- From the original Nintendo Entertainment System, to the wildly popular Switch, Nintendo has released over a dozen video game consoles and handhelds.
- Each of Nintendo’s systems has been focused on innovative technology and family fun, though some have been much more successful than others.
- At their best, Nintendo’s consoles have made a cultural impact that has changed the way people around the world view entertainment.
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Nintendo has been the number-one household name in video games since releasing the Famicom in Japan back in 1983. The console’s interchangeable floppy disks and inspiring games helped the company push back against the arcades that dominated the video game industry at the time.
As the Famicom became more popular, Nintendo was eventually able to debut the console overseas with a new design, calling it the Nintendo Entertainment System, or NES. With games like “Super Mario Bros.” and “The Legend of Zelda,” the console slowly but surely found an audience and eventually millions of homes around the world had an NES parked in the living room.
Even as other companies worked to match Nintendo’s success, the company remained focused on innovation and family fun, and that dedication has inspired each of their follow-ups. While some of the company’s consoles have certainly been more successful than others, Nintendo’s constant push towards new ways to play games has proven beneficial for companies across the video game industry.
Exploring the legacy of Nintendo’s hardware offers an interesting look at how video games have grown from the earliest days of 8-bit pixels to the high-definition marvel that is the Nintendo Switch.
Here’s a visual history of Nintendo’s video game consoles:
Before there was the NES, there was the Color TV-Game. Nintendo first dipped its toes into console gaming by launching five of these rectangles between 1977 and 1980, all in its native Japan.
There were no cartridges or discs here, so you could only play whatever was loaded onto the system by default. The first of the bunch was built in partnership with Mitsubishi, and included a simple game called “Light Tennis,” which you might know as “Pong.”
And before there was the Game Boy, there was the Game & Watch.
Again, this was a series of handhelds, with each one capable of playing one simplified game on a tiny LCD display. Sixty different models were made in total, and Nintendo sold roughly 43 million units between 1980 and 1991.
Now we get to the familiar stuff. Nintendo built on the success of its various arcade tiles with the 1983 launch of the Family Computer (or Famicom) in Japan. Two years later, it released an American version, known as the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES).
After a massive, years-long recession, it’s hard to understate just significant the NES was for the gaming industry. It standardized business models, gave home to several iconic hits, and made Nintendo a titan in its field.
Then, in 1989, Nintendo managed to top itself. The Game Boy set the baseline for portable gaming consoles, made “Tetris” a phenomenon, and probably drove more AA battery sales than any device known to man.
On its own, it sold close to 120 million units during its lifetime. Chances are somebody you know still has one today.
Nintendo’s proper follow-up to the NES was the Super Nintendo, which hit the US in 1991.
While it wasn’t as big a smash as its predecessor, it was still the top seller of the “16-bit” era, which brought a wave of more powerful machines and more complicated controllers.
More importantly, it launched a murderers’ row of hits, from “Super Mario World” to “Donkey Kong Country” to “Final Fantasy VI.”
Nintendo followed that up with its first veritable bomb: the Virtual Boy.
This clunky contraption hinted at virtual reality well before the Oculus Rift, but the experience was about as smooth as you’d expect VR in 1995 to be. The games were limited, the tech induced nausea, and the whole thing was discontinued less than a year after it launched.
The Nintendo 64 came a year later. Like the Super Nintendo, it boosted the hardware (the “64” was for its 64-bit processor), allowed for many fantastic games (“Ocarina of Time,” “GoldenEye 007,” “Mario Kart 64,” etc.), and introduced a more complex controller (which, if nothing else, has never been duplicated).
Unlike the SNES, though, it had a definitively more popular rival – Sony’s disc-based PlayStation arrived the year before, and wound up smashing the N64 on the sales charts.
While Nintendo had launched a couple iterations of the original Game Boy by 1998, the Game Boy Color was the most significant of the bunch. As you can guess, it was a Game Boy — but in color.
Those colors weren’t exactly vivid, but the specs were better, the hardware was backwards compatible, and the whole thing was affordable. There are many children of the 90s with warm memories of playing Pokémon on one of these guys.
The first real upgrade to the Game Boy series came with 2001’s Game Boy Advance. Nintendo likened it to a Super Nintendo in your pocket, which wasn’t totally accurate, but gets the point across.
The other big change was how it stretched out the classic Game Boy design. Nintendo would continue to tinker with 2003’s Game Boy Advance SP and 2005’s Game Boy Micro.
The Nintendo GameCube arrived in late 2001 to take on Sony’s PlayStation 2 and the Microsoft Xbox. It didn’t really work out. The PS2 was a certifiable juggernaut, and the GameCube’s lacking third-party support wasn’t going to stop it.
Many GameCube owners still look back at the device fondly, but in many ways, it was a precursor to the struggles Nintendo would have a decade later with the Wii U. Again, though, its colorful design, tiny game disks, and funky controllers lent the machine a distinct vibe.
Its next handheld, on the other hand, was anything but a flop. The dual-screen Nintendo DS sold a whopping 154 million units from 2004 to 2014, which makes it the highest-selling device in the company’s history — and a clear winner over Sony’s PlayStation Portable.
It had a (limited) touchscreen years before the iPhone, and brought quality games across lots of genres (“Nintendogs,” anyone?). Nintendo launched a few variants in the years following, but together, the DS family represents one of Nintendo’s boldest hardware designs.
The good times kept on rolling with 2006’s Nintendo Wii. You probably know the story by now: Instead of trying to catch up with Sony and Microsoft on a technical level, Nintendo and its motion controllers went after the so-called “casual” market.
The Wii was released two years before Apple’s App Store became a thing; it’s easy to think of it as just the right device at the right time. In many ways, it was. At the same time, it’s just plain fun playing Wii Sports with anyone in your house. To this day, Nintendo is the only company to achieve success with motion controls on a home gaming console.
The simple controls convinced many people who’d never buy a console to jump aboard, and helped make the Wii one of the best-selling video game console of all-time.
Launched in 2011, the Nintendo 3DS (and its various iterations) is Nintendo’s current handheld machine. It doesn’t stray far from the DS’ core tenets, but it did add the nifty ability to create a 3D effect without forcing you to wear any goofy glasses.
Five years later, that trick is more novelty than breakthrough, but it’s still different, and it’s easily outpaced Sony’s PlayStation Vita in terms of overall sales.
The struggles of Nintendo’s next console, the Wii U, are well-known. It’s notably weaker than the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, it has nowhere near the same level of third-party developer support, and its tablet controller — which lets you play whatever you’d like around the house — is clunky.
As a result, it sold less than 14 million units from its launch in 2012. This is another thoughtful, original concept with some great Nintendo-made games, but the execution has always felt half-baked, and the value just isn’t there.
That brings us to the Switch, a hybrid that you can play on the go and on your TV at home. It’s a wildly different approach to what Sony and Microsoft are doing.
In portable mode, the Switch functions like a way-more-powerful Game Boy with a touchscreen, but the controls can also be separated from the screen for a two player experience on the go. When at home, a docked Switch functions as a modern TV console.
With the Switch, Nintendo has also managed to correct some of the online infrastructure issues that plagued prior Nintendo consoles. The eShop feels more functional than ever on Switch, and the wide variety of digital titles addresses the problems Nintendo’s Wii and Wii U faced with third-party support.
And even though it’s been less than two years since it launched, the Switch has already had its fair share of amazing games, including “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild” and “Super Mario Odyssey.”
If the Switch keeps up a healthy pace of growth and maintains developer support, it could eventually earn a place among Nintendo’s most beloved consoles.