It's strange, really. Just as one platform holder starts galloping faster and faster toward the next generation of console hardware, the one that seems most reluctant to leave the current generation behind has just as few big exclusives on the slate for release in 2005. Microsoft may be racing towards its next platform, but the humble GameCube could certainly do with the odd Forza Motorsport or Doom III to capture people's interest. As it stands, going into 2005, there's an awful lot of what we'd class as "distinctly Nintendo games" and not a great deal of traditional titles to help the Cube take advantage of its rivals' itchy feet.
That said, any gamer who turns his nose up at Nintendo's output is no friend of ours. And what's obvious after spending most of the day pouring over the GameCube's 2005 prospects is that anybody who's been happy up to this point is going to stay that way. The Cube is unlikely to enjoy a renaissance - or return to Argos' laminated book of dreams - any time soon, but we're certainly not putting ours away just yet, and we don't think you should either. Here's why.
We're still not sure about this four-player GBA/GameCube connectivity stuff. It screams "expensive, impractical gimmick" at us louder than our secret stores of Virtual Boys and SEGA Nomads do when we try to go jogging with them. But while yours truly couldn't really get excited about that other great connectivity experiment, Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles, the thought of a classic 16-bit Zelda with puzzles geared towards four separate Links (for the sake of those after a plot, apparently a legendary "Four Sword" has cleaved our hero into four little collaborators) is enough to pique anyone's interest - particularly SNES fanboys like this one. The idea is simple - classic, top-down Zelda with four characters, who collaborate to solve purpose-built puzzles, as well as fighting each other for loot. Nintendo's worked hard, by the sound of it, to ensure that things flow at a sufficient pace, switching the action to the GBA screen when a player enters a cave or engages an NPC in conversation, and has refined the design to eliminate the need for rifling through an inventory every five seconds, amongst other things. Oh, and everyone says the single-player mode is perfectly enjoyable too, in a slightly odd, follow-the-leader kind of way. Overall it is going to be cumbersome to set up (so much so that our review group is only managing to convene this weekend to put it through its paces, despite having had the game for a while), but our hunch is that 2D Zelda's unquestionable lure will propel Four Swords Adventure firmly into the "desirable oddity" bracket and finally give us a smidgen of faith in connectivity. Not exactly the roaring start to 2005 that the GameCube could do with, but if you happen to have a few flatmates on hand or get together with your mates regularly, this might surprise.
We have a feeling that this isn't being taken seriously. And we can understand why - it certainly raises more questions than it pricks ears. In fact it's hard to get through a sentence of explanation without somebody butting in all over the place. For example: Donkey Kong: Jungle Beat is a 2D platform game (in 2005?) for the GameCube (why's it 2D then?) which you control by hitting the bongos (eh?) from Donkey Konga (wasn't that a rhythm-action game?). Even if you already knew about Donkey Konga, we reckon the other three queries would almost certainly spring to the mind of even the most easygoing and open-minded of fellows. Yep, it's another quirky idea from Nintendo, but, bless them, it does sound like it could be a bit of fun. It's simple really - think of the 16-bit Donkey Kong Country games, ramp up the detail level a bit, then imagine controlling DK by bashing the left or right drum to make him move in that direction, hammering it faster to make him more faster, whacking both drums together to make him jump, and clapping to interact with bits of the environment. The level design isn't overly complex, and it's sort of arcade-y in structure, demanding that you collect vast numbers of bananas to earn models that unlock more levels, and ending every endeavour with a mini boss fight. It's tough to see it commanding our attention for longer than a few hours, but it may yet surprise us. And it is of course another handy way to make use of your Donkey Konga bongos, which, if you're anything like us, have been steadily gathering dust since pretty much the day after it came out...
