A few days ago, blogger Don Reisinger made the bold declaration that the Super Nintendo was the greatest video game system of all time. The SNES was indeed a great console with lots of great games, but it's still a leap to call it the greatest system ever made. In an industry that's over 30 years old, that's seen dozens upon dozens of home video game systems, simply calling out Nintendo's second console as the best ever seems simplistic.
To a certain extent, though, Don is right. The Super Nintendo could be considered the greatest console of all time. It presented a huge leap in technology from the NES, and its superlative selection of great games make it a system I'd be proud to keep next to my TV to this day. Some of my fondest young gaming memories revolve around the SNES and the countless hours I spent in front of it. Many of my favorite games are SNES titles, and they're still great to play today (thank you, Virtual Console, since my original SNES is long gone).
The Super Nintendo isn't the only choice, though. It might not even be the best choice for best console. The SNES took a huge leap forward from the NES, but it went in the same direction as the NES took from the Atari. It did everything the NES did, and it did a far better job of it, but it didn't really offer much else. A look at some of the greatest games of the system offer enough proof of that: Super Mario World, Super Metroid, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Mega Man X, and Final Fantasy VI were all sequels. They're all fantastic games, but they owe everything to the original NES games: Super Mario Brothers, Metroid, The Legend of Zelda, Mega Man, and Final Fantasy.
Several other consoles could also be called the greatest gaming system. They all offer a great advancement from the previous generation, they all feature massive libraries of great games, and they all have a shot at beating the Super Nintendo for the superlative title.
Nintendo Entertainment System: Brought gaming back from the brink
The NES helped start it all, and pulled North America back from the brink after the console gaming crash. The home video game system market almost died in 1983 and 1984, when the field became flooded with everything from Atari to Colecovision to Intellivision to Vectrex to the Bally Astrocade. There were practically more systems on the market than decent games to play with them, and people weren't biting. The Nintendo Entertainment System helped revitalize the industry when it came out in the U.S. in late 1985.
Of course, Nintendo's first home system wasn't great simply because what it did to the market. The 8-bit console found dozens of great games, from franchise firsts like Super Mario Brothers, Metroid, and The Legend of Zelda, to great third-party titles like Mega Man, Castlevania, and Final Fantasy, to classic sports games like Super Tecmo Bowl, Super Dodgeball, and Blades of Steel. The millions of grown-up gamers who helped make the game industry so successful owe much of their childhood memories to time spent on Nintendo's 8-bit console.
The case against: The NES' games haven't aged very well. While SNES titles like Final Fantasy VI, Super Mario World, Super Metroid, and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past are still a blast to play, the original Final Fantasy,, Super Mario Brothers, Metroid, and The Legend of Zelda can't readily compare. They score big on the nostalgia factor, but the SNES offers broader, deeper, prettier games that feature all the best parts of the NES titles without the ugliness or simplicity. It doesn't help that for every great game on the NES, there were easily 10 horrible pieces of shovelware pushed out.
Sony PlayStation: Gaming made for grown-ups
If you had an NES in your childhood living room, you probably had a PlayStation in your college dorm room. While the NES helped make home video games popular again, the PlayStation helped legitimize the industry as a form of entertainment for adults, as well as kids. Titles like Resident Evil, Final Fantasy 7, and Metal Gear Solid tied great graphics with surprisingly mature and deep storytelling to present gaming experiences that adults could proudly play.
The PlayStation really gave developers the opportunity to actually show gamers the story, not just tell them. The system's combination of optical storage and 3D graphics let games use rendered cut scenes, voice acting, and even video footage to tell their stories. Previous systems like the SNES and NES offered dramatic storytelling at times (like the excellent Final Fantasy 7), and systems like the Phillips CD-i and Sega Saturn used optical discs to pack movies and sound into games, but the PlayStation was the first system to really take advantage of both to inject much-needed maturity into an industry that was still seen as primarily for young children.
The case against: Like the NES, the PlayStation suffered from a deluge of shovelware that outnumbered its decent games. Like the SNES, most of the great games on the PlayStation were retreads and sequels of older systems' games. Many of the games, like Metal Gear Solid and Final Fantasy 7, took their series in some great new directions, but they still didn't offer much new besides prettier graphics and deeper stories.
Microsoft Xbox 360: Putting it all online
Though it's horribly premature to consider any competitor in the current console war the "best game system ever," the Xbox 360 still deserves some consideration. Microsoft's second game system has done the best job so far of connecting a home console to the Internet and bringing the entire experience together with ease and (relative) stability. After a successful test run on the original Xbox, Xbox Live has bloomed into a full-featured online service. Xbox Live Arcade offers a surprisingly large library of fun, downloadable games, from classic titles (like the aforementioned PlayStation game Castlevania: Symphony of the Night) to esoteric board games (like Catan and Carcassonne).
While online competition was once the sole purveyance of PCs, the Xbox 360 and the for-pay Xbox Live Gold service has made everything from casual death matches to sports tournaments easy to set up and execute. Previous systems, like the Sega Dreamcast, the PlayStation 2, and the original Xbox, laid the groundwork for online console play, but the Xbox 360 managed to execute it the most successfully. Voice and text chat both in and out of games, easy communication between friends enjoying different games, and a buddy list you can view and edit over the Web make the system one of the easiest to take online.
Of course, the other two consoles have made available both downloadable games and multiplayer, but they don't do it quite as well. The Nintendo Wii's Virtual Console lets gamers enjoy some of the best games from the NES, SNES, and other classic systems, and the PlayStation Network offers both new games and classic PlayStation titles for download. Unfortunately, the Wii's multiplayer component feels incomplete and awkward, and the PS3's library isn't as large and its interface isn't nearly as friendly as it could have been. The Xbox 360 simply manages to hit its mark and, like the NES and the PlayStation, take gaming forward.
The case against: The Xbox 360 has been plagued by quality control issues since it came out, and the red ring of death has caused a great deal of bitterness. The system itself has some great games, but it doesn't offer many truly remarkable exclusive titles; with a few exceptions, the Xbox 360's best games are either PC ports or cross-platform titles that are also on the PS3. In certain ways, the Xbox 360 is little more than a PC in a shiny console wrapper.
The final verdict: Depends on what you mean by "greatest"
Gaming is so subjective that there is no single "greatest" system ever. It might sound like a cop-out, but it really depends on what standards you're using and what generation you grew up in. I loved the SNES, and would personally call it the greatest system of all time. However, the NES and PlayStation could both easily be called the best, based on the standards they set and the advances they presented to gaming. Even the Xbox 360 could be called the best, if you consider how much it's done in terms of connecting console gamers to each other and making new games and content accessible.
In the end, it depends. My heart says SNES, my head says NES, and my hands say PlayStation (because nobody ever got Nintendo Thumb from the Dual Shock controller). Some of my best gaming memories were from the Super Nintendo, but I still have to give credit where credit is due.