Nintendo history: Every major Nintendo console from NES to Switch
Nintendo’s history is synonymous with gaming, to the point that many people around the world used “Nintendo” as a generic name for a gaming console in the 80s and 90s. Formed in 1889, the colossus dabbled in a variety of other businesses (including playing cards, a taxi service, and hotels) before striking gold with gaming.
The Japanese company is still the veteran in the console gaming space today, with rivals Sony and Microsoft joining much later relative to it. But consoles like the Nintendo Switch show that the gaming giant is as innovative and successful as ever.
Yes, the Switch is indeed the latest and greatest console from Nintendo, but what about its classic systems? Join us as we dive into Nintendo history with a look at all its major consoles throughout the years.
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Nintendo history: Before home consoles
As mentioned before, Nintendo wasn’t actually a gaming company from the get-go. But it indeed entered the market in the 1970s with efforts like lightgun games, distributing the Magnavox Odyssey in its home market, as well as the Color TV Game console.
Two major products helped Nintendo establish a foothold in the industry in the early days, with the first being the Game and Watch handheld.
The Game and Watch, as the name implied, combined a single game with a digital watch. The screen was an LCD similar to the type used on digital watches and calculators, while one of over 50 games was pre-loaded on units. This formula made for a huge success in the early to mid-80s, with over 40 million units sold, according to late Nintendo president Satoru Iwata.
Nintendo’s second breakthrough was the Donkey Kong arcade machine. The game arguably popularized the platformer genre as players controlled Jumpman, leaping over obstacles and more in order to save the princess from the clutches of Donkey Kong. It’s believed that Nintendo made $280 million from Donkey Kong arcade machines by the end of 1982, giving it a solid foundation for the future.
Early Nintendo fast facts
- Jumpman would later be renamed Mario — yes, that Mario. Mario was named after Nintendo of America landlord Mario Segale.
- Donkey Kong wasn’t Nintendo’s first arcade game, as that distinction belonged to 1980s Radar Scope. This game performed poorly in the US, with Nintendo then creating Donkey Kong as a way to essentially repurpose unsold Radar Scope arcade cabinets.
- Gunpei Yokoi was the creator of the Game and Watch, but he was also responsible for a host of other beloved innovations. These include the cross-shaped D-pad and the Game Boy. Yokoi would leave Nintendo in 1996 to work on what became the Bandai Wonder Swan handheld, before passing away in a car accident in 1997.
- Nintendo released new Game and Watch models in 2020 and 2021, offering games like Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda.
NES: From the ashes of a fiery crash
The video game crash of 1983 decimated the nascent industry, owing to a flood of poor-quality games. But Nintendo emerged from this period relatively unscathed to deliver the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) or the Famicom (Family Computer) as it was known in Japan. The console debuted in 1983 in Japan and in the US in 1985.
Nintendo’s console adopted an 8-bit CPU clocked at a screaming 1.79Mhz as well as a cartridge format. The result was a console with very smooth scrolling compared to what PCs could do at the time, although this came at the expense of a wide color palette.
Games arrived on a cartridge, which could weigh in at a maximum of 1MB. We also saw battery backup saves becoming a popular feature, as a tiny battery allowed you to save your progress on the cartridge itself. Unfortunately, you lost your save if the battery died, but it was a pretty solid solution at a time when saves either required a password or simply weren’t a thing.
The NES established Nintendo as a massive player in the console gaming space.
The NES also delivered a controller that would be the template for a long time, combining a few face buttons with the innovative D-pad in an era where joysticks were the accepted standard for the time. Needless to say, almost every subsequent console adopted a D-pad too.
We also saw a couple of popular or prominent peripherals released for the console, such as the Light Gun, R.O.B. (Robotic Operating Buddy), and the Power Glove.
It wasn’t plain sailing with the NES for developers though, as Nintendo imposed incredibly stiff restrictions on third-party studios. These included requiring that third-party developers rely on Nintendo to produce the cartridges (with a minimum of 10,000 cartridges ordered), timed exclusivity, and a limit of five games being produced each year.
Nintendo’s console also had some competition with the Sega Master System, but the NES was easily more successful at the sales tills. Still, the battle between the two would only intensify in the next generation.
Some of the more notable titles released for the NES include Contra, ExciteBike, Final Fantasy, The Legend of Zelda, Mega Man, Metroid, Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros. 3, and Tetris.
NES fast facts
- Nintendo released a disk-based add-on for the NES in Japan dubbed the Famicom Disk System. It used the obscure Quick Disk format akin to floppy disks, giving a total of 128KB of storage space. This format was actually rewritable, which meant you could save games directly on the disk or buy entirely new games via a vending machine. Simply bring your disk to the machine and it could copy a new game onto it.
- Believe it or not, the Virtual Boy wasn’t Nintendo’s first stab at headset-based 3D gaming. The company released the Famicom 3D System in Japan as an add-on for the NES back in 1987, but it was a commercial flop.
- There were actually two modem add-ons for the NES. Nintendo’s official Famicom Modem was released in Japan and didn’t offer online gaming. But it did allow users to trade stocks, bet on horse races, and more. The third-party Teleplay modem would’ve offered online gaming and cross-platform play between Nintendo and Sega systems, but it was ultimately canceled.
