I was poor, still waiting on my first paycheck, I couldn’t understand a single word on the box, but still… I bought it. I shelled the 24,000 Yen I couldn’t really spare, smiled politely at the sales clerk, and stumbled home in the dark with my brand new GameCube.
When history judges the GameCube, it won’t be judged kindly. The GameCube sold poorly; Super Mario Sunshine was arguably the weakest ‘canon’ Mario ever made, Wind Waker wasn’t for everyone. It was a console without direction, a trough in anticipation of a peak. The GameCube was the last straw for many — including my own brother, who never bought another Nintendo console again.
But, for me? It was a console I fell in love with; a console I fell in love playing. Some of my fondest memories are inextricably linked with the GameCube, to the extent that I can barely separate them from the games themselves.
I was living in Nagoya, Japan when I bought my GameCube, stumbling home in the dark, completely penniless. I had been living there for a single month.
It was May. I had just turned 22, I was alone in a strange country. Culture shock is a very real thing.
One of the first symptoms, in the very beginning, is a strong desire to remove yourself from your surroundings — to find respite from the culture you don’t understand, to avoid the difficult task of assimilation. Back then I thought I was buying my GameCube because I wanted to play Soul Calibur 2 — but what I really wanted was an excuse, something to procrastinate with. I didn’t want to engage. I wanted to disappear.
And it worked; for a short while at least. But there were obstacles: I could barely speak Japanese, let alone read it. A simple two player fighter was fun for a while, but it hardly gave me the respite I craved. I’d walk past video game stores — I’d look at Wind Waker in its small Japanese box, covered in Kanji I couldn’t read, and I’d feel such frustration. This was the game I wanted to play, so badly, but couldn’t. I’d simply walk past it, grumbling.
At the time I had no internet. I had to call my brother to post me English versions of Wind Waker, and Metroid Prime, along with a Freeloader — the disc that allowed importers to override region codes. I waited a month for them to arrive.
I’ll never forget the day the games hit my mailbox — In a brown envelope that I ripped to shreds in seconds. I followed the Freeloader instructions to the letter, placed the small Wind Waker disc into the tray and sat cross legged in front of the TV like I was 10 years old again; the perfect man child.
But then… nothing — a flickering black and white image on my outdated Japanese CRT. Completely unplayable. The disappointment was palpable; almost physical. What the hell is going on, I asked myself, why couldn’t I play?
I frantically cycled to the nearest internet cafe and did a Google search — turned out the version of the Freeloader my brother sent me was outdated and wouldn’t play the games I’d been so desperate for. I had to wait another month for the new Freeloader to arrive… it felt unbearable.
By the time I was actually able to play Metroid Prime and Wind Waker, I no longer had that need to disappear. I had gotten through the first stage of culture shock and was knee deep in what experts call the ‘Honeymoon Phase’ — I had fallen in love with Japan, with the language, the politeness of the locals, the food. Everything.
I had made friends — I barely had time to spare. I didn’t need to play my GameCube, I just wanted to. So I made time.
I remember shopping with this cute girl — intelligent, friendly, drop dead gorgeous. Being the terrible human being I am, I barely gave her the time of day; constantly checking my watch, fidgety, distracted. Within an hour I was on the train home. All I wanted to do was play Wind Waker.
Three years later that cute girl was my wife. How the hell did I pull it off?
Well, partly down to the GameCube.
I wouldn’t say that my wife and I fell in love playing Pikmin, but it definitely played a part. It was the first time I ever introduced my wife to a video game.
“You’ll love this,” I said.
“Hmph,” she replied. “Looks boring.”
We spent hours playing the first Pikmin together, sharing tactics, laughing at each other. When Pikmin 2 came out we became ridiculously competitive over the multiplayer. I took it easy to begin with, letting every match feel relatively close. Within days, I had to scramble to keep up with her.
And then the next stage of culture shock.
After living in Japan for 18 months, I felt differently. I had become accustomed to living in another country, developed the survival mechanisms, gotten used to everyday life. It was at this point that enthusiasm began to wane, I started noticing things. Things I didn’t like.
Just little things — the subtle racism. I’d thought nothing of having to carry my ‘Gaijin Card’ initially (an Alien Registration Card) but after a year and a half I’d begun to resent it. I couldn’t shake the feeling that no matter how long I lived in Nagoya, there would always be things I couldn’t do, places I couldn’t visit — that’s what it means to be a foreigner in Japan.
The looks on the street; the Aliens-only seats on the train (complete with little Roswell style doodles designed) invented as a result Japanese reluctance to sit next to white people — seemed less like a cute cultural quirk and more like a strange form of blatant racism. The longer I stayed in the country, the stronger that feeling grew. I would always be an outsider.
So I became more insular. I played the GameCube. And then, months later, I left.
I still have my old Japanese GameCube; a little memory box I dust off, every now and then — to relive the nostalgia of being young, of feeling awkward, of falling in love. The games are like worn photographs; dated and frayed. They’re hardly perfect, and mean little to others, but I treasure them and the feelings that flood back as I play.
Today, the GameCube turns 20 in Japan, although it was released in Australia on May 17, 2002. It seems so long ago. History will most likely judge it harshly, but when I look back all I can remember is my own personal history. The games I played, what was going on in my own life as I played — the memories are so vivid that I physically wince… then I smile.
The GameCube: what a great little machine. Awkward, naive, misunderstood…
This story has been updated to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the GameCube in Japan.