How GameCube Works

The GameCube comes in a variety of colors like its predecessor Nintendo 64.  See more GameCube pictures.
Photo courtesy Nintendo

In the United States, the Nintendo GameCube is the undeniable underdog of the "console wars." Sony's PlayStation 2 and Microsoft's Xbox certainly sell better, and they tend to get more media attention. Toward the end of 2002, for example, the PlayStation 2 stirred up a lot of controversy with its new game Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, and Microsoft had a hit with Xbox Live, its online gaming program. Once the undisputed king of home video games, Nintendo seems to be struggling just to hold its own.

But if you've actually spent any time with a GameCube, you may be confused by its reputation as a third-rate system. It's hard to see ground-breaking GameCube games like Metroid Prime and Super Mario Sunshine as anything less than state of the art. No matter how it fares in sales, this console is definitely a remarkable technological achievement.

In this edition of HowStuffWorks, we'll find out what the GameCube has under the hood, and we'll see how it stacks up to the competition.

Inside the Cube

The limited edition platinum GameCube
The limited edition platinum GameCube
Photo courtesy Nintendo

The GameCube is not actually a cube; at 6 inches long, 6 inches wide and 4.3 inches tall (15 x 15 x 11 cm), it is a very compact rectangular block. Like its predecessor, the Nintendo 64, the GameCube comes in a variety of colors. A handle on the back of the machine makes it easy to transport.

While Nintendo didn't spend a lot of time on the aesthetics of the console, the insides are pretty impressive. Let's take a look at the components inside the GameCube and see what they can do. (If you want to compare the GameCube to the PlayStation 2 or the Microsoft Xbox, be sure to check out this comparison page.)

  • The GameCube is powered by a 485-megahertz (MHz) IBM microprocessor, an extension of the IBM PowerPC architecture. It has a maximum bus transfer rate of 2.6 GB per second. The Gekko also features a whopping 256 kilobytes (KB) of level 2 (L2) cache memory.
  • An ATI 162-MHz graphics chip, called "Flipper," allows the GameCube to produce about 12 million polygons per second. Polygons are the building blocks of 3-D graphics. Increasing the number of polygons results in sharper, more detailed images. In comparison, the Nintendo 64 produces 150,000 polygons per second.
  • A special 16-bit digital signal processor supports 64 audio channels.
  • The GameCube has 40 MB of RAM (24 MB 1T-SRAM, 16 MB of 100-MHz DRAM).
  • Gamers can now attach a modem to the GameCube. The modem fits into a serial port on the underside of the console. It allow users to connect to an online network, where they can trade data and play games over the Internet. For more information, check out Before you buy a Modem Adapter and Before you buy a Broadband Adapter on Nintendo's official site.
56K modem
Broadband modem

One thing that you won't find in Nintendo's GameCube is a DVD player, which the PS2 and Xbox both have. Nintendo says it's sticking to the basics and what it knows best -- video games.

The Games

The GameCube uses small proprietary discs instead of cartridges.
The GameCube uses small proprietary discs instead of cartridges.
Photo courtesy Nintendo

The GameCube is the first Nintendo console not to use game cartridges. Instead, the GameCube uses 1.5-GB proprietary optical discs with a diameter of 8 cm (3.14 inches). A compact disc has a diameter of 12 cm (4.72 inches), which is the size of the Sony game discs. Since the GameCube operates with discs, the Nintendo 64 games are not compatible with it.

When you get down to it, the biggest difference between the different consoles is their respective game catalogs. Gamers typically pick the console that supports the titles they're most interested in. The PlayStation 2 has a huge lead in sheer number of games because it plays original PlayStation games and it hit store shelves well before the other consoles. The X-box has fared well largely because of high profile games aimed at teenage and adult players (such as Halo and Splinter Cell).

Nintendo's main strategy has been to launch exclusive games based on well-known established characters. For example, Mario, Star Fox and Metroid's Samus, who were all featured in hit games on earlier Nintendo consoles, will appear only in GameCube titles. Nintendo has also worked out a deal with Capcom for exclusive rights to new Resident Evil games.

A screen shot from Metroid Prime
Photo courtesy Amazon
A screen shot from Super Mario Sunshine
Photo courtesy Amazon

As it turned out, using established characters in the console's biggest games had a significant downside. With the cartoon Mario characters front and center, the GameCube was immediately branded as a "kid's console." While it does have many games aimed at older players, it hasn't hit on anything as controversial as the PlayStation 2's Grand Theft Auto series or as lauded as X-Box's shooter Halo.

One thing the GameCube does have over the competition is its ability to interact with the Game Boy Advance (GBA), Nintendo's handheld system. The GBA plugs directly into the GameCube's controller port to allow the two systems to communicate with select games. In May of 2003, Nintendo will release an accessory that will let you play Game Boy games on a TV, through the GameCube.

The Game Boy Player, due out in May of 2003
Photo courtesy Nintendo

Ultimately, the winner in the game console wars will be the gamers themselves. As the console manufacturers continue to try to top one another to attract increasingly discriminating buyers, the great titles keep on coming.

For more information on the GameCube and other video game systems, check out the links on the next page.

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