- Nintendo used a security chip in official cartridges as a way to prevent unauthorized developers from making games for the NES. Developer Tengen reverse-engineered this chip and released games of its own, but it was successfully sued for copyright and patent infringement.
- The NES had a front-loading cartridge slot in North America, but the so-called “zero-insertion force” mechanism resulted in hardware issues in some models.
Game Boy: The birth of a juggernaut
The Game Boy wasn’t the first handheld in the history of Nintendo consoles, as the Game and Watch showed. But it was exponentially more successful and laid the groundwork for Nintendo’s future handhelds to see similarly massive sales.
Unlike the Game and Watch, the Game Boy had a cartridge slot, so you weren’t just stuck with one game on the system. And there were loads of quality titles available for the platform, including Super Mario Land, The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, and Metroid 2. Tetris was arguably the biggest game on the system in the first few years on the market as it was bundled with the console. The Pokémon franchise would eclipse it upon its release, with pocket monster-collectors even able to trade and battle by joining two Game Boys together with a Game Link Cable.
Nintendo opted for a green, monochrome 160 x 144 screen without a backlight, which was a rather interesting choice since consoles like the Atari Lynx and Sega’s Game Gear opted for a backlit color screen instead. But the screen choice and relatively frugal 8-bit processor meant that the Game Boy had a much longer battery life (between 10 and 30 hours) versus the Game Gear’s maximum of five hours.
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Rubbing salt into Sega’s wound was the fact that the Game Boy required four AA batteries versus six for the Game Gear. Yes, this was also at a time when disposable batteries were used rather than rechargeable lithium-ion packs.
Otherwise, the Game Boy featured a traditional D-pad, start and select buttons, and two face buttons. You also had a headphone port on board, which is more than can be said for most flagship phones in 2021.
Nintendo would go on to release the more ergonomic Game Boy Pocket in 1996, featuring a proper black and white screen and requiring two AAA batteries instead. The firm would release the Game Boy Light in 1998, featuring a similar design but requiring two AA batteries and offering a backlight of sorts (via electroluminescence tech).
Finally, Nintendo would release the Game Boy Color in 1998. This handheld was still technically part of the Game Boy generation but offered a color screen (albeit without a backlight), a faster CPU, and more RAM. It was compatible with virtually all Game Boy games but also received a variety of exclusive titles that weren’t compatible with the original handheld.
Game Boy fast facts
- The Game Boy Color wasn’t Nintendo’s first choice for a portable with a color screen, as the company was thinking about launching a brick-like device with four face buttons back in 1995. The company’s Masato Kuwahara revealed an image of this device at the Game Developers Conference in 2009.
- Kuwahara also revealed that a touch panel adapter was developed in 1998 for the Game Boy Color. This would’ve presumably brought touchscreen capabilities to the existing display.
- The Game Boy Camera and Game Boy Printer were two of the more memorable accessories for the handheld. Yes, you could take photos with the former and print them with the latter.
- An enterprising hacker got Wolfenstein 3D running on an unmodified Game Boy Color. It’s an astounding feat that saw him slapping together a custom cartridge with a co-processor. Best of all, the frame rate is actually really smooth for a Game Boy Color.
- One prominent canceled accessory was the WorkBoy, which combined a small QWERTY keyboard, link cable, and a cartridge to enable PDA-like features including appointment entries and a phone/address book.
- Believe it or not, but a Game Boy Sewing Machine is a thing too. This allowed you to control the sewing machine as well as customize stitches and patterns via a plugged-in Game Boy Color.
Super Nintendo: A NES, but Super
Nintendo followed up with the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) in 1991, and it was a major horsepower upgrade over the 8-bit NES. The new console offered a 16-bit CPU clocked at 3.58Mhz, along with a major increase in the color palette from the NES (from 54 to 32,768). This console utilized the cartridge format too, albeit topping out at 4MB to 6MB.
The SNES was made with 2D gameplay in mind but the console also supported pseudo-3D Mode 7 capabilities. Mode 7 tech gave the impression of 3D by rotating and scaling backgrounds, resulting in games like F-Zero, Pilotwings, and Super Mario Kart. But a common side-effect was that environments and backgrounds in Mode 7 titles had no height, resulting in a particularly flat visual style.
The SNES was an important release in Nintendo history, showing the firm was truly here to stay.
The SNES controller was also a landmark as it popularized shoulder buttons, featuring L and R buttons. Almost every major console since then has offered shoulder buttons/triggers. In fact, we still see Super Nintendo-style controllers being produced today by peripheral makers like 8bitdo.
We also saw a healthy variety of accessories hit the console, including the Super Scope lightgun, a mouse, a multi-tap to enable four-player local multiplayer, and a baseball bat.
Nintendo’s biggest rival during this time was Sega with the Genesis (aka Mega Drive in some parts of the world), with the two consoles going head to head in many markets. In fact, it’s still disputed as to whether Sega’s console outsold the SNES in North America. Nevertheless, the SNES shipped 49 million units globally, edging out the Sega console according to at least one source.
