Ever since Nintendo announced the Switch, we’ve warned that the console’s tablet form factor and battery life would limit its overall performance. Now we’ve got confirmation of how the limits will fall — the upcoming Zelda game, Breath of the Wild, has been confirmed to run at 900p on the Switch (when docked to your television) and 720p on the Wii U.
According to Nintendo, both versions of the game are locked to 30 FPS, IGN reports, but the Switch version “has higher-quality environmental sounds. As a result, the sound of steps, water, grass, etc. are more realistic and enhance the game’s Open-Air (sic) feel.” The game is the same otherwise on both systems, and the Switch version is locked to 30 FPS even when in tablet mode.
The wording of Nintendo’s statement implies that the version of the game that runs on the Switch when it isn’t in docked mode runs at a lower resolution — 720p would be the logical choice, though we’ve read some speculation that some games on the Switch could use a 540p rendering mode that’s then upscaled to 720p to further save on GPU power and battery life. This wouldn’t necessary be a problem — 1280×720 on a screen the size of the Switch’s is still well above 200 PPI (236) while even a 960×540 game would hit 176 PPI.
Ordinarily, when a new console comes out, there’s a learning curve as developers get to know the platform and its various capabilities. Looking at the Switch, I suspect what we’ll see from Breath of the Wild will represent the best-case optimization for the Switch. Nintendo’s first-party developers have typically been extremely good at squeezing maximum performance from a platform and the Maxwell GPU inside the Switch is a well-known piece of hardware. ARM cores, similarly, have few surprises. If Nintendo has made any particular modifications to the Switch that would impact its performance, the company has been quiet about it. During the Wii U run-up, in contrast, Nintendo was eager to talk about its customization and the design of the platform.
The versions of Breath of the Wild Nintendo have shown to-date all have gorgeous art design, but the lack of anisotropic filtering or antialiasing can create ugly visuals that don’t stand out nearly as much on a small tablet screen as they will if you plug the platform into a 42-inch TV — and the discrepancy will get worse the larger the television. This is where Nintendo’s strategy of positioning the Switch as an alternative to the Wii U could cause problems. If you understand technology and the limits of tablet power consumption, it’s impressive that Nintendo has packed better-than Wii U performance into the mobile Switch (all reports suggest the Switch maintains a constant frame rate while the Wii drops as low as 20 FPS in some scenes). If what you care about is great console gaming, nothing Nintendo has on-tap for Switch is comparable to the PS4 and Xbox ecosystem. Multiplayer now costs money (like Sony and MS), and the $ 300 Switch doesn’t even include any bundled games.
Nintendo has already rolled out separate bundled accessories if you want more JoyCon controllers, an extra dock, or a charging grip that lets you charge the JoyCon controllers while you play — but what it ought to do is offer the Switch in a “naked” form factor that just includes the tablet, controllers, and an AC charger. Leave the rest out and knock $ 50 – $ 100 off the price tag. That way, the Switch will be priced more comparably with the 3DS, which it absolutely outperforms by any metric.
At $ 200, a handheld console with Nintendo’s build quality and game quality is a potentially compelling purchase, especially if gamers have the option to buy the handheld first and pick up the dock and other accessories later. At $ 300, it’s hard to see what the Switch offers that the Xbox and PS4 don’t. I realize that for many people, the answer to that question is “First party Nintendo games,” but the Wii U put a hard, pragmatic ceiling on how many gamers are willing to buy underpowered console hardware for the joy of Nintendo games. The Wii U may not have lit up the sales charts, but it had plenty of excellent games, including Super Smash Brothers, Super Mario 3D World, Mario Kart 8, Splatoon, Bayonetta 2, and Pikmin 3. The problem with the Wii U wasn’t that Nintendo’s software team fell down on the job, but the system sold extremely poorly nonetheless.
I’m willing to go ahead and call it now: The Switch will offer better-than-Wii U performance at the same level of graphics, but it won’t set any records or meaningfully close the gap between the Xbox One and PS4, much less the Xbox Scorpio and PS4 Pro. If Nintendo tries to fight its competitors solely on the basis of the Switch’s living room performance, it’s going to lose. If it switches gears and emphasizes great handheld performance at a reduced price, with the option to put games on the big screen, and announces it will bring over the 3DS’ biggest franchises, it could be one of the biggest platforms of the year. With an anemic launch lineup, all eyes will be on Nintendo’s future plans, and the sooner the company makes some big moves the better.
If Nintendo wanted to play chicken with Sony and Microsoft over the living room, it should’ve waited long enough to adopt Pascal and 14nm technology. Moving to 14nm has been worth some significant performance improvements for mobile SoCs, and the Switch could’ve likely picked up another 10-20% performance from the shift. That’s not a huge amount, but it would likely pay for anisotropic filtering and a bit of AA — enough to smooth the rough spots. Alternately, Nintendo could’ve kept its specs identical and picked up some additional battery life. Instead, we’re getting the Switch — a great handheld that Nintendo seems determined to sell for the living room.
The Switch is available for pre-order right now at various retailers ahead of a March 3 release date in the US, Canada, Europe, and Japan.