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

5. Game Boy (including Color and Pocket)

Worldwide sales: ~119 million

Its virtues: Nintendo has pretty much owned the handheld market for some time now, beginning with this inauspicious little device from the late 1980s. Despite sporting primitive graphics even for the time (it was nearly a decade before Game Boy Color arrived), the low-cost, game-saturated device could be found just about anywhere. When you consider the time, the handheld’s sales figures are staggering. Tetris, a harbinger of the modern casual game movement, was an easy go-to game, but not everything was shallow; before it was all said and done, Game Boy would also expose the world to one of the great dynasties of all time, Pokémon. In between were a staple of good titles that included some good Mario titles (especially Super Mario Land 2) and a couple of absolutely epic Zelda titles.

Why it’s not higher: Until quite late in the system’s life, the games were all in a rather blurry monochrome, and while that was for a good reason– battery life and cost come to mind– the games don’t look that good even in the context of history. SEGA’s Game Gear, for example, was churning out full color titles over a decade before Game Boy Advance came to market. It’s hard to argue with Game Boy’s success, but I don’t imagine too many people are still playing these games, even the good ones. That still makes it better than a lot of systems, but I can’t justify ranking it over any of the systems below.

4. Nintendo Entertainment System

Worldwide sales: ~62 million

Its virtues: A pioneering system for its time, Nintendo’s 8-bit experience was a true hit when it landed in the 1980s. Graphically, it blew away predecessor systems like the Atari 2600 and Intellivision, while offering up a superior gaming lineup to contemporaries like the SEGA Master System. Although Nintendo garnered strong third party support, Nintendo’s first party titles ruled the day, whether it be the deep and lonely experience of Metroid or the crazy action of Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! Of course, NES was first and foremost a Mario system, and while the original certainly evolved the platformer, Super Mario Bros. 2 and 3 were colossal events, with demand so high it took months to get a copy. Super Mario Bros. 3 remains, to this day, a perennial contender in “best game of all time” discussions.

Why it’s not higher: One of the greatest criticisms of the system was mechanical. Unlike its top-loading Japanese counterpart, the U.S. version of NES was front-loading, and this mechanism would prove aggravating and ultimately fatal as a system got worn and the connectors failed. Many a gamer will recall the times they blew on cartridges and continually reinserted them in a desperate attempt to get them working.

Also, although the system had plenty of popular titles when it landed in the 1980s, in hindsight a lot of the games have not aged as well as subsequent Nintendo offerings. In my view, the original Super Mario Bros. and third party offering Final Fantasy, for example, do not hold up very well today. To be fair, though, I think NES’s game library has held up better than Game Boy, despite being an older system, which is why I placed it here.

3. Game Boy Advance (including SP and Micro)

Worldwide sales: ~81 million

Its virtues: After what seemed like an eternity (and it really was), Nintendo finally brought a full-bodied color experience to the portable market. Packing enough graphical punch to be respectable, Game Boy Advance would wholly dominate the handheld market for most of the 2000s, just as Game Boy had done in the 1990s. The release of the frontlit (and later backlit) Game Boy Advance SP a couple of years in was a revelation, giving the color real pop in ways that could not be achieved with sunlight or a desk lamp.

The GBA library ran the gamut, from sports to strategy, RPG to adventure. Not only did it have its own impressive library of original games, but it was powerful enough to also play host to ports from popular SNES games in the form of Final Fantasy IV and Super Mario World: Super Mario Advance 2. The GBA library was high on both quality and quantity, with good titles continuing to come out even at the end of the system’s life.

Why it’s not higher: Really, GBA was a great system, and the criticisms will seem more like nitpicking as we get closer to the top and the competition gets more fierce. Still, there are some issues. For one, the absence of a frontlight or backlight on the early GBA was a big minus, and while it was rectified with SP, its exclusion on the early systems is a liability. Really, though, GBA was pretty complete. DS may have been more innovative and SNES more groundbreaking, but GBA’s library is pretty competitive with them both.

2. Nintendo DS (including Lite and DSi)

Worldwide sales: ~154 million

Its virtues: By now it may be clear that I see Nintendo’s handhelds as broadly superior to Nintendo’s consoles, as evidenced by the run of handhelds toward the top of the rankings. In my view, Nintendo DS is the best of the portable bunch. Exceptionally well engineered, with a dual screen interface that was novel but eminently usable, it only got better as Nintendo refined the DS Lite and DSi versions of the hardware. Developers embraced the idea (a big userbase didn’t hurt) and produced some really special gaming experiences. Games like Professor Layton, Elite Beat Agents, or The World Ends With You are simply not the same apart from dual screen and touch. Even games that weren’t designed from the ground up for DS benefited from the second screen and the touch, even if it was just for organizing information. When lousy games are slightly less painful for the sizzle of interacting with the lower screen, that says a lot about what the hardware can do.

Why it’s not higher: DS is, in my view, Nintendo’s most complete handheld, both in terms of hardware and in terms of games, and its sales figures are peerless. On that basis alone, one could quite reasonably make the case that it is the best Nintendo system of all time. I can appreciate it, and as history recedes from the DS I may yet reconsider whether or not the handheld deserves that accolade. But for now I think it is still the second-best, as I will explain below. It was a very good handheld with a design that redefined and revolutionized what a handheld ought to be, but its software legacy, although promising, remains to be determined.

1. Super Nintendo

Worldwide sales: ~49 million

Its virtues: An exceptionally engineered piece of gaming, everything about SNES seemed to work just right. The hardware was reliable, the graphics were great, and the controller had just the right feel. Despite, or perhaps because of, fierce competition from a solid (but technically inferior) SEGA Genesis, Nintendo really hit its stride with this one.

Almost from the beginning, there were hints that this was a system destined for greatness. At launch was Super Mario World, a deep, brilliant platformer that just may be (with apologies to SMB3 and Galaxy) the greatest Mario game ever. From there came a parade of titles that are synonymous with legendary gaming: Chrono Trigger, Super Metroid, Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, EarthBound, Star Fox, Secret of Mana, Final Fantasy II and III (now called IV and VI), F-Zero, Street Fighter II, and Super Mario RPG are just a sampling. Americans didn’t even get the full helping, with some greats, such as the Dragon Quest games, kept in Japan.

Why it’s on top: The true litmus test of a console is how its games stand, not just at the time, but decades down the road. SNES games have been ported onto countless other systems, including PlayStation, Game Boy Advance, and Nintendo DS. Playing Super Mario World in 2002 on GBA or Chrono Trigger on DS in 2008 feels just as at home in those times as they did when they were first released. At the time of this article, EarthBound, a game nearly 20 years old, was getting a release on Wii U’s Virtual Console for $10, and I have little doubt people will buy it. That, ladies and gentlemen, is the legacy every game console wishes it had.

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