Some of the more notable games released for the Super NES include Chrono Trigger, Earthbound, Final Fantasy III, The Legend of Zelda: A Link To The Past, Star Fox, Super Metroid, Super Mario World, and Super Mario Kart. Unfortunately, the console wasn’t backwards compatible with NES titles.
SNES fast facts
- Nintendo’s Mode 7 delivered pseudo-3D graphics based on sprites, but Nintendo and studio Argonaut eventually developed the SuperFX chip that enabled true polygonal 3D graphics. This chip was integrated into a game’s cartridge and was used in the likes of Star Fox. The graphics were still rudimentary and performance was pretty slow, but it was still a big achievement for the early 90s.
- The SNES also received the Satellaview modem add-on in Japan in 1995. Users who purchased the add-on and subscribed to the St Giga service could download a variety of games to a cartridge. Over 100 games were released via the service (with some exclusives too) but because only one game could be stored at a time, finding and preserving these titles is a challenge today.
- Nintendo and Sony worked together on a CD-based add-on for the SNES, but Nintendo famously signed a deal with Philips for the add-on instead in 1991. Sony would continue to work on the project, which eventually became the first Sony PlayStation.
- The Super Game Boy was a hardware add-on that allowed you to play Game Boy games on your SNES. This wouldn’t be the last time Nintendo offered a feature like this.
- You can still play a variety of SNES games today on your Nintendo Switch, as the console’s paid online service gives subscribers access to almost 50 Super Nintendo titles.
Nintendo Virtual Boy: The worst Nintendo console?
Nintendo would come back to the 3D drawing board after its ill-fated NES-based add-on in 1987. 1995’s Virtual Boy was a standalone console promising stereoscopic 3D visuals via a head-mounted display that had an attached stand. The idea was that you’d prop the display up on a table and use it like this, as opposed to today’s portable VR goggles.
The company opted to use a red monochrome display as it felt color screens were too expensive and that a monochrome screen gave a better sense of depth. Unfortunately, some consumers at the time reported headaches, nausea, and dizziness after using the machine. This sounds all too familiar for some people using virtual reality headsets today.
It’s no wonder then that the Virtual Boy was discontinued in March 1996, with less than a million units sold. Only 22 games were released for the platform by the time it was abandoned. Some of the better titles include Virtual Boy Wario Land, Red Alarm, and Mario’s Tennis.
This wouldn’t be the last time in the history of Nintendo consoles that it dabbled with 3D technology, as it would eventually offer a handheld with 3D capabilities. But more on that in a bit.
Virtual Boy fast facts
- The Virtual Boy controller actually had two D-pads on board, making for a unique look among gamepads. It’s also worth noting that the controller looks somewhat similar to the GameCube gamepad.
- One notable unreleased game for the system was Goldeneye 007. This wasn’t a shooter like the later N64 game though but seemed to be an action/racing title.
- An early internal code name for the Virtual Boy was VR32. This was presumably a combination of “virtual reality” and “32-bit.”
- The tech behind the Virtual Boy was actually licensed from a company called Reflection Technologies. Prior to the partnership with Nintendo, Reflection actually tried and failed to strike a deal with Sega. Well, Sega’s loss was Nintendo’s gain, I guess.
Nintendo 64: The 3D revolution begins proper
The mid-1990s was a time of major change as the industry embraced 3D graphics, and 1996’s Nintendo 64 was no exception. The new Nintendo delivered a MIPS-based R4300 CPU clocked at almost 94MHz along with a so-called Reality co-processor for graphics built by Silicon Graphics.
This combo meant that you had a pretty advanced machine for its time, offering graphical features like anti-aliasing and mipmapping. It wasn’t all great though, as the N64’s biggest weakness was how it handled textures, often resulting in the PS1 having better-looking textures. Games for both consoles also suffered from excessive fog, which was used as a way to obscure the environment and mask loading. Titles like Spider-Man, Turok, and the notoriously terrible Superman 64 all used this technique.
The N64 had a killer library of games, but the decision to stick with cartridges had several major ramifications.
It wasn’t the easiest machine to work with, but games like Conker’s Bad Fur Day and Perfect Dark showed what was possible. Other popular titles include Super Mario 64, Paper Mario, Goldeneye 007, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, and Super Smash Bros.
Nintendo also offered a rather distinctive, three-handled controller, featuring an analog stick. We’ve seen controllers with analog sticks before, but this certainly popularized the feature. Sony would go on to offer the Dual Analog and Dual Shock controllers thereafter.
One rather polarizing decision was the choice to stick with cartridges instead of CDs like rival consoles. The upside is that loading times were virtually non-existent and developers could almost treat the cartridge like RAM. Unfortunately, there were several disadvantages to the cartridge format, namely expensive production costs that were passed on to consumers and a tiny amount of space (a maximum of 64MB).
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It wasn’t uncommon to see N64 ports of PC or PS1 games offering fewer music tracks and no video clips due to the cartridge format. But developers like Angel Studios (now Rockstar San Diego) worked miracles to port Resident Evil 2 to the console with relatively few compromises.
