Best of ND 2013: Ranking Nintendo’s Systems

An undefinitive evaluation of the company’s consoles and handhelds.

By Joshua A. Johnston. Posted 12/26/2013 15:00 Comment on this     ShareThis

9. Virtual Boy

Worldwide sales: ~770,000

Its virtues: One of Nintendo’s earliest attempts to think outside the box, the company deserves props for what was a pretty innovative system in its day. Although 3D enjoys some prominence today in the likes of theaters, TVs, and gaming, when Virtual Boy hit the market in 1995 the notion of bringing 3D home was a radical proposition. Even in failure, Virtual Boy taught the company valuable lessons that they applied carefully in designing 3DS almost two decades later.

Why it’s not higher: Nintendo, not known for making major mistakes, engineered a true disaster here. Made with cheap parts and sporting mediocre monochrome graphics, Virtual Boy was a massive commercial failure despite a multimillion dollar advertising campaign. Nintendo sold fewer than a million of them before wisely cutting their losses and moving on.

8. Nintendo 64

Worldwide sales: ~33 million

Its virtues: The quintessential dorm party system, the four-player N64 was put to good use in both single and multiplayer contexts by Nintendo in the form of Super Smash Bros., Mario Kart 64, two great Zelda games, and Super Mario 64, just to name a few. However, this system represents one of the rare instances (no pun intended) where a developer other than a Nintendo first party ultimately stole the show; Rare, which was then a second party for Nintendo, produced a run of hits for N64 that included two Banjo titles, Conker’s Bad Fur Day, and the polished shooter Perfect Dark.

Of course, as we all know, N64 will forever be associated, above all else, with one other Rare title. GoldenEye 007 became the face of the console when it released in 1997, becoming the highest-selling N64 game not headlined by Mario and the third-highest selling game on the system. Gamers living in that era will no doubt readily recall hours spent in the game’s multiplayer.

Why it’s not higher: Being this low on the rankings says less about N64 and more about the overall strength of Nintendo’s lineup. Still, I had a hard time justifying placing it above anything else down the list. Although not a terrible system, N64 seemed a bit of a mismatch stacked against its immediate rival, the PlayStation. Despite having, on paper, superior graphical capabilities to PS one, Nintendo made the ill-fated decision to use cartridges rather than discs. The costs of loading cartridges with storage comparable to a CD were prohibitively high, leading some third parties to develop their bigger titles elsewhere. In some cases, such as the loss of the flagship Final Fantasy titles, this has been a position from which Nintendo has not yet fully recovered. Certainly N64 had some quality titles, but in the quantity title it suffered significantly, one of the reasons I ultimately ranked it below GameCube.

7. GameCube

Worldwide sales: ~22 million

Its virtues: Nintendo sought to make amends after some of the problems of N64, and the company gets credit for creating an eminently competent piece of hardware. GameCube’s specs matched favorably with the competition: it was a superior piece of hardware to PlayStation 2 and its proprietary discs, while not as large as a DVD, were a better cost proposition than cartridges and served up quick load times not far off the pace of Xbox and its hard drive. The controller was a quirky looking thing but it proved intuitive, although console shooters probably were better suited to the true dual analog of competing consoles.

GameCube also served up some nice gaming gems in its time, and not just from Nintendo’s first party studios. Retro Studios crafted two brilliant Metroid Prime titles. Silicon Knights served up the groundbreaking Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem and the remake of a classic in Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes. Namco (now Namco Bandai) brought RPGs back to Nintendo with Tales of Symphonia, Baten Kaitos, and Baten Kaitos Origins. And Capcom gave us Resident Evil 4. Both the quantity and quality of its library outpaces Nintendo 64, in my view.

Why it’s not higher: Despite good specs and some pretty good first and third party support, GameCube never performed up to its abilities. Some of this may be due to marketing; from the start, the system’s “purple lunch box” look and kid-friendly marketing drove gamers to Sony and Microsoft. Moreover, while games like The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker and Super Mario Sunshine were typical high-quality Nintendo games, their look and feel– both departures for their franchises– may have inadvertently reinforced the notion that this was not a console for adults to own. The timing was not good, as the main gaming demographic was just beginning to shift into adulthood.

In response, Nintendo changed the color to black and slashed prices on the system to spur sales, making it easily the cheapest home console of its generation, but still sales lagged. Third party support, which was pretty strong in the beginning, waned heavily in the face of low sales, with GameCube exclusives turning into multiplatform titles and some multiplatform titles moving off of GameCube altogether. GameCube is a classic reminder of why even with the right hardware, it’s still about the games.

6. Wii

Worldwide sales: ~100 million (to date)

Its virtues: Nintendo rolled the dice when it decided to introduce Wii in 2006. A home system based entirely around a simple motion controller, the company opted for simple rather than complicated, inexpensive rather than costly. Nintendo sold Wii in buckets, and while the game library isn’t perfect, some darn good games came out on the little white console. Even compared to the more powerful graphics of Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 games, the sheer joy of playing games like Super Mario Galaxy, Xenoblade Chronicles, or Super Smash Bros. Brawl or The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword was enough to forget about graphics.

And let’s not understate the value of Wii’s influence on expanding gaming demographics. Wii made video games fun for kids and old people, for soccer moms and grandfathers. Wii Sports was a tour de force for motion gaming, and while hardcore gamers would come to lament the lack of serious titles, Wii has proven a gateway for young gamers to get into the pastime.

Why it’s not higher: Early on the system was ridiculed for its comparatively weak graphical capabilities– “two GameCubes duct-taped together,” ranted one developer– and time was not necessarily kind to the system. During Wii’s life cycle HDTV adoption grew markedly, but the system’s inability to render above 480p or render the graphical detail of its competitors became more pronounced three or four years in. Developers had difficulties porting multiplatform titles from Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 to Wii, leading many to either shortchange Wii in its multiplatform offerings or, later on, to abandon the system altogether.

The system’s modest price tag and broad appeal helped keep console sales strong, but the game lineup of the system’s later years left something to be desired, and would have been borderline fatal had it not been for Operation Rainfall’s near-miraculous success. In my view, the near-drought of games, especially games with depth, in the latter half of the system’s life combined with its increasingly obvious graphical shortcomings keeps it out of the top five.

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