If the world of gaming has one name that is instantly recognizable, it’s probably Nintendo. The Japanese company is home to some of the most loved stories and characters in gaming, including but not limited to Mario, Donkey Kong, The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, Pokémon, and Splatoon.
As much as we love Nintendo’s charming universe of characters, their gaming consoles are undoubtedly the biggest contribution to the industry ever since their inception more than 3 decades ago. From the SNES to the modern Switch variants, Nintendo has witnessed the evolution of gaming through and through. The tale of pixels to polygons is inspiring to many, but to us it’s a reflection of everything right (and sometimes wrong) Nintendo has produced in the last 30 years.
Let’s take a closer look at how all Nintendo consoles came to be and how the company’s journey shaped the history of video games.
Humble beginnings with playing cards (1902 – 1976)
From group-based card games to electronic entertainment.
A common perception is that Nintendo has been all joysticks, arrow buttons, and green, retro-esque screens from the beginning. While that’s somewhat true, Nintendo’s roots go way back to the traditional game design as basic as playing cards. The company started off with designing and manufacturing playing card games.
In the late 1800s, hanafuda or cards printed with lovely, vibrant pictures of flowers were leading the trends. Hanafuda was frequently employed by the Yakuza in their illegal gambling dens. Fast forward to 1950, Hiroshi Yamauchi, as president of the company, oversaw Yamauchi Nintendo & Co.’s manufacturing division. The company started producing games in addition to playing cards and changed its name to Nintendo Co., Ltd. This was their departure from traditional gaming to video games.
Color TV-Game: Entertainment for all! (1974 – 1980)
Establishing Arcade games as a hobby among worldwide audiences.
Experimenting with the ‘laser clay shooting system’, Nintendo pioneered a new pastime activity for the Japanese. People got a chance to play something completely electronic that mimicked popular mechanics often seen outdoors. This was just the beginning. The team made use of a 16mm film projector in amusement arcades and created an image-projection system. This gave them the possibility to ship these arcade games to North America and Europe.
Nintendo then created an electronic video recording (EVR) player-based gaming system for Japan in collaboration with Mitsubishi Electric. Enter the Color TV-Game 15 and TV Game 6, made for indoor usage. During this point, Nintendo of America was founded by the corporation in New York City. For coin-operated games, Nintendo established an operations section.
Color TV-Game 6 and 15 were available in half a million pieces each, together with Block Breaker and Racing 112. Of all the first-generation video game systems, the Color TV-Game series had the most sales.
It was therefore unsurprising when Nintendo started stepping away from toys and playing cards in the late 1970s and into the quickly expanding video game industry. This choice was linked to the enormous popularity of Taito’s arcade video game Space Invaders from 1978 and the high cost of toy production caused by the 1973 oil crisis. Computer Othello, an arcade game released in 1978, was Nintendo’s first step into the video game industry. Games like Sheriff, Space Fever, and EVR Race followed.
Pioneering hobbies with Game & Watch and NES (1980 – 1989)
The world is introduced to newer ways of playing video games.
Imagine a world where video games are still an activity for the not-so-lazy. Getting up, leaving your house, finding a place with arcade machines, and having enough change at the mercy of a bagful of coins. Until one day, Nintendo brings you the idea of cozying up on a couch while you enjoy your favorite games on a larger screen. All within the comforts of your home. This wasn’t an idea swaying in the air; it was a well-researched concept Nintendo was waiting to show off.
Thanks to the efforts of Nintendo of America, the first portable LCD video games with a microprocessor were released by Nintendo under the “GAME & WATCH” product line, which was originally sold in Japan. The now-popular Donkey Kong was designed by Nintendo artist Shigeru Miyamoto and went on to become one of the most recognizable characters in gaming.
This was the time we saw the Famicom system in place. You may not have heard of it because it was rebranded as Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). Classics like The Legend of Zelda, Punch-Out, Super Mario Bros., and Excitebike were all brilliant video game releases that came out one after another, marking NES as one of the most popular pieces of entertainment of its time.
Super Mario Bros. was one of these games that immediately gained worldwide acclaim. According to studies conducted at the time, Mario was just as well-known to kids as Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny.
After being introduced in Europe, the Nintendo Entertainment System quickly gained popularity and became a need in homes throughout the region. In order to enhance the capabilities of the Famicom, Nintendo created and started marketing the “Family Computer Disc Drive System” in Japan.
Even more Nintendo fans could now access the NES, thanks to the company’s research and development of the Hands-Free controller. The NES’s game selection increased to 65 games, which helped boost the popularity of the system among grown-ups.
Game Boy makes handheld gaming the norm (1989)
The Nintendo universe in the palm of your hands? Yes, please.
