As I sit down to write this entry, it is March 1st and we are less than 48 hours away from the launch of the latest piece of Nintendo hardware: Nintendo Switch. It’s an important release for Nintendo as the last console, the Wii U, was a commercial failure. That being so, the Wii U is a bit of an anomaly as Nintendo has been a respected manufacturer of video game hardware for decades. Nintendo’s journey has been a memorable one, starting with playing cards and low-tech plug and play devices to the Game and Watch series, which set the stage for Nintendo as both a game developer and eventually console juggernaut. As such, Nintendo is synonymous with video games (at one point, the word Nintendo was often used by parents as a catch-all term for gaming system) and it’s hard to imagine they’ll ever leave the industry, but if the Switch is a flop then that could be a real possibility.
Before we take in the new, lets look to the past and try and rank all of the Nintendo hardware to be released to a global audience, starting first with the Nintendo Entertainment System and concluding with the Wii U. Maybe a year from now we’ll have an idea of where the Switch will end up among its peers, hopefully towards the front of the list as opposed to the back, but for now we’ll have to settle for what we have. So let’s get started with the consensus worst piece of hardware ever released by Nintendo…
The Virtual Boy
In 1995, Nintendo apparently felt there was a market for a table-top console you stick your face in. The “Boy” tacked onto the end of Virtual Boy’s name makes it seem like it’s a part of the portable Game Boy family, but it’s about as portable as a desktop PC, and about as fun to play as Claris Works. The Virtual Boy was a piece of crap from day one. It attempted to give gamers a Tron-like experience (I guess?) with vector graphics that only displayed in red and black. The console could supposedly inflict permanent damage on one’s vision. The controller was trying to be forward thinking with twin directional inputs, but we soon learned that we did not need two d-pads on a controller and the practice was never duplicated in a memorable way. To top it all off, the machine launched with an MSRP of $180 which is just insane for 1995. Even disasters like the Sega CD have a certain curiosity factor, so much so that I’ve bought one as an adult just for shits and giggles. The Virtual Boy possesses no such charm, and it’s the only Nintendo system I have never owned.
Notable Franchise debuts: Mario Tennis
Nintendo’s latest failure, the Wii U, had some promise, but it never delivered on it. Piggy-backing off of the Wii brand’s more recent success, the Wii U was another under-powered Nintendo console with a tablet for a controller. Off TV play is its defining contribution to video games, but with subpar range for the Gamepad it’s still pretty much tethered to your living room. More so than really any Nintendo console (save for the Virtual Boy, which is a huge outlier in every way to the point that I don’t plan on repeating it throughout this post beyond this very sentence), the Wii U failed to deliver the first-party games Nintendo is known for. There were a couple of okay Mario releases, but no exclusive Zelda or Metroid games (the abomination Freedom Force doesn’t count) or really anything else that was memorable. While it’s true that Zelda: Breath of the Wild is being released on the Wii U, I would guess more people will experience that game via the Switch. Some of its other more notable releases, like Mario Kart 8 and Splatoon, are essentially being repackaged for the Switch as well. Basically, unless you refuse to repurchase some of your Wii U library, the only reason to hang onto it is for the Virtual Console games. At least it was backwards compatible with the original Wii, in a convoluted fashion, though that obviously isn’t enough to help it avoid this dubious ranking.
Notable Franchise debuts: Splatoon
The Game Boy has the distinction of being one of the best selling pieces of video game hardware of all time. That isn’t really a testament to its quality, but more to its incredible longevity. Released in 1989, the Game Boy was essentially on the market without a true successor until 2001. In that time, the Game Boy destroyed all challengers mostly by virtue of the fact that it did nothing well, but had no flaw that was considered fatal. Sure, it’s monochrome display and absence of backlighting irritated anyone who ever played it, it still managed to find and hang onto an audience because it was often priced well, had good battery life, and was released when the Nintendo brand was at its apex. I know many moms who bought their kid a Game Boy because they viewed it as a cheaper alternative to an NES or SNES, and there was always enough quality software to keep the system afloat. Meanwhile, more superior handhelds were released (Game Gear, Lynx, Wonder Swan, Turbo Express), but they either couldn’t match the Game Boy’s price or software and subsequently died, while the Game Boy lived on. Now, the Game Boy was also chock full of shovel ware, often the worst of the worst in licensed games appeared on the Game Boy and many a kid received some awful games from well-meaning aunts and grandparents for birthdays, but at least there was Zelda, Metroid, and Pokemon to soften the blow. The Game Boy received a slimmed-down redesign in 1996, the Game Boy Pocket. Other than being slimmer and cheaper to power, it also featured a black and white display instead of that hideous yellow/green and black display of the original. Other than that, it was essentially the same and the Game Boy didn’t receive a true redesign until 1998…
Notable Franchise debuts: Pokemon, Wario Land, Kirby, Gargoyle’s Quest
Game Boy Color
Nintendo lumps in the Game Boy and Game Boy Color into the same bucket in terms of reporting sales figures and so on. The Color was modestly more powerful, and obviously possessed a color display, though it was still pretty much a Game Boy. I list it separately only because Game Boy Color games could only be played on a Game Boy Color and not on one of the earlier models of the Game Boy. And since it possessed color, and could play every game in the Game Boy library, it naturally ranks ahead of the original.
