From NES to Wii U: Ranking Nintendo’s Past Home Console Launches

Nintendo is about to release its latest home console, the Switch. Here's how the Big N has fared with past consoles...

On March 3, Nintendo will launch its seventh home console, the Switch. While expectations are very high and it’s almost impossible to pre-order the console after the initial surge of shoppers, the console’s full unveiling did raise a couple of questions about Nintendo’s long-term Switch strategy in terms of online capabilities and it’s third-party partnerships. We got our hands on the console at a press event and enjoyed our time with the Switch, although we were a little underwhelmed by its launch line-up of games. 

Although Nintendo has barely supported the Wii U over the past year and has even ended global production of the console, it seems like that didn’t free up enough time to develop more launch games. The Switch will launch with only two first-party games: the long-awaited The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and 1-2-Switch, an odd little game that looks more like a tech demo than a full-fledged release.

But sparse launch line-ups aren’t new for Nintendo consoles, nor are they necessarily harbingers of doom. In fact, some of Nintendo’s better console launches have involved only a handful games.

From worst to best, this is our view of how Nintendo’s launch day line-ups have fared over the years:

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6. Wii U

Release date: Nov. 18, 2012

On paper, the Wii U should have had the greatest launch line-up of all time. With nearly three dozen titles available on day one, it dwarfs any other Nintendo console launch – and most of its competitors. But if you dig a little bit deeper, you see why this launch was so flawed and why the Wii U ultimately wound up as Nintendo’s worst-selling console.

Third-party support was strong, but titles like Mass Effect 3, Darksiders II, and Batman: Arkham City had been available on other consoles for months by the time they hit the Wii U. Meanwhile, titles that made it to the Wii U around the same time as their Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 counterparts, like Call of Duty: Black Ops II and Tekken Tag Tournament 2, had little in the way of graphical upgrades to impress early adopters. Wii U-exclusive features were similarly underwhelming.

Even Nintendo, which usually produces the best launch games, seemed to be off its game for the release of the Wii U. New Super Mario Bros. U is a fine game, but an HD sequel of New Super Mario Bros. did little to convince most gamers to put money down on a new console. And Nintendo Land, which was meant to show off the innovative features of the new gamepad controller failed to spark the same excitement that its similarly-themed predecessor, Wii Sports, had.

As with most aspects of the Wii U’s failure, there’s no single thing that made the Wii U launch a disappointment, just a confluence of bad luck and poor decisions that ultimately led to an all too-brief lifespan.

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5. GameCube

Release date: Nov. 18, 2001

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The Nintendo 64 had a lot of trouble attracting third-party support, so Nintendo doubled down on recruiting outsider publishers to support its successor, leading to a solid launch line-up that included Madden, Crazy Taxi, and Super Monkey Ball. And, of course, there was the beloved exclusive, Star Wars Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader, which still might be the best Star Wars space combat game ever made.

Unfortunately, the Gamecube is another example of Nintendo’s strange tendency to drop the ball with its own games at launch. The two big first-party titles to release with the GameCube, Luigi’s Mansion and Wave Race: Blue Storm, are rarely brought up when discussing Nintendo’s best games. And back in 2001 they received a positive, yet muted, reception.

The GameCube eventually became home to some of Nintendo’s best exclusives, including Metroid Prime, Super Mario Sunshine, and The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, but looking back at its launch line-up, it’s easy to understand why it was quickly eclipsed in sales by the original Xbox and the Halo juggernaut that had released just three days earlier.

4. Nintendo Entertainment System

Release date: Oct. 18, 1985

It goes without saying that without the NES, Nintendo wouldn’t exist as the same company that it is today, but Nintendo’s classic 8-bit console easily had the weirdest launch, at least in the United States.

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The North American video game market had completely collapsed just two years prior, so to convince retailers to stock the NES, Nintendo had to market it as a toy rather than a game console, which meant including Gyromite and the bizarre robot peripheral R.O.B. as pack-ins. Gyromite and R.O.B. were then promptly ignored by gamers who just wanted to play much better titles like Super Mario Bros., Duck Hunt, and Excitebike – a launch-line up so killer that the games went on to mold the industry for the next 30 years.