While the world was still warming up to gaming consoles on home screens, Nintendo had innovative plans to bring this charm to smaller, more accessible screens. Games like Pokemon and Tetris were on their way to break every existing norm that said ‘games can only be enjoyed on TV screens’. To add the charm, 16-bit gaming was now entering the market and Nintendo was expanding rapidly as an all-rounded gaming company.
Japan saw the birth of Tetris as well as the Game Boy, the first portable, handheld gaming device with swappable game cartridges. The Nintendo portable console’s massive global base was first created with the debut of Game Boy in Europe. With the autumn release of the Super Famicom aka Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES), Japan entered the 16-bit market.
By this time, over 46 million copies of the NES were sold globally. The Super NES Super Scope and Mario Paint with the Super NES Mouse Accessory were both released in Japan. The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, the eagerly anticipated Zelda sequel, was also launch on the Super NES, gaining newfound popularity among players who had never experienced Zelda before.
The arrival of the Super Game Boy peripheral increased the selection of games that could be played on the Super NES. In the US, Nintendo became a pioneer in the creation and adoption of a general industry rating system. This year also saw the release of a game that would become the gold standard for video game quality. Donkey Kong Country, which used exclusive Advanced Computer Modelling (ACM) visuals, dominated the US Christmas season.
Nintendo 64 and Game Boy Color expand the horizons (1995 – 2001 )
The rising popularity of the Game Boy variants and a demand for more.
At this point, Nintendo was well-versed with the way they made consoles. Donkey Kong Land brought ACM graphics to the Game Boy system, thanks to Donkey Kong Country’s popularity. Pokémon, a brand-new Game Boy game sensation, took birth in February 1996. This was a major moment for Nintendo to make best use of their technological advancements.
In June of 1996, Japan saw the launch of Nintendo 64. Enthusiasts lined up to be among the first to use the first 64-bit home video game system ever. On the first day, more than 500,000 systems were sold. Many people declared Super Mario 64 to be “the greatest video game of all time.” And Nintendo still had half a year to spare.
The release of Game Boy Color in 1998 was nothing short of ground-breaking, as the series also supported gadgets like Game Boy Camera and Printer. The highly anticipated The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time for Nintendo 64 was also released during this time.
In 2001, Nintendo added the Game Boy Advance to its handheld lineup. With 500,000 copies sold in the first week in Europe, it established the record for the fastest selling console ever. First-party classics like Super Mario Advance and F-Zero: Maximum Velocity were among the successful Game Boy Advance launch titles.
From pixels to polygons: GameCube (2001 – 2004)
Upgrading existing technology without forgetting Nintendo’s roots.
The handheld gaming world was a happy one, with consistent games and advances in console variants. However, Nintendo didn’t forget its roots, introducing the Nintendo GameCube in September 2001. The GameCube’s trademark graphics ensured 2.7 million devices had been supplied overall, and 95% of those had been sold. Luigi’s Mansion and Super Smash Bros. Melee became the console’s hallmark games, thanks to their commercial successes.
Soon after, Nintendo GameCube made its debut in Europe with a million units sold, a suggested retail price of €199, and 20 launch games. Since then, the astounding new Mario adventure Super Mario Sunshine, the ground-breaking wireless controller Nintendo WaveBird, and more than 100 games of every kind and description have all been released.
In May 2002, Nintendo Co. Ltd. President Hiroshi Yamauchi announced his retirement after 52 years in charge of the business. To put things into perspective, more than 25 million Game Boy Advance systems were in use worldwide by the end of 2002.
In 2003, a new Game Boy variant arrived – the Game Boy Advance SP, incorporating a clever clam-shell design while building on the Game Boy Advance’s enormous popularity. Nintendo followed it up with the release of the Game Boy Player for the GameCube, allowing games for the Game Boy and Game Boy Advance to be played on televisions. The same year in July, the Pokémon craze for Game Boy Advance originally took off with the release of Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire.
Unstoppable innovation with Nintendo DS and Wii (2004 – 2006)
New consoles, accessories and nostalgia.
Post 2000 era, the gaming market was starting to get competitive, and Nintendo was still a star amid new trends and niches. There was something that set the company apart – how different yet comfortable Nintendo’s consoles felt. The success of GameCube and Game Boy set the company on a path of innovation that was starting to break newer norms and trends, setting its own in every way possible.
In both the US and Japan, the Nintendo DS was an instant hit. In addition to wireless multiplayer, touch screen technology, and backward compatibility with Game Boy Advance games, the new dual-screen system was highly appreciated. The system sold a million copies in Europe by June 2005. In the meantime, Nintendo unveiled the Game Boy Micro. The ultra-stylish Game Boy Micro had a backlit screen and was only 4 inches wide by 2 inches tall.
Due to its wide variety of games, the Nintendo DS became the preferred handheld gaming system in 2006. Animal Crossing: Wild World, New Super Mario Bros., and Metroid Prime Hunters became best-sellers, thanks to players across Europe.
