Armagideon Time

Gaming the cube

July 9th, 2019

In November 2001, Lil Bro issued me an ultimatum regarding the fate of his former ride, a rusted out 1990 Olds Cutlass. The car had previously belonged to our grandmother, and had seen Lil Bro through his grad school years and a cross-country road trip. After he got married and moved into neighborhood where parking was in short supply, he offered me the old beater as a creaky but reliable “get around” machine.

I hadn’t been behind the wheel in a decade and wasn’t sure if I wanted to assume that responsibility (and associated expenses). The Cutlass sat in our grandmother’s driveway from late summer through mid-autumn while I hemmed and hawed my way around committing myself to taking custody of it — until my sibling cornered me into making a choice: Either I get it registered and on the road, or he’d scrap it.

Maura thought having a car might make things easier for us, so I went down to my family’s insurance office of choice (with Lil Bro escorting me) and assumed ownership of one rusty-ass Cutlass.

Owning did change everything, pulling my orbit away from the Boston-Cambridge axis I’d roamed in since enrolling at UMB and putting it back in the Metro Northwest suburbs where I’d grown up. So long Café Aventura, hello Antonio’s Pizza in Medford. Goodbye Million Year Picnic, greetings Webheads. Farewell Newbury Comics in Harvard Square, hello Newbury Comics across from the Burlington Mall.

A few weeks later, my grandmother slipped while crossing the street and shattered a kneecap. She was admitted to a rehab facility on Woburn’s West Side, and I would drive over to visit her after work. Maura went with me on the first visit, only to pass out and crease her skull in an overheated elevator, requiring a long night in Winchester Hospital’s ER. After that, I flew solo, with only some mix CDs and my thoughts to keep me company on the long depressing ride.

The rehab’s parking lot overlooked the Woburn Plaza shooping center, which happened to host a (now tragically shuttered) Toys R Us store. Staring down at it after finishing a visit with my grandma, I thought to myself “I could buy a Gamecube. I should buy a Gamecube.”

I don’t know where the notion came from or why it hit so forcefully at that moment. All I know is that an hour later I was exiting the store with a console, extra controller, memory card, two games, and a non-insignificant bump to my existing debt load.

The two games were Metroid Prime and Phantasy Star Online I & II. The former I bought because of the hype and the latter because I’m a pathetic mark when I comes to the Phantasy Star franchise. Both got a pretty decent amount of play for about a month before I forgot about them and the Gamecube in general.

The system never really fit into my gaming ecosystem, which was drifting more towards the PC platform in those days. Lil Bro wasn’t around to boost its profile, as he’d done for the N64, and there weren’t many “killer apps” to pull me away from Baldur’s Gate II, GTA III, or Knights of the Old Republic. Metroid Prime was fun, but hampered by having to a joypad after getting used to keyboard ‘n’ mouse FPS controls. PSO was alluring, but also an expansion-slash-sequel of a Dreamcast game I’d already played the hell out of. I picked up used copies of the Skies of Arcadia and Tales of Symphonia when a local shop was clearing out old inventory. Neither has ever left their cases, not even when Maura bought a back-compatible Wii unit a half decade later.

There was no space to set up the Gamecube when we got married and moved into the House of the Hillside (another major life event facilitated by owning a car), so it gradually succumbed to dust-laden entropy in the spare room’s storage area until I gave Maura the go-ahead to chuck it out during the earliest stages of converting the space into the kid’s future bedroom.

The story would have ended there, but over the past year or so I began thinking about the damn thing again. Some of the games turned up while I was reconfiguring the front room, and gave me a weird sense of nostagia for one of the last “pure” gaming consoles ever released. No hard drives or internet updates or streaming apps or subscription services — you just loaded the mini-discs into the machine, powered the sucker up, and went to town.

Plus, it hosted a lot of titles that have since fallen into the memory hole — X-Men Legends, Baldur’s Gate Dark Alliance, a decent selection of Sega’s millennial era arcade offerings — and aren’t available on non-console platforms. Yeah, I could’ve dusted off my PS2 or Dreamcast, but the Gamecube had that “missed potential” angle going for it, adding an additional aura of novelty to the experience. Used consoles weren’t that expensive, either, leaving the murky RCA to HD resolution the only real hurdle to overcome.

Well, that, and my reluctance to indulge in another impulsive whim. The past two decades have drawn a clearer mental boundary between “could” and “should.” Questions my younger self would never have asked, such as “where will I put the damn thing” or “how often am I really going to use it,” are given a great deal of consideration by present-day Andrew —

— until I spend a week busting my ass in the sweltering heat cleaning and renovating the house and decide “fuck it, I’m going to treat myself.”

The console arrived yesterday, along with a cheap signal converter, memory card, and copy of Crazy Taxi. I played enough of that last one to put in an order for a higher-end HDMI adapter, because the lowball one works fine for arcade-type games but is still a bit too muddy for RPGs or FPS offerings. A used copy of the Dark Alliance has been ordered, though I still need to figure out where PSO I & II ended up during the big attic clean-out.

Besides the early Aughts nostalgia aspect (which has also manifested through the purchase of some White Stripes singles and Fischerspooner’s debut LP), revisiting the Gamecube and its era of gaming has been a nice change of pace from the AAA live-updated rut I’d fallen into. I don’t know whether it’s the new responsibilities of fatherhood or just overdue feelings of burnout, but I just can’t embrace the all-consuming grind of titles like Destiny 2 or even Fallout 4 like I used to be able to do. I’m looking for something that’s immersive yet doesn’t feel like a second job, and the Gamecube Era’s offerings occupy that bygone sweet spot.

(In case you were wondering, the Cutlass managed to serve us admirably for about two years before the rust did her in. She was replaced by a 1997 Lumina, which was the biggest cash sink I’ve ever owned and was traded in for a 2007 Malibu which got totalled when a dump truck rear-ended us and replaced by our current 2010 Malibu.)

One Response to “Gaming the cube”

  1. Zeno

    There’s still a Gamecube rattling around in my garage because I keep telling myself “one day” about playing through Battalion Wars and possibly Twilight Princess.

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