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A visual history of Nintendo’s video game consoles

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Nintendo’s future is almost here. It’s called the Switch, and, true to its name, it blurs the line between home console and portable gaming machine.

We can’t say how good it’ll be just yet, but on concept alone, it looks neat.

This is far from the first time we’ve said that about a Nintendo console. The Japanese giant has earned legendary status among gaming fans for making machines — and a whole lot of games — that aren’t quite like their peers.

Some of those have brought massive success; others have led to total failure. Wherever the Switch lands on that spectrum, it appears to continue the company’s penchant for doing its own thing.

To show what we mean, here’s a quick look back at the hardware Nintendo has released over the years.

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.

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 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. Still, that Nintendo even tried to push something so odd was a good indicator of its mindset.

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 cutesy shape, 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, convinced many people who’d never buy a console to jump aboard, and enjoyed huge sales success.

The Wii was released two years before the 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 as easy to have fun playing Wii Sports with anyone in your house. To this day, Nintendo is the only company to base a gaming console on motion controls with any significant success.

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 most recent 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, which appears to be Nintendo’s second stab at making the Wii U concept work. It’s a hybrid: You can keep the tablet base in its dock and play it as a home console, or pull it out, attach its adjustable controllers, and take it with you on the go. It’s a wildly different approach to what Sony and Microsoft are doing.

Can that outside-the-box thinking bring Nintendo back to the heights it attained all those years ago? Right now, there are reasons to doubt  there hasn’t been much to suggest that non-Nintendo developers will support the Switch the way they do the PS4 and Xbox One, and the tablet device, while improved, is still no iPad in terms of power. It also remains to be seen if Nintendo’s new paid online service will be as fluid as Sony’s and Microsoft’s.

Nevertheless, there’s excitement, and Nintendo has its usual heavy hitters coming along. We’ll start to find out if the public will take to it on March 3, when the Switch launches for $300. 

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