Retro

Actively Retro

It’s been semi-scandalous ’round some parts that Nintendo has yet to reveal or talk about the future of its Virtual Console service for the Switch. Virtual Console, as anyone reading this blog probably knows, is the fancy brand name Nintendo came up with ten years ago for the downloadable emulated versions of classic games from their vast library, spanning 30+ years. Every Nintendo console aside from the Virtual Boy, the GameCube, the Wii U, and the 3DS has been represented in some form on the Virtual Console, which over time grew to include games from the early SEGA consoles and the NEC TurboGrafx 16. Virtual Console was a huge selling point in the history of the Wii, and slightly less of a selling point on the 3DS, and petered out on the Wii U by the end.. though, frankly, what didn’t?

The general assumption is that Virtual Console is going to eventually show up on the Switch, and that may be the case… but it may not. Nintendo just recently announced more details about their online service, launching in 2018, and as part of that service select Nintendo classics will be made available to subscribers, all with added online functionality. These “Classic” games are not technically part of Virtual Console; VC has always been straight emulations of game code, with some very few exceptions (the Virtual Console version of Duck Hunt, for example, needed to be reworked; the game as programmed worked only on old CRT televisions.)

The longer we go without hearing about the Virtual Console, the more dubious I am that it’s ever going to show up. I don’t believe Nintendo will every stop trying to make money off of its enormous library of past hits, but I wonder if they feel they’ve carried the a’la carte method of charging $5 for Super Mario Bros. 2, again, as far as it can go.

Irregardless of what happens with the VC, one of the fascinating early trends of the Switch is just how anachronistic this brand new style of gaming platform is. In a time where gaming is a global, online experience, and companies like SONY are running towards isolated VR experiences, Nintendo’s Switch doubles-down on the one thing nobody else offers: console-quality local multiplayer on-the-go. Nintendo is betting that people still like playing games together on the same screen in the same room, and so far that bet appears to be paying off. It’s a new-idea system offering a throwback experience, and it works.

An inadvertent (or maybe conscious) side effect of this is that the Switch lends itself to a throwback experience, and the indie developers who are fleshing out the early days of the Switch library between major Nintendo releases have cooked up some decidedly throwback pieces of software to go with it. The result: even with the Virtual Console nowhere to be found, the Switch feels like a paean to the golden era of gaming.

Consider some of the early Switch titles: right on launch day, if you managed to look past Breath of the Wild for a few minutes, you’d see Fast RMX, an ode to F-Zero if every there’d been one, I Am Setsuna, a Secret of Mana-esque RPG from Square/Enix’s Tokyo RPG Factory, the Shovel Knight trilogy of games AKA the best NES games never made, and Bomberman, of all things. The old-skool hits went right on rolling thanks to Hamster Corporation, who have been drip-feeding us ports of classic Neo-Geo games since week 2 of Switch’s lifespan; Metal Slug and King of Fighters are just two of the all-time greats that have found new life on Switch.

Further on we saw the release of Graceful Explosion Machine, which plays a lot like an R-Type/Stinger homage, a Wonder Boy Master System remake, freaking Tetris, the NBA Jam/NBA Street reminiscent NBA Playgrounds, and, of course, Street Fighter 2. Mix in with that all-time classic franchises Mario Kart and Minecraft, and then glance down the road and see a new 16-bit style Sonic game, a cover version of 2D Castlevania games going by the name of Bloodstained, the Nintendo-hard 8-bit-ish platform 1,001 Spikes, and the critically acclaimed love song to Metroid, Axiom Verge.

The list grows, and will continue to grow. Retro gaming is not a new trend, of course, and the Switch is far from the only place where you can get your retro fix. There is a perfect storm going on with the Switch, though: a brand-new console pushed out the door arguably two or three quarters too soon (Wii U was dead and Nintendo wasn’t about to put Breath of the Wild on a kaput system) from a company still trying to rebuild trust with AAA 3rd party developers has led to Nintendo adopting a strategy of finding quality indie developers who came of age on the NES and SNES and are making cheaper games reminiscent of the ones they loved when they started gaming.

