Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Was the gamecube really a failure?


In the dictionary, Failure can be defined as act or instance of proving unsuccessful. Or a nonperformance of something due / required / expected of that person or thing. Wikipedia has a more detailed explanation;

"Failure refers to the state or condition of not meeting a desirable or intended objective, and may be viewed as the opposite of success. Product failure ranges from failure to sell the product to fracture of the product, in the worst cases leading to personal injury"
The definition seems rather self explanatory to say the least. Now we all know various failures that have graced the video game industry.  We don't even have to go into too much detail about the Nokia N-Gage, or the Atari Jaguar. But when we approach a console like the Gamecube we have a strange sense of mixed emotion. Was the GC a failure? Some say yes, and some say no. This is in fact a question that has the capacity of splitting the gaming community into splintered groups. So before we discuss the answer, let's run through a few things

Gamecube as a Failure..

At the end of the sixth console generation there were quite a few opinions on the Gamecube. The most notable ones were compiled into a list for an article entitled "Why the Gamecube Failed" on the Maunderlust blog. Here is a listing of those opinions with additional commentary from myself..

"Differentiation: Unlike its predecessor, the N64, the GameCube didn’t do anything to differentiate itself from the competition. The Cube was kind of like a PS2, but it didn’t have as many games or play DVDs. And it was kind of like an Xbox, but it didn’t have as many high-end features. Now, imagine for a moment that you don’t give a hoot about Mario, Zelda, Samus, or Pikachu (I know, it’s a bizarro universe, but bear with me). Now, let’s say you want to play video games. Well, you can find the most video games on the PS2. Or, if you’re a l33t hax0r, you can find the most tech in the Xbox. So, unless you want to catch ‘em all… why would you get a GameCube?
 The GC unlike the PS2 didn't really have a dedicated DVD player, but on the opposite hand one could also say that it was just another DVD player to add on to the three other DVD players that people owned at the time. By 2007 our household had three DVD players (two were dedicated while the third was the DVD rom drive of our personal computer) so having two more things that did the job of three things that you already own might be redundant in terms of features. With that being said, the PS2 having a more robust library was a completely valid observation. The console had the lion's share of titles, and despite the PS2's graphical limitations it had the higher userbase. While the GC had a rather strong set of titles both first and third party, it was only getting a fraction of the games the PS2 had, and when it did occasionally get buzzworthy third party titles like Metal Gear Solid, or Final Fantasy - the titles were experimental and too alien to generate positivity.

Now don't get me wrong. Crystal Chronicles and Twin Snakes were great games, but they were experimental outings and not the more mainstream titles like FFX or Sons of Liberty (The same thing happened later with the Wii with games like Dead Space: Extraction, and of course the Final Fantasy Crystal titles, but we'll go into that later) .
Xbox: Before it came out, a lot of people sort of dismissed the Xbox. Microsoft, making a game console? What an intriguingly ridiculous idea. At the time, it seemed like the Xbox would be another 3DO, Jaguar, or CD-i. I mean, it’s not even Japanese, how could it possibly succeed? Well… with Halo. And to be fair, Halo was just one salvo in a well executed campaign to capture the domestic casual-core. Microsoft PR did a good job of associating the console with athletes, actors, musicians, and celebutantes. The end result was something palatable and hip to the frat boy set, and aspirational for the little childrens. Had the Xbox been the big black turd it was fated to be, the Cube may have had more room to shine. 
The Xbox did play a huge part in the Cube being last in the generation, but I think there's a larger explanation than just marketing. The Xbox catered to gamers who wanted to play PC games but couldn't due to various reasons, like cost, or lack of specs or what-have-you. That differentiated from the PS2 greatly and drew in enough people to make a sizable gap between the box and the cube.
Software: It would be nice to blame the GameCube’s failings on its competition, but let’s be honest, Nintendo dropped the ball on software. We all know that that third party support has never been Nintendo’s strong suit. I’m not going to bark up that tree. Instead, I’m going to look at Nintendo first party. Where was Mario at launch? Why was Mario Sunshine so damn hard? What was up with sketchy second party titles like Geist, Chibi-Robo, and Batallion Wars that were quality offerings, but did nothing to capture a broad audience? Of course, there were gems on the Cube that made it worthwhile. Animal Crossing, Metroid Prime, Pikmin 2, Wind Waker, Eternal Darkness, and RE 4 (omg!). But there were months, if not years, between great releases. By the time 2006 rolled around, the well was pretty much dry. 

