[i've Been] Cubed!

Nintendo's new console packs plenty of punch

November 12, 2001|By John Roby | John Roby,SUN STAFF

With the release of the next-generation Game Cube, Nintendo has one eye on the past and one on the future, hoping to entice video game players in the here and now.

Nintendo's entry in the three-way "console war" with Sony and newcomer Microsoft oozes familiarity, though it offers features never before seen from the company that revived a home video game industry that had collapsed in the early 1980s.

Nintendo, after all, is synonymous with franchises such as Super Mario Bros., Metroid and Zelda that every game player knows, and the Game Cube itself shows off the company's tradition of colorful and thoughtful design.

Over the long run, you can expect new interpretations of classic games and new entries from third-party developers whom the company has too often kept on a short leash in the past.

But when the Game Cube debuts in stores Sunday - three days after Microsoft's Xbox - it will open without much star power. Only a half-dozen games will be available, mostly targeting Nintendo's traditional audience of younger gamers.

That said, the diminutive console packs 10 pounds of punch in a 5-pound bag, delivering unprecedented action and realism to the titles it plays.

A customized 485-MHz IBM Power PC microprocessor, similar to those in Apple's G3 Macintoshes, oscillates at the heart of the Game Cube, along with a 162-MHz graphics chip designed by ATI and Nintendo. The chip is designed to perform complex visual effects such as anti-aliasing (smoothing the jagged edges of 3-D images) and displaying up to eight textures per object (compared with four for the Xbox and one for the PlayStation 2) through its hardware, not through relatively slow software.

The question is whether game designers can take full advantage of that horsepower. The Sony PlayStation 2, for example, has anti-aliasing hardware, but game designers often avoid it because it slows down the frame rate.

The Game Cube sports four controller sockets, analog and digital audio-video outputs, two high-speed serial ports and a high-speed parallel port. Unlike its competitors, Nintendo has no immediate plans to offer broadband support over networks.

In a long-overdue break with tradition, Nintendo has abandoned cartridges in favor of optical media - in this case, 3-inch, proprietary mini-DVDs based on a design by Matshushita. The discs can store about 1.5 GB - about twice as much as a CD but only one-fifth as much as a full DVD. Games are saved on removable, 4-MB flash memory cards.

For such a powerful console, the Game Cube doesn't look like much. It's tiny, and measuring 4.3 by 5.9 by 6.3 inches, it's a cube in name only.

Unfortunately, its size doesn't translate into saved space because the top-loading disk tray requires several additional inches of headroom. Its two small anti-skid pads don't grip very well, either, and a cheap-looking plastic shell and hardened plastic handle make it look more like a wired-up lunch box than a game console.

The Game Cube comes with stereo and audiovisual cables - players with TVs that have no AV jacks will have to buy a $15 RF switch and modulator package.

Experienced gamers are likely to find the controller frustrating. It has two analog sticks, a four-way directional pad, seven buttons and a built-in motor for rumble effects. It's a bulky package, especially for those with smaller hands, with some awkward reaches between controls. With three fewer buttons than the PlayStation 2's Dual Shock controller, it also has less versatility than one might expect from a next-generation system.

Still, video games, not aesthetics, sell consoles, and Nintendo knows video games.

Two home-grown Nintendo titles, Luigi's Mansion and Wave Race: Blue Storm, will join five third-party games when the console goes on sale, with a dozen more titles scheduled for release before year's end.

In sharp contrast to its strategy with the N64 console, Nintendo says, it has granted third-party developers unprecedented support and design freedom. Planned for release early next year are additions to the Donkey Kong, Mario and Zelda franchises that brought Nintendo wealth and fame, as well as titles from at least nine third-party developers.

Nintendo is also taking steps to avoid a shortage of consoles like the one that hurt sales of Sony's PlayStation 2 last year. Nintendo has pledged to have 700,000 units in stores Sunday, with another 400,000 available before Christmas.

At $200, the Game Cube is $100 cheaper than Sony or Microsoft's next-generation console. But expect to fork over substantially more than $200 before playing your first game - the console ships with one controller and no software.

Games retail for $49.95, and going head-to-head with a friend requires a second controller, priced at $34.95. And you'll need a $14.95 memory card to play most games. That pushes the price of a Christmas morning setup with two games to about $350.

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