A brief history of Nintendo consoles © Scott Eells/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A brief history of Nintendo consoles

Nintendo are one of the big three when it comes to games consoles, and on the announcement of the new Nintendo Switch we look at their hits (and the odd miss as well).

The Nintendo NX announced last year has finally been unveiled as the Nintendo Switch, a gaming platform that appears to perfectly blend home consoles and handhelds, and then some. This announcement is making waves across the gaming world, and we’ve decided to have a look back at Nintendo’s console history as they prepare to move into the future.

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Game & Watch – 1980 – 1991.

43.4 million sold

The Game & Watch handheld games were inspired by a calculator, and originally used simple LCD screens with fixed graphics, alarms and/or clocks to create a single portable game.

Aside from each game having its own device, Nintendo would go on to develop more than 10 variants of the original Game & Watch design. The Game & Watch series were massively popular worldwide and with the success of the NES inspired Nintendo to make a handheld console.

NES – 1983

69.91 million sold

Nintendo’s first entry to the home console market marked the beginning of the third generation of games consoles and helped save the United States gaming industry after the 97 per cent sales crash of 1983.

Originally developed in Japan as the Famicon, the NES was simplistic, powerful, unique and not too expensive, and was headed straight for success in a market that sorely lacked quality.

In a spectacular case of misjudgement, Atari abandoned a deal that would have originally allowed them to license the Famicon in the USA, leading to Nintendo going it alone. More than 34 million NESs were sold in America alone, and the NES held dominance over the market until the release of the Sega Mega Drive.

The NES is often cited as one of the if not the greatest console of all time by many companies, including IGNPC Magazine and Escapist Magazine.

Game Boy – 1989, Game Boy Color -1998

118.69 million sold

The Game Boy was a hit from the word go and completely outcompeted its rivals. The main reasons for the success of the Game Boy were its simplicity, effectiveness, significantly lower price, interconnectivity and a great selection of games, including the first Pokémon games that would go on to be staples of all Nintendo handheld consoles.

In the West the Game Boy initially shipped with Tetris, which itself would go on to sell 30.26 million copies for the Game Boy alone. Tetris was chosen due to its pick-up-and-play nature and for the fact its graphics were unlikely to suffer on the 8-bit monochromatic system.

As the Game Boys software library improved so did its hardware. The release of Game Boy variants such as the Game Boy Color only helped boost its popularity and lifespan. The only major recurring complaint levelled at the Game Boy would be its lack of a backlight, making it very difficult to play in dim light conditions.

SNES – 1990

49.10 million sold

The creatively named Super Nintendo Entertainment System was Nintendo’s 16-bit successor to the NES in order to fight their new competitors in the form of the Sega Mega Drive and the TurboGrafx-16 (yep, us neither).  Although released two years after the Mega Drive, it marked the beginning of the console wars between rivals Nintendo and Sega.

Outside of Japan the SNES and Mega Drive could never truly claim the crown over the other, but the SNES was able to secure the first console port of Street Fighter II and was an early adopter of pre-rendered 3D games such as the massive hit Donkey Kong Country.

The console ports of Mortal Kombat, famously censored on the SNES, lead to the establishment of the ESRB, which in turn also lead to Nintendo scrapping its own censorship policies. The SNES continued to sell well into the N64 era of gaming and eventually topped Mega Drive sales.

Virtual Boy – 1995

770,00 sold

The Virtual Boy was almost a perfect storm of mistakes in development and as such was a big commercial failure. Things didn’t start well for the Virtual Boy, which had been rejected by most game companies, including Sega who declined it due to the single-colour display and headache inducing nature.

Marketed as being portable and capable of displaying “true 3D graphics”, the Virtual Boy was neither. The headpiece was larger than most VR headsets today and as such was usually used on a fixed stand, making it uncomfortable to use. The graphics did create a stereoscopic 3D effect, but were limited to a red on black display.

Despite many cuts, including that of a coloured display, the console still cost close to $200 at launch in 1995. To add insult to injury, anyone who bought the console would only have a choice of 22 games internationally.

N64 – 1996

32.93 million sold

By 1995 the cartridge system of games was falling out of favour and after Nintendo’s unfortunate agreements with Phillips and Sony ending in tears they released what would be the last major cartridge home console.

The N64 draws it name from its 64-bit central processing unit, which, along with its other specs, made it the most powerful and detailed machine of the generation.

The game cartridges, although faster, had significantly less storage space than the CD-ROMs utilised by the other major consoles at the time and were also significantly more expensive to produce, seriously limiting what third-party developers could do with their software. Nintendo partially made up for this with first party games, but the other consoles already had massive libraries.

By the time the N64 was released Sega and Sony had already released the Saturn and PlayStation respectively. The N64 still did very well, outselling the Saturn, but it stayed very much in the shadow of Sony’s formidable PlayStation.

Game Boy Advance (3 Models) 81.51 models 2001

The Game Boy Advance moved the handhold industry to 32-bit colour graphics. Its release was very timely towards the end of the Game Boy’s lifespan and continued Nintendo’s majority market share.

