With rumours coming in thick and fast that a new Switch hardware announcement is incoming before E3 2021, we thought it the perfect time to revisit this article about Nintendo's history of console revisions and upgrades. It was originally published to accompany the launch of Switch Lite — the first addition to the Nintendo Switch family of consoles — back in 2019. Enjoy!
Mid-cycle hardware refreshes may sometimes feel like a relatively recent development, but console manufacturers have been releasing revised versions of their consoles since video gaming first entered the home. You might associate Nintendo hardware refreshes mostly with handheld consoles thanks to the umpteen variants that have crowded shelves over the past decade or so, but many of its home consoles have also received a facelift.
It’s not always the case that these refreshes are ‘upgrades’, either, with marquee features sometimes removed entirely in a new SKU. Switch Lite arrived at a cheaper price point than the standard model, but removed the namesake feature of the original console. In this article, we'll take a look back at the company’s history of hardware refreshes to see what changed and what stayed the same; which ones got better or 'worse'.
For the purposes of this feature, we’re not going to deep dive into the ‘silent’ hardware revisions that manufacturers routinely put out to address flaws or take advantage of cheaper or more efficient components and the like. Here we’re concentrating on refreshes that introduced (or removed) significant features with cosmetic differences, too. And no, the Classic Mini consoles don’t count!
So, let’s head back to the 1990s...
The trusty Nintendo Entertainment System got a significant facelift in the form of the NES-101 which appeared on the market after the launch of Super NES. A top-loading system, it didn’t need to house the cartridges internally and could therefore be much slimmer than the boxy original. It came with a redesigned ‘dogbone’ controller which echoed the Super NES controller with its curved, comfortable design.
The removal of composite video out connections on the North American version meant RF was the only way to connect this to the TV – a cost-cutting measure that we’ll be seeing more of as we work our way through this list. A rare later version replaced RF with the same AV multi-out port used on the Super NES (and the Nintendo 64, and the GameCube). The similar-looking Japanese Famicom revision used that port as standard and therefore came to be known as the AV Famicom.
In much the same fashion as the NES-101, the budget New-Style Super NES came out a good while after the Nintendo 64 launched. It was even designed by the same person (Lance Barr, the man responsible for the look of all the Nintendo home consoles released in North America to that point) and it arguably blended the design of the Super NES with the more rounded look of the Super Famicom to produce a neat little machine. The bottom expansion slot was removed and it only supports composite video through its AV multi-out port (although a relatively simple mod can re-enable S-Video and RGB output).
Unfortunately, as with most of these budget redesigns that come at the end of a console’s life, we tend to be excited for the next console and it arguably takes a generation or two until we start wishing we’d picked up one of these while we had the chance. If we were smart, we’d be eyeing up a New 3DS/2DS right around now…
The Nintendo 64 didn’t get a budget facelift after the GameCube launched. Nintendo did, however, copy the colours of the ultra-fashionable iMacs of the day and eventually released a multitude of N64 consoles with coloured shells. We remember being a little perplexed that these weren't a Day One option, but that was a more innocent time when a launch console could reasonably be expected to last the entire generation (and well beyond – our launch unit is still going strong two decades later). Coloured variants would go on to be a fixture of Nintendo hardware from this time onwards.
Discounting the Chinese-only iQue 64 Player, the only version of the N64 which actually alters the OG console's form factor was the Pikachu Nintendo 64 which changed the power button into a Pokéball and embedded a plastic Pikachu in the right-hand side of the console, with light-up cheeks and a reset button on his right foot. Hardly an essential ‘upgrade’, but lovely nonetheless.
We got a colour choice of ‘Indigo’ or ‘Jet Black’ at launch with the GameCube, with other colours arriving eventually (although the gorgeous ‘Spice Orange’ would remain Japan-only). Beyond a minor mid-life revision which removed some video output options, we never saw a proper refresh of the ‘Cube. It would have been hard to improve on the original, right?
However, lucky Japan did receive perhaps the sexiest variant of any Nintendo console, ever. The Panasonic Q added DVD playback, optical sound output and turned the GameCube into something that could sit comfortably alongside the rest of your AV kit. This was extremely exotic for western Nintendo fans at the time, and decent secondhand examples go for very large sums on auction sites.
The Wii received two main hardware revisions: one which retained the general look of the original console, and one which claimed to be ‘Mini’, which was a big fat lie.
The Wii Family Edition or ‘RVL-101’ removed GameCube compatibility and the stand from the box and was meant to sit horizontally, as indicated by the reoriented text. The shell, though, was practically identical to the original, minus the ‘doors’ on the top (if you unscrew the new panel you’ll find holes in the case below where the GameCube ports are on the previous model).
The Wii Mini was the true cost-cutting revision. Not only did GameCube compatibility get the boot, but the system also removed all video outputs except composite, plus online connectivity (so no online multiplayer, Virtual Console or WiiWare), Wi-Fi, the SD slot, one of the USB ports and, perhaps worst of all, the sexy disc slot and its blue light. No, all that got ejected in this a top-loading take on the Wii. Frankly, it's surprising they didn't wire the Wiimotes to it and call it a 'homage' to the Famicom.
