The Nintendo Switch looks like it might be complete weaksauce when compared to the best consoles from Sony and Microsoft. But the real question is: Does that matter? Probably not.
Reports are suggesting the Switch will barely churn out 1080p graphics to a TV, and Nintendo has confirmed at least one game won’t even handle that relatively rote spec. Meanwhile, Sony and Microsoft are so eager to please future-looking consumers that both companies have released console refreshes specifically for the alphabet soup of 4K HDR. Nintendo ignoring that soup seems positively stupid at first glance, but that’s because we’re accustomed to a console war of specs — and Nintendo doesn’t want any part of it.
It’s a philosophy Nintendo’s honed since the release of the original Wii and the perceived failure of the GameCube. The GameCube was a powerful beast packed into a tiny box, and it directly competed with the PS2 and original Xbox. But keeping apace spec-wise came at severe financial costs, and Nintendo didn’t even “win”. Instead, the company’s consoles always came in second or third in sales.
With the Wii, Nintendo tried a different tack: Banking heavily on its healthy stable of first party properties, like Mario and Zelda, and funky peripherals, like the Wii Remote. It completely ignored the “specs” that get gamers giddy. There was zero talk of how many pixels the console could push, and Nintendo soundly ignored all criticism when it became clear that the Wii would only play games at 480p.
If anything, the strict adherence to 480p only seemed to bolster the Wii’s populist image. The consoles from Sony and Microsoft were for hardcore gamers looking for 1080p resolution, HDMI out and hyper-realistic graphics. The Wii was for people who didn’t know what any of those buzzwords meant.
And we’re seeing Nintendo use the same strategy with the new Nintendo Switch. This console is for the masses, not the spec-obsessed gamer. Back in December Eurogamer reported that the Switch could only churn out games to the TV at a 1080p resolution and games to the Switch’s tablet at just 720p. That’s about the same resolution you’d expect from a smartphone or three-year-old PS4 and Xbox One consoles.
It’s a perfectly adequate resolution in a lot of respects. Most of the TVs in my home, and in homes across the US, have televisions with a max resolution of 1080p. Unless you’re updating your set this year, 1080p is all you need.
Which is probably why Nintendo is embracing the “good enough” resolution in the Switch’s most anticipated game: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Nintendo, in a statement provided to IGN, revealed that the game will run at 900p and 30 frames per second on the Switch.
30fps is a common spec for consoles. It’s the approximate frame rate for most movies. PC gamers, who prefer higher frame rates and the more realistic movement of characters that it entails, would clutch their pearls and faint at a game only rendering 30 frames per second. But a console gamer might not even be aware that there are higher frame rates they’re missing out on. That’s due to the TVs themselves. It is only recently that TVs cheaper than $1300 could play back content at faster frame rates like 60fps or 120fps.
900p is also a pretty common spec — circa 2013. It falls smack dab between 720p and 1080p, and for the majority of people there is no visually discernible differences between 720p, 900p and 1080p. It’s a common resolution for games to play back on the original Xbox One and the PS4. In fact some of the biggest games from those consoles, including Sunset Overdrive, Assassin’s Creed and Battlefield, can’t play back at anything higher than 900p.
This all means that 900p at 30fps is a perfectly populist set of specs. It’s positively common and imminently playable. And it’s perfectly in line with Nintendo’s decade-long strategy of ignoring the latest and greatest TV fads (such as 4K and HDR) to focus on its own fads.
And due to the design of the Switch, these details aren’t even that big a deal. The Switch’s primary guts, reportedly based on the Nvidia Tegra processor found in the Nvidia Shield tablet and TV, are located in the tablet section of the device. That tablet, according to Eurogamer, is a 720p display. The Switch only needs to be able to handle higher resolutions when it’s plugged into the TV, and it plugs into the TV via the Switch dock.
If Nintendo really wanted to, it could release a dock at a later date that sports a better processor for sending higher resolution games to the TV. As we saw last year with the mid-cycle PS4 Pro and Xbox One S, the really fanatical gamers will shell out a lot of cash to upgrade — even only a couple of years after a console purchase.
So, conceivably, the Switch could get better graphics around the time consumers start tossing their HDTVs and start picking up the 4K sets. And even if Nintendo opts to ignore 4K all together, it could be fine. The Wii managed to be a wildly successful console because it let grandmas bowl and grandads lose weight and that random non-gamer friend of yours have a lightsaber duel. If the $469.95 Switch can get people as excited about virtual cow milking then all the resolutions and frame rates and processors won’t matter.