Looking back over nearly four decades of video game output from Nintendo in both hardware and software form, it’s easy to pick out highlights, both historical and personal. Super Mario Bros. was a seminal release in the history of the medium; A Link To The Past codified the design template that the Zelda series would use for the next two decades; GoldenEye 007 helped birth the competitive multiplayer shooter genre that would go on to dominate gaming for multiple generations; and so on and so forth.
It’s also easy to pick out times when Nintendo dropped the ball. The N64 years saw the ascendance of Sony’s PlayStation and marked a decline in Nintendo’s cultural cache. The Wii U, much as we love it, took all the success and mainstream momentum of Wii and squandered it in a matter of months. However, even those eras produced incredible genre-defining games: Super Mario 64, Ocarina of Time and the aforementioned GoldenEye were all N64 titles. And where do you think Switch has been cribbing all those incredibly polished first-party ports from?
So then, light shines even in the darkest of times and personal favourite consoles are forged from adversity. In order to definitively decide which generation is Nintendo’s best, we decided to enlist you, dear readers. At the bottom of the page you’ll find a poll asking you just one question: Which is Nintendo’s best console generation?
As you’ll see, we’ve lumped both home and handheld consoles together in the vote — although release dates may not line up perfectly, we’ve paired them in what you’ll surely agree is the most logical manner (and Virtual Boy slotted into certain gap quite nicely).
However, before you register your vote, here is Team Nintendo Life to put forth their cases for each generation…
NES / Game Boy (Ollie Reynolds, staff writer)
Ah, the one that started it all… Well okay, it’s not technically the one that started it all, but for the sake of simplicity, it’s the one that started it all, for goodness sake.
Some would argue now that the NES is perhaps better known for its cultural impact on the gaming landscape; that maybe its games haven’t really stood the test of time. Well, we say “pfffft” to that! You stick a copy of Super Mario Bros. in front of a complete newcomer to games and you can guarantee that they will know what to do. This is the true beauty of the NES: yes, the games can be tough by today’s standards — with a distinct lack of tutorials or even basic saving capabilities — but they’re also perfect in their simplicity.
Some of gaming’s biggest franchises were born on the NES: Mega Man, Castlevania, The Legend of Zelda, Contra, Metroid, Ninja Gaiden (alongside its arcade counterpart)… All of the debut titles in these franchises still hold merit today and can be appreciated for their innovations, even if they feel somewhat dated in their design.
The Game Boy is arguably even more influential than the NES. With games like Link’s Awakening, Pokémon Red and Blue, Tetris, and Wario Land 2, how could it not? The ability to play games on the go didn’t start with the Game Boy, but it sure as heck gained absurd popularity.
The NES is often heralded as the literal saviour of the video game industry after the crash of ’83. If that doesn’t give it a shot at being the best generation, what will?
Super NES / Virtual Boy (Alana Hagues, staff writer)
The NES might have saved the video game industry, but the Super Nintendo (SNES, Super NES — whatever you want to call it!) is a 16-bit marvel that built upon the NES’s foundations and improved upon them tenfold. Launching in 1990 in Japan, and in the West the following year, its one-two launch line-up punch of Super Mario World and F-Zero (among others) is almost unrivalled, even today.
The SNES has arguably many contenders for “best entry” in Nintendo’s many series’. The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past is still a marvel. Kirby Super Star contains a plethora of Kirby goodness. Super Metroid’s atmosphere is unmatched. And, along with F-Zero, Star Fox and Super Mario Kart kicked off two iconic franchises.
The console is a gold mine for RPG fans, too, with Final Fantasy IV and VI, Secret of Mana, EarthBound, and Chrono Trigger. This also saw an iconic team-up between Nintendo and Square so they could make a turn-based Mario RPG! We’re going to faint. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.
And, well, we suppose the Virtual Boy is okay. It is a revolutionary piece of kit, to be fair, using a built-in viewer to let you play games in crimson and black stereoscopic 3D. It didn’t do well in Japan or North America, which means Europe never got the chance to try out Virtual Boy Wario Land or Mario’s Tennis! It’s a unique footnote in Nintendo’s history, so it’s our job to make sure you never forget its existence.
The SNES’ legacy alone is enough to prop up the 16-bit generation as Nintendo’s best ever, though.