Nevertheless, the combo of the expensive, limiting cartridge format plus a lack of third-party support meant the Sony PlayStation was more popular than the N64 in terms of global sales. Nevertheless, it remains a much-loved part of Nintendo history and was far more popular than the ill-fated Sega Saturn from its old rival.
Nintendo 64 fast facts
- N64 developers made use of the so-called microcode to program graphics, but most developers were not allowed to create their own microcode. Think of it like a painter being restricted to a couple of brushes only. Studios like Factor 5 were permitted to use custom microcode though. This resulted in visually advanced games like Star Wars: Rogue Squadron, Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine, and World Driver Championship.
- Nintendo released an Expansion Pak a couple of years into the console’s release, expanding the RAM from 4MB to 8MB. This was optional for some games, delivering better performance or higher-resolution visuals. A few titles like Donkey Kong 64 and The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask required the Expansion Pak to run at all.
- The N64 DD (disc drive) was a disc-based add-on for the N64 that was only released in Japan. The machine used a proprietary rewritable floppy disk format and offered a real-time clock. In fact, the latter was key for N64 DD title Dobutsu no Mori. This game would eventually be released in the West on the GameCube as Animal Crossing.
- The N64 controller had an expansion slot that let you plug in a Controller Pak (giving you an alternative to saving games on the cartridge), a Rumble Pak (enabling vibration), or Transfer Park (for transferring data to and from Game Boy/Game Boy Color games). Developer Rare even experimented with letting you reload your guns in Goldeneye 007 by removing and re-inserting the Rumble Pak. This feature was cut from the final release though.
- Nintendo’s console was initially going to be called the Ultra 64, but got a name change a few months before launch.
- Nintendo’s project to create the N64 was called Project Reality. It seems like the project name was at least partially inspired by silicon partner SGI’s $100,000 graphics hardware called the Reality Engine. Former SGI executive George Zachary told NextGen in 1996 that the goal was to achieve the Reality Engine’s “look and feel, in terms of polygon and the pixel quality.”
Nintendo Game Boy Advance: A portable SNES
The Game Boy Color may have improved upon the original Game Boy thanks to its color screen and slimmer form factor, but it wasn’t exactly a generational leap ahead of the original Game Boy. Instead, that leap would come with the release of the Game Boy Advance in March 2001.
Nintendo’s latest handheld offered a landscape design, with the screen flanked by a D-pad on the left and a pair of face buttons on the right. Much like the SNES, the Game Boy Advance also packed two shoulder buttons. Under the hood, you had a 16.78MHz Arm CPU to keep things running.
Speaking of the SNES, Nintendo’s 2001 handheld was essentially a portable SNES, featuring a little more power than the 16-bit console. So it’s no surprise to see that the handheld received plenty of SNES ports, ranging from Super Mario World and Final Fight to The Legend of Zelda: A Link To The Past and Donkey Kong Country.
The GBA offered plenty of power compared to earlier handhelds, making ports of older home console titles a reality.
The GBA received its fair share of original titles too, with such notable games as Golden Sun, Boktai, WarioWare Inc, numerous Pokémon games, and The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap. And if you still had a bunch of Game Boy and Game Boy Color games, you’d be glad to know that the GBA was backwards compatible with these titles too.
Nintendo’s handheld didn’t have major competition in this space, fending off the likes of the Nokia N-Gage, TapWave Zodiac, and GP32 to sell a reported 81 million units.
That’s not to say the GBA was perfect though, as it initially lacked a front or backlight. So that meant you couldn’t play in the dark, unfortunately. Thankfully, later GBA variants addressed this issue. More specifically, we got two variants in the Game Boy Advance SP (seen above) and the Game Boy Micro. Both variants featured lit screens and lithium-ion batteries, with the SP offering a clamshell form factor and the Micro going for a svelte design. The latter wasn’t backwards compatible with Game Boy and Game Boy Color games though.
Game Boy Advance fast facts
- A prototype Game Boy Advance shown off in 2000 was sold at an auction in September 2020. It differs from the production model by virtue of a different color palette (orange and silver) and different startup sounds.
- Nintendo released the Game Boy Player in 2003, allowing people to play Game Boy Advance, Game Boy Color, and Game Boy titles on their GameCube.
- The company originally claimed that the GBA would be able to access the internet via cell phones, allowing users to download games, play online, and more. Of course, this feature wasn’t actually implemented.
- The GBA was also compatible with Nintendo’s GameCube (seen below) via a link cable. This support allowed you to use the GBA as a controller in specific games or gave second screen capabilities in some titles.
- One rather innovative game on the platform was Boktai: The Sun Is In Your Hand. The cartridge featured a light sensor that meant standing in the sun in the real world would charge your weapons.
Nintendo GameCube: It’s hip to be cubed
2001 was a major year for Nintendo as it launched not only the Game Boy Advance but also the GameCube. The follow-up to the N64 was a pretty beefy piece of kit, featuring a single-core IBM PowerPC Gekko CPU clocked at 486MHz and an ArtX (ATI/AMD) Flipper GPU.
This combo resulted in a machine that wasn’t only powerful, but developer-friendly too. This was in stark contrast to the all-conquering PS2 at the time, which was very capable but a pain to work on and missing a few key graphical features for developers (e.g. anti-aliasing and mipmapping).