If all those omissions weren’t insult enough, the Wii Mini was almost the same size as the original console and looks distinctly less sleek, like something Captain Kirk would keep his logs in. Ultimately, it's very tough to argue this is anything other than Nintendo’s worst ‘refresh’.
Seeing as the Wii U didn't hang around long enough for a refresh, we're onto the handhelds! The humble Game Boy got a line of coloured shells, but internally they were identical to the original. The Game Boy Pocket was the first ‘proper’ revision which reduced battery requirements from four AAs to just two AAAs and switched out the green monochrome display of the original for a black and 'white’ version. It still didn’t get a backlight, though – that was saved for the Japan-only Game Boy Light which was marginally larger but provided the feature Game Boy owners had been craving for years.
Are we going to include the Game Boy Color here? No, we’re not. If you consider that a revision rather than a different system, just pretend we did. Sorted!
The original landscape-oriented Game Boy Advance was a fine little system, although its lack of backlight made playing it at any time outside the daylight hours of 10am - 6pm impractical without an external lighting solution. The clamshell Game Boy Advance SP arrived and not only provided some protection for the screen, but added a blessed backlight (a front-light, actually). A later revision, the much-sought-after AGS-101, went a step further with two brightness options to produce arguably the loveliest iteration of Game Boy ever made.
However, the GBA got one final refresh in the form of the Game Boy Micro – simultaneously the most desirable and least ergonomic of any of Nintendo’s hardware revisions. It included changeable faceplates and was the tiniest GB of all – a chibi-GB, if you will – although that meant it couldn’t play Game Boy or Game Boy Color games. The Nintendo DS overshadowed the diminutive Game Boy Micro at the time and they cost a fortune these days, but despite the crippling spasms that would shoot through our hands if we actually tried to play a game on one, we still browse eBay every once in a while hoping to spot a clean one for under £150.
This is where Nintendo started to get a little refresh-happy. The Nintendo DS Lite is arguably one of the finest hardware updates ever, improving on the original DS ‘Phat’ in almost every way, including screen brightness and battery life.
The Nintendo DSi would increase the size of the display and remove the GBA cartridge port in order to squeeze in more RAM and a better CPU than the standard model, as well as an SD card slot to store downloadable DSiWare games from the new DSi-exclusive shop. It also gained a pair of (admittedly low-quality) cameras as well as its own menu design. The DSi XL did all of this, just a bit bigger and in more luxurious hues. Anyone for Wine Red or Metallic Rose?
With the DS’ successor, things started to get a little silly with a Nintendo 3DS 'family' of systems. Although the original 3DS arguably launched in a better state than the DS ‘Phat’ did, the Nintendo 3DS XL was a very nice upgrade with bigger screens which made finding the 3D ‘sweet spot’ easier, plus a matte finish which hid unsightly fingerprints.
Then came the 2DS, a non-folding slate-like affair aimed at younger children that removed the 3DS’ namesake gimmick and which, along with cockroaches, will be the only thing to survive a nuclear apocalypse.
Next up, Nintendo produced the New Nintendo 3DS, a beautiful little system with faceplates, a C-stick (a ‘nub’, really), ‘ZL’ and ‘ZR’ buttons, much-improved viewing angles for the glasses-free stereoscopic 3D thanks to face tracking and – most importantly of all – Super Famicom-style coloured face buttons. Beautiful! Slightly larger than the original model, this is a lovely little machine. Of course, Nintendo also released an XL version (the only one available in North America for a time), but the standard New Nintendo 3DS arguably hit the sweetest spot of all these refreshes.
We’re still not finished, though. Further muddying the waters, shortly before the launch of Switch Nintendo also announced the New Nintendo 2DS XL. There's no non-XL version of this console, so this final (we assume) variant is essentially a New Nintendo 3DS XL minus the auto-stereoscopic 3D. And a fine console it is, too – although it’s hard to summon much enthusiasm after this many redesigns! As we said above, we should really be keeping an eye out for a mint one at a bargain price right now, but as is always the case, there’s a new kid on the block grabbing all the attention…
Bridging Nintendo's home and handheld console strands, we finally arrive at the Nintendo Switch and its new little sibling, the Switch Lite. This portable-only version does for the ‘flagship’ model what 2DS did to its elder family member – namely, ditch its namesake gimmick.
No, the Switch Lite doesn’t 'switch' anymore and won’t play a handful of games out of the box without extra controllers. The ability to switch between docked and handheld mode may well be the ‘point’ of the hybrid console, but as we’ve seen with the 2DS, naming conventions shouldn’t stand in the way of a system for which there’s a market. As refreshes go, we would have liked to see that bezel around the screen reduced, but otherwise Switch Lite is a fine addition to a long line of hardware refreshes — a lineage that will no doubt be added to once more before too long.
Quite the resume of altered hardware, no? Which one do you think offered the biggest improvements? Let us know by clicking your favourite below and hitting the 'Vote' button at the bottom:
We would ask which you liked the least, but the Wii Mini is the only correct answer. If for some reason you loved that abomination, though, feel free to sound off in the comments and otherwise let us know which of these you invested in and why they give you the warm fuzzies.