Nintendo has a storied history of riding the crest of the video game wave, starting with 1977's Color TV-Game, which was exclusive to Japan and kicked-off the company's habit of revising its hardware (four iterations appeared between '77 and '80). However, it would be the NES that marked Nintendo's true entry into the market; this 8-bit system single-handedly revived a flagging industry when it arrived in 1983, ending the generation as the best-selling console. From there on, Nintendo went from strength to strength, following it up with what is arguably the finest 2D video games console of all time in the SNES before dipping its toes into the world of 3D innovation with the N64.
That's when things started to take a bit of a downward turn for Nintendo. The N64 competed with the enormously successful PlayStation and largely held its own, until its successor the GameCube was soundly beaten by the PlayStation 2 and emergent Xbox in the following generation. Despite its poor commercial performance, the GameCube is still a remarkably well-loved console, and it has an excellent library of exclusive titles.
This is why Nintendo is a truly special developer, though. The commercial ups and downs over the years haven't affected the sheer love and passion gamers have for its software and its hardware. The GameCube might not have sold as well as the PS2 or Xbox, but whenever a few Nintendo-loving friends are gathered to play games together, you can bet your bottom dollar they were huddled around a GameCube, playing the likes of Super Smash Bros. Melee and Mario Kart: Double Dash!!.
Nintendo followed the GameCube with another decade-defining console in the Wii. That's when it decided to compete on its own terms, focusing on providing family-friendly fun for casual gamers and, more importantly, sheer innovation. No matter what you think of the Wiimote and Nunchuk, everyone had a go at them – even your Grandma. That's truly remarkable.
Sadly, the hype didn't carry through to the next generation, when Nintendo introduced the Wii U to a lacklustre reception. While it still innovated and focused on the family-friendly fun of the previous generation, the innovative touch controller failed to catch on like the Wiimote did – likely because even Nintendo couldn't figure out anything fun to do with it. There was also loads of confusion regarding what it actually was: a Wii peripheral? Or the Wii in HD? The marketing team failed to communicate to those it had won over with the Wii what the follow-up product offered that the Wii didn't.
But, much like with the GameCube, the failure of the Wii U commercially didn't stop us Nintendo fans from falling in love with it as hard as we have any other Nintendo console. In fact, we defy anyone who owned a Wii U to admit that they didn't love it. Say whatever you want about the GamePad but Nintendo's foray into HD gaming introduced us to some of the company's best video games ever – Super Mario 3D World, anyone? So much so that the Switch is relying on a bunch of Wii U ports to keep up momentum!
Fortunately, Nintendo's fortunes would swing around once again when the Wii U's successor arrived on the scene last year. The Switch is a pure Nintendo console; it's at once a portable and home console, allows for impromptu multiplayer sessions thanks to the detachable Joy-Con and the much-maligned motion controls from the Wii make a triumphant return. It also helps that the likes of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey arrived in its first year, of course.
This is all without mentioning Nintendo's portable systems, which have arguably been even more successful than their console offerings. The Game Boy was an absolutely remarkable little machine which basically everyone owned. The ability to play the likes of Tetris while on the train to work was a godsend back in the day.
Following it up, we got the Game Boy Color, which was more of an upgrade than a successor. We had to wait for the Game Boy Advance for the true follow-up, which had a truly extraordinary library and a whopping three different models by the end of its lifespan.
Nintendo then did the unthinkable and dropped the Game Boy branding, introducing us to the Nintendo DS. It opened the door to the world of touch gaming, and the second screen allowed for experiences we'd never had before. The 3DS carried on the legacy, despite a bit of an initial falter due to a lukewarm reception to its 3D visuals (and starting retail price). And it's still going strong, with an incredible library of classics and a bunch of different SKUs to pick from.
Looking back at Nintendo's remarkable lifespan made us realise that it isn't immediately clear where each of the consoles sit in the ranking order. It isn't as simple as the best-selling console wins, as some of our favourite games of all time arrived on the consoles that many would consider failures, like the Wii U and GameCube.
So we decided to rank every single Nintendo console that ever launched from worst to best and did it in the fairest manner possible. We put it to a vote, with every Nintendo Life staffer putting together their own individual ranked lists. We then gave each position a score, tallied it up, and settled on the following list. Enjoy!
13. Virtual Boy (1995)
The Virtual Boy suffered from a case of far too much ambition. It was Nintendo's, and the world's, first attempt to bring VR and 3D gaming to our homes. Sadly, it wasn't to be as the Virtual Boy was both a critical and commercial failure.
The reasons are numerous: the monochrome display was underwhelming, the price too high, and the games were largely poor. It also didn't help that players experienced dizziness, nausea, and headaches even during short playing sessions and scientists later concluded that the Virtual Boy could cause permanent brain damage. Wowzers!
Still, the Virtual Boy will always go down in history as the first attempt to bring VR and 3D gaming to our homes – an impressive feat when you consider that 3D wouldn't be truly established until the 3DS a whopping 15 years later. Meanwhile, VR had a small, yet also ill-fated, comeback 20 years later.
