The mighty had fallen. Nintendo, the saviour of the video game in the mid-1980s and its definer for the next decade had, by the time of Nintendo 64’s decline, lost its place at the heart of the industry it had established and sustained. While Super Mario 64 and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time had helped describe the formative language of 3D gaming, Nintendo’s reluctance to abandon cartridge-based games in favour of disc storage had cost the company dearly.
Not only that, but Nintendo’s image continued to primarily be one of a toymaker, while the video game audience was now advancing into its twenties and thirties, a stage of life for which Sony’s PlayStation seemed more tailored, in the marketing, if not the reality. Sega’s early entry to the so- called ‘next generation’ had made the Nintendo 64’s fuzzy 3D look positively archaic. Had Japan’s leading console manufacturer become irrelevant?
Nintendo’s answer to the creative and business conundrum in which it found itself surfaced in 1999, with leaked details of a project codenamed ‘Dolphin’, a new console rumoured to use a 128-bit custom processor and optical disc media. At the company’s SpaceWorld event the following year the GameCube, as it had come to be known, was officially unveiled (despite the name change, references to ‘Dolphin’ remained in the system’s model number, DOL-001 and the name of its CPU, ‘Flipper’).
The boxy console appeared to have taken its design cues from Apple’s desirable desktop computers, prizing compactness over bulk and power, but it was the proposed price point, which at ¥25,000 (around £125) was far cheaper than its rivals, that was most arresting. Along with the game casing, a slew of titles were shown. While many of were never released, Meowth’s Party, Perfect Dark and a ‘realistic’ Zelda game all discarded before reaching the market, Nintendo appeared to have answered its critics by altering its business approach on a fundamental level in order to adapt to a changing market.
The system was created by numerous Nintendo teams and affiliates, Western designers such as GoldenEye creator Martin Hollis even pitching into the development of the machine. In anticipation of Sony’s PlayStation 2, Nintendo focused on graphical capabilities, dumping NEC, developer of the Nintendo 64’s MPU in favour of IBM due to the company’s advances in copper chip technology. Following criticism that the Nintendo 64 had been a difficult console to develop for, Nintendo worked to make the GameCube accessible, allowing developers to concentrate their energies on artistry instead of working around the hardware. In testament to this, Sega claimed in 2001 that it was able to create a playable version of Phantasy Star Online Version 2 for the system in less than a month.
Despite the sensible approach to development of the system, the GameCube would flounder following release. Even with strong third-party support and the lowest hardware price of all consoles on the market, Nintendo fast slipped into ‘third’ place, halting GameCube production for a brief period in 2003 to reduce surplus units. The company sold just 22 million units by the end of its lifecycle compared to PS2’s 100 million consoles, and the Xbox’s 24 million by the same point.
In part the lacklustre performance was thanks to the 1.5 GB proprietary disc format, which offered developers far less memory space than PlayStation 2 and Xbox’s 8.5 GB Dual-Layer DVDs. Meanwhile, the lack of DVD playback forced consumers wanting a cheap DVD player to opt for Sony’s machine. Most problematically, the system lacked a must-have exclusive too, Super Mario Sunshine and The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker falling short of the novel greatness of their predecessors. Indeed, the GameCube proved that Nintendo is a company at its best when trailblazing and that flounders when following trends instead of establishing them. In its competent unimaginativeness, Nintendo almost lost its identity, a mistake the company would not make again.