Nintendo 64 / Game Boy Color (Gavin Lane, editor)
Some would argue that this was Nintendo’s first ‘decline’. Sony burst onto the scene in style and gave both Nintendo and Sega a real shock, bloody noses all-round. Sega was doing a fine job of imploding thanks to releasing approximately 35 post-Genesis hardware variations that nobody asked for (not you Saturn, the other ones!), but coming off the back of the mighty 8- and 16-bit eras, it was really Nintendo’s ball to drop. And dropped it was.
However, for a period that saw the company lose market share thanks to a heady mix of hubris and a new attractive competitor that didn’t trip over its own shoelaces, the 64-bit generation turned out some incredibly good, medium-defining masterpieces that blazed a trail for 3D video game developers. Yes, there are the obvious big hitters I mentioned in the intro — SM64, Ocarina, GoldenEye — but there are dozens of brilliant games on a system that boasted brilliant single- and multiplayer experiences: I’m talking F-Zero X (the best F-Zero), Lylat Wars (yes), Wave Race 64, the debut of Paper Mario and Smash Bros., 1080 Snowboarding, ISS 64, Sin & Punishment, not to mention Rareware on the finest form the company ever hit. I mean, Banjo-Kazooie debuted here. What more is there to say?
And if that wasn’t enough, there’s also the Game Boy Color. Whether you count it as a half-step upgrade from the original or entirely its own system, the GBC was the first portable console for an entire generation of gamers, and came complete with 100% backwards compatibility — the first Nintendo console to do so. Sure, Ollie can technically claim Pokémon Red and Blue as OG Game Boy releases, but in the West you were just as likely (perhaps more likely) to have played them first on the smaller, sexier GBC. I did, on an awesome Teal one.
And have you seen the original screen of a DMG-01 recently? No-one in their right mind wants to play Pokémon on that thing! Throw in Color classics like Pokémon Crystal, the Capcom Zeldas, and Mario Golf, which connected to the magnificent N64 version via the Transfer Pak, and it’s clear which generation of Nintendo hardware is the very best.
GameCube / Game Boy Advance (Ollie Reynolds, staff writer)
The GameCube was seemingly destined to fail. Launched over a full year after the juggernaut of the PS2, Nintendo’s successor to the N64 felt oddly child-like by comparison, with its bright colours, dinky MiniDVDs, and its staunch resistance to supporting any other optical media. But the software is where it really counts and the GameCube was home to some true classics. Games like The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker and Metroid Prime are still adored by gamers everywhere and there’s not a day that goes by that fans don’t crave those delicious Switch ports.
The Game Boy Advance fared a bit better than its home console counterpart in terms of sales and arguably housed even more all-time classics. It’s here that the ‘Igavania’ Castlevanias truly flourished, with Aria of Sorrow in particular hailed as one of the greatest games of all time. You’ve got gems like the Mega Man Zero franchise and Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire seeing fresh ports on later consoles thanks to their widespread appeal, alongside games like WarioWare, Inc.: Mega Microgame$ spawning brand new franchises that still see new entries to this day.
Perhaps most importantly though, the Gamecube/GBA era saw Nintendo throw one of gaming’s most effective one-two punches with the (almost) joint release of Metroid Prime and Metroid Fusion in North America. Yep, two of the greatest games of all time launched within one day of each other.
Wii / Nintendo DS (Kate Gray, staff writer)
When I think of my favourite console generation, I automatically think of the 3DS — my longtime companion, filled with brilliant games and memorable experiences. But then I look at my game catalogue, and — shock! gasp! no way! — all of my favourite games were actually DS games.
From Ghost Trick to Ace Attorney, from Phantom Hourglass to Nine Persons Nine Hours Nine Doors, and all the Hotel Dusks and Professor Laytons in between, the DS’s catalogue is absolutely unparalleled, especially when it comes to inventive, experimental narratives. Everything that the 3DS would eventually be — like the home to Fantasy Life, one of the greatest games of all time — was built on the efforts and the greatness of this strange, beautiful little dual-screen piece of plastic.
And alongside the weirdness of the DS, we had the Wii: Arguably Nintendo’s biggest and best gamble, which introduced motion controls to the masses. Sure, motion controls would eventually fizzle away into nothing, but the grip the Wii and its Wiimote had on culture and society at the time was incredible.
The best-selling console exclusive of all time is still Wii Sports, with an incredible nearly 83 million sales, and though this is arguably because it came packaged with the console, it was nonetheless a huge reason why people were buying the Wii in the first place.