The Game Boy Advance, as with the Game Boy, was robust, effective and cheap and advanced with the technology, leading to the development of the back-lit, folding-screened Game Boy Advanced SP. Boasting its own large game library, the Game Boy Advance also had backwards compatibility so that previous Game Boy owners could keep playing their old games on the new console.

The Game Boy Advance also came with many practical accessories towards the end of its lifespan such as the wireless adapter, which allowed for connecting with other players over a short distance. Due to the lateness of its arrival however, less than 20 games supported this hardware.

GameCube – 2001

21.74 million sold

Nintendo failed to learn a few important lessons from the previous generation of consoles, in particular the problems with limited storage and that online multiplayer was going to become, well, a thing.

The GameCube was released after the Sega Dreamcast and Sony PlayStation 2 and was met with a warm reception due its decent hardware, variety of games and inexpensive cost. However, the console would only feature a handful of games with online capability and the PlayStation 2 had already established a firm grip on the market.

The GameCube was in many ways designed for game developers rather than the consumer and during its time on sale Nintendo was able to patch up relations with many game developers.

Not one to rest on current technology, the GameCube also featured some stereoscopic 3D tech, though this was only usable with the game Luigi’s mansion and 3D capable televisions were not yet widespread.

Later in the same year, Microsoft released the massively popular Xbox. Featuring cutting-edge shooting games and the Xbox live online service it was able to eventually out-sell the GameCube.

Nintendo DS (4 models) – 2004

154.02 million units sold

The Nintendo Dual Screen (DS) built upon the folding design of the Game Boy Advance SP and designed a portable console with a second screen with touch features. Originally intended as a third console to sell alongside the Game Boy Advance and GameCube, its backwards compatibility and strong initial sales soon established it as the successor to the Game Boy Advance.

Amongst its improved processing power and dual screens, the DS included an inbuilt microphone, Game Boy Advance cartridge port and wireless technology allowing for even more ways to play games. The DS was released less than a month before the PlayStation Portable but with its low cost, huge game library and more convenient cartridge system went unchallenged as the market leader.

The bulk of the DS’s success came from its second iteration, the DS Lite, which was slimmer, brighter, lighter and cheaper than the original DS. The DS Lite model makes up for 93.86 million of the total DS sales.

The final form of the DS was the DSi, which was designed as a more personal console. It featured 2 digital cameras, in built software, access to the new DSi store and larger screens, scrapping the Game Boy Advance port to increase durability without increasing size.

The Nintendo DS is the most-selling handheld of all time and second highest selling console of all time.

Wii – 2006

101.63 million sold

The Nintendo Wii was a real step forward for Nintendo in terms of console creation. The Wii featured backwards compatibility allowing GameCube games and accessories to be used with the console, and a free online service. The Wii would go on to outsell both the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3.

The most notable features of the Wii itself are its motion control abilities and virtual console, which allowed gamers to download and play pre-GameCube era Nintendo titles. Another reason for the Wii’s popularity was its cost, being significantly cheaper than its two main competitors, and unlike the Xbox offered free online gaming.

Although the technology seems primitive now, at the time the Wii’s basic motion control was effective and well received. The Xbox and PlayStation would eventually have their own motion control hardware and software, but neither managed to outdo the Wiis basic functionality.

Nintendo 3DS (5 models) – 2011

59.79 million units

Following on the failure of the Virtual Boy it was not until 2011 that Nintendo dared to venture into the realm of 3D again, this time with better results. The 3DS built upon the success of the DSi and added new features.

The two most important breakthroughs were the inclusion of a circle pad for superior 3D movement and the development of working stereoscopic 3D without the need for glasses. The cameras on the console also because useable by the games, allowing for 3D augmented reality. Using tagging software powered by the Nintendo Network, players were able to interact with certain places and other players while out and about through SpotPass and StreetPass respectively.

The 3DS fully embraced online capability by including the Nintendo eShop, a social network called Miiverse, an internet browser and streaming services such as YouTube.

It should be noted however, that the 3D capability was not perfect on the earlier models, as distance and angle are important, but as with all Nintendo handheld consoles improvements have been made over time. The latest iteration, the New Nintendo 3DS XL improves on the original design in every aspect except physical size and has eye-tracking software for use with the 3D effect, allowing for the player to move without breaking the effect.

Wii U – 2012

13.02 million sold

Given Nintendo’s history of releasing new and improved versions of existing consoles, when the Wii U was announced it was originally seen as a new version, or even an additional piece of kit for the Wii. This misunderstanding lasted for nearly two years. The lack of promotion and third party development contributed to a very weak launch for the console, though no console could ever hope to top the Xbox One launch in terms of disastrousness.

In terms of hardware the Wii U was definitely a step up from the Wii, with stronger hardware and HD capability, backwards compatibility and the ability to play without a TV using the tablet controller. However, the Wii U was not met with great critical acclaim as a lot of the features felt like innovation for innovations sake, and some ideas came across as half-baked. Many of these innovations also made it very difficult for third party developers to make Wii U games.

The Wii U saw a resurgence in its second year with the release of Mario Kart 8, but as Nintendo moves towards the Switch there have been numerous complaints about not doing enough to support the console.

The Wii U currently outsells the Xbox One, but both consoles and the PlayStation 4 have suffered under the rising popularity of PC gaming.


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