I wouldn't say "never"... The NES and the SNES say hello to that statement. Third parties loved Nintendo then, considering they were generating tons of money for third parties. However, the author makes a good point here, when they say that there were far too many gaps between releases of landmark titles for the console. This was pretty much a similar problem that plagued the Wii during it's 2008 period (The Wii seems to be facing another period much like 08 currently according to whom you talk to..).
Industrial Design: The PS2 was a sleek stereo component with a game machine inside. The Xbox was large and in charge. The GameCube… was a purple lunchbox. Now, I have nothing against lunchboxes, or purples, but it just makes me wonder – who was this machine for? Am I supposed to play Resident Evil Zero in front of my adult friends on a purple lunchbox with candy coated buttons? Pokémon’s success saddled Nintendo with the “Kiddie” albatross, and the design of the Cube did nothing to challenge that assumption. I really liked the small form factor and portability. But, there’s no denying the machine looked like the Duplo to Sony’s Bionicle. 
  The design did nothing to stifle the constant complaints of  "It's just a baby's toy" from gamers and competitors alike. This also seems to be a big reason for the third parties straying away in favor of the competition (and the reason for only putting out "experiments" instead of valid entries in game series - Ha! I told you i'd get to it ). Around the time that I had finally got a GC I managed to get the silver one which was a step in the right direction, but that still did little to change people's perception of both the company and the console.
Gimmicks: In the end, it seemed like Nintendo tried to address the differentiation and software issues through a series of bizarre gimmicks and add-ons. The e-Reader, CONNECTIVITY, and even bongos were trotted out as compelling reasons to buy a GameCube. Connectivity was a particularly interesting logic, because it suggested that a GameCube would be a great accessory for your GBA. At the time GBA’s dominated the handheld space, and it seemed like Nintendo was trying to promote the brand loyalty up. Apple does the same thing. A Mac is the best accessory you can get for an iPod. But, the difference is that using them together doesn’t require a degree in civil engineering and an octopussy’s nest of cables. Did you ever try to play Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles with four people and more than one memory card? It was like you had to solve a puzzle just to unlock the game. 
There were exceptions - Four Sword Adventures was a very notable use of both the GBA and the Cube, as was the unlockable features of Metroid Prime and Fusion. Even the Sonic games had some sort of intercompatibility. This feature would eventually carry over to the DS and it's future iterations with the biggest evolution being the use of wireless connectivity in lieu of the cables.

Nintendo was trying to use brand power to generate interest in the GC, and put the console on the same level of sales it had for the GBA (Handhelds seem to fare better for Nintendo during the last few generations than consoles.) The features were a long term help in establishing Nintendo back into their eventual dominance, but at the time the confusion and technical issues were a bit of a hindrance as well.
Bottom Line: The GameCube was a failure not because it failed to deliver revenue, or great games, but because it was a machine that didn’t know what it was. It struggled and stammered trying to find an identity for itself, because when you got right down to it, it didn’t have one. It was “safer” than the N64′s bold defiance of industry trends had been. In following the herd, Nintendo lost their way. And once they lost the vision, they tried to make up for it with cables and bongos. ."
The GC was a "safer" venture in the respect that by using smaller discs Nintendo believed they could avoid the issues of piracy, while also avoiding having to pay licensing fees to the DVD consortium. (of the consortium's founding members were Nintendo's newfound rivals Sony and Time Warner who owned Atari at the time of their lawsuit against Nintendo). It's assumed that by this stage in the game, Nintendo wanted to create a console that was closer to the Playstation, but not put themselves at risk. This may explain why they removed the digital AV port from the design (Wikipedia states that Nintendo discovered that less than one percent used the digital AV output at the time). Add in the fact that the company was slow to adapt the new trend of online based play due to a lack of interest in online capability ( Nintendo eventually created a network adaptor for the cube for games like Phantasy Star Online 1&2 / PSO 1&2 plus  and PSO C.A.R.D. Revolution) and you can clearly see how all these factors worked in creating a rather vanilla console compared to the competition.

So now that we have the reasons down for how the GC can be considered a failure let's take a look at a few of the reasons it could be perceived as otherwise.

Gamecube as a success... 

In hindsight we always look towards the Gamecube with a negative slant, but there are a fair share of positives that the system has provided. We'll talk about those first before we get to the major positive.

Faster Loading times

The GC really did have the fastest loading times between the three consoles (Xbox being a close second. The only exception to that was the Dreamcast, which had virtually no loading times on some games like Marvel Vs Capcom 2 and Capcom Vs SNK 2 making the games the best arcade ports ever). This is another benefit of the mini disc format - the amount of compression of file space versus the less amount of  data having to be read equals a rather short waiting time to play the games you wanted.