The Wii was, as recognised in its original code name, a Revolution. It was Nintendo at its weirdest, its most risk-taking, its most toy-like. The Wii and the DS reminded us that games can be fun — not just as an activity to do for a few hours, but as something that could get the family together, that could make you laugh out loud with the sheer silliness of you swinging a white brick around the living room.
The games industry does not need to take itself totally seriously to create brilliant things, and these halcyon days of Nintendo remind us that sometimes, getting in touch with our inner child is the key to creative genius.
Wii U / Nintendo 3DS (Thomas Whitehead, deputy editor)
The Wii U and 3DS represented an underdog generation for Nintendo, with neither able to match the success of their predecessors. While the 3DS recovered from a slow start to do reasonably well, the Wii U… didn’t.
To start off with the 3DS, to me it’s Nintendo’s standout portable for a few reasons. One is that it took the DS formula and improved it, with the XL and ‘New’ models in particular being beautifully designed (likewise the 2DS XL) physically and in terms of the operating system – folders, themes, lovely music everywhere, an absolute delight. Then there was the communal joy of StreetPass, SpotPass was fun at times, and most importantly the 3DS had some fantastic games. Heck, it even had Smash Bros. Oh, and the 3D, for those of us that enjoyed the screen it, remains a marvel to this day.
As for the Wii U, well, it actually contributed to this being a rather experimental and fun generation. We had dual screen shenanigans in the likes of Nintendo Land, but the big N also dabbled with bringing back smaller franchises with new hooks, and I actually enjoyed Star Fox Zero (an unpopular opinion perhaps, but there it is). It’s also the system that brought us Splatoon and Super Mario Maker, actually had an all-new mainline Pikmin with its third entry, and some other gems like those Zelda ports everyone’s begging for on Switch (don’t forget it has Breath of the Wild, too!). Alongside the 3DS, meanwhile, it contributed to the welcome growth of Indies on the eShop.
Sure, the 3DS is doing a lot of heavy lifting in this generation, but combined these two systems are so very, very Nintendo, and stand-up brilliantly today. Plus you get Wii backwards compatibility into the bargain, too.
Switch (Thomas Whitehead, deputy editor)
It may be strange having the same writer pitching Switch as the best generation right after covering 3DS and Wii U, but as a concept it’s not that crazy. After all, the Switch and its hybrid form are actually the perfect evolution of what Wii U and 3DS were edging towards, and as a piece of hardware it represents the final Satoru Iwata-era triumph that learns from the previous generation’s mistakes. In my mind, it’s a tight race between the two eras.
The Switch is, on paper, quite simple hardware – a tablet with a GPU from 2015 that connects to a TV through a custom USB-C dock / connector. Of course, Nintendo’s magic is taking older off-the-shelf technology and making it feel clever, and the way Switch works in practice, along with the rail-based Joy-Con controllers, makes it a system that scratches multiple itches, and as a result has won over varied audiences looking for a Nintendo console, portable or ideally both.
It’s amazing what difference a concept and business plan can make – two games that really helped the system launch in style were The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, Wii U titles. Yet that intoxicating mix of console-quality games on the go and some excellent new releases in the first year (like Super Mario Odyssey) helped the system truly take off. Nintendo has kept an exciting diet of original games and much-desired ports flowing, while sales success has ensured a steady flow of third-party support at retail and particularly on the eShop.
In combining the libraries and game styles that used to be divided between home consoles and portables, the Switch has become a bit of an all-you-can-eat feast. From remade classics, hugely hyped sequels and new IPs that have been surprising and delightful, the Switch has just kept the games coming. It’s a system that captured the zeitgeist at launch in 2017, then again in the strange times of 2020 and beyond. It’s also the system that, arguably, secured Nintendo’s ongoing role in gaming hardware when it was truly at threat.
So, we fought our personal corners — some of us a couple of times! — but now it’s up to you lovely people to decide the fate of a generation. Let’s see who triumphs in the never-ending battle between those twin demons, Recency Bias and Rampant Nostalgia…
What’s that? “Where’s the ‘I can’t possibly choose!’ option?” Afraid you’ve got to pick a side on this one — no comedy poll options with a topic this incredibly serious! Feel free to elaborate in the comments below on why you DESPISE ALL NINTENDO CONSOLES EXCEPT THE TWO YOU PICKED.