked,” explained former VP of marketing and corporate affairs Perrin Kaplan. “There must have been 30 GameCube box samples in there and the colours ranged from ‘poopy’ brown to crazy and striking prime colours. I remember some were these dark yellow, almost skin-tone-like colours and we were like, ‘you cannot launch that! It’s so unattractive!’”
The year prior, Nintendo had publicly revealed its new console at what would be its penultimate Space World expo in Tokyo, Japan. The GameCube was revealed via a dramatic stage show performance, when a magician appeared amid a crescendo of music beats, pushing a large seemingly empty box on wheels. After a short ceremony and with a puff of smoke, five female models carrying colourful consoles emerged.
The GameCube is up there with the boldest consumer electronic designs of its era. As its name suggests, the console is shaped like a cube (but it’s not technically cube-shaped, not without the later released Game Boy Player, at least) and one of its most striking features is the large carry handle on the rear of the console.
As if the console didn’t already look outlandish enough, the models shown at Space World were purple, black, gold, silver and electric pink. Now, in the Nintendo of America board room months later, the leadership team were debating which colours to bring to market – and they were concerned.
Today consumers are used to being able to purchase devices in a variety of colours, but in 2001 it was not the norm, Kaplan explained. And when Nintendo’s Japan HQ pushed for purple to be the GameCube’s primary colour, Nintendo of America worried about how it would be received by the Western market.
“We actually suggested that the purple was not the best to start with and [Japan] said, ‘no, we’re going to use that’,” she said. “Then we pushed for black and silver, because I think in the US nobody had ever really done the purple colour before.
“It wasn’t that you couldn’t bring out hardware that was a different colour, it was just a very… ‘female’ looking colour. It just didn’t feel masculine, I think. I remember us being very nervous at E3 that we were going to get bad press purely based on the colour.”
Beth Llewelyn, NOA’s former director of corporate communications, now also a co-founder of Zebra Partners, agreed that the GameCube’s purple design didn’t help its image with core players when they inevitably compared it to PS2 and Xbox’s macho black boxes.
“This pre-dates Apple,” she recalls. “Picking your colour these days is like making a statement. But back then all the game systems were black… even white hadn’t really been done widely. Nintendo was never a technology story, but we were always combating what our competitors at Sony and Microsoft were doing from a PR perspective and having this purple box didn’t quite help there.”
“I personally think the handle was a really bold move,” Kaplan added. “Because number one, it was portable – really portable. It was small and compact, really easy to use and affordable. Some people might have thought it was a makeup box, though.”
The feeling was mutual in Europe: “I think somebody once referred to it as a ‘Fisher-Price record player’, said Shelly Pearce, who was Nintendo Europe’s PR boss at the time. “But from our perspective, in terms of positioning the console, it didn’t take up a lot of space in the living room, you could easily move it from room to room… it was typical Nintendo: quirky and different. I suppose we realised it would be polarising for some people, if you were comparing it to the Xbox or PlayStation, but we saw ourselves as different to them.”
In the years since, the American arm might have been able to convince its Far East HQ that a different strategy might be better for Western tastes. But this was not the Nintendo of Iwata or Furukawa, but the ultra-conservative Hiroshi Yamauchi, who was president until six months after GameCube’s launch.
Yamauchi was known for his autocratic style of leadership and once a decision had been made, there was little chance he would walk back on it.
“Under Yamauchi, we knew he was the boss,” says Kaplan. “During 16 years, I met Yamauchi one time. It was lovely meeting him, but Howard Lincoln was like, ‘there’s no way you’re going to get the bow right, so just do nothing and I will introduce you’.”
In later years, Yamauchi’s successor Satoru Iwata would adopt a more hands-on management style. Iwata would often visit Nintendo of America and speak to staff to hear their ideas and understand what they were doing. Under Yamauchi, that’s not how the company was run.
