For many, Nintendo is the first name that pops into their heads when they think of video games. The Japanese tech giant’s influence on gaming is vast and undeniable, and the sheer variety of different home and handheld consoles they’ve released over the years is staggering. Nintendo is a company that is always striving to innovate and even though they have made many questionable and irksome decisions over the years, their continued presence and influence in the industry is something to be applauded. When it comes to Nintendo’s actual hardware releases, there are some that are obviously better than others, but attempting to arrange them in any sort of ranking is a difficult task.
While our rankings are highly subjective, we tried to factor in each system’s historical impact on the industry, its overall library of games, and whether or not it holds up to modern enjoyment. We tried not to take into account certain features like backwards compatibility and avoided bringing up all the different hardware revisions released over the years (we’d be here all day otherwise). We also decided not to take Nintendo’s early products like the Color TV-Game and Game & Watch systems into account, as they don’t really qualify as traditional consoles. Check out our rankings below and even if you disagree with where certain systems rank, just remember that this was all done in the spirit of celebrating all things Nintendo and we didn’t go out of our way to try and put a particular system down.
13. Virtual Boy
The biggest problem with the Virtual Boy is that it was too ahead of its time. Virtual Reality has only become ready for prime time in the last few years (and even that’s debatable), whereas in 1995 it was largely a gimmick that the Virtual Boy simply wasn’t powerful enough to handle properly. From the hideous and unwieldy controller to its headache-inducing, monochromatic red graphics, the Virtual Boy is like a nightmare gallery of poor design and is positively unplayable in this day and age. Still, it’s hard not admire Nintendo’s ambition with the device, which in many ways was decades ahead of the curve.
Designed by the legendary Gunpei Yokoi, who was also the mastermind behind the Game & Watch and Game Boy, the Virtual Boy was the first handheld system to be able to display 3D graphics and even though it had few games and didn’t last very long, the impact of the system has been far-reaching and stands as a prime example of Nintendo’s enduring commitment to innovation.
12. Game Boy Color
Nintendo rarely takes half steps when introducing a new console or handheld, but the Game Boy Color definitely qualifies as one. As its name implies, the biggest change introduced with the Game Boy Color over its predecessor is its color screen, which admittedly was a pretty sweet step up from the original Game Boy’s shades of grey and olive green. The other significant change worth mentioning is the bump to 8-bit graphics, which didn’t exactly set the Color apart from the Game Boy all that much, but did help its games look better. And really, it’s the Color’s lineup of exclusives that helped save it from being total write-off.
The twin Capcom-developed Legend of Zelda games, Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons, were arguably worth the price of admission alone and the fact that the Color was backwards compatible with original Game Boy games — and even spruced some of them up with new color palettes — helped make the handheld an attractive purchase at the time, especially since the Game Boy was nearly a decade old by that point. Unfortunately, Nintendo seemed to realize that the Color wasn’t going to have much staying power and its relevance was relatively short-lived, as Nintendo would release the Game Boy Advance only three years later.
11. Wii U
To put it bluntly, the Wii U was a conceptual nightmare on almost every level. Nintendo’s successor to the enormously successful Wii confused consumers right out of the gate with its name, as it was unclear whether the Wii U was merely an upgrade to the Wii or an entirely new system (it was the latter, but you’d be forgiven for believing otherwise). Nintendo tried to replicate the success of its DS line’s two-screen setup, but it proved to be too awkward and cumbersome for a home console. It also didn’t help that the Gamepad was an essential part of the system’s design, but most games barely took advantage of its capabilities and it wasn’t all that fun to use in the first place.
The Wii U’s one saving grace is that its lineup of exclusives is among the best Nintendo has ever produced, with games like Super Mario 3D World, Mario Kart 8, and Super Smash Bros. arguably making the console a must-buy for Nintendo die-hards. Unfortunately, these are pretty much the only people who got to experience these great games, as the Wii U was a commercial flop and was all-but-abandoned by Nintendo less than four years after its original release.
With over 100 million units sold worldwide, the Wii stands as Nintendo’s most successful home console to date and it’s not hard to see why. No other piece of gaming hardware has been able to capture the imagination of mainstream audiences to the extent the Wii did and the fact that it did this primarily on the back of one game, Wii Sports, is even more remarkable. Unfortunately, the Wii never really offered another experience that delivered on the promise of the system’s motion controls the way that Wii Sports did and before long, the console was drowning in derivative, “waggle” shovelware.