First party wireless controllers

Before this generation made wireless controllers standard, Nintendo had the benefit of making a first party created wireless controller which was far superior to any of the third party offerings at the time. The Wavebird      utilized Radio Frequency or RF signal to ensure play from as far as twenty feet away. I remember trying this by going from my bedroom all the way downstairs to my mother's kitchen and pressing the button to still being able to hear Samus blasting away at a wall in Metroid Prime.

Interconnectivity between handheld and Console

Despite the drawbacks, the GBA adaptor made it possible to play GBA games on the Cube. A logical progression from the Super Gameboy which made Gameboy games playable on the SNES. If you wanted to play Castlevania: Circle of the Moon or F-Zero: Maximum Velocity and didn't have a GBA this was the way to play. Again I must also point out that Four Swords Adventure was a must for those who had the adequate number of GBAs to play, as it did display a technical marvel of multiplayer.

Great selection of games

Regardless of the lack of third party effort towards the end of the GC's lifespan, there were still quite a large number of games that were both entertaining and graphically impressive. A lot of these games were stylized which still hold up long after the console's lifecycle, but even games like Resident Evil 1, 4, Zero, and Star Wars: Rogue Squadron still hold up solidly.

The strange thing about the graphic issue is that for the amount of GC games that did have a spectacular look to them, you hardly saw that many developers this generation actually trying to push for that same level on the Wii. In fact most developers were too busy whining and crying about how those graphics can't measure up (or just trying to pass off PS2 ports as full Wii devoted projects). If anything the games from the GC era should be a indicator that developers might not be trying hard enough to put out something of a better quality and are instead trying to pass off poor ports as their best efforts.

The main issue being thrown around when it comes to the GC's selection is that there was a heavy "kiddie game" slant going on at the time. Well yes and no. While there were more kid friendly titles on the cube, there were also a lot of teen to adult titles (Even that craptastic BMX XXX game that no one really cared about). One of the more notable things that people tend to ignore is that since the Wii allows for backwards compatibility a lot of Wii owners i've talked to still play Cube games, so if people are still playing the GC library years after it's decommission then there has to be something the predecessor was doing right
Further Progression of "3D space controls"

There's an interesting theory that someone posed on a forum; Nintendo has an interesting progressive cycle. One console establishes something innovative while the second console follows up with a building on of that particular innovation. So the SNES was a continuation of the values instilled by the NES  And the GC was a build on of the values instilled by the 64 ( trying to establish a control scheme that would work in 3D based space.) via analog controls. Of course the N64 was the first home console (post 83' crash) to have an analog on the default controller and we know how that ended. Everyone uses analog controls now from FPS games to 3D platformers to sports games.

The GC seems to be a sustaining innovation of the values the 64 brought to the table by making the controller more streamlined. Of course the Cube controller on first glance turned a lot of people off of it. Eventually this was streamlined again into the Wii's controller scheme which added the bonus of motion into the equation. which brings me to my biggest reason for the Cube being a success

The Gamecube was a foundation for the Wii.

There has never been such a marvelous comeback story in gaming such as Nintendo's comeback with the Wii. Coming out of third place in the "Console wars" last gen, Nintendo according to the media were expected to bow out of console gaming to fall into the similar fate of Sega post Dreamcast ( this was a rather stupid idea - especially for a company that didn't even sell their consoles at a loss unlike the competition ). When asked about it, Miyamoto expressed his frustrations with the console ( some say that he declared the console a 'falure'  but the quotes say otherwise)

"There was an era when Nintendo was going in the direction of doing the same things other companies did," Miyamoto told Kato. "The more we competed with new companies entering the market, the more we started acting similar to them. But is being number one in that competition the same as being number one with the general public? That's the question we had. Entertainment is something that you have to look at the world with a very wide eye as you create it. I always thought that, but there were a few years where I was unable to get off other people's trends. It was a dilemma in my mind."

Which years were these? "The N64 and the era after it," Miyamoto responds. "I was endlessly fascinated with 3D worlds, but what with all the issues I had to tinker with in terms of rendering and processing speed, it got to the point where I didn't know who was making the games any longer.
"This is a job where you have a plan and you polish it endlessly while getting help from others. If Nintendo's games fail to stand out as games that aren't made that way proliferate, then it shows that the creation process is for nothing, which made me very sad. That was especially obvious during the GameCube era; Nintendo titles were hardly even discussed by the [non-gaming] general public back then."

Notice he used "fail" In the speculative sense. If the games aren't doing anything to stand out to people outside of the gaming landscape then it was all for naught. Keep in mind that during the N64 era Nintendo had started the notion of expanding gaming beyond the standard userbase, which would eventually one day grow too old for gaming and move on, or die out. Nintendo had been seeking out ways to bring in new gamers like the younger generations and female gamers to expand it's userbase. A valid idea, but something that was heavily shunned by the default core gamers - the 12-25 year old males who wanted something more mature to cater to their growing tastes. This lead to massive loss of market share to the competition who provided the more mature games, and left Nintendo scrambling to get back the users they lost. Here's the second part of that blurb which lead to the origins of not just the Wii but the DS as well.

