* Originally published on 8bitchimp.com.
A couple of ground rules:
- I’m only ranking consoles from the NES to the Wii U on. Yes, Nintendo is a 125 year-old company, and yes, they made the Game & Watch systems prior to the NES (or Famicom, for you Japanese readers), but for all intents and purposes the NES is the console they rose to fame with and the console that jump-started the modern video game industry. But more on that later. And I’m stopping at Wii U because… that’s the last thing they put out.
- Nintendo is very good at what they do, and (almost) every console they’ve ever released has had for it at least a handful of great games. So if your favorite system is ranked lower than you’d like, it’s not that it’s a bad system. It’s that it’s not as good as the ones above it.
- I’m not counting iterations, of which Nintendo’s portable consoles in particular had plenty. Example: for our purposes today, the Nintendo 3DS encompasses the 3DS XL, the 2DS, and the New 3DS. The exception to this rule is the Game Boy Color, which was not necessarily just a fresh coat of paint on the Game Boy, but a brand new system complete with exclusive-for-it software.
- I’ve owned most of these systems and I’ve played all of them, in their day and not as after-the-fact as museum pieces. Yes, I’ve even got hands-on experience with our first entry:
12.) Virtual Boy
Year of Release: 1995 – Best Games: Not Applicable
The Virtual Boy is the one absolute bona-fide disaster Nintendo has ever released. A pair of VR goggles attached to a tripod that demanded the user hunch over and cramp their back to play, displaying games in eyeball-splitting blood red and black. Why this ever made it out the door as a commercial product, nobody will ever know. So complete was Virtual Boy’s failure, that it anecdotally forced the retirement from Nintendo of creator Gunpei Yokoi, the producer of such legendary Nintendo titles as Donkey Kong, Mario Bros., Metroid, and Kid Icarus, not to mention the mind behind their aforementioned Game & Watch handheld devices. Years later it was suggested that Virtual Boy was pushed too quickly out the door so that Nintendo could devote more resources to the development of the N64, but rather they had canned the product than rushed it to market. The Virtual Boy is the type of device that sinks companies; fortunately, Nintendo quickly realized what they had done and quietly swept the Virtual Boy under the carpet just a few months after its release.
11.) Game Boy Color
Year of Release: 1998 – Best Games: Zelda: The Oracle Duology; Shantae; Pokemon Silver & Gold
Game Boy Color was the follow-up to the wildly successful Game Boy and an attempt to compete with other color consoles of the day, but it was in retrospect a strange little device with a very short lifespan. (Though technically it was on the market until 2003, the Game Boy Advance shipped in 2001, effectively making the era of GBC only 3 years long.) The GBC library is falsely inflated, as the device was able to play the entirety of the massive Game Boy library. Games made specifically to take advantage of the GBC hardware, though, were few and far between, and while it features a pair of secondary Zelda games as well as a pair of Pokemon titles, there arguably isn’t a true classic in the system’s entire exclusive repertoire.
Year of Release: 2006 – Best Games: Wii Sports; Super Mario Galaxy; Zelda: Skyward Sword
The Wii, though a staggering commercial success, arguably did more harm than good to the Nintendo brand by the end of its lifespan. (Side note: Nintendo still sells the Wii Mini in stores. It still moves units.) The Wii was a fascinating thing, tall and thin and pristine white, with a weird remote control motion controller. Families gathered to marvel at the simple, undeniable fun of Wii Sports, not then realizing that this pack-in game-slash-tech demo would arguably be the pinnacle of the console’s achievements. Woefully underpowered hardware as compared to the competing Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 platforms put the final nail in the coffin of Nintendo’s relationship with 3rd party developers, whose games just couldn’t chug along on the antiquated Wii framework. The much-vaunted waggle controls proved to be virtually useless for anything but the most casual of mini-games, which led to an avalanche of awful shovel-ware as well the sort of game that no longer lives on consoles but in the mobile space, and the biggest sin of all was that the Wii offered lackluster versions of many of Nintendo’s major franchises. Super Smash Bros. Brawl, Mario Kart Wii, Metroid: Other M, Zeldas: Twilight Princess (really a GameCube title ported to the Wii) and Skyward Sword… these titles are often considered among the weakest of their respective franchises. The only escapee was Mario, whose New Super Mario Bros. Wii and especially Super Mario Galaxy were bright spots in what ended up being a very dark time for Nintendo fans.