Nintendo’s console hosted a variety of technically advanced games as a result, such as F-Zero GX, Resident Evil 4, Metroid Prime, and Star Wars Rogue Squadron 2: Rogue Leader. Other critically acclaimed games include The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, Pikmin, Super Smash Bros. Melee, Animal Crossing, and Mario Kart: Double Dash.
The GameCube was also the first disc-based console for the company, marking a major moment in Nintendo history after years of using cartridges for its home consoles. But Nintendo couldn’t simply just use standard DVD discs, as it opted for mini DVDs instead. The upside is that loading times were much faster than rival machines, but the downside is that you were limited to roughly 1.4GB of storage compared to 4.5GB for single-layer DVDs. The small size of the disc drive also meant that DVDs wouldn’t fit in the GameCube anyway.
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While the Nintendo 64 controller was rather weird even back in the 1990s, the GameCube gamepad was pretty sensibly designed. Gone were the N64’s C-buttons in favor of a right analog stick dubbed the C-stick. The “L” and “R” buttons became analog triggers with an extra click when pressed all the way down (akin to L3 and R3 on the PS1 and PS2). The only real area of weakness was the fact that the Z button felt haphazardly placed, above the “R” trigger. The controller also seemed to be designed for people with smaller hands, so those with huge mitts would’ve probably felt more comfortable with gamepads from rival brands.
The console also hosted a variety of peripherals, such as bongo drums, a broadband adapter (used for online play in less than half a dozen games), a keyboard controller, a steering wheel, and the aforementioned Game Boy Player to play GBA titles.
Unfortunately for Nintendo, the GameCube sold just over 20 million units during its lifetime. By comparison, Sony’s PlayStation 2 sold well over 150 million units, and even the original Xbox out-sold the purple cube.
GameCube fast facts
- The GameCube actually supported stereoscopic 3D technology and launch title Luigi’s Mansion supported it. But the functionality was disabled for the console’s commercial release.
- Nintendo’s console was codenamed Dolphin prior to launch. This name would live on as the name of a popular GameCube and Wii emulator.
- The GameCube also had a handle on the back of it, allowing you to easily carry the console around your household or elsewhere.
- Nintendo made a splash with the Wavebird wireless controller. It wasn’t the first wireless gamepad for consoles, but it definitely went a long way towards popularizing the standard. All subsequent consoles have offered wireless controllers as the default option.
- The console was region-locked, but one popular solution was to buy a Freeloader disc. Simply slap this disc into your console and then swap it out for the desired game to get around region restrictions.
- Nintendo teamed up with Panasonic to launch the Japan-only Panasonic Q console in 2001. This plays DVDs in addition to GameCube games.
Nintendo DS: Twice the fun
How do you follow up on a handheld like the Game Boy Advance? Well, Nintendo’s answer to this question was 2004’s DS. The clamshell handheld stood out from predecessors and rivals thanks to a dual-screen form factor, featuring a standard display up top and a resistive touchscreen on the bottom.
The DS also offered a microphone and this would indeed be implemented in games, allowing you to issue rudimentary voice commands in Nintendogs, for example. Other notable upgrades include the presence of Wi-Fi for the first time and an 850mAh rechargeable battery (no disposable batteries needed). Furthermore, game cartridges also saw a bump in size from the maximum 32MB of the Game Boy Advance all the way to a maximum of 512MB.
The Nintendo DS wasn’t the most powerful handheld of its time, as Sony’s rival PlayStation Portable definitely had more horsepower. But the DS was still a notable upgrade over the Game Boy Advance and was far more comfortable with 3D games, offering a 67MHz Arm9 CPU and a secondary co-processor to handle Game Boy Advance games. That’s right, the DS was backwards compatible with GBA titles too.
The DS is not just the most successful console in Nintendo history, but the most successful console in general.
In addition to GBA support, the DS also had a rich library of titles. Some of the more notable games include Animal Crossing: Wild World, Dr. Kawashima’s Brain Training, The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass, Pokémon Black and White, and The World Ends With You.
Nintendo’s unique approach to handheld gaming along with a huge library all contributed to the DS becoming the most popular console of all time. The company’s own figures show that it sold 154 million units, beating the likes of the PS4 and Wii. It also handily beat the PSP, which was Sony’s first stab at a handheld console.
We saw a couple of DS variants launched throughout its time on the market too, including the DS Lite, DSi, and DSi XL. The DS Lite was a slimmer and lighter DS, as the name implies. Meanwhile, the DSi range ditched the GBA slot but offered 256MB of expandable storage, more RAM, a faster CPU, and a pair of VGA-quality cameras. The DSi models also had access to an online storefront, allowing you to buy bite-sized games.
Nintendo DS fast facts
- The console was code-named Project Nitro at first. This is still seemingly reflected in game and console model numbers, featuring the initials “NTR.”
- Nintendo’s GBA successor wasn’t originally going to have two screens. But former president Hiroshi Yamauchi suggested the addition of a second screen akin to the Game and Watch.
- Oddly enough, the company initially claimed the DS was a “third pillar,” separate from the Game Boy and home console lines. Time would show that the DS was indeed a Game Boy successor rather than an entirely new segment.
