Nintendo’s future has arrived. It’s called the Switch, and, true to its name, it blurs the line between home console and portable gaming machine.
We can’t say how good the new device will be just yet, but on concept alone, it looks neat.
This is far from the first time we’ve said that about a Nintendo console. The Japanese giant has earned legendary status among gaming fans for making machines – and a whole lot of games – that aren’t quite like their peers.
Some of those have brought massive success; others have led to total failure. Though we don’t know where the Switch will land in that spectrum, it appears to continue the company’s penchant for doing its own thing.
To show you what we mean, here’s a quick look back at the hardware Nintendo has released over the years.
Before there was the NES, there was the Color TV-Game. Nintendo first dipped its toes into console gaming by launching five of these Japan-only rectangles between 1977 and 1980.
- Flickr/Frederic Bisson
There were no cartridges or discs here, so you could only play whatever was loaded onto the system by default. The first of the bunch was built in partnership with Mitsubishi, and included a simple game called “Light Tennis” – which you might know as “Pong.”
Before there was the Game Boy, meanwhile, there was the Game & Watch.
- Wikipedia/Peer Schmidt
Again, this was a series of handhelds, with each one capable of playing one simplified game on a tiny LCD display. Sixty different models were made in total, and Nintendo sold roughly 43 million units between 1980 and 1991.
Now we get to the familiar stuff. Nintendo built on the success of its various arcade tiles with the 1983 launch of the Family Computer (or Famicom) in Japan. Two years later, it released an American version, known as the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES).
- Wikipedia/Evan Amos
After a massive, years-long recession, it’s hard to understate just significant this thing was for the gaming industry. It standardized business models, gave home to several iconic hits, and made Nintendo a titan in its field.
Then, in 1989, Nintendo managed to top itself. The Game Boy set the baseline for portable gaming consoles, made “Tetris” a phenomenon, and drove more AA battery sales than any device known to man. (Probably.)
- Evan Amos, Wikimedia
It also sold close to 120 million units during its lifetime. Chances are somebody you know still has one today.
Nintendo’s proper follow-up to the NES was the Super Nintendo, which hit the US in 1991.
- Wikipedia/Evan Amos
While it wasn’t as big a smash as its predecessor, it was still the top seller of the “16-bit” era, which brought a wave of more powerful machines and more complicated controllers. More importantly, it launched a muderers’ row of hits, from “Super Mario World” to “Donkey Kong Country” to “Final Fantasy VI.”
Nintendo followed that up with its first veritable bomb: the Virtual Boy.
- Nintendo/Tech Insider
This clunky contraption hinted at virtual reality well before the Oculus Rift, but was about as smooth as you’d expect VR in 1995 to be. The games were limited, the tech induced nausea, and the whole thing was discontinued less than a year after it launched. Still, that Nintendo even tried to push something so out there is a good indicator of its mindset.
The Nintendo 64 came a year later. Like the Super Nintendo, it boosted the hardware (the “64” was for its 64-bit processor), allowed for many fantastic games (“Ocarina of Time!” “GoldenEye 007!” “Mario Kart 64!”), and introduced a more complex controller (which, if nothing else, has never been duplicated).
- Wikipedia/Evan Amos
Unlike the SNES, though, it had a definitively more popular rival – Sony’s disc-based PlayStation arrived the year before, and wound up smashing the N64 on the sales charts.
While Nintendo had launched a couple iterations of the original Game Boy by 1998, the Game Boy Color was the most significant of the bunch. As you can guess, it was a Game Boy — but in color.
- Flickr/Boas lembranças
Those colors weren’t exactly vivid, but the specs were better, the hardware was backwards compatible, and the whole thing was affordable. There are many children of the 90s with warm memories of playing Pokémon on one of these guys.
The first real upgrade to the Game Boy series came with 2001’s Game Boy Advance. Nintendo likened it to a Super Nintendo in your pocket, which wasn’t totally accurate, but gets the point across.
- Reuters/Susumu Toshiyuki
The other big change was how it stretched out the classic Game Boy design – which Nintendo would further tinker with 2003’s Game Boy Advance SP and 2005’s Game Boy Micro.
The Nintendo GameCube arrived in late 2001 to take on Sony’s PlayStation 2 and the Microsoft Xbox. It didn’t really work out. The PS2 was a certifiable juggernaut, and the GameCube’s lacking third-party support wasn’t going to stop it.
- Reuters/Toshiyuki Aizawa
Many GameCube owners still look back at the device fondly, but in many ways, it was a precursor to the struggles Nintendo would have a decade later with the Wii U. Again, though, its cutesy shape, tiny game disks, and funky controllers lent the machine a vibe unto itself.
Its next handheld, on the other hand, was anything but a flop. The dual-screen Nintendo DS sold a whopping 154 million units from 2004 to 2014, which makes it the highest-selling device in the company’s history — and a clear winner over Sony’s PlayStation Portable.
- Flickr/Frederic Bisson
It had a (limited) touchscreen years before the iPhone, and brought lots of quality across lots of genres. (“Nintendogs,” anyone?) Nintendo launched a few variants in the following years, but together, the DS family represents one of the company’s bolder hardware designs.
The good times kept on rolling with 2006’s Nintendo Wii. You probably know the story by now: Instead of trying to catch up with Sony and Microsoft technically, Nintendo and its motion controllers go after the so-called “casual” market, convince many people who’d never buy a console to jump aboard, and enjoy huge sales success.
- Reuters/Yuriko Nakao
Released two years before the App Store became a thing, it’s easy to think of the Wii as just the right device at the right time. At the same time, it’s just as easy to have fun playing Wii Tennis with your friends. To this day, Nintendo is the only company to base a gaming console on motion controls with any significant sucess.
Launched in 2011, the Nintendo 3DS (and its various iterations) is Nintendo’s current handheld machine. It doesn’t stray far from the DS’ core tenets, but it did add the nifty ability to create a 3D effect without forcing you to wear any goofy glasses.
- Reuters/Phil McCarten
Five years later, that trick is more novelty than breakthrough, but it’s still different, and its sales have easily outpaced Sony’s PlayStation Vita.
The Wii U’s struggles are well-known. It’s notably weaker than the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, it has nowhere near the same level of third-party developer support, and its tablet controller — which lets you play whatever you’d like around the house — is clunky.
As a result, it’s only sold 13 million units since launching in 2012. This is another thoughtful, original concept, with some great Nintendo-made games, but just too poor of a value.
Which brings us to the Switch. A three-minute trailer isn’t much to go on, but at first blush, it looks to be a refinement of the ideas that felt half-baked with the Wii U. Conceptually, it is completely different from what Sony and Microsoft are trying to do.
Can that outside-the-box thinking bring Nintendo back to the heights it attained all those years ago? We’ll have to wait until next March before we can begin to find out.