12. Game Boy Color (1998)
Now that the Virtual Boy is out of the way, something had to come second last, didn't it? Sadly, the Game Boy Color ranked lowest in our list – and that's likely down to a lacklustre list of exclusives that just straight up failed to live up to the incredible Game Boy.
In fact, the only truly notable exclusives were Pokémon Crystal and The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages and Seasons. That's pretty poor for a console that lasted five years and demonstrates just how much it relied on that epic Game Boy back catalogue.
11. Nintendo Entertainment System (1985)
Next up is the Nintendo Entertainment System, or Famicom to the Japanese, which is truly a victim of its age. This was Nintendo's first foray into the home console market and it was an unmitigated success, ending the generation as the best-selling games console.
While we're all probably a bit sick of the games by now, the list of exclusives is nothing short of remarkable. We got a whopping four Mario games, the first entries in the Metroid, The Legend of Zelda, Kid Icarus, Final Fantasy, Castlevania, and Punch-Out!! franchises, and the likes of Duck Hunt, Ducktales, Contra, Kirby's Adventure, Blaster Master, and Ninja Gaiden.
Sure, there are Nintendo consoles with far better libraries, but it's clear as day that Nintendo entered the console market with an absolute bang. In fact, the success of the mighty NES Mini this decade demonstrates the sheer love gamers still have for this system.
10. Game Boy (1989)
Ah, the mighty Game Boy – Nintendo's first foray into handheld gaming was an absolute smash hit, outselling the rival Game Gear, Lynx, and TurboExpress by a considerable margin. The reason? The games, of course!
The Game Boy is basically the NES of Nintendo's portable systems. It has a bunch of absolute smash hit titles like Tetris, Pokémon Red and Blue, Gold and Silver, and Crystal, Wario Land, The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening, Metroid II, Mario Tennis, and Kirby's Dream Land.
This is the system that introduced Pokémon to the world, and for that alone it should be applauded.
9. Game Boy Advance (2001)
If the Game Boy is the NES of Nintendo's handhelds, The Game Boy Advance is the SNES. It built on everything Nintendo learned with the Game Boy to deliver the ultimate 2D Nintendo handheld.
The visuals got a bump up to 32bit, which made it even more powerful than the SNES, and it supported the entire back catalogue of Game Boy games, providing an absolutely enormous library.
But, as ever, a console lives and dies on its games and the Game Boy Advance didn't disappoint here. Notable releases include The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap, Metroid Fusion, Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow, Pokémon Ruby & Sapphire, Emerald, and the birth of the Mario & Luigi franchise. This is also where us westerners got a first taste of Fire Emblem, which was previously a Japanese exclusive.
The Game Boy Advance was such a success that Nintendo provided not one but two hardware updates. The Game Boy Advance SP introduced a back light to their lineup of handheld consoles for the first time ever and the Game Boy Micro might be the niftiest SKU ever. It was tiny, with an absolutely gorgeous screen – and, more importantly, it included a headphone jack where the SP didn't.
8. Wii (2006)
The Nintendo Wii is an odd console, looking back. It followed the less-than-successful but nonetheless much-loved GameCube and marked Nintendo's move away from competing directly with the likes of the PlayStation and Xbox, and instead established itself as the king of casual gaming.
Though there was plenty of hesitation about motion controls before the launch, the Wii won over just about everybody. Wii Sports helped a lot with that, providing a bunch of fun minigames that showcased the sheer creativity of the Wiimote and nunchuk.
Those who never really warmed to it? Well, there was always Nintendo's ever-excellent library to dig through. Notable exclusives include the critically-acclaimed Super Mario Galaxy games, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, Xenoblade Chronicles, Donkey Kong Country Returns, No More Heroes, The Last Story, New Super Mario Bros. Wii, and Red Steel 2.
The Wii was also the first Nintendo system to provide the Virtual Console, which allowed us to play through classic Nintendo games for a small fee, and introduced WiiWare, which helped kick off the indie wave.
Towards the end of its lifespan, the Wii got a brand new SKU in the Wii Mini as well as the Motion Plus, which allowed far greater precision when using motion controls.
7. Nintendo DS (2004)
The Nintendo DS is the Wii of Nintendo's handheld systems, prioritising innovation over technical prowess – though it still had that in abundance thanks to the introduction of the capacitive touchscreen and 3D gameplay.
The dual screens is where this system really shone though, providing us with a ton of unique gameplay experiences. The most notable of these include The World Ends With You, Professor Layton, Phoenix Wright, Elite Beat Agents, Trauma Center, Brain Training, and Zelda: Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks.
We also got some epic exclusives like Mario Kart DS, Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story, Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars, Pokémon Black and White (which introduced 3D visuals for the first time in Pokémon), and Advance Wars: Dual Strike.
Though the initial design was a bit of a chunky eyesore, the DS Lite remains one of Nintendo's best handheld designs of all time. It was further refined with the DSi, which introduced the Nintendo DSi Shop. For the first time ever in a handheld console, we could download games from a digital store.