E3 is next week. Front and center will be Nintendo’s own retro showcase, the Mario 64-inspired Super Mario Odyssey. It remains to be seen, however, if the Virtual Console will finally make its Switch debut on the E3 stage. Even if it doesn’t, and you find yourself hankering for a retro gaming fix? Don’t worry; the Switch has got you covered.

It would also be nice to hear what Retro is up to.

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High NEScores

Nostalgia is big business in music. It’s why the Rolling Stones can still sell out stadiums, why “Beatles Cover Band” is a profitable occupation, and it’s why Cheap Trick is still on tour.

Remember Cheap Trick?

Music sticks with us as we grow older, and a song from our youth is one of the few forces in the universe that can, ever so briefly, turn back the hands of time and make us feel young again.

Now: I didn’t really like pop music as a kid. It wasn’t a hipster thing; I just didn’t have much taste. On the other hand, I’ve seen The Symphony of the Goddesses at Madison Square Garden and scored a production I directed of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream with remixes of old Final Fantasy tunes hand-picked off of OC Remix. Why did I do those things?

Because old-skool 8-bit NES soundtracks were fresh as hell. Here’s the ten best.

10. Blaster Master (Composer: Naoki Kodaka) – If you played Blaster Master as a kid, and you drive, you’ve either hummed the opening warm-up riff that accompanied Sophia 3rd’s initial blast-off into Level 1 while turning your car’s ignition key, or you’re lying. Sunsoft games back in the day were known for having tricked out soundtracks, and Blaster Master had the best of them. The first half of the game had stronger music than the second half, it’s true… but since the game was freaking impossible (SHUT UP IT WAS) that’s all anyone ever heard, so it worked out.

9. Super Mario Bros. (Composer: Koji Kondo– Millions of thirty and forty-somethings around the world can hum every single piece of music from Super Mario Bros., and not just because Nintendo has re-released the game on pretty much every console they’ve made since. Crafted by legendary in-house composer Koji Kondo, the score to Super Mario Bros. might well be the perfect video game score: catchy and loopable without being annoying (except maybe the castle levels), and better in MIDI form than when played by a full orchestra (although a jazz trio can do wonders with it.) Why so low on this list, then? Maybe it’s repetition; I’ve heard it so often over the years it just doesn’t seem special anymore. Probably, though, because it’s so utilitarian: it’s more practical than it is beautiful. Still, why every 2D Mario game doesn’t use the original 1-1 music for its opening level is beyond me.

8. Punch-Out!! (Composers: Yukio Kaneoka, Akito NakatsukaKenji Yamamoto) – Recently on Nintendo Voice Chat, IGN’s excellent Nintendo podcast, in a discussion about (what else) Breath of the Wild, the show’s hosts mentioned a moment in the game’s wonderful score they particularly enjoyed: when the player defeats a Stone Talus, the mini-boss’ battle theme quickly shifts into a victory motif that incorporates the explosion of the enemy into the score itself. The crew on NVC rightly pointed out that this is no mean feat to accomplish. What they didn’t mention is that it’s a trick that appeared prominently in a Nintendo-published title thirty years earlier: Punch-Out!! Punch-Out!!‘s score is simple: a title theme, a fight theme, a jogging theme, and other bits of incidental music. They’re all great ditties in their own right, but when the game’s hero, Little Mac, gets knocked down by one of his towering opponents, the game’s soundtrack shifts seamlessly into a distress-inducing knockout theme, and by the way, it does the same with a much more hopeful piece of music when Mac knocks down one of said opponents. Punch-Out!!: beating Breath of the Wild to the punch by three decades.

7. Mother (Composers: Keiichi Suzuki, Hirokazu Tanaka) – Here are the genres of music you can find represented on the 8-bit soundtrack of the RPG classic Mother: Rockabilly, Jazz, Gothic, Gothic Funk, New Age, Metal, Industrial, Orchestral, Electronica, Bubblegum, Pop, Alt-Rock, Avant-garde, Japanese traditional, Blues, Medieval, Easy-listening contemporary, Ethereal, Ambient, Novelty, R&B, and Baroque. Here, just listen to all of them.

6. Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link (Composer: Akito Nakatsuka)The Legend of Zelda introduced the Zelda series main theme, composed by Koji Kondo, and it is one of the most iconic and enduring pieces of video game music ever written. That first game also included one or two other tunes that were mostly forgettable; its dungeon theme, though iconic in its own right, is one of the most grating pieces of video game music ever created. But Zelda 2, the much-reviled red headed stepchild of the Legend of Zelda franchise, has a score that begins with a warbling, ethereal title tune and transitions into an overworld track inspired by the franchise’s main theme. Along the course of your adventure you’ll be introduced to the excellent pieces of original music that accompany overworld combat, spelunking, town visits, and the game’s final dungeon. Best of all, in the game’s first six palaces, the player is treated to the track that eventually became everyone’s favorite Smash Bros song. Zelda 2 may not have been a better game than The Legend of Zelda… okay, it definitely wasn’t… but in terms of music, the sequel has it all over its older brother.

5. Castlevania 2: Simon’s Quest (Composers: Kenichi Matsubara, Satoe Terashima, Kouji Murata) – We could arguably put the whole Castlevania series on this list, but as great as “Vampire Killer” from Castlevania and “Beginning” from Castlevania 3 are, the all-around strongest score in the franchise’s early days is from the most all-around inscrutable game of the entire series, the you-can’t-beat-this-without-a-guide-but-go-ahead-and-keep-trying Castlevania 2: Simon’s Quest. One of the first major adventure games to introduce a day-to-night enemy cycle, Simon’s Quest had two distinct overworld themes based on time of day and enemy toughness: “Bloody Tears” and “Monster Dance”. The best track in the game, for my money, is “Dwelling of Doom“, the tune that plays in each of the game’s dungeons. So while you may not… okay, will not… be able to beat Simon’s Quest without a walkthrough, at least it’ll sound terrific underneath your screams of frustrated rage.

4. Mega Man 2 (Composer: Takashi Tateishi) – There’s 50 games under the Mega Man brand, so it’s kind of a shame that the best game in the entire franchise was the second one. What IS nice is that the series’ best game has one of the NES’ best scores. Mega Man 2 opens with a musical preamble and scroll up a building to a helmet-less Mega Man, followed by a transition into the game’s driving title theme, a bit of cinematic flair that is dirt simple by today’s video game industry standards but that in 1989 blew my twelve year-old mind. The eight robot master stages and the boss fight theme are all also standouts of MIDI, but the real bookend to the excellent opening track is “Dr. Wily’s Castle“, the first of two tracks that are used as the background music for, well, Dr. Wily’s castle. If you’re interested, at least twenty hard guitar covers of that one are on iTunes right this second. Enjoy!

3. Final Fantasy (Composer: Nobuo Uematsu) – If there’s a video game composer whose legend rivals that of Koji Kondo, it is doubtlessly Nobuo Uematsu, the man behind three decades of music for the granddaddy of all RPG series: Final Fantasy. Final Fantasy was the 8-bit swords and sorcery game of J.R.R. Tolkien’s or George R.R. Martin’s dreams, and the score includes multiple compositions and themes that would become evergreen editions to the Final Fantasy franchise. Fantastic mood-setting fantasy music accompanies overworld travel, combat, dungeon crawling, and town visits, but the game’s soundtrack truly makes its mark in the piece that would become synonymous with Final Fantasy itself. (Not the “Chocobo Theme”; those giant chickens didn’t show up until Final Fantasy II.) The greatest high fantasy game to grace the NES does not open with a fanfare and crash of thunder, but with the crystalline and meditative “Prelude“, an almost reverential piece of music that belies the grandeur and scope of the adventure it precedes.

