Fifteen years ago, on May 3, 2002 the Nintendo GameCube finally reached Europe. It marked the end of a wait which had been long even by Nintendo’s standards or the standards of a less connected, less fast-paced world in general. Just imagine Nintendo had brought the Switch to Europe as many as 8 or 6 months after its launch in Japan and the USA respectively.
On the upside, the late release date allowed for one of the strongest launch line-ups in Nintendo history and quite possibly the strongest first 12 months after a home console release ever: Arriving alongside the hardware were titles such as Luigi’s Mansion, Wave Race: Blue Storm, a game no less thrilling than its N64 predecessor, and Factor 5’s arguably last true masterpiece Star Wars: Rogue Squadron II. On top of that, early adopters could choose from decent third party titles of almost any genre: Burnout, Sonic Adventure 2, Bloody Roar and Super Monkey Ball to name but a few.
Super Smash Bros. Melee arrived a mere 3 weeks later, followed within another 3 weeks by Pikmin. September saw Capcom’s hauntingly detailed Resident Evil remake (and a yellow giant by the name of Doshin who never even made it to America), October the summer vibes of Super Mario Sunshine, and November not only Eternal Darkness but also Rare’s farewell Starfox Adventures (as well as two time-exclusive, unjustifiably forgotten licensed titles: Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Die Hard: Vendetta). Early 2003, still within the first 12 months since the console had launched, came Rayman 3 (also a time-exclusive), Phantasy Star Online (which brought GameCube owners online play one week before Xbox Live officially started in Europe), the all new Resident Evil Zero – and of course Metroid Prime and Zelda: The Wind Waker. What a year!
So, welcome back to the second part of our series in honour of the GameCube’s 15th anniversary. Something’s a little different this time, you may have noticed that by now. A special welcome goes to our international readers, as today we can present the first proper English-language article on SPIELKRITIK.com (not counting that one artsy something that can be found here).
But there are more reasons why I am happy SPIELKRITIK can be home to the following guest contribution. The article provides just the sort of „beyond nostalgia“ approach to old games (or „retro“, a term I’m reluctant to use in many contexts) which I usually find most interesting and fruitful: Situating them in the technological, cultural or any other context of their time – and then drawing the line to here and now by means of finding out what about those classics could still be relevant to us today – or what could be an inspiration for the future even.
Enjoy Charlotte’s original look at Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem and its most infamous memory-card-killing feature! [sk]
Eternal Darkness – a game that goes the extra mile to scare you
(by Charlotte Cutts)
The Nintendo GameCube has gained a reputation, just like other Nintendo consoles, for being aimed at the younger gamer. As the home of Mario and Pikachu, it’s easy to see why this perception has organically developed.
However, Nintendo has provided a home for games with more mature themes, such as MadWorld and No More Heroes for the Wii, and it even got REmake on the GameCube years before it would be available on a PlayStation console. It also had one of the most creative horror games ever made: Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem.
About Eternal Darkness
Released on 1st November 2002 in Europe, Eternal Darkness features several different protagonists, each on a quest during a different period of history. The plot, however, revolves around one central female character in the present day, Alexandra Roivas, who is trying to find out more about her grandfather’s death. The game combines time-hopping with dark magic and real historical events, such as World War 1 and the reign of Charlemagne.
The most stand-out feature of the game is not the plot, but rather how it makes use of the protagonist’s sanity meter in ways rarely seen before, and in ways well ahead of its time. As well as the protagonist hearing voices, some of the effects purport to interfere with the player’s TV set or GameCube, such as imitating a Blue Screen of Death or pretending to switch off the player’s screen. The game can even pretend to delete your GameCube save data, which is probably the scariest thing that could ever happen to a gamer!
Unfortunately, these effects have aged poorly thanks to the development of TV technology, and few would fall for such effects on anything but a rickety old CRT TV, but the effects are still quite jarring to watch.