Of course, being a Nintendo console, there were a fair number of classic games, including Super Mario Galaxy and its sequel, arguably two of the best games ever made, but these releases were few and far between. In the end, the Wii may have been a massive commercial success, but it failed to hold the attention of casual players and hardcore gamers alike and ended up collecting dust on most peoples’ shelves.
9. Nintendo Switch
Nintendo’s most recent hardware release, the Switch is probably ranked way too low on this list but to be fair, it still has a lot to prove. In terms of potential, the Switch ranks up there with the best Nintendo systems, as its hybrid home/portable design is truly innovative and could change the way people play games socially and on-the-go. That being said, there are still a lot of unknown quantities.
At the time of this writing, the Switch is still missing features that many would have assumed standard in a console released in 2017 and its software outlook is also questionable, as it’s unclear just how much support we can expect from third-party developers in the months and years to come. Still, it’s hard to deny that the Switch has given Nintendo’s reputation and bottom line a boost, as the system has proven to be quite the commercial success in its early run. If Nintendo can continue to iron out the kinks, the Switch could very well become one of the company’s very best gaming systems when all is said and done.
8. Game Boy
By today’s standards, the Game Boy doesn’t look all that hot. Despite its iconic look, its form factor isn’t very intuitive, its olive green screen made it so that you could barely see the games you were playing, and even with a library of over 1000 games, the majority of them were trash and not worth your time. That being said, there wasn’t a better option for portable gaming back in 1989 and even though most Game Boy games were terrible, the device had some good ones, with a few that qualify as some of the greatest games ever made.
Tetris has been released on nearly every gaming system in existence, but the Game Boy edition is still widely considered to be the definitive one. And if you could convince yourself to take Tetris out of the cartridge slot for long enough, there were other games worth playing too, like The Legend of Zelda: A Link’s Awakening and a little game called Pokemon. Maybe you’ve heard of it?
7. Game Boy Advance
Nintendo’s final iteration of the Game Boy line is also its best, as the system’s jump forward in processing power helped lead to portable experiences that simply weren’t possible on the original Game Boy. While it would only take Nintendo three years to replace it with the DS, the Game Boy Advance was an absolute powerhouse when it came to 2D game design. Not only were a bunch of classic Super Nintendo games ported over, but new experiences like Advance Wars, Mega Man Zero, and Metroid Fusion helped make the GBA the best portable system of its era (to be fair, there wasn’t a whole lot else available).
The GBA was also an early example of just how much improvements hardware redesigns can bring, as the clam-shell GBA SP, released two years after the original unit, made the system more portable while also finally adding a backlight, which quickly became one of those can’t-live-without-it features. As the last hurrah for the Game Boy line, it’s hard to think Nintendo could have done much better.
6. Nintendo 64
For a certain generation of gamers (a.k.a. 90s kids), the Nintendo 64 is the console that springs to mind when they think of Nintendo. Before consoles made the jump to online gaming, the N64 was really the place to be to get your multiplayer fix, as the system’s four controller ports and lineup of competitive gems like GoldenEye 64, Mario Party, and the very first Super Smash Bros. have essentially turned the N64 into a nostalgia box for many.
Unfortunately, from a technical perspective, time has not been kind to the N64 and it’s a bit harder to stomach its terrible frame rates and flat textures than it used to be. The controller is also horrendous and seemed to break with the slightest bit of force. However, even with these shortcomings, the Nintendo 64 will always be viewed as one of the company’s most beloved products and was a fine first foray into 3D gaming for Nintendo.
5. Nintendo DS
The DS is one of Nintendo’s most interesting gambles. Released in 2004 at a time when the GameCube was treading water in terms of sales, Nintendo was looking for a new product to reverse their fortunes. Enter the Nintendo DS, a dual-screen handheld that caused many in the industry to shake their heads in dismay, wondering just what Nintendo was thinking. Originally positioned as a “third pillar” of their product line alongside the GameCube and GBA, the DS looked like a failure for the first year of its lifespan. It was ugly and cumbersome, for a start, and didn’t have much in the way of must-have software (its main selling point early on was arguably that it was backwards compatible with GBA games). But then, things started to turn around.