We've always reserved a special place in our hearts for Nintendo's sports games, and we've waited a very long time for this generation of Mario Tennis - a painfully long period of time, truth be told, particularly given our fondness for the N64 version. But now it's ever so nearly here, and reviews of the US version have been overwhelmingly positive, praising its distinctive character classes, use of Topspin-style "power shots", and the various gimmick courts that add things like conveyor belts, slippery pools of sludge and moving tiles to contend with. It's been criticised for being a bit weak in single-player terms - the default difficulty level is said to be too low, and the AI control of your doubles partner is apparently prone to hogging the net and poor positional sense - but the wealth of unlockables and strength of the multiplayer game seems to have carried it in a lot of quarters. Another game set for a big playtest when we've gathered our crew together for multiplayer Four Swords Adventure, it has the potential to be the best Nintendo sports title of this generation. And for those frustrated by the delay between US and European releases: at least they didn't hold off launching it to coincide with Wimbledon in June, eh?
With the exception of the next Zelda game, this is unquestionably the highest-profile Cube exclusive on this list. We've been excited about it throughout its development, ever since Capcom admitted it was radically overhauling its approach, introducing an over-the-shoulder control system, spicing up your encounters with zombie enemies by, well, replacing zombies with possessed, pitchfork and sometimes-chainsaw wielding villagers who won't simply give up when you run through a door. You'll have to barricade it if you want to stop them, and they'll climb ladders and do all sorts of other things to get their hands on you. All in the same sort of jaw-droppingly gorgeous environments that made the Resi Evil remake and Resident Evil Zero so atmospheric. It could be the best Resident Evil yet, showing no signs of the various control and camera issues that have become less and less forgivable in recent iterations, and we're certainly encouraged by the fact that the only review of it - in now-defunct US magazine GMR - awarded it a massive 10 out of 10. When we played it at E3, we liked it so much that we wasted far too long loitering around the Nintendo and Capcom stands when we should have been off investigating the rest of what was on offer. A defining moment for the survival-horror genre? Could be. Nintendo obviously thinks so; they're so keen on it they've decided to distribute it on behalf of Capcom Eurosoft to make sure everyone gets the point...
We've never been sold on the charms of the Mario Party series. It's one of those games (well, it's six of them now, obviously) that doesn't really fit in anywhere. If we're having a party we're far more likely to haul out SingStar, Monkey Ball, Wario Ware, or one of any number of alternatives, and if we're not then we're far more likely to play games that, you know, have some point to them. Not that Mario Party is without merit, mind - up-to-four people can have an entertaining enough time journeying around the game board completing mini-game tasks and collecting Stars, and in this, the sixth version, a handy bundled microphone peripheral adds a bit of extra spice to a few of the mini-games, allowing you to answer questions in a game show-style setting, or having one player yell out the name of a fruit while the others scurry to try and end up on a corresponding floor panel, to name a couple of examples. But will it be enough to usurp the other party-ish games on our Cube shelf? We'll have to wait and see. However we reckon the series' legions of fans will do plenty enough to guarantee a 7th Mario Party contract for developer Hudson, giving us a chance to go through all of this again next January...
The Legend of Zelda (Nintendo, preview)
European release date: TBC
Rather depressingly, we're only halfway through the list of GameCube games to watch for 2005, and we're already starting to run into games that we know very little about. Still, the strength of the Zelda series, and Nintendo's decision to return to the "adult Link" stylings of the N64 titles, ensures that this latest offering will be at the top of many gamers' most wanted lists for the year. If indeed it does turn up this year. You should be interested in it because it'll see the return of a more mature manner of storytelling, within reason, and because every Zelda game Nintendo has published since the days of 16-bit has been absolutely enthralling - a spell-binding mixture of considered puzzling, kleptomania and, with the exception of Wind Waker's oceans of nothingness, meticulous and elegant design that instils the player with a sense of needing to uncover every hidden treasure chest, and check under every bush, just in case. Just in case it's home to another moment of genius, of which the series has fathered so many. We can't really see this being any less essential, because the people involved absolutely know what they're doing, and given their pedigree would probably have to try in order to create anything less than a timeless classic. And we're not just saying that because Shigeru Miyamoto pointed a sword at us, we're saying it because we believe it.