“It was a different time,” Kaplan reminisced. “For example, I do remember that all of our birth dates were examined before we were hired in the 90s. They’d look at your birthday and if you had one that was considered unlucky, you wouldn’t have gotten hired, even though we worked in America.
“It was also a very Feng Shui company… and it still is. The new NCL building was built that way. At Nintendo of America we were going to expand into the buildings of another company called Eddie Bauer, and the buildings were angled. We walked over there with Mr. Iwata and Mr. Arakawa, they examined the buildings and even looked into the direction the water was flowing underneath, and then that building was deemed a big no.
“When they eventually remodelled Nintendo of America, it was done with the building facing the right way and built the right way – for luck.”
The GameCube controller holds legendary status among Nintendo fans. Circumstance means it remains one of the company’s last traditional game pads – it later ditched controllers for new approaches such as motion controls – but it also represents years of iteration from the masters of the interface.
The design ditched the controversial M-shaped N64 pad and embraced a more traditional handlebar-style setup. The C-buttons were replaced with a second analog stick and X and Y inputs – last seen on the Super Nintendo – were added as ‘kidney bean’ buttons orbiting a large, prominent A button.
Finally, the controller’s most unique feature was its pressure-sensitive shoulder buttons. Later, a wireless version – the first on a console – was released as ‘WaveBird’.
From a design standpoint, it’s still arguably Nintendo’s most comfortable and ergonomic controller, and the fact that the company still sells GameCube controllers to this day is an indictment of its popularity (all of its subsequent home consoles have supported the pad, including Switch).
Hollis recalled the incredible secrecy around the controller’s development – even from the team actually building the console hardware.
“There was an entire team at NCL that did controller work… it was very secret. In fact – and this might be wrong, but I’m going to say it anyway – I’m fairly sure that during my six months working on the GameCube hardware we didn’t even get shown the final controller once.
“I think you can see Miyamoto’s influence there… His understanding of controllers is very sculptural. He has a very strong intuition about 3D spaces and touch, and I think you can see that in the GameCube controller. It’s not perfect, but I’d personally put it forward as the best controller ever.”
Among some game developers, however, feelings are mixed on the controller’s unique design.
“GameCube was very easy to develop for, but the controller was probably not the best for certain things,” said Platinum Games’ studio head Atsushi Inaba, who was a producer at Capcom at the time when it announced its famous ‘Capcom Five’ – a group of games originally planned to release exclusively for GameCube.
He explained: “This is my personal taste, but when you have a controller that’s a little too unique, it can make things difficult. Not just for developers but also for players. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s a matter of personal taste, but it can just make things easier in the developer-to-player equation if you have a controller that doesn’t have too much of a special spice of its own.”
“GameCube was very easy to develop for, but the controller was probably not the best for certain things… when you have a controller that’s a little too unique, it can make things difficult.”
Hideki Kamiya, the game designer behind Devil May Cry and Bayonetta, agrees. “When we were working on Viewtiful Joe, the controller worked well for what we wanted to do with the game but I’m not sure if we would necessarily have liked to have continued to work with that controller,” he said.
“I didn’t play a lot of GameCube games myself, but on the development side of things you imagined that maybe when Miyamoto-san was designing his games, the large green A button was the one he wanted to get hit first so he made it big,” Kamiya continued.
“When working on Viewtiful Joe, we made the A button the jump button but because it was an action game players wanted to punch and kick, so they would sometimes hit the A button expecting that. In development, you don’t want the player to pick up the controller with any kind of strange prejudices about which button is going to do what. It’s almost safer not to have too much imbalance with the buttons.
“But overall, it was good console hardware and software-wise. It was very easy to develop for, which of course is very important for developers.”
The unique elements of the GameCube controller may have put some third-party developers off from porting their multiplatform games to the console, but in 2002 Nintendo announced one of the biggest exclusivity deals of the era.