The games started coming, with Mario Kart DS being an early killer app for the system. Then, in 2006, Nintendo released the DS Lite, still one of the greatest hardware redesigns ever witnessed in gaming, and the company never looked back. Thanks to the system’s two screen design and touch screen, all sorts of unique games like Elite Beat Agents and Trauma Center started flooding the DS and before long, it was not only Nintendo’s most successful handheld, but its most successful product, period. Nintendo managed to sell 154 million of the things before all was said and done, with one of best all-around software libraries to boot.
The 3DS has proven itself to be Nintendo’s greatest handheld console (the jury’s still out on the Switch), but it very easily could have died an early death. Released in spring 2011, the 3DS’ initial asking cost (a whopping $250) turned many away and when combined with a lackluster launch line-up, most consumers opted to pass on the system’s admittedly impressive glasses-free 3D technology. Fortunately for all involved, Nintendo quickly realized their mistakes with the 3DS and gave it a significant price drop less than six months after its initial release. As important as this move was, however; the real turning point for the 3DS came when it started getting some serious software support.
Games like Fire Emblem Awakening, Super Mario 3D Land, and Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon helped make the handheld a must-own device and some games even started to justify the existence of the 3D gimmick, although it wasn’t until the release of the *New 3DS and its eye-tracking technology that it truly became usable for more than a few minutes at a time. While some might argue that the DS has the better overall library, we’re partial to the software found on the 3DS and think it deserves the edge when you factor in its many excellent ports (Ocarina of Time 3D, Star Fox 64 3D), Virtual Console support, and the fact that it can play the entire DS library, making it an easy choice between Nintendo’s two dual-screened handhelds.
3. Nintendo Entertainment System
For many video game enthusiasts, this is the console that really started it all, as the Nintendo Entertainment System arguably helped turn gaming from a cheap novelty into a legitimate hobby, thanks in large part to its many innovative software titles. Originally released in 1983, the NES of course gave us Super Mario Bros., one of the most popular and enduring video games of all time, but it also introduced players to a variety of new genres and experiences.
Games like Final Fantasy, Mega Man, and Castlevania all got their start here and thanks to selling nearly 62 million units worldwide, Nintendo’s first home console released outside Japan helped revitalize the gaming industry as a whole after the infamous crash of 1983. Nintendo’s console and game designs would become much more sophisticated over the years, but the brilliant simplicity of the NES has given it remarkable longevity and remains one of Nintendo’s best products, more than 30 years after its original release.
The GameCube is often considered to be a relative failure for Nintendo, especially when weighed against the fact that it preceded the company’s two most successful hardware releases, the DS and Wii, but just because it was a commercial disappointment doesn’t mean it wasn’t a great console. In many ways, the GameCube is like a much-improved Nintendo 64, as it delivers on that console’s same commitment to delivering 3D re imaginings of Nintendo’s classic franchises, but simply does it better. The GameCube is home to the best version of Mario Kart that isn’t Mario Kart 8, the greatest Super Smash Bros., and has a vastly superior controller to the N64’s.
Some point to the GameCube as being just a kid’s toy and while its design certainly looks similar to something Fisher-Price might put out, the console’s appearance means little when its library is so good. It not only had some absolute classic first-party games (Metroid Prime, The Wind Waker), but a surprising number of third-party exclusives too, most notably Resident Evil 4 (although, to be fair, many of these exclusives would later be ported to other consoles). Sure. the GameCube had nowhere near as many games as the PlayStation 2, but pound-for-pound, there are very few console libraries that rival the GameCube’s in terms of overall quality.
1. Super Nintendo Entertainment System
No other Nintendo product is as beloved as the Super Nintendo Entertainment System and for good reason, as Nintendo has arguably never truly topped what they achieved with their sophomore home console. While gaming has evolved dramatically since the SNES’ early-90s heyday, the console and many of its games have aged like fine wine. The move from the 8-bit NES to 16-bit afforded developers the tools to truly take a leap forward in visuals and game design. The color palettes became more varied, sound design became beefier, and gameplay in general became more ambitious in the SNES era (one need only look at the jump offered by games like Super Mario World and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past to see what the jump from NES to SNES really looked like).
While Nintendo has gained a reputation over the years for having terrible third-party support on their consoles, nothing could be further from the truth when it came to the SNES, which gave a home to many different masterpieces from publishers like Capcom, Square, and others. The SNES is truly a timeless console and one that doesn’t require rose-tinted glasses in order to fully appreciate.