Nintendo Entertainment System
Released: Oct. 18, 1985
Best Game: Super Mario Bros.
After an Atari game based on E.T. bombed and the video game industry crashed, it looked like the end of a fad. And then came along a plumber named Mario. The 8-bit NES revitalized the industry, and the word Nintendo became synonymous with videogames. Super Mario Bros. is so well developed — perfect controls, varied levels, and chock-full of secrets — it holds up even to this day. It went on to became one of the best-selling games of all time and set the standard for how to launch a console. And it wouldn’t be the last time Mario sold systems.
Released: Aug. 14, 1989
Best Game: Altered Beast
The 16-bit Genesis was Sega’s most successful console, waging an epic war with the Super Nintendo with an aggressive marketing campaign (”Genesis does what Nintendon’t”) that made video games seem cool for the first time (relatively speaking). Though Sonic the Hedgehog was its breakout star and was eventually packaged with the system, it originally came with a port of Altered Beast, a popular arcade beat-’em-up where you could transform into a variety of giant beasties to do some major damage. If you were in middle school in the early ’90s, this was pretty awesome. The game had huge sprites and digitized voice samples (”Welcome to your doom!”), which was mind-blowing at the time.
Released: Aug. 19, 1989
Best Game: R-Type
NEC’s TurobGrafx-16 only enjoyed moderate success in America (it sold better in its native Japan, where it was known as the PC Engine), and it couldn’t quite compete with the NES and Genesis. Oddly, the system only had one controller port, requiring an adapter for multiplayer. But it launched with R-Type, a solid conversion of the classic arcade shoot-’em-up, which gave early adopters something to brag about to their NES-owning friends.
Released: June 6, 1992
Best Game: Super Mario World
The 16-bit SNES continued Nintendo’s success, featuring upgraded graphic capabilities (Mode 7 made objects zoom right into your face) and a particularly powerful sound chip that made every other console sound tinny and hollow in comparison. Its launch lineup was super-strong, including the racing classic F-Zero and the influential Pilotwings. But nothing could compare to Super Mario World, which had the unenviable task of following the beloved Super Mario Bros. 3 yet somehow one-upped it. More levels, many with multiple exits, and loads of secrets made for the biggest, best Mario yet. And it introduced Yoshi!
Released: May 11, 1995
Best Game: Panzer Dragoon
The Saturn proved to be the beginning of the end for Sega’s hardware business. The 32-bit machine was a 2-D powerhouse, but Sony was ushering in the 3-D era, and PlayStation thwarted the Saturn at every turn. Scheduled for a September release, Sega stunned gamers by pulling an Apple and announcing at E3 that the console would be available immediately, four months early. They also stunned retailers, who were unprepared for the early launch, and only a handful of titles were ready. Early adopters were likely unimpressed with a lackluster offering of arcade heavyweights Daytona USA and Virtua Fighter, but one launch title made quite an impact: Panzer Dragoon. The atmospheric shooter had you riding a powerful dragon through gorgeous ruins along to a majestic musical score. The game spawned several sequels and is getting a spiritual successor in Xbox One launch title Crimson Dragon.
Released: Sept. 9, 1995
Best Game: Ridge Racer
Sony initially attempted to create a CD-ROM add-on with Nintendo, but after Nintendo chose to partner with Phillips to disastrous effect, Sony decided to strike out on its own — and consequently changed the videogame industry. PlayStation was marketed more at teens and adults than the kiddie-focused Nintendo, and it proved a massive success, bringing videogaming into the mainstream more than ever before. The system launched with games in almost every genre, but most impressive was Ridge Racer, a stunning port of the arcade racer and the start of a long, mutually beneficial relationship between Sony and developer Namco. Showing off PlayStation’s ability to push polygons, Ridge Racer was as close to arcade perfection as had ever been achieved, and it ran circles around the Saturn’s Daytona USA, helping PlayStation quickly outpace its rival.
Released: Sept. 29, 1996
Best Game: Super Mario 64
The Nintendo 64 saw Nintendo staunchly clinging to expensive cartridges even as Sony embraced CDs, which would hurt it in the long run. But at launch, it didn’t matter, because Mario had flawlessly transitioned into 3-D with the inventive, game-changing Super Mario 64. Nintendo set the template for how characters and cameras would work in 3-D and introduced the analog stick, offering more precision control than ever; simply running and jumping around was an absolute joy. Seeing Mario in three dimensions added so much character and gave the world so much more depth that it felt like you were entering a whole new world.
