Slightly wider than a Game Boy Advance and just four inches high, the GameCube is, by far, the most compact of all the next-generation consoles. Its basic rectangular casing features a top-loading optical disc drive, reset and open buttons on the top front corners, and a power button on the top back corner on the left-hand side.
The GameCube console includes four controller ports, two Digicard memory card ports, a standard audio/video-out port, and a digital-out port for HDTV. The bottom of the GameCube features a high-speed serial port, an expansion port, and a network adapter port for a 56K modem or broadband adapter.
Nintendo launched the GameCube in Japan on September 14 in just purple, but it will eventually be available in black and orange in that territory as well. In the US, the GameCube will launch in black and purple on November 18, with other colors to follow in early 2002.
Nintendo has promised to have 1.1 million GameCubes in U.S. stores by the end of the year. The GameCube is the first video game console to include a handle.
On the first press day of E3 1999, Nintendo announced the initial specifications for its next-generation console, code-named Dolphin. Nintendo knew it was essential to start creating a buzz about its next machine, with Sony scheduled to show Gran Turismo 2 running on a PlayStation 2 development kit at the show.
After the initial announcement, Nintendo retreated into its cave for more than a year until Space World 2000 last August, where the Dolphin's name was changed to GameCube, demos of several popular Nintendo franchises were shown, and the console's final specifications were released.
Nintendo was courted by a bevy of chip manufacturers hoping to score the GameCube contract, including NEC, the developer of the Nintendo 64's MPU. Nintendo chose IBM due to the company's advances in copper chip technology. IBM's copper chips run faster than Intel's aluminum Pentium chips at the same clock speed, feature low power consumption, and run much cooler than their aluminum counterparts.
The GameCube's 0.18 Microns copper-based 485MHz MPU, dubbed Gekko, is based on IBM's PowerPC architecture and is very similar in design to the architecture found in Apple's G3 line of computers. While real-world benchmark tests can vary application-to-application, PowerPC chips that clock at 400MHz can achieve processing results at least equivalent to an Intel Pentium III line clocked at 700MHz or more.
The GameCube includes 24MB of cutting-edge 1T-SRAM for its main memory, as well as 16MB of the same DRAM used in the PlayStation 2 and Xbox.
Graphics by Flipper
The GameCube's graphics processing unit (GPU) was developed by ArtX and will be produced by NEC. ArtX helped design the Nintendo 64 GPU and was recently bought by ATI, giving the longtime PC video card developer a foothold in the console market. Called Flipper, GameCube's 162MHz GPU includes 3.1MB of embedded MoSys 1T-SRAM for Z-buffers, frame buffers, and texture cache. The embedded memory will let developers keep information close to the graphics chip to decrease latency. Nintendo conservatively estimated the GameCube's polygonal output to be 6 to 12 million polygons per second in complete game environments, but developer leaks have suggested that the real number is more than 20 million polygons per second.
The launch games shown at E3 were already eclipsing Nintendo's conservative figures. Displaying textures should be the GameCube's most potent asset. GameCube will utilize S3's 6-to-1 texture compression, which will let texture data be shrunk to one-sixth its original size, with no appreciable hit on the hardware. In addition to the S3 texture compression, the GameCube will be able to display eight simultaneous textures per object, compared with the Xbox's ability to display just four in hardware.
Similar to the Nintendo 64's GPU, Flipper has a wide range of hardwired effects that may be used without placing undue strain on the system. Fog, subpixel antialiasing, alpha blending, virtual texture design, multitexture mapping, bump/environment mapping, MIPMAP, and bilinear filtering are all features of the GameCube hardware and can all be accomplished without facing any bottlenecks.
Additionally, Flipper can render up to eight real-time lights in the hardware. Nintendo initially announced that the GameCube MPU would clock at 405MHz and that Flipper would clock at 202.5MHz, but the system's specs were altered a few days before E3 and again at Space World 2001 in order to make the console more balanced and to allow the two components to be compatible with one another. The final GameCube specs find Gekko clocking in at 485MHz and Flipper at 162MHz.