Fire Emblem (Nintendo/Intelligent Systems)
European release date: TBC
Another series we believe in, this, and with good reason - the Game Boy Advance version has charmed just about everybody we've let at it, with its mixture of RPG-style storytelling and Advance Wars-esque turn-based battling. (All right fine, technically Fire Emblem came first, but that's not important.) Fire Emblem: Sousen no Kiseki, to give it its full Japanese title, is the series' first foray onto the GameCube, its first attempt at 3D, and the first time it's appeared on a home console since the days of the Super Nintendo, where it didn't make it outside Japan anyway. Word from Nintendo's recent "World Touch!" event suggests that the game has translated very nicely to 3D, playing in much the same way (moving units, attacking, defending, healing, garrisoning, etc, depending on the units you have and face, and your own sense of strategy), with the addition of a new skill system that lets players select skills for their units to memorise, new units that can change form in battle, and a new command that allows strong characters to nudge weaker ones a square in any direction on the battle grid - something that fans of the GBA version would probably kill for from time to time. And of course it looks very nice in 3D, and apparently features some absolutely gorgeous cel-shaded movie sequences. Since we're not entirely convinced we'll be playing Zelda over here any time before Christmas, it's between this and Resident Evil 4 for our most wanted Cube game of the year.
Advance Wars: Under Fire (Nintendo/Kuju, screenshots)
European release date: TBC
...And that's despite the fact that there's an Advance Wars game heading to the Cube this year. You might imagine it would be the other way round but, with the greatest possible respect to UK developer Kuju, Fire Emblem dev Intelligent Systems seem to operate on a different plane. And besides, this isn't Advance Wars in the sense you're probably expecting - it's actually a sort of real-time strategy/action game hybrid, eschewing the turn-based approach of the GBA originals in favour of something quite different. The idea, based on last year's E3 demo, is to direct your various familiar units in battle, telling them where to focus fire and so on, and you also have the option to take direct control of them individually if you so choose. It's destined to be met with a degree of scepticism because it's not being developed by Intelligent Systems, and it's not simply a refined 3D version of the games we already love, but on the other hand it does mean that we're going to get something quite different for our money, and we're keen to get our hands on it and see just how the world of Advance Wars has been adapted to facilitate this new and intriguing approach. It doesn't top our most wanted list, then, but it's certainly vying for contention in the curiosity pile.
Odama (Nintendo/Vivarium, screenshots)
European release date: TBC
As is Odama (to segue rather neatly), largely because it's trying to straddle a very unlikely pairing of genres - pinball and wargames, for goodness sake - but also partly because it's being produced at Vivarium, who developed Seaman for the Dreamcast. Which certainly ought to catch some of your attention. It shoves you onto a battlefield stuffed with samurai, some goodies, some baddies, and your goal is to protect those of them trying to erect a ladder to reach the enemy base by whacking badguy-samurai with your pinball, known as "odama", which is some sort of ancient relic or something. Anywaaay - you'll find that enemy samurai can be converted if you whack them with the odama while it's in its reddened state, and you'll have to be careful not to clobber your own men or their morale will dip, and their progress in putting up the ladder will be set back. It's one of those odd Nintendo games that could either turn out to be genius, or fall short of its potential, but it's destined to be something that we'll have difficulty forgetting. Rather like Seaman.
Nintendo Puzzle Collection (Nintendo)
European release date: TBC - estimated first half 2005
Dr. Mario. Yoshi's Cookie. Panel de Pon. Them's undoubtedly some good puzzle games. Which is handy, really, because Nintendo expects you to buy them again as part of this collection. Added incentive comes by way of four-player multiplayer modes and an option to download the games to your GBA when it's plugged in as a controller and continue playing on the move. But whether it'll be incentive enough is a question that only you can answer. And while we're in the spirit of answering questions, it'd be nice if the Big N could let us know when this is coming out, eh?
Baten Kaitos (Namco/Monolith Software, preview)
European release date: TBC
We haven't played Baten Kaitos yet. But given our love of things like Lost Kingdoms and Chrono Cross, from which this one's said to draw some obvious inspiration, we managed to prevent our frazzled eyes glazing over as we probed the usual blurbs for interesting snippets of information. It has a battle system that makes clever use of cards to ensure that no two battles unfold in precisely the same way and, to borrow a line from one review that definitely caught our attention, it's shaping up to be an RPG worth playing and not just reading or watching. Whether it'll be enough to stop Rob waxing lyrical about Tales of Symphonia or giggling about gay porn side quests in Shadow Hearts: Covenant remains to be seen, but the Cube could certainly do with a few more traditional RPGs to threaten the [cough] dominance of Tales and Skies of Arcadia Legends, and anybody lusting after such things would do well to keep an eye open for its European release date. Assuming it gets one...
