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Spend the weekend revisiting the GameCube’s secretly great launch lineup

For our weekend-plans thread this week, I chatted with contributor Anthony John Agnello, and our conversation led us on a little GameCube nostalgia trip together. As always, let us know what you’re playing this weekend in the comments.

Matt Gerardi: What are you playing this weekend?

Anthony John Agnello: I’m going to play video games this weekend in precisely the same way that I played video games for the past week, which is: I sit down, and I turn on Assassin’s Creed IV, and then after 20 minutes I say, “I don’t want to do this anymore. I want to go play Star Wars Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader, the GameCube launch game made by Factor 5.”

Gerardi: Why are you going back to that one?

Agnello: Rogue Leader popped into my head a few weeks ago because after reviewing Knack for Gameological, I thought, “This game really does fit into the stereotype that people have about launch games.” It really does feel like a cake that was put in the oven and taken out 20 minutes too early, just unfinished and not totally there.

Then I started playing Killzone: Shadow Fall, and that one was on the other end of the spectrum. It was this big flashy showcase, but it was just kind of soulless. After playing both of those and seeing all these people online talk about, “Oh, there’s no such thing as a good launch anymore,” I was thinking, “That’s bullshit. The GameCube launch was spectacular.”

I think that was the one where the perception of the bad launch lineup began—that 2000 to 2001 period of PlayStation 2 to GameCube and Xbox. And I remember thinking that Rogue Leader in particular seemed like such an accomplished game at the time, but I hadn’t played it in years. So I just popped it in. And God, it holds up so well. It’s beautiful, it controls really well. Every other Star Wars game that I’ve played in the past decade is bogged down with extra stuff. In Rogue Leader, you just get in an X-Wing, you fly into space, and you shoot TIE Fighters. And it’s really fun to shoot TIE Fighters.

Gerardi: If the games in the GameCube’s launch lineup were as good as you say, why do you think people came to think of it as part of the trend of bad launches?

Agnello: I wish there were some sort of grand insight I could have that other people don’t. Our own Joe Keiser said it really well in our first Games We Liked for this year: There was no Mario game in that launch. And nobody was expecting there to not be a new Mario game. This was bizarre new territory for a Nintendo machine, with the exception of the Virtual Boy. And everybody was like, “Oh man, this is the end of the world because there’s no Mario game.” Which is idiotic because there was all kinds of good stuff.

The original Luigi’s Mansion is great. Talk about a profoundly weird game that has no interest in holding your hand at all. It just wants you to go in there and explore and touch everything and look at everything, and like Rogue Leader, it still looks great. They’re beautiful games.

Gerardi: Yeah, with Luigi’s Mansion, it’s the lighting and the character animation that does it. The lighting is gorgeous, the way moonlight shines through the windows and the rays break up and you get lots of shadows casting. But man, that animation on Luigi. You know, I’m younger than everybody else at Gameological. I was 11 when that game came out. I remember liking it then, but when I played it within the last couple of years, all it took for me to be blown away was the fact that Luigi’s nose bounces when he runs.

Agnello: I could imagine playing that when you’re 11 and thinking, “This is amazing. This is awesome, and I want everything to do with everything on screen.”

Gerardi: I definitely liked it at the time. I actually wrote about it in an essay for English class, and my teacher thought I was making everything up, as if it were a short story. I remember him writing, “Professor E. Gadd? That’s clever!” in his notes.

 So Luigi’s Mansion is a great game, but I also think it’s part of the reason why people look back on the GameCube launch as a disappointing one. As you sad, there was no Mario game, but maybe people had the perception that Luigi’s Mansion was going to be that Mario game, and it very much was not.

Agnello: It’s weirder and more difficult than a lot of Mario games. In fact, all of those GameCube launch games were really hard. Luigi’s Mansion was difficult to play really well. Playing Rogue Leader is—I only just beat it. I did that this week after 12 years. Then there was Super Monkey Ball, which came out of nowhere. It was such a strange, delightfully “Sega in the early 2000s” sort of thing. But it was a ball buster. Jesus Christ, did it hate you and want you to look embarrassed in front of your friends.

I have all of these sitting out and I’m definitely going to revisit them, but over the weekend I want my wife to play Super Monkey Ball with me because I think I can convince her to play the target drop, which is one of the mini-games. The main game is like Marble Madness where you’re supposed to roll your monkey to a goal. But then there are all these side games you can play. The best one is “Monkey Glide” where you go off a huge ski ramp and up into the air. Then you have to open the ball and float your monkey toward a target and land perfectly, Pilotwings-style. There’s nothing funnier than getting off course, letting the wind carry you, and seeing your shrieking monkey plummet into the sea.

Gerardi: Funny is one word for that.

We’ve got Luigi’s Mansion, Monkey Ball, and Rogue Leader—those were some of the day one GameCube launch games. Just a month later, though, the system got some of its signature games. Pikmin came out, and I really wanted to love it, but my 11-year-old brain just couldn’t wrap itself around it.

Agnello: Hell, I was 19 and even then I thought, “This is too hard. This is not fun and too weird and too hard for me to keep doing.” So Pikmin sort of passed me by. Its sequel I really liked, whenever that came out.

But Super Smash Bros. Melee was right there in the middle of December, and god damn is that game good. You could’ve released the GameCube and not had anything else for it but Super Smash Bros., and it still would have been worth the price of admission.

All of these games we keep talking about, they were such perfect reflections of what that box could do and why that controller was a great controller and why the idea of doing something that wasn’t the most technologically advanced but was really the most polished and clean was a good idea.

Gerardi: Right. It also had a cadre of absolutely stellar games, like Zelda: The Wind Waker and Metroid Prime and Super Mario Sunshine. It was always a troubled system, though. Do you think the Wii U is destined for the same fate?

Agnello: Not even destined. It’s already there. The Wii U has been out for a year. By the time GameCube had been out for a full year, it had all of these killer launch games that we’re talking about, it had Super Mario Sunshine, and by November, it had Metroid Prime. It had all of those big ones in place. I feel like the Wii U already has its big ones in place. Super Mario 3D World is a big one. It also has, much like the GameCube, the weird and abrasive games, like Pikmin 3 and Zombi U.

Gerardi: It’s going to be interesting to see what happens with it. It seems the problem is that Nintendo is just stretched too thin. It doesn’t have the resources to make a Super Mario 3D World every year. Instead, what we might see—and we’ve already seen when it collaborated with the weirdoes at Platinum Games on Wonderful 101—is them working with outside studios to help make Wii U games under the Nintendo banner. Which studio, Japanese or otherwise, would you like to see Nintendo working with?

Agnello: It would make me happier than anything in the world if Nintendo called the Fullbright Company, makers of Gone Home, tomorrow and said, “Here is a blank check.” Nintendo has $12 billion in liquid assets. They can spend as much money as they want and be fine. Just give the Fullbright Company a big check and say, “We want you, Steve Gaynor, to design what you think a Nintendo game should be. Anything goes.”

Gerardi: That’s the key. Don’t force an outside studio to rework an existing Nintendo series, but have them make something in the spirit of Nintendo. That idea of partnering with smaller studios, like Fullbright, is a great idea.

Agnello: It’s a great idea, and I think they might be playing around with it. They just have to go for it. Don’t call them indie games. Don’t even call them indie developers. They did the exact same thing in the ’80s on the NES. That’s what built the company, going out there and finding people and telling them, “Make us some shit and we’ll put it out. It’ll be great.”