A complete history of Nintendo console launches

And what they can tell us about Switch.

Oli Welsh, Editor-in-chief

February 24, 2017

Regular readers will know that I have an oft-repeated mantra: never rule out Nintendo. The company has been written off by the wider games industry more times than you can count and invariably bounces back with something surprising, sometimes even game-changing, that ensures its success for another decade or so.

Yet when I looked at the launch plans for Nintendo Switch last month, I was worried, and concluded that the strange new machine was in trouble. It wasn't the hardware itself, which was delightful, so much as the pricing, the software line-up and the marketing, along with a competitive environment that was hostile to Nintendo's unique, not to say quixotic, way of doing things.

But I remembered my mantra, and also remembered that a lot of this sounded awfully familiar. Hadn't we said much the same before? And been proven wrong at least half the time? With that in mind, I recruited my fellow Nintendo-watchers Martin Robinson and Tom Phillips and we set out to scour the Nintendo history books for comparisons. How does Switch really compare to Nintendo launches past, and what can we tell from those about its prospects for the future?


NES

1985

When Nintendo was preparing to launch the NES in the West in 1985 - some two years after the machine was introduced in Japan as the Famicom - there wasn't much optimism. The market in America was still feeling the repercussions of the video game crash that had seen revenues drop by some 97 per cent. Even within Nintendo itself, Minoru Arakawa, the founder of Nintendo of America, expressed concern that the video game fad had passed for good. The NES proved that emphatically wasn't the case, providing the foundations on which much of Nintendo still rests on today; after a soft launch in New York, the system went on to a rapturous reception when it launched nationwide in North America in 1986, accompanied by an epoch-making line-up of 17 excellent games, including the indelible Super Mario Bros. (Sometimes there are advantages to taking two-and-a-half years to cross the Pacific.)

Game Boy

1989

The Game Boy's contemporaries - Atari's Lynx and Sega's Game Gear - offered more impressive hardware, but Nintendo's own handheld benefitted from the remarkable momentum of a company in its pomp, the success of the NES making the Game Boy almost irresistible. It was helped by an attractively low price and perhaps the most effective launch game ever: Alexey Pajitnov's Tetris, a puzzle game first spotted by Nintendo of America's Minoru Arakawa, which set him on a globe-trotting tour in an effort to acquire the rights (an incredible story most recently chronicled in Box Brown's graphic novel Tetris: The Games People Play). It was worth the effort, it seems, as the compulsive and immediate Tetris was the ideal handheld game and helped the Game Boy become nothing short of a phenomenon.

SNES

1991

The SNES may have gone on to cement its position as one of Nintendo's finest consoles, with an unrivalled software catalogue, but its early days were far from stellar. While Japan received the console with open arms and a small dose of the hysteria that typified launches at the time, in the West, Nintendo got off to a much slower start - due in no small part to Sega stealing a march with the earlier release of the Mega Drive (or Genesis, if you must). The years have been much kinder to SNES launch title Super Mario World than they have to Sonic the Hedgehog, but at the time of the SNES' launch, the plumber's return was seen as overly iterative, while Sega's mascot carried the shock of the new. It was left to F-Zero to provide a fairly convincing look at the shape of things to come, though it formed part of a weak launch line-up in Europe of a mere three games. And you thought the Switch launch was threadbare...

Virtua Boy

1995

Stretching Gunpei Yokoi's idea of lateral thinking with seasoned technology to breaking point and beyond, the Virtual Boy's roots date back to 1985 and a VR prototype being developed by Reflection Technology. The Massachusetts-based company had been shopping its technology around for a while - Sega had seen it and declined before Yokoi took a shine to an idea he believed others would find hard to replicate. By the time the Virtual Boy came out in 1995, a number of compromises had been made - head tracking had been banished due to concerns about motion sickness, and the display was limited to a red monochrome. Reaction to it upon its unveiling in 1994 was muted to say the least, and there was little more than bewilderment upon its eventual release in 1995. The Virtual Boy never received an official release in Europe.

Nintendo 64

1996

Although its legacy has been secured by some of greatest home console games in history, it's easy to forget just how troubled the N64's launch was. The wait for it was agonising; it was already trailing Sony's rival PlayStation to market by a year when its launch was delayed by a further six months. And Nintendo's decision to stick with cartridge media was hugely controversial. It undermined support from third-parties (who were already unhappy with the company's stiff licensing fees) and it sent game prices up to record highs: Turok: Dinosaur Hunter famously retailed for $80, and it was common to pay £60 for N64 games in the UK. Software support dried up as developers flocked to Sony; a pitifully small launch line-up was followed by a year-long drought, and another agonising wait, for The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. On the other hand, N64 was clearly powerful - the solidity of its 3D rendering wowed at the time - and its weird trident-shaped controller introduced the world to analogue controls. Oh, and it released with Super Mario 64, nothing less than a visionary masterpiece of game design that exploded the possibilities of 3D gaming.