- The Nintendo DS even gained a Guitar Hero peripheral that plugged into the Game Boy Advance cartridge slot, featuring several colored buttons, much like a full Guitar Hero controller.
- Nintendo’s console was also popular among seniors in Japan and several other markets, owing to games like Dr. Kawashima’s Brain Training. These titles offer puzzles and other minigames to supposedly keep your brain active.
Nintendo Wii: Gaming for everyone
Nintendo’s handheld division was in rude health in 2005 and 2006, but the opposite was the case for the home console unit. The GameCube was barely receiving any game releases around this time, as it floundered behind Sony and Microsoft’s consoles in terms of console sales.
This state of affairs changed in November 2006, as Nintendo released the Wii. Nintendo’s innovative console was a smash hit from the get-go, and console shortages would last for well over a year.
The Wii’s main attraction was its TV remote-style controller, offering motion-based control in a variety of games. That meant you could physically swing your Wii remote to swing your racket in a tennis game, or point at the screen in a shooting game to aim your weapon.
The Nintendo Wii introduced motion control to consoles, helping the machine become a massive hit globally.
This concept was part of a “Blue Ocean” strategy for Nintendo in order to attract more non-gamers to the medium. And it indeed resulted in plenty of mainstream attention and saw the Wii significantly out-sell the Xbox 360 and PS3 in its first few years. In fact, it wasn’t uncommon to read stories about the console being popular at old-age homes in the first few years after its launch.
Nintendo also offered a so-called Nunchuk add-on for the Wii remote, giving you an analog stick and several more buttons for more traditional games like action/adventure titles. Other notable accessories released for the Wii include the MotionPlus attachment for more accurate motion controls (this tech would later be integrated into Wii remote revisions), the Classic Controller Pro for more conventional games, and the Wii Balance Board for use with fitness games like Wii Fit.
We got plenty of high-quality and/or fun games for the Wii, namely Wii Sports, Mario Kart Wii, the Super Mario Galaxy games, Super Smash Bros. Brawl, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, and Metroid Prime 3: Corruption. Nintendo also offered access to a so-called Virtual Console, featuring a ton of retro games for purchase. These retro games included titles from the NES, SNES, N64, Sega Master System, Sega Mega Drive, PC Engine, and Neo Geo.
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The console was backwards compatible with GameCube discs too, and this support extended to having four GameCube controller ports and two memory card slots hidden underneath a flap at the top of the device. Nintendo’s console had 512MB of internal storage but this could thankfully be supplemented with an SD card.
The Wii did have a couple of downsides though, starting with a major lack of horsepower compared to the PS3 and Xbox 360. This was because the console targeted standard definition rather than HD resolutions, but this did mean that some games simply couldn’t be ported to the machine.
Another disappointment was the online service, as Nintendo’s friend code system and the lack of proper online ID functionality (think a PSN ID or Xbox Live ID) made Microsoft and Sony’s online services look much better.
Finally, it’s worth noting that much like the PS2 eventually attracted a load of bottom-of-the-barrel games as it gained in popularity, the same thing happened to the Wii. The console attracted a ton of shovelware after its release, with throwaway titles like Ninjabread Man, More Game Party, and Alvin and the Chipmunks.
Nintendo Wii fast facts
- The Wii’s Broadway CPU and Hollywood GPU were essentially upgraded versions of the GameCube’s internals. In fact, this led one developer at the time to claim that the Wii was two GameCubes that were duct-taped together.
- Images of a prototype Wii remote and Nunchuk surfaced online in 2018 as a result of an auction in Japan. The images showed that the prototype remote could be plugged in to a GameCube.
- One rather weird way to hack early Wii models involved the use of a hacked saved game and walking backward in The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess.
- Ubisoft launched a rather awful mini-game compilation for the Wii dubbed We Dare. But the debut trailer for the title gained infamy as it attempted to pander to horny gamers. I kid you not (slightly NSFW).
- The Wii was originally codenamed Revolution prior to its release, with Nintendo referring to it as such in public. Again, this codename sort of lives on in the model numbers for various accessories and consoles, featuring the “RVL” prefix.
- One official accessory that never saw the light of day was the so-called Wii Vitality Sensor. Announced back in 2009, the sensor was supposed to measure your pulse for unspecified applications. Nintendo would end up canceling the add-on due to inconsistent measurements.
- One significant revision was the Wii Mini. This ditched the GameCube ports, SD card slot, and internet connectivity in order to bring a cheaper price. It also opted for a top-loading disc drive instead of the slot-loading drive on the standard Wii.
Nintendo 3DS: The last of the pure handhelds
The DS was an impressive performer for Nintendo, and the company opted for an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach for its successor. The 3DS maintained the original handheld’s dual-screen, clamshell design, making for a familiar form factor.
However, the biggest change was the switch to a glasses-free stereoscopic 3D display up top, along with a slider key on the right-hand side of the device to adjust the intensity of the 3D effect. Nintendo would later de-emphasize this technology with the cheaper 2DS variant, which ditched the 3D display altogether.