Games breaking the fourth wall in the early 2000s
Eternal Darkness was not the only game that was breaking the fourth wall in such extreme ways in this era. Metal Gear Solid 2 is notable for its “Fission Mailed” fake Game Over screen, for example. Breaking the fourth wall has most commonly been used for comedic effect, with Giant Bomb listing many examples of ground-breaking games in which this trope has been used.
Breaking the fourth wall for horror purposes, instead of for comedy, is a riskier move, since there is the danger that the player will simply find it ridiculous and laugh. What makes Eternal Darkness‚ varied use of fourth wall breaking particularly clever is that it plays on different levels of fear. If a player is suddenly made to believe that their GameCube has crashed, they will be in a blind panic to fix the problem and perhaps have more adrenaline running than with any of the actual gameplay, because it is a realistic problem that you don’t expect to encounter during the average horror game.
The other sanity meter effects mix things up, unsettling the player through random quotes blown up on the screen, using the protagonist’s hallucinations to make the player question what is real and what is not, and making the protagonist walk on the ceiling to disorient the player. The combination of different types of fear means that the player is unable to feel calm even in quieter moments, as scares beyond their imagination could be just around the corner.
Use of fourth wall breaking as a precursor to decent motion controls/VR/AR
The early interactivity model for games was a one-way street: the player sent inputs and these inputs affected something on screen, resulting in a win or a loss. Two of the most prominent hallmarks of how sophisticated games development has become are the ability to make these inputs in more natural ways, e.g. through motion controls, and the sense of some reciprocity in the game model, e.g. the way VR and AR create the impression that the game is influencing the world around the player.
In 2002, motion controls were more primitive than what we eventually saw with the Wiimote in 2006, while VR and AR were perceived as something that the consumer would not see for a very long time, similar to self-driving cars. As early as the 1980s, interesting methods of controlling games were being sold (with mostly disappointing results), such as R.O.B the Robot and the Power Glove. By 2002, the Gametrak was in development, but even that was clunky and not very popular.
This is all to say that what Eternal Darkness achieved, in breaking the fourth wall so convincingly, was a way of getting around these hardware limitations to create that reciprocity and a closer bond with the player. The fact that a game can affect your surroundings, by making you jump up and reset your console, is disturbing to a lot of players, because it is a way in which the game can play you; it was a fresh dynamic.
Even now, with the struggle to get consumers to buy the HTC Vive, the Oculus Rift or even the PSVR due to astronomical prices, there is a race to do something truly innovative with the game-player relationship. Eternal Darkness proved that even machines with weaker specs can work with what they have to mess with the player in a novel way.
Eternal Darkness’ spiritual successors (pun intended)
Many subsequent horror games have gone out of their way to acknowledge the player. Five Nights at Freddy’s is based on the player and the protagonist being one and the same, with the animatronics going out of their way to make you, the player, jump out of your skin.
To a lesser extent, all first-person horror games blur the line between whether the creatures are out to get your character, or whether they are out to get you, the player. The sanity meter has also been co-opted by games such as Amnesia: The Dark Descent, which quite clearly pays homage to Eternal Darkness through the strong reaction that the protagonist has if he so much as looks at the monsters prowling the castle he is trapped in.
Unfortunately, plans to create a sister game to Eternal Darkness for the Wii U and PC fell through, but Eternal Darkness has since become a cult classic and has clearly influenced the horror games that came afterwards. So, while we are celebrating the 15th anniversary of the GameCube being released in Europe, remember it as a diverse console that not only had Resident Evil exclusives, but also had a couple of its own terrifying, obscure gems.
Charlotte Cutts is a British videogames enthusiast living in Hamburg – all of her writing can be found here.
Did you fall for any of Eternal Darkness‘ sanity effects? Which games do you know that succeed in breaking the fourth fall for other than comical effects? Let us know in the comments section! And come back again on Sunday when we introduce two more literally „haunting“ GameCube gems.
Update: Part 3 of our feature can now be found here.