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Nintendo GameCube

Nintendo GameCube - First Look

New Nintendo Platform, Same Old Games?

by Jim Bray

Nintendo's latest shot in the video game war is a technological step forward, but not a giant step.

The GameCube competes head to head with Sony's PlayStation 2 and Microsoft's X-Box. It's definitely the most advanced Nintendo yet, but is it as good as its competition?

Unfortunately, I haven't played with the X-Box and my experience with the PS2 amounted to a single afternoon of being humiliated at a car racing game by my kids.

Still, the PS2 also doubles as a fully fledged DVD player, and that's a distinct advantage if you don't already have one.

But this piece is about my weekend with the $200 GameCube.

The platform uses half-sized compact discs rather than Nintendo's traditional cartridge, which cuts down on the size. The graphics, courtesy of PC graphics board maker ATI Technologies, appear first rate, though the two games we got with the system didn't really stretch the GameCube's abilities.

The controllers follow the trend toward adding so many buttons, sticks and gewgaws that you have to be a kid to figure them out. This isn't a Nintendo problem, however, because other platforms' controllers are also getting very busy.

The GameCube's controllers are smaller than the N64's which, while putting things closer to hand, can also lead to pressing the wrong button at the wrong time.

Of course that's something I do regardless of the controller…

Unlike the PS-2 and X-Box, the GameCube isn't compatible with 16x9 widescreen TV's. This won't matter to people who don't have these TV's, but it means those who do have them will have to stretch/zoom the picture to fill the wider screen, at the cost of resolution. On the plus side, the GameCube does offer progressive scan and component video output.

Powering the GameCube is a customized IBM Power PC "Gekko" 32/64 bit processor with a clock speed of 485 Megahertz. The system offers 24-bit color, which is not as good as the best PC's but it should be more than adequate for a TV set.

The two games I tried were Luigi's Mansion, a typical Mario/Luigi game that borrows more than a bit from the Ghostbusters movie, and Waverace: Blue Storm, where you ride around on a Sea Doo kind of thing.

In Luigi's Mansion, Luigi is searching a haunted house, armed with a flashlight and a kind of ecto-vacuum that sucks up ghosts and stores them in its canister. His mission is to save Mario from the Boos (that's "Boos," not Booze - this is a family game!). The graphics are fine, but I had trouble with the controller (see above!) and the interminable cut scenes that you can't skip by. I thought the game a tad childish for someone of my advanced age; my youngest son also found the game too childish, and he's a mere moppet of 21.

Waverace was more interesting, but not much more. There's a tutorial that comes in really handy, teaching you to take various jumps, lean into curves, do flips and the like, and then you're sent off into the cruel world of wave racing.

This version of the game doesn't appear to be much more than an update for the new game platform, and it isn't really a technological leap forward. I also found the controls really confusing (see above again!) and the graphics didn't really leap out at me. Some of the race courses are pretty nifty, but it's hard to see them whistling by as you struggle with the controls.

On the whole, my all-too-brief first impression of the GameCube is that it doesn't really break any new technological ground, except perhaps for Nintendo itself, and it appears to have been designed only to compete with the other two major platforms, not to beat them. Perhaps Nintendo is hoping to trade on its name and reputation to make its sales. If so, that's a pretty cynical way to compete.

It isn't that the GameCube isn't a good system. I'm sure it'll entertain its target market very well.

But it could have been even better. One thing that's desperately needed is a more extensive library of good games. The two I tried kept my son and I interested for the weekend we had the GameCube, but even then we ached for other titles.

Jim Bray's technology columns are distributed by the TechnoFILE and Mochila Syndicates. Copyright Jim Bray.


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January 31, 2006