There was a time when the word “Nintendo” was just an all-purpose stand-in for “videogames.” Nintendo dominated the gaming landscape so thoroughly in the late ‘80s and ‘90s that adults used it to refer to all videogames anywhere, from consoles made by such rivals as Sega and NEC, to the games you’d play at arcades or movie theater lobbies. The rise of the PlayStation and Xbox mostly killed off that practice over the last 25 years, but Nintendo is still synonymous with videogames in a way no other company is. Nintendo is both the Coca-Cola and Pepsi of gaming, and they’ve got the sales figures to back up that comparison.
Nintendo also has more beloved franchises than any other videogame company. It’s the enduring popularity of characters like Mario, Link, and Pikachu that have kept Nintendo thriving for so long, along with the generally high quality of the games that they make. It can be surprising, though, to actually look closely at Nintendo’s sales charts and see which franchises have sold the most. You’ll find that Nintendo’s 10 best-selling franchises from throughout its history include not just its biggest and most popular characters, but also relative fads, flashes in the pan of gaming history. You also won’t find some of its longest-running series or most recognizable characters. Nintendo’s top 10 is a weird mix of the perennial and the obscure, as you’re about to find out. So here they are: Nintendo’s 10 best-selling franchises of all time.
Sales: Over 34 million copies sold
This is how huge the Brain Age fad was on the DS: it’s still one of Nintendo’s best-selling series of all time, even though almost all of its sales come from two games that rolled out internationally in quick succession between 2005 and 2007. The brain training craze and its dubious science were short-lived but ubiquitous, selling tens of millions of copies on the DS, and basically being forgotten since. Nintendo tried to revive the series for the Switch in 2019, but didn’t even release that new version in North America. Its influence lives on, though, if the constant ads for mobile brain training apps is any indication.
Sales: Over 41 million sold
Kirby might seem like a second-tier Nintendo mascot to old-timers who started with the original NES, but he moves units like a true Hall of Famer. Over 41 million Kirby games have been sold since the series debuted on the Game Boy in 1992, besting several of Nintendo’s older series, including Metroid, F-Zero, and Fire Emblem. Granted the pink ball of fluff has also had a lot of games released under his name, significantly more than many of Nintendo’s other high profile characters—we’re talking three times as many Kirby games as Metroid games. Still, you can’t deny that he’s one of Nintendo’s most beloved characters, and clearly one of its most successful.
Sales: Over 43 million sold
Nintendo’s original franchise is still one of its best-selling, which speaks in part to how popular single-game handhelds were in the ‘80s, before systems like the Game Boy made them redundant. Nintendo pumped out 60 Game & Watch titles between 1980 and 1991—five dozen small, flat little handheld systems that could play one single game each. Later the company released various compilations of Game & Watch games for its later handheld systems, and Mr. Game & Watch’s inclusion as a Super Smash Bros. fighter has helped revive interest in the brand. Last year Nintendo revived the original handheld format for a special 35th anniversary tribute to the original Super Mario Bros. A similar unit in honor of the 35th anniversary of the original Legend of Zelda comes out later this week. Anybody who grew up with the Switch or 3DS probably can’t believe that these simple little black and white games were the best kids had to work with 40 years ago, but it’s true.
Sales: Over 66 million sold
Nintendo violently mashed almost its entire history into this ever-popular fighting game, and the result is over 66 million copies sold and a revival in interest in several older or less popular franchises. Super Smash Bros. is one of the canniest intellectual property plays ever devised by any media company, and of course it helps that all five games in the series have been pretty great, whether you know your Nintendo history or not. As its spread past Nintendo’s own properties and started to embrace iconic characters from other game companies, Super Smash Bros. has grown from a (very violent) museum devoted to Nintendo, to one that pays respect to the larger world of Japanese games from the ‘80s through the ‘00s.
Sales: Over 70 million sold
Animal Crossing has rocketed up this list since March 2020, showing how pivotal a single well-timed hit can be. The first Animal Crossing came out in Japan in 2001, and debuted in America the following year, but almost half of the franchise’s lifetime sales have happened in the last 20 months. Yep, Animal Crossing: New Horizons has sold just about as many copies as the first four games in the series, and all three of its spinoffs, combined. Perhaps New Horizons would’ve been a smash if it hadn’t come out right when the pandemic hit, but it’s undeniable that the seclusion and isolation brought about by Covid helped drive interest in this game built around socialization. It’ll be interesting to see if sales remain strong for New Horizons now that Nintendo has released the game’s last major update; it’ll be even more interesting to see if whatever the next mainline Animal Crossing game happens to be can come anywhere close to matching the sales of New Horizons.