Nintendo Wii’s release marked the year’s conclusion. The new home console, with its cutting-edge motion control scheme, appealed to both Nintendo loyalists and non-traditional gaming players. The success of the platform was enhanced by games like Wii Sports and The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, the most recent entry in the Zelda series. A variety of games released in 2007 made use of the Wii’s special features and appealed to a brand-new gaming demographic.
Entertaining a new generation of gamers with Wii accessories and Nintendo DSi (2006 – 2010)
The Wii and DS become welcoming parties for a new generation of Nintendo fans.
2008 saw an influx of gamers that swiftly garnered a direct appreciation for Nintendo, building on the rising number of individuals experiencing video games for the first time through Wii and Nintendo DS.
Wii Fit and the Wii Balance Board swept over Europe, enticing entire families to enjoy quality time together at home while learning more about their own fitness potential. Later that year, Mario Kart Wii and the Wii Wheel were released, bringing together players of all ages and skill levels for traditional Mario Kart action that was simple for novices and engaging for veterans.
The introduction of WiiWare, a game download service, was a bonus. It gave Wii users access to a variety of new games at different price points that could be bought from the comfort of their couches via the Wii Shop Channel.
With the release of the Nintendo DSi in Europe in 2009, the Nintendo DS lineup expanded. New camera and audio functions on the new portable device elevated the DS experience and made it an invaluable tool for everybody who purchased one.
The launch of Nintendo DSiWare, which enables users to add an ever-expanding selection of games and programs to their handheld to give it an even more customized touch, was another significant addition.
Wii Fit eventually made a comeback in a different form, with Wii Fit Plus giving users more methods to track their fitness. The addition of a Calorie Check tool and the capability to tailor exercises to a player’s particular needs made it even easier for everyone to get started with the popular fitness programme.
In 2010, the Nintendo DSi XL debuted on sale in Europe in March. The DSi XL had all the same capabilities as the original Nintendo DSi, but it also had bigger displays, a better viewing angle for multiplayer games, a bigger, more comfortable stylus, and pre-installed Nintendo DSiWare games and apps.
Pokémon HeartGold Version and Pokémon SoulSilver Version joined the system on store shelves the same month, while WarioWare: Do It Yourself for the Nintendo DS family of systems was released in April for extra bite-sized action.
Benchmarking a breakthrough with Nintendo 3DS and Switch (2010-present)
With the 3DS, Wii U and Switch, we’re stepping into a new cosmos of handheld gaming.
The Nintendo 3DS was released at the beginning of 2011, enabling users to see stereoscopic 3D images without the requirement of special glasses. Pilotwings Resort and Nintendogs + Cats, both created by Nintendo, were among the system’s first-party titles. In May, Steel Diver and Dead or Alive Dimensions, which Nintendo sold and promoted in Europe, were added to the system’s library. With the February launches of Kirby’s Epic Yarn and Mario Sports Mix, Wii users were not left out in the cold.
With the debut of the Nintendo eShop, the company continued to expand the selection of games available for the Nintendo 3DS throughout the year. It provided consumers access to exclusive titles, vintage games from the Virtual Console, and more than 1,000 DSiWare titles.
The release of the Wii U home platform and the Nintendo 3DS XL portable device in 2012 was a watershed year for Nintendo. The 3DS XL, debuted in July, has the biggest displays ever found in a Nintendo handheld device.
Wii U was the first high-definition home console to have dual screen gaming because of the built-in screen on the Wii U GamePad, which created new gameplay possibilities and social interactions within a home setup. At launch, the Wii U was supported by a robust software lineup that included New Super Mario Bros. U and Nintendo Land, opening up new opportunities for social gaming with friends and family. Alas, the Wii U would not be considered a success.
On October 20, 2016, Nintendo Switch entered the world of gaming. The Switch was created by Nintendo as a response to many quarters of financial losses into 2014, which were ascribed to weak Wii U console sales and market competition from mobile games.
The Switch’s initial reception was a mixed bag – some called it ‘highly priced’ as the console was clearly competing with Xbox and PlayStation lineups. Others claimed it to be a fair price for innovating, considering how the Switch lets you play handheld as well as on larger TV screens.
In the following years, variants of the Switch like Switch Lite and Switch OLED models made their way into gamer’s hands, becoming home to some iconic games like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey. Over time, the Switch became one of the best-selling consoles ever.
The story of Nintendo consoles is nothing short of extraordinary. While there were some failures, Nintendo managed to stay consistent with its philosophies and continued innovating a brand that’s instantly recognizable and trademark-worthy. There’s a rumor for a possible Nintendo Switch 2 coming out in a year or two, although nothing has been officially confirmed yet.
What would you like to see in Nintendo’s next console? Let us know in the comments below!