9.) Nintendo 64 – Year of Release: 1996
Best Games: Super Mario 64; Zelda: Ocarina of Time; GoldenEye 007
Now, hold on a second: I know. The N64 had a collection of genre-busting, industry-redefining, amazing games. Super Mario 64, Ocarina of Time, and GoldenEye 007 are some of the best games ever, and Zelda: Majora’s Mask, Star Fox 64, and Mario Kart 64 were all great second-tier games for the system. So while the N64 featured more great games than the Wii, like that console the N64 was a long-term nightmare that the company is still feeling today. So what’d they do wrong? First of all, the N64 was designed to play one game: Super Mario 64. Anybody who owned it knows that arguably half of its line-up was composed of Mario 64 knock-offs that were nowhere near as good as that masterpiece, and the difficulty of programming any other sort of game for it was the first wedge driven between exterior developers and Nintendo. Secondly, Nintendo made N64 a cartridge-based system, ignoring the CD-ROM that was becoming the industry standard. The miniscule memory offered by carts led many developers to jump ship, most notably Square (now Square-Enix). How different would today’s gaming landscape be if Square’s Final Fantasy 7 had been a Nintendo-platform exclusive instead of a PS1 game? Sony may never have gotten a foot in the console door, and the PlayStation brand may have been one-and-done. Instead, the PS1 sold three times more units than the N64, Nintendo lost its place on top of the games industry, and Sony dominates today’s marketplace while Nintendo is struggling to play catch-up.
8.) Game Boy Advance
Year of Release: 2001 – Best Games: Metroid Fusion; Zelda: The Minish Cap; Advance Wars
The Game Boy Advance represents the last great hurrah of sprite-based gaming, and truth told it’s lower on this list than I’d personally like. Two great 2D Metroid titles, the first Amerian Fire Emblem games, Advance Wars, a revitalized Castlevania franchise, well-received entries in the Mario Kart and Zelda series, the required Pokemon games… the GBA moreso than the Game Boy Color was a worthy successor to the original Game Boy. The GBA was also the console where Nintendo really grabbed hold of the “let’s repackage our past for profit” idea, a gimmick that the company arguably grew to over-rely on as the console’s lifespan grew. The GBA’s library is riddled with remakes and rereleases, many of which were in fact sub-par to the original games being remade. In fact, the GBA is the only major Nintendo console to not feature an original Super Mario game, only re-packaged versions of older ones. In hindsight, how is that even possible?
7.) Nintendo DS
Year of Release: 2004 – Best Games: New Super Mario Bros.; Brain Age; Pokemon Diamond & Pearl
The Nintendo DS was the company’s top selling console of all time, and the second-highest selling console ever, beaten out by the PlayStation 2 by the slimmest of margins. Why was it such a hit? The DS signified the moment when Nintendo began to transition to the company they are today, a company willing to think outside the box and market some very non-game-y things to demographics beyond the usual young males (who had begun flocking to Sony and Microsoft). It gave us the Brain Age franchise, the Professor Layton franchise, WarioWare, Nintendogs, a new Animal Crossing, scads of strategy games that made great use of the stylus controls, a potpourri of JRPGs, and Picross. The device also was a haven for rediscovering old-style games in new franchise entries: a brand-new 2D Super Mario Bros., a fresh spin on Tetris, an old-school top-down Grand Theft Auto, a continuation of the excellent Castlevania side-scrollers that debuted on the GBA, top-down stylus-controlled Zelda games, some of the best Pokemon titles in that franchise’s history, and the list goes on with something for everyone. Still, the DS era was, in a way, a tech demo for what would become the 3DS era, and the still-raw polygons of a lot of DS games have not aged well. Additionally, a lot of those quirky, everyone-can-play titles ended up not having the franchise staying power to make them perennial favorites. In the moment, though, nobody cared. All that mattered was that the Nintendo DS was fun, and it certainly was that.