Notable Franchise debuts: Shantae
Game Boy Advance
The first real successor to the original Game Boy, the Game Boy Advance felt long overdue. And like the Game Boy, it received a few redesigns during its lifecycle. Compared to the Game Boy, the GBA did not have nearly as long a shelf-life. Even though Nintendo claimed the Nintendo DS wasn’t meant to be a successor to the Game Boy line, it essentially was and by 2006 the Game Boy brand was basically dead. Still, for as short a life as it had, the GBA was a pretty great portable, but its held back by some odd design choices and a lack of truly exclusive software. For starters, the GBA featured just four action buttons: A, B, L, and R. Considering we were a decade removed from the SNES creating the new standard of six buttons, this was a curious omission. It seemed even more odd when the GBA quickly established itself as a dumping ground for SNES ports. The other design miss-step was the lack of a backlight. This would be addressed with the Game Boy Advance SP in 2003, a front-lit clamshell redesign that also resembled a Game Boy Pocket, just with a hinge in the middle. While I preferred the horizontal layout of the original GBA, the lack of a light source really sucked the fun out of it. The SP also had a rechargeable battery, which would become standard for future handhelds. In 2005, two additional redesigns were released, the SPII, which featured a backlit screen with improved brightness over the SP, and the Micro, which was tiny and featured a horizontal layout and no backwards compatibility with older Game Boy games.
Other than the hardware shortcomings, the GBA is also lacking in exclusive software designed specifically for the hardware. There were tons of SNES and NES ports, some of which (like Super Mario Advance) were significantly updated, but they didn’t make up for a lack or original software. There was an original Zelda title, The Minish Cap, which was a solid game but not as good as Link’s Awakening. There was also an exclusive Metroid, Metroid Fusion, which was excellent and lead to the release of a remake of the original game, released as Metroid: Zero Mission. Mario &Luigi was also great, as was Advance Wars. I have a fondness for the GBA, mostly because of all of the great ports, so I don’t consider it a bad system by any means, but when compared with other Nintendo hardware, it does come up a bit short.
Notable Franchise debuts: Advance Wars, Fire Emblem (for US audiences), Phoenix Wright, Mario & Luigi, Wario Ware
All right, it feels like I’m picking on the portables, but there’s a reason for that. Portables are often homes to ports and the exclusive software is sometimes hard to find. And Nintendo has also often made its portables backwards compatible, so it would be hard to justify ranking older portables ahead of modern ones. Anyways, most of the criticisms I had for the GBA kind of apply to the DS as well. The DS is sort of the last of the old handhelds, as future ones (and even the final iteration of the DS, the DSi, started the evolution) would be online-equipped opening up the handheld to a host of older, downloadable games. The DS set itself apart from the GBA, and its competitor the Sony PSP, by having two screens. The second screen was hardly an innovation. Design-wise, the DS resembled Nintendo’s old Game & Watch handhelds and the second screen soon became a dumping ground for near useless features like map screens and inventory management. Some games tried, and tried hard, to make use of the touch screen functionality, but often to the game’s detriment (see the Zelda games released for it). Really, the only reason why I rank it ahead of the GBA is because it’s backwards compatible with the GBA software (but not original Game Boy software) and had a better design (finally, six buttons!). It too lacked somewhat in defining software, but the uptick in processing power made new games like Super Mario Kart DS way more playable than the GBA predecessor. The system may have launched with a port of Super Mario 64, but it never became the dumping ground for N64 ports some may have been expecting, probably due to the lack of a a true analog input device, something its successor would rectify.
Notable Franchise debuts: New Super Mario Bros., Sonic Rush, Trauma Center
We’re now arriving at the point in our list where it’s getting hard to separate the consoles from each other. We’ve already blown past the only true Nintendo failures (Virtual Boy and Wii U) and we’re now mostly into the realm of nit-picking, though I feel rather strongly about what is the best Nintendo console of all time, I just feel less so about whats fifth best vs what’s fourth best, and so on. The Wii is easy to dump on in 2016. It featured waggle controls and tons of horrible “party” games and licensed junk. It was cheap to develop for, and it’s consumer success meant there were tons of Wii’s in the wild so producers had incentive to release games for it, and with minimal effort. As much as I, along with many others, came to resent the waggle controls, I can’t deny what playing the Wii was like in 2006. The Wii is the last console that brought me and my friends together to just play games all night and have a blast doing so. At that point, I was out of college and working a full-time job, so getting together with a group of friends just to play video games didn’t happen much, and hasn’t since. And looking back on it, the launch lineup was pretty barren and yet we still had a blast with it. That was largely because of how much fun Wii Sports was, though I did have fun with Madden and Dragon Ball Z as well. And of course, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, even though the Gamecube version released a few months later was actually better (aside from, maybe, the fishing mini game).