Another company that Nintendo has worked closely with during the development of the GameCube hardware is Matsushita. Matsushita will design and produce a proprietary DVD drive for the GameCube, one that will use 8cm optical discs (which will hold 1.5GB of data--twice the capacity of CD-ROMs). This will give the GameCube the ability to stream FMV cinema sequences without the inhibitive cost of using large cartridges.
While the discs and disc drive used for the GameCube are a derivative of the DVD format, the GameCube will not have the ability to play DVD movies. Nintendo announced at E3 1999 that Matsushita (Panasonic) would eventually release a DVD player with the GameCube hardware included. The unit was finally shown at E3 2001, and an updated version was shown at Space World 2001.
Matsushita has confirmed its DVD-GameCube hybrid for a Japanese release, but it's becoming likely that it will not be released in the US due to piracy issues. Nintendo is positioning the GameCube as a video game console and not an all-encompassing entertainment device. Therefore, it was no surprise when Nintendo announced that the GameCube will be sold for $199 when it's launched on November 18. No definitive pricing has been announced for the GameCube-DVD player hybrid from Panasonic, but Matsushita has hinted that it could sell for around $300.
In addition to supporting CD-quality streaming audio, the GameCube's programmable digital signal processor (DSP) supports more than 100 voices and up to 64 simultaneous real-time 3D voices. The GameCube hardware may even be "tricked" into producing more voices with Factor 5's MusyX audio tools, but it must be done in software.
This places a strain on the hardware that would be alleviated if the feature were to be onboard the DSP. Factor 5 recently announced that it has found a way to produce Dolby Digital sound through the GameCube, but the majority of its early games will support only Dolby Surround Sound at no performance cost.
With the exception of some extraneous sound applications, the GameCube's streamlined architecture is designed to perform all operations in hardware. In comparison, many of the onboard features of the GameCube hardware must be performed in software on the PlayStation 2, taking valuable processing power away from the CPU and GPU.
Nintendo has made its next-generation machine powerful, easy to understand, and easy to develop software for. This should allow game developers to concentrate their energies on developing great content instead of wrestling with the hardware and trying to implement new technical features that are not already supported. This ideal was manifest at E3 2001, where Sega announced that it completed a playable version of Phantasy Star Online Version 2 for the GameCube in less than a month.
The GameCube controller is a combination of both the Nintendo 64 and PlayStation controllers. Of course, both of those controllers owe at least something to the SNES controller. The overall layout of the controller is similar to Sony's Dual Shock 2--only the directional pad and analog stick's positions are swapped.
The GameCube controller's left analog stick is an improved version of the Nintendo 64 analog stick. It still includes the compass notches that alert you to its position, but the base of the stick itself is more bulbous and durably designed, like the analog stick found on the Dreamcast controller, and it has been coated with a rubber substance to increase the grip.
The yellow-colored right analog stick has taken the place of the yellow C buttons on the Nintendo 64 controller and was recently altered to make it more thumb-friendly.
The directional pad on the GameCube controller is the same size as the Game Boy Advance's and smaller than what is traditionally found on console controllers. The directional pad is placed in the same area as the Dual Shock's analog stick, so accessing it should be accomplished with minimal effort.
With just four buttons on its face, the GameCube controller is designed with simplicity in mind. One large analog A button is surrounded by two bean-shaped, color-coded X and Y buttons and a circular B button. The controller is designed to make it easy to hold down the A button while pressing the three surrounding buttons, doubling the functionality of the B, X, and Y buttons. Ever since the SNES, every new console released has had shoulder buttons, and the GameCube controller is no exception.
The GameCube's analog L and R shoulder buttons have a healthy amount of action to them and will click when fully depressed for added functionality. Similar to the Dreamcast's shoulder buttons, they are curved so that your index fingers fit into a groove and stay snug. The Nintendo 64 controller's Z button has been moved from its trigger positioning to the right shoulder of the GameCube controller, and using it feels a bit awkward. Save for a few slight issues, the GameCube controller is functional, comfortable, and intuitive.
