It is October 2002 and you’re at Hollywood’s hottest party. To the left you see Paris Hilton, clad in an aqua-and-lime-swirled halter dress that would make a 2022 Depop-er swoon. To your right is Christina Aguilera, whose newsboy cap perches on her head as her cargo gauchos swing gingerly on her hips. At any other event, these divas would have all eyes on them, but here they are just specks amongst the rest of Hollywood’s early 2000s glitterati — Leonardo DiCaprio, Alicia Silverstone, the cast of Scrubs — all of whom carry the season’s hottest accessory:
Similar to its successful contemporary, Apple’s clamshell iBook, GameCube was designed with a quirky, techy flavor that ruled the 2000s, right down to the perfectly ergonomic handle. Both were marketed as equal parts fashion and function, each utilizing (and paying for) the powerful early-aughts celebrity engine to attract attention and advertisement. It worked for the iBook, but can the same be said for Nintendo’s second-worst-selling console?
In 1998, Nintendo began work on a top-secret initiative it dubbed Project Dolphin. The console later known as GameCube was Nintendo’s attempt at building a game system differently than its competitors: Sony’s long-awaited PlayStation 2 and Microsoft’s newcomer, Xbox. Nintendo Japan wanted to build something for friends to play together that prioritized fun and whimsy — and distanced itself from the edgier lineups on PS2 and Xbox.
As part of that, Nintendo would have to convince gamers to get behind a radical concept:
“It wasn’t that you couldn’t bring out hardware that was a different color, it was just a very… ‘female’ looking color. It just didn’t feel masculine,” said Perrin Kaplan, former vice president of marketing and corporate affairs for Nintendo of America, in a 2021 interview with Video Games Chronicle.
Kaplan went on to say that many in the Western division of Nintendo attempted to convince Nintendo Japan to go in a different direction — but their concerns went unheard. After a copious amount of market research, where Kaplan says every color from “poopy brown” to hot pink was considered for the console, Nintendo’s GameCube launched in its trademark indigo, alongside black, platinum, and spice orange versions.
Many gamers, millions of whom had already secured their sleek PlayStation 2s, more or less scoffed at the quirky purple box. Aesthetics aside, the GameCube was criticized for its lack of adult (see: violent) games, lack of a DVD slot, and lack of internet connectivity. Nintendo was prepared for those criticisms; it was always aiming to create something functionally different than its competitors. But many at Nintendo felt the design of the console was keeping it from being taken seriously by “real gamers.” Tiny discs and multicolored controllers accessorized the GameCube, amping up the cuteness of the console and giving it a “Fisher-Price” aesthetic, according to Shelly Pearce, former head of PR at Nintendo of Europe, also talking to Video Games Chronicle. To some extent, this “cuteness” factor overly associated the console with children, but Nintendo had a bigger demographic challenge:
According to numbers from a Nintendo-conducted survey released at Nintendo’s 2007 E3 press conference, 42% of GameCube users were female — compared to 32% for PlayStation 2 and 11% for PlayStation 3. It was a statistic that was easily observable growing up in my middle-class neighborhood. Using my GameCube’s iconic purselike handle, I carried the console from sleepover to sleepover, while its bunched-up wires and controllers knocked around in my Vera Bradley duffel. As the nights went on, older brothers could be heard screaming on their Xbox headsets while their sisters and I played through Mary-Kate and Ashley: Sweet 16 – Licensed to Drive. Every so often these brothers would make their way to the kitchen or bathroom, stopping in to sneer at us or dive on the easily reachable reset button to see their sisters cry.
As a kid, I never made the connection between these brothers’ vitriol for GameCube and the joy I got from slipping the console onto my child-sized wrist and parading it all the way to my mom’s minivan the next morning. But now it seems clear: As much as the older brothers loved Smash Bros. and Mario Kart, there still needed to be a distinction between them, the real gamers, and us, the fake gamer girls. As gamer culture evolved, the rising idea that we must only be using games to accessorize ourselves and our personalities made it obvious that GameCube, with its sociable games, high cuteness factor, and freakin’ purse handle, was our accessory of choice.
Fortunately for Nintendo, GameCube would be a short-lived failure for the company. In 2006, Nintendo released Wii, which sold 101 million units over its lifetime, compared to GameCube’s 21 million. Learning from its mistakes, Nintendo primarily offered Wii in a sleek white, with the occasional limited-edition color, positioning the console not just for girls, but for everyone. With its delicate sensor bar, Wii was hardly a grab-and-go console, so it mostly sat on our entertainment center, blending alongside my brother’s equally sleek PS3. When I went to my friends’ houses to play Wii, their older brothers would fight for a turn to use the new gaming technology — though they would later return to their shooters on Xbox and leave us with our toy.
I too was impressed by Wii’s capabilities, but I didn’t feel much ownership over it. As far as I was concerned, Wii was just part of the TV. My GameCube, whose color I picked out and whose controller colors were divided among friends in whatever internal hierarchy I put them in that week, felt more personal, more me.
And, like with my beloved Vera Bradley duffel, I found myself continuing to drag my GameCube along to sleepovers, then college, and finally I settled it into a drawer in my full-fledged adult apartment.
My brother sold his three PlayStations, and all their games, to GameStop for $78.
So it’s easy to say GameCube failed. And financially, sure, that’s hard to argue against. But for those of us who got hooked on it for more personal reasons, it became a symbol that I’ll hold on to for years to come. The purple color choice may not have resonated with the market, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way.