Nintendo’s console was nevertheless a pretty solid upgrade over the DS under the hood too, offering a dual-core Arm11 CPU at 268MHz and a DMP PICA200 GPU. This paled in comparison to the likes of the PlayStation Vita and even mid-range smartphones at the time, but some developers were still able to create some graphically advanced titles.
The 3DS wasn't quite as popular as the DS, but it was still a commercial success in its own right.
Other notable features included an analog nub (although there was only one at first), a VGA-quality selfie camera, a pair of VGA cameras on the back for taking 3D photos, and 2GB of expandable storage.
Prominent titles on the Nintendo 3DS included Animal Crossing: New Leaf, Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon, Pokémon X and Y, Super Mario 3D Land, and Metal Gear Solid: Snake Eater 3D.
You didn’t have to give up your DS library either, as the 3DS was backwards compatible with games from the old console. Furthermore, the Wii’s Virtual Console feature appeared once again, allowing users to buy home console and handheld games from across Nintendo history (and even some Sega Game Gear titles!) via the online eShop.
Nintendo would go on to release several revisions of the 3DS, including the larger 3DS XL and the aforementioned 2DS. We also got the New Nintendo 3DS, New Nintendo 3DS XL (seen above), and New Nintendo 2DS, replacing the 3DS, 3DS XL, and 2DS respectively. The “New” handhelds all boasted quad-core 804MHz CPUs, double the RAM (from 128MB to 256MB), and an integrated right analog stick. This increased power resulted in a few games that would only work on the “New” consoles, such as Xenoblade Chronicles and Fire Emblem Warriors.
The company’s last pure handheld console out-sold arch-rival Sony’s PlayStation Vita by a huge margin, with Nintendo claiming almost 76 million units sold. It’s believed that Sony sold well under 20 million Vita consoles.
3DS fast facts
- One early rumor that gained steam before the console’s reveal was that Nvidia had made the 3DS chipset. This wasn’t the case, but the two would join forces down the line.
- Nintendo issued a price cut in July 2011, just months after the initial launch. The company made it up to those who bought the device at full price by offering 10 NES and 10 GBA games at no extra charge via digital download, plus a digital Ambassador Certificate that to proudly show off to your friends.
- The 3DS initially shipped without a right analog nub, but Nintendo released an official Circle Pad Pro accessory instead. The New 3DS and 2DS models would later integrate the right analog nub into their designs.
- Nintendo’s 2011 handheld arguably offers more applications than its latest console. This includes YouTube, Netflix, Hulu, Eurosport, and an internet browser.
- Prior to the 3DS’s release, Nintendo toyed with the idea of letting users swap the position of the analog stick and D-pad. This functionality wouldn’t make it into the final product, of course.
Nintendo Wii U: Innovation and failure
The Wii re-established Nintendo as the top manufacturer in the home console space, so is it really surprising that the firm chose the Wii name for the follow-up console? 2012’s Wii U picked up where the Wii left off.
The new console was a marked improvement over the Wii in terms of horsepower. It packed a tri-core IBM PowerPC “Espresso” processor clocked at 1.24GHz, a 550MHz AMD Radeon “Latte” GPU, 2GB of RAM, and 8GB or 32GB of expandable storage. This combination meant you had a console that targeted HD visuals — a first for a Nintendo home console. We also saw the switch from DVDs to 25GB discs, making for another notable step forward.
Nintendo’s big innovation this time was a massive controller with a tablet-sized resistive touchscreen on it. This screen was used as a secondary display in games, showing your map and inventory. Wii U owners could also play entire games on the smaller screen, just in case the TV was being used by someone else. The home/handheld-hybrid concept would be taken to its logical conclusion with the Wii U’s successor.
The Wii U's big feature was its GamePad controller with an integrated screen, enabling some cool gameplay scenarios.
But unarguably the coolest use for the Wii U GamePad’s screen was in so-called “asymmetrical” multiplayer games. That is, the person playing with the GamePad screen can have a completely different perspective and/or experience in multiplayer games.
This concept was perfectly demonstrated in the mini-game compilation Nintendo Land. One of the more notable local multiplayer minigames saw the GamePad-toting player playing a ghost that couldn’t be spotted on the main TV screen. Meanwhile, the other Wii remote-toting gamers had to work together on the TV screen to catch the ghost. Having personally spent hours in Nintendo Land with friends, I can certainly say that it was a unique and fantastic social experience.
Nintendo would also push the asymmetrical multiplayer approach with other games like New Super Mario Bros. U, allowing the GamePad player to assist people playing on the TV screen. But more often than not, third-party developers avoided this concept.
Unfortunately for the Japanese gaming giant, the Wii U was a commercial failure. Nintendo says the console sold 13.5 million units to date, making it the least successful Nintendo console since 1995’s Virtual Boy. This figure also puts it behind the PlayStation Vita, which Sony itself quietly abandoned.
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You could argue that there wasn’t any single reason for the Wii U failing. Nintendo could’ve probably chosen a better name, for one. Even Wii 2 or Super Wii would be better and make it obvious that this wasn’t an add-on accessory if Nintendo really wanted to keep the Wii name. Other factors like a lack of third-party support didn’t do the console any favors either, while the Wii U GamePad didn’t enjoy the best battery life.