The Wii may have received a ton of horrible games, but it did also receive two of the greatest Mario games ever released: the Galaxy series. Some people loved Skyward Sword as well, even though I detested it. The Metroid Prime series was also one of the few improved by the Wii’s input device, and the debut of the Virtual Console was a pretty big deal at the time, even if it perhaps never reached the lofty expectations some of us may have had for it.
Notable Franchise debuts: Super Mario Galaxy, Wii Sports, Xenoblade
Where do you rank the N64? I would guess this is the console most affected by what age you experienced the N64 at. If this was your first console, then you probably have some extremely fond memories of the N64, so much so that it may even be your favorite. I do not, and for me, the N64 is perhaps the piece of Nintendo hardware that has aged the worst. Visually speaking, most N64 games are ugly by today’s standards. Muddy textures, endless fog, and subpar sound output make for a poor sensory experience. That’s obviously not true of every N64 game. Rare’s Conker’s Bad Fur Day seems to amaze me more and more every time I play it because of how good it turned out from a presentation perspective. The N64 was also the console where third parties started to turn on Nintendo. Most were not happy with the cartridge format, from a technological point of view and financially (you had to pay Nintendo for the actual cartridges), when the industry was moving to CD. The N64 also possessed one of the worst, and most fragile, Nintendo controllers ever done. It’s saved by the analog input and Z-trigger, two additions that are here to stay across all gaming consoles, and it was awesome finally having four controller ports on a console as a standard feature.
After ripping on the N64, I do have to say it gave us one of gaming’s biggest cultural moments in Super Mario 64, which is perhaps the last game that truly felt like a must play when it came out. Ocarina of Time was obviously a huge hit, but it’s success has been dampened some by the superior remake for the 3DS. The same can also be said for Majora’s Mask. Super Mario Kart 64 is also remembered quite fondly, even though it too has been eclipsed by better games in that franchise. The wrestling games are also well-regarded and if you’re a big wrestling fan you’ve probably held onto your N64 for that reason.
Notable Franchise debuts: Paper Mario, Super Smash Bros., Banjo-Kazooie, Animal Crossing (Japan only)
The successor to the DS, the 3DS essentially fixed everything that was wrong with the DS while boosting the power of the handheld as well. The defining feature, stereoscopic 3D without the need for glasses, is a stupid gimmick. I never play my 3DS with it turned on and if the 2DS didn’t for some reason ditch the clamshell design I’d recommend everyone just get that and save a few bucks. That aside, the 3DS is buoyed by just enough original content and remakes to make it a viable system. It’s kind of like a Greatest Hits system, and the Virtual Console support means gamers have access to all of the old classics released by Nintendo, with only a few exceptions.
If you want to argue that the 3DS lacks truly exclusive 3DS games, then I won’t fight you too much. Super Mario 3D Land is pretty darn good, but I’m not sure it’s a system seller. A Link Between Worlds is loads of fun, but is it even better than Link’s Awakening? New Super Mario Bros 2 and Paper Mario Sticker Star were missteps by Nintendo, but they did right by Fire Emblem and Pokemon. It can’t be ignored though how awesome the Zelda remakes are for the 3DS. Both the Ocarina of Time remake and Majora’s Mask remake are so much better than the originals released on the N64, that it will be a crime if they only exist on portable hardware. Both should at least be made available for the Switch with TV play, even if the assets need further enhancement to make them suitable for larger displays. It’s worth it! And while I definitely play my Vita more than my 3DS, it doesn’t mean I dislike the system, the Vita just happens to know my weakness (JRPGs). I do wish Nintendo had put a higher quality screen on the 3DS, and it’s battery life is weak, but it’s still better than most of the hardware put out by Nintendo which is pretty remarkable for a portable device.
Notable Franchise debuts: Bravely Default
The Gamecube can be retroactively looked upon as an end of an era, the era of when Nintendo tried to compete on the same terms as its competitors. The Gamecube was basically every bit the equal of the Playstation 2 and Xbox in terms of power, and third parties didn’t need to concern themselves much in adapting games for all three machines. Still, after the N64 damaged Nintendo’s relationship with said publishers, it was hard to win them all back with the Gamecube. The N64 firmly established the still held belief that people buy Nintendo consoles for Nintendo games, and not so much third party games. As a result, Nintendo would have to really work hard to win them back.