At a press conference held in late 2002, Capcom and Nintendo announced a deal to bring five exclusive games to the platform – shooter P.N.03, action-platformer Viewtiful Joe, shooter Dead Phoenix, action-adventure Killer 7 and survival horror Resident Evil 4.
Although only four of the games were eventually released (and three of those eventually released on other platforms) it gave GameCube a much-needed boost at a time when its sales were already starting to lag, just one year after launch.
“Because the person in charge of that decision at the time was [Shinji] Mikami-san, you’ll probably get more details from him on the specifics,” recalled Inaba. “But as somebody who was there at the time, I heard the reasoning behind the decision and understood it. Capcom was putting titles on a lot of different systems, so there wasn’t a strong opinion one way or another… everyone understood that was part of the game.”
He added: “There was maybe some initial uncertainty about putting the Resident Evil series on GameCube, but after seeing Resident Evil Remake [released in 2002], we saw what could be done with the GameCube in terms of the visuals… those initial concerns sort of flew out the window once we saw that they could put out a game that looked that good.
Kamiya interrupts: “Viewtiful Joe was the best out of the Capcom Five titles!”
The photographs have become the stuff of internet meme stardom: Paris Hilton, The Rock, Christina Aguilera and a cast of the biggest celebrities of the early 2000s brandishing GameCube consoles like they’re the year’s hottest fashion accessory.
Circumstances meant that the GameCube’s official US launch event had brought out the biggest names in Hollywood for a photocall that’s still referenced – if only as a fascinating time capsule for the pop culture of the day – 20 years later. But it almost didn’t happen.
“We were scheduled to have a big celebrity launch event in LA, and then 9/11 happened,” recalled Llewelyn, the former corporate comms boss. “So naturally we were uncertain if we were going to go forward with it, because it was planned to be this big red-carpet thing and it didn’t seem appropriate.
“But by early October we decided it was the right time to go ahead. It actually ended up being one of the first events where people came together again and it started feel like it was OK to return to normal. It was one of the first big celebrity events and people wanted to get out.”
“It was an amazing event to be at,” Kaplan added. “The building we were in was basically a block long. I remember I asked Leonardo DiCaprio for a cigarette, and he’d ran out of them. I’ve also got a photo of Ashton Kutcher kissing my hand, because I said to him, ‘you look exactly like my high school boyfriend who broke my heart’.”
Across the pond, the European launch party held at London’s Truman Brewery was admittedly less glamorous, with partygoers having to make do with DJ Mr. C from The Shamen instead of Leonard DiCaprio and co.
In 2001, Nintendo of Europe worked closely with its American division, who would provide creative assets for use in marketing overseas. However, the actual strategy was set by Europe itself and it embarked on its own launch campaign consisting of several memorable stunts.
“The theme of the launch was around amazing entertainment inside of a cube,” recalls Shelly Pearce, who was Nintendo Europe’s PR boss at the time. “I remember we lent into the cube theme because that was a bit of a USP for us, and it was all about the magic and fun that was in a cube. We placed some large cubes in key cities around the UK and filled them with entertainment for 24 hours, just to bring home that message of fun and gaming.”
It was during the GameCube era that the European market gained increasing favour with Nintendo’s Japanese mothership, who in the past had somewhat overlooked it with late product launches and lacklustre ports. And although GameCube also arrived later in the region, it was the last console to do some by any considerable amount of time.
Shigeru Miyamoto enjoyed frequent trips to Europe during the Gamecube era to speak to media and placate his love of food. One Nintendo employee speaking anonymously recalled having to find a suitable fish and chip restaurant for the master designer to have dinner in, such was his love of trying traditional food. “It wasn’t easy to find a chippie suitable for a senior executive,” they recalled.
Arguably the most memorable marketing campaign held in the UK saw Nintendo sponsor treasured sports broadcaster Des Lynam. Or specifically, his moustache, which it paid an estimated £100,000 to turn GameCube purple.
“Oh gosh, yes! I’d forgotten we did that,” Pearce enthuses. “We sponsored his tash, died it purple, and then had a big billboard in central London. The money went towards his charity.