Game Boy Advance

2001

Arriving very shortly before GameCube, Game Boy Advance was probably Nintendo's most low-risk console launch ever: a nicely designed, but cautious and rather unspectacular replacement for the ageing Game Boy platform. Nintendo enjoyed such a complete hegemony over handheld gaming at this point that it needed to take no risks - and it didn't, allowing for faster and more colourful 2D gaming, a safe price point, nothing remarkable in the way of new features, and a software line-up bulging with third-party contributions but no killer app. The most unusual thing about it was the choice of an unloved mongrel Mario game, Super Mario Bros. 2, to head up the launch in remade form. Fans complained about the very dim screen with no backlight, which already looked a bit backward at the time (and inspired many an unofficial mod). But nothing could realistically stop it.

GameCube

2001

A pre-emptive pre-launch price cut from £149 to £129 and a rock solid line-up of launch games gave GameCube a strong start - even if demand was tempered somewhat by the achingly long wait for the console to arrive in Europe. Luigi's Mansion was criticised for not being the Mario game many wanted alongside their new console, but Super Mario Sunshine was only a few months off, and Nintendo had the GameCube's release schedule well-stocked until then with Super Smash Bros. Melee and Pikmin. Third-party support was also decent, with platform exclusives such as the superlative Super Monkey Ball and Rogue Leader - both reasons to pick up the console by themselves. From a software point of view, it was a very strong start, and the machine also boasted a tempting price tag, a unique, charming design and a superb controller. But strategically, Nintendo was still off the pace. The console took too long to get to market again, and though it did leave cartridges behind, Nintendo couldn't let go of esoteric bespoke media entirely - snubbing industry-standard DVDs in favour of GameCube's cute, but storage-limited, miniature discs.

Nintendo DS

2004

DS was the first Nintendo launch under new president Satoru Iwata, so all eyes were on it for any perceived weakness or changes of direction - and before launch, it was met with nothing short of ridicule. A Frankenstein's monster seemingly cobbled together randomly from a parts bin, nobody understood the appeal of its dual screens or believed that touch-screen gaming could possibly work. Also, it was a pretty homely-looking thing. We could scarcely have been more wrong. A nominally impressive port of Super Mario 64 gave no indication of the machine's real talents, but the included stylus-controlled mini-games gave some hint, as did WarioWare Touched! and the included PictoChat app. In an age before smartphones, Nintendo's new handheld brought this new, instinctive type of gaming to the masses - although there was no knowing how successful this would turn out to be. (The less said about the "sexy" advertising targeting young men with the eyebrow-raising phrase "Touch Me", the better, mind.)

Nintendo Wii

2006

We didn't learn our lesson from DS, and sniggered again - though mostly, and forgivably, at the (still rather silly) name. Beyond that, there was a lot of excitement about the TV-remote-shaped motion controller, but a fair measure of suspicion too - how would we be able to play the Nintendo games we loved on it? - as well as concern that the machine was underpowered and wouldn't support HDTVs. Nintendo's choice of codename, Revolution, seemed a bit hubristic. There was a big launch line-up, but a great deal of it was worthless shovelware, which unfortunately turned out to be an accurate preview of how third-parties would treat the machine. Even sceptics had to admit that the launch was perfectly executed, though, with an attractive price point and an unthreatening, almost deliberately bland marketing campaign that landed squarely with the DS' new demographic. Nintendo's two big launch titles were poetic justice of a kind: a huge but ultimately rather drab Zelda game that pandered to the desires of hardcore fans, and the revolutionary Wii Sports, included with the machine, which gamers dismissed as simplistic, and the rest of the world quite rightly considered a marvel.

Nintendo 3DS

2011

Nintendo's most curious system since the Virtual Boy had a gimmick powerful enough that seeing, quite literally, was believing, its stereoscopic 3D screen taking the technological fad of its time and running with it in a strange new direction. Good job the gimmick was strong, because the launch line-up was very limited in quality, even if the quantity was there. Third-party support ranged from mediocrity like Asphalt 3D, Super Monkey Ball 3D and a poor Splinter Cell port to enjoyable curios such as Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars - a turn-based tactical game headed up by none other than Julian Gollop - and Ridge Racer 3D, which would have been a series highlight for Namco's racer if it hadn't been few years too late. Nintendo's own efforts were equally uneven, from the overdue and entertaining revival of Pilotwings to the throwaway thrills of Nintendogs. It'd take a while before anything truly noteworthy launched for the 3DS, ensuring it took time to gain momentum and provided plenty of frustration for early adopters. But the big problem was price: over £200/$200 was home console money, and people simply weren't buying a handheld at that price. A dramatic and humiliating price cut was just a few months away.

Nintendo Wii U

2012

Well before the Wii U was announced, rumours were circulating about a 'Wii HD', and in hindsight that might have been a better sell than the weird hybrid Nintendo ended up with. There was confusion upon its unveiling about where exactly the differentiating point lay with the Wii U, and it was destined to live in the shadow of its outrageously successful predecessor - without a key feature to distinguish itself, it was too easy for prospective buyers to confuse it as an unnecessary add-on for the Wii. Nintendo Land did its very best to convince players about the potential of a second screen and asymmetric play, though it would end up being one of too few games that made any sort of attempt to play to the Wii U's eccentricities. ZombiU also had a fair crack at making use of the GamePad's second screen, and it was part of a healthy line-up of third-party games on day one - Mass Effect 3, FIFA, Darksiders and Assassin's Creed suggested that the Wii U wouldn't be short of big name titles.

Nintendo Switch

2017

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