One developer who came back with arms wide open was Capcom. Capcom, in truth, never left the Nintendo family as they had a presence on the N64 and a big presence on Game Boy. For Gamecube though, they made the Resident Evil Remake an exclusive game, and Resident Evil 4 was exclusive for about ten months. Both games were awesome then, and are awesome now, and were big titles for the Gamecube. Konami also helped out a little by remaking Metal Gear Solid for the Gamecube which also turned out better than the original. None of it was enough, however, to make the Gamecube a retail giant which is why Nintendo changed strategies with the Wii. Still, there’s little issue to take with the Gamecube hardware as the games have aged well and there wasn’t anything holding it back. The controller isn’t my favorite, but it wasn’t a bad one. The Wave Bird would be released later, basically making wireless the new preferred input method for all consoles. And even though the best Japanese franchises didn’t find a home on the Gamecube, there sill was an assortment of quality games. The Gamecube received two Zelda titles, Wind Waker and Twilight Princess, the latter being better than the Wii game. Super Mario Sunshine may not have sparkled as well as most Mario games, but was still a solid experience. Paper Mario 2 is in the running as one of the greatest sequels ever made, and is really the last good entry in that series. If the system had more JRPGs, I’d probably love it more. Hopefully with the Switch, Gamecube games start becoming a possibility on the Virtual Console because there are some games I’d love to take on the go.
Notable Franchise debuts: Luigi’s Mansion, Animal Crossing (US), Pikmin, Metroid Prime
The Nintendo Entertainment System/Famicom
My approach to this ranking is pretty simple: If I had to pick one Nintendo console and had access to all software playable on it, which would I pick? I think some bonus points in the event of a “tie” are merited for impact when the system was released and so on, but for the most part I’m making this an apples to apples comparison through 2016 eyes. And yes, I would pick an NES and its library over a Nintendo 64 or Gamecube, or whatever. It’s not out of deference to the era in which the system operated, it’s just an awesome system with an excellent library of games.
At this point, you do not need me to tell you about the big titles, you should be more than familiar with them. And since the console is a tank and most still work to this day, I don’t think durability would be a concern in a desert island scenario. While the presentation of the games from the 8-bit era are a bit rough around the edges, the simpler technology forced a simple style of gameplay on the consumer and as a result, the games just plain hold up better than some of the games that have followed. Super Mario Bros. 3 is as fun today as it was in 1990, Metroid just as lonely, and Glass Joe’s face just as rubbery. Even the sports games hold up very well, despite modern titles presenting more accurate simulations. In recent years, the console has experienced quite the revival with retro gaming sites and podcasts becoming a thing. The NES Classic was perhaps the hottest item this past Christmas, and people are still begging for Nintendo to flood the market with more. For those who worry about the Switch killing Nintendo should it fail, at least they can rest easy knowing Nintendo just has to look to the past for a quick buck to get back on its feet should that happen.
Notable Franchise debuts: Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, Castlevania, Mega Man – need I go on?
Super Nintendo/Super Famicom
If consoles can be considered sequels, then the Super Nintendo may be the greatest sequel of all time. Better than Empire, better than Street Figher 2, just the best. Visually speaking, I remember being unimpressed at first glance. A gray, boxy thing with purple accents hardly felt super to me, but then I played it. Super Mario World felt massive. It was bright and colorful and a joy to play. A Link to the Past took everything I loved about the original Zelda title and made it better. A lot better. While many older franchises struggled to move from 2D to 3D during the next console life cycle, virtually every franchise benefitted from the move from 8-bits to 16. Mega Man X, Street Fighter 2, Super Metroid – all games that proved it was only the imagination of game developers that could hold them back. Then Nintendo of America opened the flood gates and we started receiving games like Final Fantasy in greater abundance as new-found confidence allowed for them to finally get released outside of Japan. The SNES is still one of the best consoles for people who love JRPGs, with only Sony’s consoles rivaling it. The few missteps Nintendo had, like forcing Midway to remove blood from Mortal Kombat, were swiftly rectified.
There is no doubt in my mind that the SNES is Nintendo’s greatest achievement in gaming. It’s not as if other machines haven’t come close in the almost 30 years since the console debuted, so Nintendo shouldn’t hang its head in shame that its still trying to top it. The formula is there, Nintendo just needs to put it all together. The SNES is a beautiful example that a console does not need some wacky gimmick or ridiculous horse power to be worthwhile, it just needs to function comfortably, and above all else, have worthwhile software. It seems like each console to follow has alienated a certain subset of gamers and developers where as the SNES appealed to every one. If the Switch can recapture some of that, it will stand a chance.
Notable Franchise debuts: Yoshi’s Island, Mega Man X, Chrono Trigger, Super Mario RPG