Back at the turn of the century it was clear who was king of the home console wars. Sony’s PlayStation 2 is the biggest selling home console of all time and was released in 2000 off the back of the successful original PlayStation. Nintendo, the remaining console manufacturer from the original console wars after both Sega and Atari had bowed out, had a mountain to climb after bringing their PlayStation competitor out 18 months after Sony’s popular machine. The GameCube would endure a rough ride going up against Sony’s mass marketing machine and there was also the unknown quantity in Microsoft’s impending Xbox to tackle with.
It certainly was tough times for Nintendo, who had found moderate success with the last cartridge based home system in the shape of the Nintendo 64 only to be been blown away by the PlayStation in terms of sales. It was the first time that Nintendo had found itself in second place after they had won the sales battles against Sega and Atari during the 1980’s and early 1990’s. They needed an answer to Sony’s bulldozer approach which saw little quality control on game releases. This enabled much more title choice for PlayStation 2 owners, of which there were already many millions by the time Nintendo released the GameCube to market.
A criticism often levied at the GameCube is the lack of a substantive game library, mainly due to a lack of third party support and Nintendo’s insistence that only the very best of games were released for its platform. This argument holds little weight and does not tell the whole truth , there are other reasons that must be considered to get the whole picture. Gamers were crying out for more mature titles with the age of cutesy platformers and colourful pixel art long gone. The video game market had shifted, where before it was the domain of children and teenagers, the 20-something with a disposable income was a fresh demographic that had been born out of the PlayStation’s media circus that promoted more mature themes. The landscape had changed but Nintendo have always felt their core audience is the family and strive to create safe entertainment. It is admirable that they stuck true to this vision during a time when the face of gaming was changing so dramatically. However, it did mean that popular first person shooters and action games that involved high levels of realistic violence were destined to appear on Nintendo’s rivals consoles which ultimately meant more sales for them.
It was not just the lack of mature games that hindered Nintendo in this new world. They were up against Sony and Microsoft who had both been tempting waves of third party developers with lucrative contracts to deliver console exclusives on their systems. This aggressive strategy was something that third party developers lapped up at the time and many even went as far to sellout and become first party developers for Microsoft and Sony. This was not new though, Sony had used the exact same tactics to dominate in the mid to late 1990’s to win over undecided console owners at the time. It simply meant that there were more games to choose from and the PlayStation was able to reach wider audiences and leave the competition in its wake.
With already being behind in the race, dwindling third party support and lacking a DVD player (which would ultimately be one of the PlayStation 2’s biggest selling points), Nintendo needed to get creative if they were to reclaim the lions share of the home console market. Nintendo did start to let go of their quality control standards during the lifetime of the GameCube as in the early days very few games were being released and by the end of its lifespan it did have a healthy library, if not all of the standard many would expect from a Nintendo console. Also, they started to experiment with more realistic and mature games series, such as Rainbow Six and Medal of Honour, seeing releases. Sceptics may see this as a cheap move to garner favour with older gamers, but that is a little unfair, it could be seen as Nintendo recognising and adapting to a market that would have seen them left behind had they not evolved. These moves did not help them out much, both Microsoft and especially Sony were running away with the sales ledgers and the GameCube had found itself a fair way behind, even so early on.
One market that Nintendo were certainly ruling the roost was in the world of handheld. Their Game Boy range had been obliterating the competition since 1989 and they ran a tight ship in the quality department which meant there was a steady stream of quality cartridge based games being released with each new iteration of the mini-marvel. The latest Game Boy, the Game Boy Advance (GBA), had been released in March 2001. This was six months before the GameCube and it already had a massive library of games to choose from as it is compatible with virtually every Game Boy title ever released. This ability to play the old cartridges as well as newer releases made the GBA appealing to those who enjoyed gaming on the go and wanted a single device to play all of their Game Boy collection. Nintendo’s market share of the handheld arena was huge, almost to the point that only Bandai’s, Japan exclusive, WonderSwan had any meaningful impact on its dominance.
By the time March 2003 rolled round the GBA had sold tens of millions of units and was well known for having a particularly good mix of titles of a decent standard. The huge sales were certainly helping to soften the blow of the GameCube’s failings and Nintendo had a trick up their sleeve, a trick they had used before. Nintendo released a device for the Super Nintendo/Famicon in the guise of the Super Game Boy that would allow Game Boy games to display on a television and add a splash of colour to the otherwise monochrome games. The Super Game Boy helped with the longevity of the Super Nintendo/Famicon by expanding on the consoles library and offering a new use for it. It can also be attributed to help bridge the long wait for the Nintendo 64 as original Game Boy games were still being released right up until to the turn of the century as the Game Boy Colour was taking over.
With the release of the Game Boy Player for the GameCube, Nintendo were trying one more roll of the dice to save the system and bring the spotlight firmly back on themselves. It allows nearly all Game Boy games released to be played on the big screen at home via the GameCube’s high speed parallel port. This is not just a fancy emulator either, it is a fully fledged piece of hardware that runs very smooth and takes advantage of the GameCube’s sharp output and 60hz refresh rate. The tech itself is well put together and looks great cradling the GameCube from beneath. The GBA itself can be used as a controller if connected through a GameCube-Game Boy Advance Cable or players can also use the standard GameCube controller. There was even a special Game Boy Player Controller released by Hori that matched the GameCube’s style and feels a lot like a Super Nintendo/Famicon controller.
Suddenly, the GameCube had been opened up to a whole new library of games spanning three decades and although it would be short lived, it allowed Nintendo to showcase its array of handheld talent to home console audiences once again. It might be a little over reaching to say the Game Boy Player breathed new life into the GameCube but it certainly allowed it to offer a lot more choice of quality games overnight. All those gamers who may not have bought a new console yet and owned Game Boy games had a legitimate reason to buy Nintendo’s machine and continue enjoying them on the big screen at home. It was never going to be enough to instantly change the GameCube’s fortunes but it threw the cat among the pigeons long enough to take some of the limelight away from Sony and offer the gaming world a genuine alternative.
Looking back at this time when Nintendo were struggling to have a strong voice in the home console market it makes sense to intertwine their big success story, the GBA, with a console that was not grabbing enough attention. There is reason to believe the GameCube might not have made it as far as it did without the extra boost the Game Boy Player gave it and that Nintendo may have been forced to jump ship early. There is also reason to say that Nintendo were simply trying to cash in on its loyal handheld followers in an attempt to sell more of a console that had struggled to sell. However we look at it, Nintendo were certainly becoming a lot less relevant to the modern gamer that was developing during this generation and had to try something to turn their fortunes around.
What is interesting to think on is how Nintendo did reinvent themselves again after the GameCube, and not by appealing to older gamers with disposable incomes, but by creating a whole new kind of gamer altogether. The Wii may have just been a beefed up GameCube on the inside with added gimmicks, but it opened up a whole new world of gaming to people that had never played a video game before. Maybe if it were not for Nintendo staying true to their audience and releasing the Game Boy Player, to show they still had lots to offer, they may have been forced to fall in line with Sony and Microsoft. That is why I think the Game Boy Player is the unsung hero for Nintendo, it gave them some breathing space to reinvent themselves while keeping their audience and loyal fans engaged for a little while longer through their ever enduring back catalogue of handheld wonder.