6.) Game Boy
Year of Release: 1989 – Best Games: Tetris; Pokemon Red & Blue; Donkey Kong; did we mention Tetris?
Yes, it had a puke-green and grey screen. Yes, too much of its library was poor ports of NES titles. Yes, the thing was an awkward-to-hold grey brick. But the Game Boy moved almost 120 million units in a day when numbers like that for a video game console were unheard of, and the-little-LCD-screen-that-could is immortalized for a handful of monumental achievements. First, it essentially made portable gaming a thing, showing the industry that cheap plastic Tiger Electronic toys were no longer acceptable gaming platforms. It featured as one of its best games the only true sequel to the original Donkey Kong. It’s lifespan saw surprisingly deep entries into the Super Mario, Zelda, Metroid, and Final Fantasy series, games that largely still hold up today. And last but not least, the Game Boy is responsible for unleashing two of gaming’s largest-ever phenomenons upon the world: Tetris, the brick-twisting sensation of a pack-in game that drove device sales through the stratosphere, and then, of course, Pokemon Red and Pokemon Blue, games that launched an international craze and gave the Game Boy its second wind.
5.) Wii U
Year of Release: 2012 – Best Games: Super Mario 3D World; Mario Kart 8; Super Smash Bros. for Wii U; Splatoon; Super Mario Maker; Zeldas: Wind Waker and Twilight Princess HD Remakes
Nintendo’s current-gen console, the Wii U, gets a bad rap, and in some ways it deserves it. In terms of computing power it, like its predecessor the Wii, lags behind the field. It has is virtually zero AAA 3rd party support in its software library, a few notable exceptions aside. Its primary feature, the Wii U Gamepad, in spite of finally proving necessary for a hit game (the 2D level-builder Super Mario Maker), is still best utilized for off-screen play and Netflix. But… the games. The best Mario Kart ever, the best Smash Bros. ever, the best 3D Super Mario ever, the best Pikmin ever, definitive HD versions of Zelda: Wind Waker and Zelda: Twilight Princess, surprise hits Hyrule Warriors and Captain Toad, an exciting new IP in the ink-splattered Splatoon, adorable Yoshi and Kirby games, a hit 2D Super Mario game alongside a 2D DLC spin-off starring Luigi, a best-in-show exclusive action title in Bayonetta 2, the LEGO exclusive Lego City Undercover, two Arkham games, two Assassin’s Creed games, indie darlings Shovel Knight and Guacamelee… the list goes on. There have been missteps, to be sure; Star Fox Zero certainly has its major detractors, and the overall Wii U experience has had its flaws, particularly in the realm of marketing and branding. Those flaws, though, do not change the facts, and the fact is this: Wii U may feature the most consistently excellent line-up in Nintendo’s console history.
Year of Release: 2001 – Best Games: Zelda: Wind Waker; Metroid Prime; Super Smash Bros. Melee; Rogue Squadron 2: Rogue Leader
It’s easy to look at the modest-selling GameCube as a bit of a failure, as it went head-to-head with (and made barely a dent against) the best-selling video game console of all time: the Playstation 2. But what GameCube had were games, and masterpiece after masterpiece found its way onto the console. Even in a generation where the Mario game was weird (Super Mario Sunshine) and the Star Fox game was weirder (Star Fox Adventures), the GameCube still featured an embarrassment of riches in incredible software. Zelda: Wind Waker is arguably the best game in the entire franchise. Super Smash Bros. Melee the same, and it still is the game of choice for serious Smashers. Star Wars: Rogue Leader is in the conversation for the best Star Wars game of all time; Resident Evil 4 is considered by many to be the high point in that storied franchise’s entire run. The Pikmin series debuted on the GameCube, as did Animal Crossing. And lest we forget Metroid Prime, possibly the best 2D to 3D franchise conversion ever, even in a universe were Super Mario 64 and Zelda: The Ocarina of Time exist. GameCube was the underrated purple box with the library of must-play games that, if you haven’t, you still must play today.
