Later this year the world will greet the next generation of games console with the Wii U. Many reading this will dismiss Nintendo as a gaming company due to their propensity to please the masses, designing games which look brilliant but are “easy”. Those who would have clearly never played classics like Contra on the NES or Super Castlevania IV on the SNES – even Super Mario Sunshine on the Gamecube, games which provide, in my opinion, far more of a challenge and test of skill than the latest incarnation of Call of Duty or Halo. In addition to this, it is worth noting that Nintendo as a company have been at the forefront of gaming development and innovation since they rescued the industry from irreparable decline; something I’ll be speaking about shortly. In this article we will walk through the history of Nintendo home consoles, showing exactly why we all as gamers owe so much to the only remaining true video game company.
We begin with the release of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) in Europe. The NES came at a time known as the Video Games Crash which began in 1983. During this time the video games industry underwent massive losses and many were predicting that the industry was in an irreparable decline. Then in 1986 Nintendo released their 8-bit masterpiece. The NES boasted an impressive library of games, both official and third-party, a massive array of attachments, gadgets and accessories and perhaps the greatest introductory cartridge ever in Super Mario Brothers/Duck Hunt. This gave the world debatably the most recognisable games character of all time (I realise that Mario featured in Donkey Kong, but he was not the character we know and love today). The console was a massive commercial success, it gave the world Mario, Legend of Zelda and Castlevania; franchises which have endured to this day. The NES even influenced popular culture, with the release in 1989 of the film The Wizard the world was introduced to gaming competition, between strangers and friends in the form of Super Mario Brothers 3 – an instant classic and one of the greatest games ever made on any console. Truly, the NES reinvigorated a flagging industry and gave the world gaming in its current form. This console began the golden era of home gaming.
In 1990 Nintendo released the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES), the console was a graphic improvement on the NES, having superior 16 bit graphics and far better sound. The console was a huge commercial success and was only discontinued in 2003. The console again boasted an impressive library of games including F-Zero, Street Fighter 2 Turbo, Donkey Kong Country and the obligatory Mario classic; Super Mario World. As good as the console was it is difficult to set it apart from some of its competitors including the Sega Megadrive (Genesis in the US) which had also made the upgrade to 16 bit.
Seven years later the games industry had changed considerably, Sony had thrown their hat into the ring with the release in 1995 of the Playstation; a console boasting 32 bit graphics, exceptional sound and many games in 3D. The Playstation was the first console to make use of the optical disc format rather than the traditional cartridge. In response to this Nintendo released the console that they hoped would reinstate them as market leaders, the Nintendo 64. The N64 claimed to have twice the graphic capability of the Playstation, though whether because developers chose not to or it was an ill thought statement, the games were never able to compete with their Sony counterparts, to show what I mean the two screenshots below are from the same game FIFA ’99, the left is the N64 version and the right is the Playstation.
The N64 again had some classic games including Super Mario 64, Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Super Smash Brothers, Mario Kart 64 and Goldeneye 007, each of which became the defining game of their franchise. The console also differed from its predecessors in the fact that it was the first Nintendo console not to save directly to the cartridge, instead gamers had to purchase either the Controller Pak expansion which plugged into the back of the controller or a memory card. This was an important feature of the console as it in part enabled the improvement in gameplay since no space was necessary on the cartridge for save files. Despite all of this the N64 was unable to overturn the Sony Playstation as the market leader and some observers at the time predicted it was the beginning of the end for Nintendo, predicting them to go the same way as Atari. Things had to change.
In 2002 Nintendo made a massive leap in their home games consoles with the release of the Gamecube (GCN) . The console was the first Nintendo release to use optical discs, though in their own inimitable way they separated themselves from the competition tough the use of Mini DVD technology rather than the full size DVDs used by the competition (see below)
The games themselves were impressive visually and had titles which since the recent revival of interest in Nintendo have received the adulation they deserved. The games included Legend of Zelda Wind Waker, Super Smash Brothers Melee, Metroid Prime and Luigi’s Mansion. As is tradition the console also had its own Mario release; Super Mario Sunshine, a deceptively difficult game with vibrant visuals and a stunning soundtrack, in my opinion a contender for the best game released in the last decade.
Unfortunately, by this time Nintendo had been relegated to 3rd in the gaming market following the 2001 release of the Microsoft XBOX and the 2000 release of the Playstation 2. GCN was unable to make any real progress in terms in sales due to the utter domination of the Sony system which sold over 154 million units worldwide, compared to the 24 million Nintendo units sold. This can be put down, in part, to the lack of any DVD/CD playback facility, a standard on the PS2, though in a collaboration with Panasonic, Nintendo released a Gamecube with a DVD player add on called the Panasonic Q. The system was only released in Japan, was a commercial failure and, I’m sure you’ll agree, a monstrosity.
November 19th, 2006; the day that changed gaming history. On this day Project Revolution was released under its official name, the Wii. The console shot Nintendo back to the top of the gaming world. The concept was based on the admirable ideal that graphics aren’t everything and that the real purpose of gaming is for entertainment. The two lower case ‘I’s in the name are representative of two people playing together illustrating that the console was designed with multiplayer games in mind. The Wii’s motion sensitive controller was a significant jump not only in gaming, but in technology in general. Though the graphics are not HD as they are in the PS3 or XBOX 360 they are impressive, shown through stunning games such as Legend of Zelda Twilight Princess and Super Mario Galaxy. It can be said with certainty that the Wii had the broadest demographic of any console ever made, aided by it’s packaged game Wii Sports. Again the console lacked DVD playback ability but this did not hamper the console, selling to date over 94 million units. The Wii sparked a furore in the market as Microsoft and Sony scrambled to get their own motion sensitive attachments released in the shape of Kinect and PSMove, though neither has been able to displace the original.
As we’ve seen Nintendo saved the gaming industry with the release of the NES, gave us the most instantly recognisable characters in gaming, consistently innovated far in advance of the competition and have an incredible knack of bouncing back to the top; they are the only remaining true gaming company, designing games and consoles for the purposes of entertainment and fun. Later this year we will be introduced to the Wii U, and from the E3 announcement last year and the subsequent press releases it promises to be the biggest leap made yet. I can’t wait!