2. Double Dragon (Composer: Kazunaka Yamane) – This might be cheating. Double Dragon was an arcade hit that was then ported over to seemingly every home video game console of the day, and then continued being ported to the video game consoles of every other day. Point being, the score to Double Dragon is arguably not a NES score. Like the game itself, the music for the arcade was re-orchestrated (so far as MIDI files can be re-orchestrated) to fit the technical specifications of the NES. But… Double Dragon‘s soundtrack is one knockout blow after another (heh heh), the perfect beat-’em-up, chopsocky, 1980’s B-grade Kung Fu movie soundtrack. Faux-“Oriental” motifs mix with wailing synthetic guitar riffs in what might be the single must crunchable video game soundtrack you can shred on with your hair metal tribute band. I don’t know if I’ve used any of those terms properly, but check this out if you want an example of just how righteous the Double Dragon soundtrack can be.

1. Metroid (Composer: Hirokazu Tanaka) – If it were somehow possible to convert claustrophobia, depression, and loneliness into musical notes, the resulting composition would probably sound a lot like the Metroid soundtrack. While until this point in popular culture sci-fi adventure came packaged alongside pulsing electronica, Star Wars-style orchestral accompaniment, or the ominous humming of the 1950’s take on the genre, Metroid (partially due to technical limitations) took a different approach: using music to constantly remind players that they were lost deep within the caverns of an alien world and likely would not get out alive. The game greeted players with a discordant, droning title theme interspersed with high-pitched alien-sounding chimes, and opened up with the one up-tempo action cue it would offer. That track, “Brinstar”, was a fake-out, for the further the player guided heroine Samus Aran into the depths of Zebes, the grimmer and more hopeless the soundtrack became. Even the tune that greeted Samus in the chambers that hid weapons upgrade seemed to be singing, “You. Will. Soon. Die… This. Will. Not. Help. Much.” You know what? Here’s the entire Metroid soundtrack. You can have a listen, but be sure to have your therapist on speed dial.

0. Silver Surfer (Composer: Tim Follin, Geoff Follin) – I’mma credit my man Johnny Womack of the pop culture/video game/pro rasslin’ podcast Happy Hour with Johnny & the Duce for reminding me of this gem. The thing about Silver Surfer is that it’s not a particularly bad game. It’s just not a particular good one, either. It’s completely forgettable, not to mention balls-out impossible. But. BUT. Listen to this soundtrack. It’s well known among the small circles who know such things that the soundtrack to Silver Surfer for the NES is apeshit banana-pants. Although it is admittedly on the short side, music this good shouldn’t be doomed to live alongside a game this mediocre. I mean, could the NES even MAKE sounds like this? Was that a thing it could do? Maybe Silver Surfer was so “meh” because they used all of the game’s memory to record the unbelievable epicness that is its soundtrack for all of history to enjoy.

Or maybe Silver Surfer is a terrible character who doesn’t deserve a game better than this. Still, seriously: listen to this soundtrack, and prepare to have your face melted.

(Cover image original link.)

Making the Grade

The strength of Nintendo’s various IPs goes up and down like the stock market: a few evergreens remain always-powerful while some former stalwarts plummet and new faces take their place. Every once in awhile I like to survey the landscape and try and figure out where the various players fit on the IP totem pole and now, on the eve of the Switch, it seems like as good a time as any to do that again. In the following list I’ve categorized Nintendo’s franchises from Grade A to Grade F, and within the grades themselves some franchises are given an additional green (+) or red (-)(+) indicates an upward trend for that franchise, while (-) indicates… the opposite. Let’s just say “the opposite”.

Some important notes: that stock market comparison was not an accident. This list is an attempt to gauge the current state of Nintendo’s various franchises, not what they once were or what they might someday become. Also, I didn’t include games that will likely (hopefully) become franchises (Captain Toad) or games that maybe bend too far the rules of what a “franchise” is (Hyrule Warriors, Super Mario Maker). If I excluded a franchise that belongs here let me know in the comments and I’ll let you know why, even if the reason is, “Uh… I forgot about that one.”

Here we go.