Geist (Nintendo/n-Space, screenshots)
European release date: TBC - estimated Q2 2005
This looked pretty interesting at E3. The year before last. So we're hoping that the hold-up that's seen it relegated to the "2005" column on Ninty's schedule isn't anything to do with quality concerns. Whatever - the premise reeks of potential. You go around possessing people (and not just people) in order to complete your goals. Grab a scientist and plug his eyes into a retinal scanner to open a door, for example. It's a first-person shooter at heart, but we're hoping that the puzzling and exploration aspects separate it from the genre thoroughfare in much the same way that Metroid Prime's have done in the past. Okay, so we're probably setting the bar a bit too high, but who knows? We want to play it, either way - even if relatively unproven developer n-Space counts the likes of Mary-Kate and Ashley's Sweet 16 among its dev credits...
Star Fox: Assault (Nintendo/Namco, screenshots)
European release date: TBC - estimated second half 2005
Ditto. Why are we still waiting for this? Actually, we don't really mind waiting for this - as long as it's good. 16-bit Starwing/Star Fox and its N64 sequel are among our favourite space-shootery games ever released on Nintendo platforms, and with Namco at the helm this could very well give the likes of Rogue Leader a run for their money. As well as a single-player mode that sees Fox McCloud, Slippy, Peppy and go attempting to bring down whatever nastiness is threatening the universe this week, there's also a four-player multiplayer offering that sees you piloting an Arwing, driving a Landmaster Tank or even battling on foot, and from our experiences at E3 we can certainly say it's got a charm to it. And the promise of co-operative single-player Star Fox is more than enough to have us, er, chomping at the 128-bit. (Cut us a little slack, we're running out of ways to sound excited.)
Nintendo platforms aren't traditionally the best place to go for multi-platform games and ports - if you need confirmation of that, just cast your eyes over our GameCube shelves. Can't quite crane your neck? Fine, we'll enlighten you: apart from the Resident Evil ports, there are only two games that didn't originate on the Cube, and those are R: Racing (because it was the only way to get hold of the Cube-exclusive Pac-Man Vs.) and Soulcalibur II (for Link. You know). Basically, given the choice, we'll opt for either the Xbox or the PS2 for our multiformat needs. Judging by the sales, so will you. Of course it doesn't help that a lot of publishers are abandoning the poor little joybox either... Nevertheless, we know there are some of you lurking out there who only have a Nintendo console to snuggle up to at night, or who prefer the controller that much, and upon close inspection there are a handful or so of 2005-bound titles that either started life on the Cube, threaten to handle better on the Cube, or feature Cube-exclusive content. And these are them...
We like Free Radical Design. There are lots of reasons for this. Here are a few: Lots of them worked on GoldenEye. They are the only company to really nail first-person shooter controls on a console controller. TimeSplitters 2 was bloody brilliant. And they don't discriminate against the GameCube. Having released Second Sight on the Cube last year, they're gearing up to release their first EA-published effort, TimeSplitters Future Perfect, on all three major console formats. And even though it sounds like it could "just" be more of the same, we're hard-pressed to think of another console FPS we're as interested in on this year's release schedules. Future Perfect should have an even bigger and more exotic single-player campaign that does its usual trick of spanning the ages, along with a plethora of multiplayer and arcade modes, map-making tools, and all manner of unlockable items. We're even told to expect a "proper" storyline this time around, which is frankly a bonus - we were quite content to bludgeon our way through the last two without paying a modicum of attention to our supposed motives. The one thing we can't expect, however, is online multiplayer, despite its inclusion in the PS2 and Xbox versions - and when you consider the reasons for this, it seems even more bizarre that FRD persists with the GameCube. As far as we know, Free Radical wanted to take TimeSplitters online on the Cube as early as TS2, but Nintendo gave them the high hat. Boo, hiss, etcetera. We only hope its absence doesn't affect sales of the Cube version too heavily, because it would be a crying shame if a developer as consistently bankable as FRD were driven from Nintendo formats by the platform holder's reluctance to adapt to the things its developers want to do. And a Nintendo future without Free Radical will be from perfect.