“I think at the time we were looking to lean into the quirkiness, but also the purple. So I think what we said to our agency was, ‘what can we do to grab some attention?’ and, ‘let’s not shy away from the fact that our console is very different from everything else in the market’.”
Externally, GameCube is seen by some as a commercial failure. At 22m units sold, Nintendo had been beaten by both an industry newcomer (Xbox managed 24m) and thoroughly trounced by the 155-million-selling PlayStation 2.
But former Nintendo employees VGC spoke to were consistent in their appraisal of the console: yes, it was disappointing to sell less than its competitors, but it had fantastic games, and broadly, Nintendo doesn’t pay attention to what other people are doing. And by focusing on its own approach and not following trends, the company eventually set the industry alight with its very next console.
“With GameCube, we made money and it was profitable, and that’s something I think is sometimes really missed by the public,” Kaplan summarises. “The others were bleeding, but we were still profitable.”
She added: “One of the challenges that we always had with GameCube is that Nintendo has always been an incredibly profitable company, and we saw ourselves as different from Microsoft and Sony. But externally, we would still be judged in a line-up.
“We had a dilemma: how do we get people to focus on the fact that we’re profitable and we do things differently, and that we’re supposed to be either a second system in the home or the main system, because it’s really accessible.
“But it was difficult, because it was always the line-up of the race, and Nintendo just doesn’t view itself as a runner in that line-up. Iwata and Miyamoto were very specific about, ‘we don’t overly pay attention to what they do: we do what we do’ and that’s creating new markets and ways of doing things, and they still continue to do that.
“Chasing Microsoft around with huge boxes is just not them, it’s a very family-friendly company. For the people who want a PS5, they can still have a Nintendo system in their house: we’re a great second choice for additional play, and we’re the first choice for a million other target audiences.”
Llewelyn agrees: “Yeah, there was probably some frustration that we weren’t selling as well as we wanted, and certainly I think some of that was down to some of the changing dynamics in gaming itself and the types of games people wanted to play. But again, Nintendo always stayed true to itself and it still does.
“Like Perrin said, it was still successful: we made money and there were great games for that system. I think that was a time where we had to overcome the image that Nintendo was maybe seen as a kid’s system, but ultimately people loved those games.”
It’s impossible to ignore that GameCube’s commercial failure was followed by Nintendo’s best-selling console ever, the Wii, and the insiders we spoke to agreed that the seeds for that success were already evident during the previous era.
“I actually think it was the first system to appeal to beyond hardcore gamers,” Kaplan said. “Hardcore gamers owned it, but it was accessible enough for other people to start to play. I think it was the very beginning of gaming expanding beyond the hardcore player who would just play Donkey Kong over and over.
“I think GameCube was a well-received invitation to a certain audience who were being disregarded by hardcore gaming, and I don’t think if that had happened that the industry would be quite as large today. Microsoft had some nice family games like [Viva Pinata], but those were not their top sellers.”
Llewelyn added: “We were certainly pushing it as very accessible and easy to pick up and play. So yeah, it probably was the start of games becoming more accessible to a broader audience. The whole industry was shifting at that time and the wider media was starting to pay more attention to gaming. Then the Wii came out and it was this complete revelation that really shifted games to the mass market.”
But in a striking sliding doors moment, the GameCube itself could have ushered in the mass market explosion seen with the Wii, had Nintendo decided to include its ‘one extra thing’.
“At the same time as GameCube, Nintendo was secretly working on a revolutionary controller sensor idea,” Hollis revealed. “That was very time consuming work that ultimately never got filtered in to our GameCube development, but after several years they did produce the Wii Remote.
“The Wii is essentially a Gamecube with some numbers doubled, but in a different coloured box. But it’s the Wii Remote that brough the ‘extra thing’ that won Nintendo the market. That’s how fine the margins are sometimes.”