3.) Nintendo 3DS
Year of Release: 2011 – Best Games: Fire Emblem: Awakening; Super Mario 3D Land; Zelda: A Link Between Worlds
For the quintessential Nintendo experience, it’s hard to do better than 3DS, which is home to great 2D and 3D titles in both the Mario and Zelda franchises, a port of the best of the Star Fox franchise, a this-shouldn’t-be-real entry in the Smash Bros. franchise, four 3D Pokemon titles, the quintessential Fire Emblem game, three more Fire Emblem games, a great Final Fantasy game that isn’t a Final Fantasy game (Bravely Default), Mario Kart greatness, the first new Kid Icarus in forever, backwards compatibility with the massive Nintendo DS line-up, old-school homage Shovel Knight, and then there’s best game available on the device: Luigi’s Mansion 2. (Okay, maybe that’s just my opinion.) As icing on the cake, all the company’s greatest hits from the NES, Game Boy, and Game Boy Color era are available for the system’s Virtual Console, and the SNES era is also well-represented on the “New” model. The Nintendo 3DS feels very much like a culmination of everything the company has been working towards for thirty years, folded together into one neat little package that is the must-buy current-market Nintendo system for any and all fans of gaming.
2.) Nintendo Entertainment System
Year of Release: 1986 – Best Games: Too numerous to mention.
Without the NES, video games as we know them wouldn’t have happened. Let’s be clear about that. The industry was dead as a doornail when Nintendo’s premier gaming box hit living rooms, killed by the excesses of Atari and by the dismissal of the art form as just another dumb kid’s fad. Then the NES arrived, and re-wrote history. Oh, sure, it’s possible some other company would have been able to succeed in the same way in the same time in the same space, given the opportunity. Others, though, tried and failed, and it was up to Nintendo to dig gaming up out of its grave and drag it down the road. Besides, can you possibly imagine anyone else launching hit franchise after hit franchise at the rate Nintendo and its licensees did during the NES heyday? Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, Castlevania, Mega Man, Metal Gear, Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, Punch-Out!!, Contra, Kid Icarus, Fire Emblem and Mother (well, in Japan, anyway)… all of these classic gaming franchises began on the NES. Many, though, would not be perfected until…
1.) Super Nintendo Entertainment System
Year of Release: 1991 – Best Games: … almost all of them?
The Super Nintendo took the formula established by the NES made it… well, super: bigger, brighter, more colorful, faster, and better designed. Almost all of the major franchises that started life on the NES found a similar home on the SNES, and it would be one of the last times in Nintendo console history could that be said. The holy trilogy of Nintendo gaming was represented with a triumvirate of all time great games; Super Mario World, Zelda: A Link to the Past, and Super Metroid are still considered three of the greatest games of all time, and may by themselves represent the quintessential Nintendo experience. Add to the mix new high-polished entries into such great series as Castlevania, Contra, Mega Man, Punch Out!!, and Final Fantasy, throw in the dueling fighting phenomenons Street Fighter 2 and Mortal Kombat, and then factor in the debut titles of even more fantastic Nintendo franchises (Star Fox, F-Zero, Donkey Kong Country, and Mario Kart spring immediately to mind), and what you have is the console of Nintendo’s golden era, the symbol of a time when they dominated the marketplace creatively, technologically, and economically. The Super Nintendo and its library of games are must-play for any fan of the medium, games that perfected the NES properties that saved an industry, and games that still hold up today, twenty-plus years later.