Even without the co-op mode, which would've been something, this still ought to be the best of the old-school side-scrollers in 2005 - assuming we see any others. The first game was a bit on the bastard-hard side of things for the most part, but it was also marvellously well designed, with a combo system that grew in complexity and subtlety as players unlocked new VFX powers - starting with slow motion and quickly gaining Mach speed and others - and puzzles that drew on the same skillset, not to mention some of the most imaginative and inimitable cartoon visuals of any game on the system. Expect even more challenging levels, puzzles that demand even more lateral thinking, and overblown and outlandish level concepts and boss characters that could only come from the minds of the folks working at Capcom's Clover Studio who, lest we forget, are also working on a game in which you control a sort of dog-god character in hand-drawn Japanese fairytales. Being able to pick from Joe and girlfriend Silvia will add a bit of variety, too. VJ1 was one of those very rare games that desperately deserved a sequel - and we're desperate to get on and play this.
Mortal Kombat: Deception (Midway, Xbox review)
European release date: TBC - estimated first half 2005
It may not have multiplayer, and it may still be sitting pretty in development while its PS2 and Xbox brethren are already on shop shelves, but the recent announcement that Midway is planning to unlock boss character Goro and Shao Kahn is bound to catch the attention of just about anybody who encountered the series back when it was a 2D job and best known for its brutal fatality moves. But MK is no longer about sitting in your bedroom with a player's guide trying out all the fatalities one by one and grinning at your mates; the new 3D vision of Kombat can't compete with the likes of Soulcalibur II or Virtua Fighter 4, but it does have the bizarrely compelling Konquest adventure mode, and the core fighting action is definitely competitive. And, er, you can sit around doing all the fatalities. And don't you want to see how Goro finishes people off in style? We do.
Killer 7 (Capcom, screenshots)
European release date: TBC - estimated first half 2005
The Capcom Five. Remember them? There was Dead Phoenix, since deadened, the misunderstood-but-not-ultimately-that-great-anyway P.N.03, the wonderful Viewtiful Joe, Resident Evil 4, and this. And this was the one we most wanted to play when we first heard about The Capcom Five - we had no idea what it'd be like to play, but there was something distinctly enticing about cel-shaded cartoon visuals with no outlines. Weird. And yet we still haven't played it, because Capcom's obviously keen to get it as right as possible. Fortunately though the game's extended period of gestation has given us the chance to learn a few things about it - for a start, you control the various "personalities" of a wheelchair-bound master assassin, all of whom have particular skills to fall back on. And, er, for an end, really. We don't know too much else. But we still want to play it. And this year, we shall.
Generally speaking when a game is shuffled around between various developers at what ought to be a really advanced stage of development, continually delayed, and some of its founding fathers and biggest proponents exit the company to go off and do other things... it doesn't bode well. And yet we can't quite give up on Starcraft Ghost because, well, as Kristan put it in his Xbox "Games To Watch" feature, when was the last time Blizzard released a bad game? They just don't. If things don't work, they just don't let them out the door. They've spent ages telling us this. Add to that sense of cautious optimism the fact that previous developer Nihilistic (who we seem to recall made the underrated Vampire: The Masquerade - Redemption) allegedly only left the project because they were committed to doing something else, and that they were replaced by Swingin' Ape, developer of the rather excellent (and equally underrated) Metal Arms, and surely there's reason to be cheerful? And, lest we forget, this is a game where you get to play as a Ghost, one of the most intriguing units in all of Starcraft. Granted, it has the potential to flop, but if anybody deserves the benefit of the doubt it's Blizzard...
Right then. Did you like that? Then join us again for more Games To Watch soon.