Still, there are plenty of reasons to get a Wii U if you’re looking for a great gaming experience. Starting with the killer apps, we’ve got notable titles like Mario Kart 8, Nintendo Land, The Wonderful 101, Bayonetta 2, Super Smash Bros. for Wii U, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Xenoblade Chronicles X, Pikmin 3, and The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker HD. It’s also backwards compatible with Wii titles, so you didn’t have to abandon your existing library at the time.
Another reason to get the Wii U is for retro gaming, as its Virtual Console library of old-school titles covers NES, SNES, Game Boy Advance, N64, Nintendo DS, and PC Engine games. In a disappointing turn of events, Nintendo announced that it will stop accepting card payments for the eShop online service from January 2022.
Wii U fast facts
- The Wii U’s CPU is generally considered to be the weak link in the system, as it’s essentially a multi-core, higher clocked version of the Wii’s aging CPU. This meant that AI-intensive and physics-heavy games could suffer compared to the likes of the PS3 and Xbox 360.
- Nintendo’s console was originally codenamed Project Cafe prior to its official reveal. Keeping in line with the coffee theme, the CPU and GPU were dubbed Espresso and Latte respectively.
- Interestingly, one rumored name for the final machine was the Stream. Obviously, this didn’t turn out to be the case.
- The last first-party title on the Wii U was The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, which also appeared as a Switch launch title. Coincidentally, the last first-party title for the GameCube was The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, which was simultaneously released on the Wii as a launch game too. Maybe Nintendo needs to offer Zelda titles at all its new console launches to guarantee success.
- It’s reportedly possible to “burn” your digital Wii U games to a DVD disc via a USB DVD burner. However, this feature requires the use of DVD-RAM discs, which behave more like hard drives in the first place.
Nintendo Switch: Hybrid heaven
The latest Nintendo console on the market is the Switch, and it represents a major turning point for the company. The Japanese firm has traditionally offered both handheld and home console lines, but 2017’s Switch represents a unified, hybrid approach.
Nintendo’s new console is a handheld device with a 6.2-inch 720p LCD touchscreen. But slot the device into an included dock and you get Full HD output on a TV or monitor. It’s a really nifty feature, meaning that you can play full-fledged console games on the go and continue your play sessions on the big screen.
The Switch is powered by an Nvidia Tegra X1 processor that was somewhat old even back at the console’s launch in 2017. Nevertheless, developers have achieved some good-looking games thanks to harnessing the chipset’s octa-core CPU (four Cortex-A57, four Cortex-A53), Maxwell graphics, and NVN API. In fact, we saw ports of advanced games like The Witcher 3, Doom Eternal, and Wolfenstein 2.
Other notable technical details include 4GB of RAM, 32GB of expandable storage, and a 4,310mAh lithium-ion battery. This is also the first Nintendo home console (if you can call it that) since the Nintendo 64 that uses cartridges, although these are essentially memory cards rather than the oversized carts of yore. In any event, Switch game cards typically top out at 32GB.
The Switch has proven itself to be a mega-hit for Nintendo, selling almost 90 million units.
Another neat addition was the detachable controllers flanking the display (dubbed Joy-Cons). These can be detached and used by separate players for local multiplayer games, while also offering so-called HD Rumble tech for more subtle vibration effects. Nintendo also shipped a gamepad grip with the console, allowing you to slot your Joy-Cons into it for a more conventional controller experience when playing on the TV.
The overall concept was a massive commercial success for Nintendo, with the firm claiming that it’s sold 89 million units as of Q2 2021. It’s also seen a few variations, including a cheap Switch Lite (lacking TV playback and using non-removable JoyCons), the 2019 revision that offered better battery life, and the Nintendo Switch OLED. The latter swaps out the original LCD panel for an OLED screen, while also doubling the internal storage to 64GB.
Nintendo’s hybrid console also offers a massive library of games, starting with first-party titles like Animal Crossing: New Horizons, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, Super Mario Odyssey, and Splatoon 2. Noteworthy third-party titles include The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Cuphead, Ori and the Blind Forest, and the Doom franchise.
While it shows no sign of stopping yet, the Switch has already cemented its place in Nintendo history as one of its best-ever consoles.
Nintendo Switch fast facts
- The console was originally codenamed NX prior to its reveal, finally getting the Switch name in October 2016.
- A Nintendo Portugal video briefly uploaded a trailer showing the developer menu for the Switch. This clip was quickly pulled by the company, but it did show that the development console offered double the storage (at 64GB) compared to the launch console.
- It’s possible to hack the Switch and install Android on the device, opening the door for Android games and retro console emulation.
- A game preservation group acquired a Switch development unit earlier this year. The kicker is that the unit dates back to April 2016, apparently making it the earliest unit found so far.
- One of the first hints of the Switch’s unified approach to handheld and home consoles came in 2014. Back then, game development legend Shigeru Miyamoto told Kotaku that Nintendo was looking at a unified handheld/home approach as an “area of opportunity.” This was over two years before the console’s reveal.
That’s it for our look at all the history of Nintendo consoles. Which one is your favorite? Cast your vote in the poll and let us know in the comments?