(EDIT 11/21/16: I’ve added the Wii brand series, the Remix series, Dillon’s Rolling WesternMario vs. Donkey Kong/Mini Mario, and the Pokemon spin-off games. I’ve upgraded and edited the commentary on the Wario brand of games, and I’ve added an extra line of commentary on Brain Age.)

Grade A: The Legend of Zelda, Mario Kart, Pokemon, (+) Splatoon, Super Mario, Super Smash Bros.

Zelda and Mario have been here since the beginning, of course, and the Pokemon franchise only strengthened its legendary status with this summer’s smash hit Pokemon Go! Meanwhile, Super Smash Bros. and Mario Kart, two franchises that seemed ridiculous when initially birthed, have become stalwart brands, two of the biggest releases of any Nintendo console’s life cycle. The real surprise might be Splatoon‘s placement up this high in the food chain after only one release under the franchise banner. It was a legitimate phenomenon, though, particularly in Japan, and the place of prominence given to it in the Switch reveal trailer shows how much faith Nintendo has in this new IP. We’ll see in the coming year if Splatoon can stay hot, but all signs point to the ink-based shooter franchise quickly earning evergreen Grade A status.

Grade B: (+) Animal Crossing, Donkey Kong, (+) Fire Emblem, Kirby, (-) Mario & Luigi, (-) Paper Mario, Yoshi

Nintendo does love themselves some Animal Crossing and Fire Emblem, two franchises that would have been Grade B on merit alone but receive the upwardly mobile B+ moniker because of their place in Nintendo’s mobile gaming strategy. Donkey KongKirby, and Yoshi are stalwarts of the B*Team, of course, and Paper Mario and Mario & Luigi usually are… but recent entries for both franchises have failed to live up to the standards set by earlier generation predecessors, and one or two more “just okay” showings could easily knock either property down a grade. Nintendo can’t well afford that, truthfully, because further down the list some Grade B regulars have seen their stock plummet thanks to dismal recent outings.

Grade C: (+) Luigi’s Mansion, (-) Pikmin, Tomodachi Life, Pokemon spin-offs.

It’s here in the third tier where Nintendo needs to be careful. Too many Grade C averages have dropped recently, leaving the company woefully unfortified after they run out of A and B franchise games to deliver. I’m even being overly generous here, calling Tomodachi Life a “franchise” largely because it’s an extension of the Mii brand (and arguably part of the same “series” as Miitomo, Nintendo’s social networking mobile app.) Luigi’s Mansion has some surprising juice after a very well-received 3DS outing, and as for Pikmin… well, Nintendo really wants us all to love Pikmin as much as they love Pikmin, but if series sales are any indication it doesn’t seem like we do. The next Pikmin will eschew the overhead RTS elements for a more action-oriented 2D perspective. If Pikmin: The Side Scroller doesn’t hit the mark, it’s easy to see that series spiraling into a freefall. Finally, the Pokemon spin-off titles have the benefit of the Pokemon brand going for them, but are often less than impressive. For every Pokemon Snap or Pokken Tournament, there are about ten Pokemon Mystery Dungeons.

Grade D: Kid Icarus, (-) Mario Party, (+) Mario Sports, Mario vs. Donkey Kong/Mini Mario(-) Metroid, Punch-Out!!, PicrossPushmo, Puzzle LeagueRhythm Heaven, Wario brand games, (-) Xenoblade Chronicles