Sales: Over 82 million sold
Yes, Donkey Kong is Nintendo’s original hit character, and I know the Donkey Kong Country games were massive successes on the Super Nintendo, but I was still a little surprised to see the big ape up this high. His peak years were the early ‘80s and then the mid ‘90s; if you check the release timeline on Donkey Kong’s Wikipedia entry, you’ll see several games clustered around those two time periods, with a third small cluster in the early ‘00s representing the Donkey Konga rhythm game series. Otherwise Donkey Kong games are few and far between, with only two being released since 2007, and none since 2014. But that just shows how hugely popular the arcade original and the SNES series were; the original sold almost nine million copies across a handful of home releases in the 1980s, and the first Donkey Kong Country is the third-best selling Super Nintendo game of all-time. The various sequels, ports and rereleases of the arcade original and the SNES trilogy account for over half the total sales of the Donkey Kong series, with only 2010’s Donkey Kong Country Returns coming close to hitting their highs on the Wii, Nintendo’s best-selling console of all time. So, yeah: this is one popular monkey.
Sales: Over 133 million sold
If Mario is clearly Nintendo’s 1A property, Zelda always felt like 1B—an iconic, groundbreaking, epochal series whose every game is a major event. Sales-wise, though, there’s no contest: Mario and Luigi dunk all over Link and Zelda. In fact, as you can see, there are two other Nintendo franchises in addition to Mario that have outsold the over two dozen Zelda games released over the last 35 years. It’s not surprising to see Zelda not come in second, though; as an action RPG, it requires a bit more patience and attention than more immediate genres, like the platformer. My two older brothers, who were majorly into arcade games and the Atari 2600 in the early ‘80s, were both big Super Mario Bros. fans but couldn’t parse Legend of Zelda, and although that’s clearly anecdotal, I think there is something to Zelda drawing a line between those raised on very straight-forward, pick-up-and-play games like you’d find in the arcade, and those who embraced and grew with the medium as it became more complex in the years to come. Anyway: People like them Zelda games! Apparently just not as much as they like…
Sales: Over 204 million sold
Yep, the Wii was so huge Nintendo could just slap that word in front of of any noun or verb and sell a million copies, at least. There’s a bit of a cheat to these figures; by far the most successful Wii-branded game, Wii Sports, was the pack-in for most of the Wii systems sold over its lifespan. Of course Wii Sports is what made the system such a phenomenon, so you shouldn’t discount its sales just because it was a bundle. Wii Sports absolutely was that popular and successful, and will probably remain one of the best selling games of all time for decades to come. (It’s currently number four on the all-time chart, behind Tetris, Minecraft, and GTA V.) It wasn’t just Wii Sports that was such a smash, though; Wii Fit sold almost 45 million copies across its three iterations, Wii Sports Resort moved over 33 million units when it launched with the Wii Motion Plus expansion, and the widely panned minigame collection Wii Play sold almost 30 million copies at the peak of Wiimania in 2006 and 2007. (Yes, it helped that Wii Play was often the only way to find extra Wii remotes in those early days, when everything Wii-related sold out instantly.) It shows how quickly and startlingly the Wii brand became toxic when you look at these numbers; almost 200 million of those over 204 million units sold were for games released between 2006 and 2010. The Wii U was such a disaster that Nintendo stopped releasing games with the Wii branding after 2013. So Nintendo’s third best-selling series of all time basically only lasted for seven years, and was only widely popular for about half of that time. The late ‘00s were weird, y’all.
Sales: Over 380 million sold
It might seem easy to discount Pokémon’s success. After all, most of the main Pokémon games were released with multiple versions on day one—the series launched on the Game Boy back in 1996 with Pokémon Red and Pokémon Blue, and that strategy has been repeated with pretty much every new edition of the RPG. No doubt many completionists have bought every version of whatever the new Pokémon game happens to be, and that would clearly goose sales. Also most major Pokémon games have been reissued regularly over the years, increasing that total sales count. And anybody who’s ever looked over the long list of Pokémon games can tell you that it’s almost at Mario levels of weird spinoffs. Still, you don’t sell over 380 million units through gimmicks alone. Pokémon isn’t just Nintendo’s second best-selling franchise, but the second-best selling franchise in all of videogames, and that shouldn’t be a surprise given the enduring popularity of this pop culture phenomenon.
Sales: Over 763 million sold
This shouldn’t be any surprise. Not only are Nintendo’s Mario games among the best reviewed and most beloved of all games, but the company’s been cranking them out non-stop for almost 40 years. It can almost seem like cheating to lump every Mario game into a single category—there are a number of well-defined Mario subseries that could be considered their own unique franchise—but even if you did that the core Super Mario series of platformers would still be the best-selling game franchise of all time, with over 390 million units sold. In fact, if you did break the major Mario series up into their own entries on this list, two of them would be in the top four; with over 159 million copies sold, Mario Kart would rank fourth on this list, above Zelda but below the Wii-branded games. This top 10 would be 40% Mario franchises if we didn’t lump them all together, with Mario Party selling over 60 million copies and the various Mario sports games coming in with over 58 million sold. Mario’s pretty popular, basically—who knew? No wonder Nintendo never gives him a break, rushing him from one game right to the next.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.