As Miyamoto describes it, this creative dead end that he and his development teams felt with the GameCube was one of the primary motivations for Nintendo's new approach -- something first seen with the Game Boy Advance's Classic NES series. "We thought about starting over from scratch and aiming for games that can be played by people who don't play games," he notes. "We did some research, and the result was the Classic NES series, which got the response we were hoping for. In the end we didn't want a new game system, but a product that would make the entire world go crazy. And so [ex-Nintendo president Hiroshi] Yamauchi said 'two screens.' That turned the development lab upside down!"
The core concept of the DS was a pretty far-out idea even by Nintendo standards. "Doing that would make the system larger and essentially double the price," Miyamoto said. "And yet we thought that it'd be a new surprise for the general public, that it wouldn't be a bad way to attract the interest of a wide band of people. So we went through some trial-and-error work which ultimately connected to the touch pen, something I had wanted to have for a while. I didn't think two screens was enough to make the DS a success, but the touch pen is what puts it all together, both in terms of cost and design. That's what helps make it seem fascinating to people."
You're probably thinking that i'm just shoe-horning the DS into the discussion, but here is some additional information via the Wikipedia entry for the Wii to lend credence to what was said

The Nintendo DS is said to have influenced the Wii design. Designer Ken'ichiro Ashida noted, "We had the DS on our minds as we worked on the Wii. We thought about copying the DS's touch-panel interface and even came up with a prototype." The idea was eventually rejected, with the notion that the two gaming systems would be identical. Miyamoto also expressed that, "[...] if the DS had flopped, we might have taken the Wii back to the drawing board."[12]
Now getting back to the point; The Gamecube worked to slightly build back some of that lost market share, but it clearly wasn't hitting the non gaming and lapsed gaming populace, so a new method had to be found. It was stated that the Wii remote peripheral was stated for release on the gamecube, but it was scrapped in favor of building a new console around the idea of motion control. 

. Video game journalist Matt Casamassina, from gaming website IGN, stated that he believed that Nintendo had planned to release the Wii Remote for the GameCube, noting that "Nintendo said that it hoped that GCN could enjoy a longer life cycle with the addition of top-secret peripherals that would forever enhance the gameplay experience."[6] He suggested that Nintendo may have wanted to release the Wii Remote with a new system, instead of onto the GameCube, as "[the] Revolution addresses one of the GameCube's biggest drawbacks, which is that it was/is perceived as a toy."
In order to shake the reputation of the Gamecube's 'Toy-like' features, they would have to get to the drawing board and design something contemporary and modern for the living room. They knew that the GCN still had enough power technologically to be stretched out for another console generation, and with the new interface it would bring in all types of gamers from the old to the new.. Sure in hindsight the Wii is a cube with a makeover and a new outlook on itself and life, but at the same time the Cube part of the console is still a sturdy foundation used to build what was one of the best selling consoles of this generation.

Even now at the end of the seventh console generation I can understand why Nintendo is going ahead with plans for a new console. By November of this year, the Gamecube in both incarnations will be Eleven years old;. The first six years being the awkward youth and the Wii's five years would be considered the maturing period of which the console gained it's bearings and took control of it's destiny. The console has lived a long and fufilling life, and is now more than ready to bow out and introduce it's newest progeny, something that will hopefully expand on the values it has brought to the table while instilling new ways to enjoy gaming.

So is it a failure or not? 

With all this being said can we honestly answer the question we posed at the beginning of this article?  The Gamecube has it's fair share of failings as it has a rather large amount of triumphs, but to look at just one aspect of something and declare failure from that is severely short sighted, and proves that we lack understanding of the bigger picture. I could easily take one or two aspects of something and see they don't meet my expectations and deem them grounds for failure - Any armchair analyst can do that. The problem is though that what one sees as a failure the other sees otherwise. Nintendo took the issues that plagued their little purple lunchbox, and changed the console around into something that was appealing while changing console gaming as a whole. Additionally Nintendo proved that the problem wasn't the console itself, but more  or less the perception being placed on it (and the limitations from playing things too safely ).

Of course people are going to look at the definition and state that this is exactly how the Gamecube falls in line, and that's alright. This article was created in order to get people talking, and create discussion, while showing both sides of the argument. I want to hear what you guys have to say so speak up! This won't be the last time I do an article that challenges popular opinon. I intend to do another one on a certain Zelda game that has been getting a bad rap from the collective.

but that is another story.....

Game On!

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