Given Kid Icarus‘ pedigree (early NES pillar, cartoon immortalization, Smash-brawler status) you might think there have been more than three games in the franchise, but you’d be wrong. The three “P”‘s of puzzle games (Picross, Pushmo, and Puzzle League) are easy to make and sell cheap. They’ll never carry a sales month but there’ll be more of them. While Mario Party: Star Rush was recently DOA (critically speaking), the upcoming Mario Sports Superstars looks like an early winner and could revitalize the closest thing Nintendo has to a sports brand. Punch-Out!! and Rhythm Heaven have the benefit of being fan favorites even though new games in each series are few and far between, and while high hopes were had for the Xenoblade Chronicles series developing into a legitimate RPG franchise (it still might) the Wii U’s Xenoblade Chronicles X just didn’t move the needle as much as it needed to. The Wario brand is a strange one: different titles in all different styles of gameplay, from platforming to mini-games to microgames. It’s a safe bet there’s another Wario game is in our future, but there’s no telling what sort of game it will be (and a good chance it’ll be for mobile devices.) Mario vs. Donkey Kong, a franchise that seems to multiply like lemmings, is prolific and steady but just sort of… there. Finally, we reach Metroid. Hoo-boy. There isn’t a more criminally mishandled franchise in Nintendo’s stable over the past few years than Metroid. A once-upon-a-time Grade A stalwart, Metroid would leap back up into at least Grade B with just one great new Prime or Super or Fusion or Zero Mission. But Samus is reeling from the back-to-back body blows of Other M and Federation Force, and though her fans are loyal one more stinker could kill the franchise for a good long while.

Grade E: Advance Wars, F-Zero, Mother, (-) Remix series, Nintendogs, Pilotwings, (-) Star Fox

The big news here is Star Fox. Star Fox Zero was a disaster in both sales and reception, and arguably the last great new Star Fox game came way back on the Nintendo 64. I’m betting we won’t be seeing Fox and friends for quite some time. Nintendogs and Pilotwings are two generally liked brands that could always be percolating, ready to hop up a grade with one solid new release, but the golden trio of Advance Wars, F-Zero, and Mother are so beloved, it seems impossible they’ll ever drop lower than Grade E no matter how long Nintendo waits to revisit their worlds. As for the Remix series, it really looked like that was going to become a longterm thing, but instead of following up the NES Remix games with the logical SNES Remix, Nintendo just sort of… stopped.

Grade F: Brain Age, Codename S.T.E.A.M., (-) Chibi-Robo, Custom Robo, Dillon’s Rolling WesternDr. Mario, Excite, Golden Sun, The Legendary Starfy, Sin & Punishment, (+) StarTropics, Wave Race, Wii series.

A tale of two games: at E3 2014, Nintendo announced two new IPs, Codename S.T.E.A.M. and Splatoon. While Splatoon looks like a major pillar of the company’s strategy going forward, we’ve probably already seen the epic conclusion of the Codename S.T.E.A.M. “franchise”. Not even an exclusive amiibo pack-in could save the last (take that as you will) Chibi-Robo game. There is zero buzz coming from either Nintendo or their fans for the Brain Age, Custom Robo, Dillon’s Rolling Western, ExciteGolden Sun, Legendary Starfy, or Sin & Punishment franchises (although Brain Age in particular seems like a natural to make the jump to mobile), which is not necessarily the case with Dr. Mario (which will always be a candidate for revival cuz Mario), Wave Race (beloved by fans and rumored to be making its way to the Switch), and StarTropics (which didn’t need to be included on the NES Classic, but was!) Finally, there’s the conundrum of the Wii series of games: Wii Sports is an all-time classic title that could return conceivably as Switch Sports, but Nintendo is done with the Wii brand, including the Wii branded games. I don’t think we’ll see a new Wii Play or Wii Fit anytime soon.

That’s it. That’s my rundown. My takeaway here comes out of that third tier, Grade C. If Nintendo can’t rebuild that tier of games to a place of consistently quality software and get brands like Mario Party, Kid Icarus, or Punch-Out!! up there, they are going to have to work long and hard to re-kindle their third-party relationships and hope to fill out the Grade C stable of Switch games from outside developers. I mean, it would be nice if everything they developed could be graded “A”, but the reality is this: not every game can be The Legend of Zelda. (Even though Metroid pretty much should be.)

NES, Wii U, & Everything In-Between: Ranking Nintendo’s Consoles

* Originally published on 8bitchimp.com.

A couple of ground rules:

  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.

10.) Wii

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.

4.) GameCube

Year of Release: 2001 – Best Games: Zelda: Wind Waker; Metroid Prime; Super Smash Bros. MeleeRogue 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.