Even second-tier launch titles Golf, Pinball, and Wrecking Crew are fondly remembered and influenced NES development for the rest of its lifespan. It’s not a stretch to say that NES launch line-up actually saved video games in the United States.

3. Nintendo 64

Release date: Sept. 29, 1996

If you think the Switch’s launch line-up is sparse, keep in mind that the Nintendo 64 launched with only two games in 1996. But those games were amazing.

The impressiveness of Super Mario 64 at the time can’t be overstated. Never before had gamers seen such an open, detailed 3D world, or had the leisure to complete goals as they pleased. Pilotwings 64 may not get nearly as much praise as Mario 64, but anyone who played it at the time knows how liberating it was to fly over its huge landscapes at their leisure without any loading.

And the analog stick really did feel like a brand new way to play these games. Keep in mind this was months before the first DualShock controller was released, so there was nothing else like it out there.

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Had Nintendo just gotten away from cartridges at the time, it could have done a better job of attracting third parties to capitalize on its impressive launch and make the N64 a true king of the console mountain.

2. Super Nintendo Entertainment System

Release date: Aug. 23, 1991

The SNES was another sparse Nintendo launch, featuring only five games, but all of them were worth playing. Super Mario World, Pilotwings, and F-Zero were Nintendo at its very best, featuring tight gameplay, and bright, detailed graphics that really sold the fact that the SNES was a big upgrade over the NES.

Super Mario World is still widely considered one of the greatest games of all time (and arguably the best Mario game), while Pilotwings and F-Zero launched two of Nintendo’s most beloved, if neglected, franchises.

And while SimCity and Gradius III, the titles rounding out the launch line-up, didn’t quite match the caliber of those other three titles (and really, what could?), they’re still solid games that are worth playing even now.It’s always fun to see Bowser tear apart a metropolis in the SNES version of SimCity after all.

The SNES is usually thought of as Nintendo’s best console, and with a launch line-up like this, it’s clear that Nintendo built a strong foundation for the numerous hits that came after.

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1. Wii

Release date: Nov. 19, 2006

The Wii is a divisive console among hardcore gamers. On the one hand, it’s Nintendo’s best-selling console (moving nearly twice as many units as the NES) with an absolutely massive library of games. On the other hand, most of those games are terrible shovelware that rely on gimmicky controls to provide a few cheap minutes of entertainment. And the console was woefully underpowered at release.

But putting all that aside, it was hard to not get excited about the Wii at launch. It was the first Nintendo system to launch with a Zelda title, and Twilight Princess actually made good use of the Wii-mote’s motion controls, something that most developer’s struggled with during the console’s lifespan. Then there was the pack-in game, Wii Sports, which became a cultural phenomenon. It was just plain fun to use the Wii’s controller as a baseball bat or bowling ball. Hell, it’s still pretty fun today.

There are of course some duds in the Wii’s 21-game launch line-up. Red Steel was a notable disappointment that failed to live up to its promise of using the Wii-mote as a sword, but there are also some hidden gems, such as Excite Truck and Trauma Center: Second Opinion that never showed up on other consoles. Even the ports of titles from other systems, like Marvel: Ultimate Alliance and Call of Duty 3 held up pretty well.

What really put the Wii launch over the top was the addition of the Virtual Console. While there were only a few initial VC offerings, and some of the choices, like Altered Beast and Solomon’s Key are somewhat baffling, from day one the VC also offered some of Nintendo’s best past launch titles, including F-Zero, Super Mario 64, and SimCity. So even if you missed out on them in the past, you could finally enjoy them on the Wii.

The jury is still out on how the Nintendo Switch will do in just a few weeks. Hopefully, Nintendo will take a few pointers from its past – what’s worked, what hasn’t, and how it can offer something new in a modern market where power is sometimes more important than substance. Nintendo will have to find a good balance between the two, while still offering more great experiences in the years to come.

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Chris Freiberg is a freelance contributor.