Released: Sept. 9, 1999
Best Game: Soul Calibur
Well, no one can say that Sega didn’t try. Its final console, the Dreamcast, was probably a bit ahead of its time. It featured a modem for online play and a web browser (granted, it was dial-up, but hey, it was 1999), and the controller used VMU memory cards that had a tiny screen and controller that could be used for mini-games. It also had some of the weirdest, most innovative games ever in its brief lifespan, cut mercilessly short by the PlayStation 2 juggernaut. But Dreamcast owners will always remember Soul Calibur, Namco’s beyond arcade-perfect fighting game that launched with the system. Huge, detailed characters made sparks fly in this ”tale of swords and souls eternally retold.” And that’s exactly how much gamers played it, over and over again.
Sony PlayStation 2
Released: Oct. 26, 2000
Best Game: SSX
By 2000, the PlayStation brand was so strong that it didn’t even need a killer app to trounce the Dreamcast and take over the world. If anything sold it, it was the Trojan Horse DVD drive; the PS2 was many consumers’ first DVD player. But as far as launch games, EA’s SSX did for snowboarding what Tony Hawk did for skateboarding — made it accessible and appealing to any poseur with a controller. The over-the-top tricks and insane mountain courses gave early adopters plenty to do…when they weren’t watching DVDs.
Released: Nov. 18, 2001
Best Game: Super Monkey Ball
For the first time, Mario didn’t make a Nintendo console launch, and despite a valiant effort by his brother in Luigi’s Mansion, the Gamecube suffered for it. The pint-sized console with the bizarre controller had its share of system-selling games, but none of those were available at launch. The best was probably Sega’s (now a third-party developer after the Dreamcast’s demise) Super Monkey Ball, which basically combined Marble Madness with, well, monkeys. But in a good way.
Released: Nov. 15, 2001
Best Game: Halo: Combat Evolved
No one knew what to expect from Microsoft’s entry into the console business, but with the launch of the Xbox, it was clear that the console war was now a three-way race. The hulking black console featured a comically oversized controller, a built-in hard drive and an ethernet port for online gaming. It also featured one of the greatest launch titles of all time: Halo. Bungie nailed first-person shooting for consoles, and Halo essentially made the Xbox a contender. In this pre-Xbox Live era, it popularized LAN parties where friends would get together, hook up multiple TVs and Xboxes and have a blast blasting each other in Halo‘s ridiculously customizable multiplayer. College dorms would never be the same.
Released: Nov. 22, 2005
Best Game: Geometry Wars
Despite the Xbox’s success, it still lagged behind the PS2 in sales, and Microsoft was eager to get a head start on the next-generation of gaming with the Xbox 360, a gambit that paid off. Xbox 360 was wired for online play from day one and innovated with its Xbox Live Arcade store, where you could download games directly to your console. The 360 launched with a variety of big-budget shooters and racing games, but the best was a little downloadable game called Geometry Wars. With eye-popping graphics and a driving techno beat, the futuristic-looking, retro-playing twin-stick shooter was an endlessly replayable, addictive treat. A shame about that whole ”red ring of death” business, though…
Sony PlayStation 3
Released: Nov. 17, 2006
Best Game: Resistance: Fall of Man
Blinded by hubris, the mighty Sony made a series of stumbles with the PS3 launch. $599 so I can play another Ridge Racer?! I’m not getting a second job for that! Sure, it played Blu-rays, but that didn’t prove to be nearly the system-seller that the PS2’s DVD drive was. The launch lineup was also lacking (Genji: Days of the Blade, anyone? Anyone?). The best launch title was Insomniac’s Resistance: Fall of Man, which saw the makers of the cutesy action-platformer Ratchet & Clank go dark and bring their creativity to a first-person shooter. Though it couldn’t compete with the Xbox’s Halo or Gears of War, it was a solid game for the fledgling system.
Released: Nov. 19, 2006
Best Game: Wii Sports
You’ve played the Wii. Everyone has. Your grandma probably even has an adorable Mii character. Wii Sports wasn’t just a good launch title, it was a system-seller. For many, the Wii was simply a Wii Sports machine. So pick-up-and-play easy that the whole family could enjoy it (even grandma), Wii Sports made gamers out of everyone and unexpectedly put Nintendo back on top after the disappointing Gamecube. Even if it’s probably packed up in grandma’s attic now.
Nintendo Wii U
Released: Nov. 18, 2012
Best Game: ZombiU
Nintendo’s latest console has been a tough sell. It has a tablet-style controller with its own touchscreen, but launch title New Super Mario Bros. U felt anything but new and did little to take advantage of it. The strongest proof of concept to date was Ubisoft’s ZombiU, a terribly named but severely underrated survival horror game. Immersive and genuinely scary, the game uses the tablet in a number of creative ways, such as holding up the gamepad’s screen and using the built-in gyroscope to scan the environment. Nintendo, please rip this off for a Wii U Metroid Prime! Also, please make a Wii U Metroid Prime!