Eliminating the need for the Rumble Pak and batteries, the base GameCube controller will feature built-in force feedback and will not include the ability to insert memory cards as the Nintendo 64 controller did. A wireless version of the GameCube controller, called the WaveBird, will also be available shortly after launch. WaveBird works on an RF signal and is functional from more than 30 feet away.
The WaveBird controller is slightly larger than the base controller and will require batteries to function properly. A small module is inserted into the GameCube's controller port to communicate with the WaveBird while in use. Rumors have circulated that the WaveBird will not feature force feedback, but neither the public nor the press has been allowed to use the controller yet.
GameBoy Advance link cable
This cable will let you plug the Game Boy Advance, Nintendo's recently released 32-bit handheld, into the GameCube's controller ports. Besides facilitating the ability to use the GBA as an extra controller and screen, Nintendo has stated that the Game Boy Advance Link Cable will provide a bridge between GameCube and Game Boy Advance software. Nintendo has already worked a similar angle with its Game Boy Color and Nintendo 64 Pokémon games.
Nintendo's George Harrison stated in an interview with us last year that his company will be using the Game Boy Advance's ability to link with the GameCube as a "trojan horse" to bring more GameCubes into American homes. At Space World 2001, the first games to link the two platforms together was unveiled. Kirby Tilt 'n' Tumble 2 will let you play the game on the GameCube while using the Game Boy Advance as a tilt-sensitive controller. Miyamoto's Animal Forest will let you construct your own textures on the Game Boy Advance and then import them into the game.
Similar in storage capacity to the Nintendo 64's memory card, GameCube's Digicard will hold just 4Mb of flash memory. The limited storage capacity could present a problem to developers of stat-heavy genres like RPGs and sports. There are just two memory card ports on the GameCube console, but Nintendo has stated that it will be possible to hot-swap the memory cards for multiple saves. No pricing has been announced for the GameCube Digicard.
GameCube SD-memory card adapter
While the storage size of the GameCube memory card is very small, this may be remedied with the SD-Memory Card Adapter. It lets you save games by using one of Panasonic's flash memory cards. Panasonic's SD cards are commonly used for saving images in digital cameras, and they carry a hefty price tag. Prices for the cards have been dropping significantly, but a 64MB card of flash memory currently costs $165. With this much storage space, it has been rumored that Nintendo could incorporate some of the concepts behind its Japan-only 64DD bulky drive into GameCube games. Nintendo's plans for the SD-Memory Card Adapter weren't addressed at E3, but we should hear more at its Space World show in August.
GameCube network adapters
Nintendo will not pack-in a network adapter with the GameCube but two will be available separately in early 2002. There will be a 56K-compatible V.90 modem for dial-up connections and a broadband adapter to facilitate DSL and cable modems.
Nintendo has established a branch of its company to construct the GameCube network headed by its former technical director, Jim Merrick. Nintendo stated at E3 that it is taking a wait-and-see approach to the GameCube's online play until it finds a way to introduce a worldwide network that will be both functional and profitable. Adding to the intrigue, Sega has announced that it plans to have Phantasy Star Online Version 2 ready for the GameCube early next year and that it is currently in talks with Nintendo to get the GameCube's network prepared for the game.
GameCube digital video cable
The GameCube features a fully digital output, and Nintendo will be releasing a digital video cable and a component cable to take advantage of it. The digital cable will let the GameCube send a viable progressive scan signal to HDTV-enabled computer monitors and televisions. A component cable will also be released for the GameCube for improved visual output. Both the component and digital cables retail for $28 in Japan. Nintendo has not released the final pricing for either cable in North America.
InterAct has already announced that it plans to have GameCube peripherals, such as controllers and memory cards, available for the GameCube's launch. Nyko has committed to making peripherals for the GameCube as well. Nuby announced at E3 that it too will produce GameCube peripherals.