Thus far in its life we haven’t exactly had the best opportunities to evaluate what the Nintendo Switch is capable of under the hood. Its flagship title, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, is a gorgeous game with certain visual shortcomings characteristic of the platform it was developed for, the Wii U. Switch brings the title up to 900p docked, indistinguishable from 1080p by most eyes when sitting at couch-distance (PC monitor distance is another story), but generally speaking graphics quality remains the same. So how exactly can we assess what’s possible?
The short answer is that we can’t fully yet, but we do have clues to go by. A recent release from Sumo Digital, though relatively unassuming under normal circumstances, is actually the primary title hinting at what the Switch will ultimately be capable of. A 3D platformer based around slithering and wrapping around environmental objects, the title uses Unreal Engine 4, as has been discussed previously. What’s notable however is that, when compared with the PS4 edition of the game, relatively little is lost. If you were to eyeball them side by side, sans an in-depth analysis, you’d be hard pressed to notice the difference.
Of course, an in-depth analysis does exist, and was handled by Digital Foundry as is often the case. The video is below if you’re curious, though frankly such analysis can be a bit headache-inducing at times despite the clear value for certain users. What you need to know is that, at least in the case of Snake Pass, the title uses Unreal 4 and was ported quickly and successfully to Switch, with relatively little compromise involved. In particular if you play on handheld, a trend that appears to be sticking around with Switch, the fidelity appears enhanced even when the reality is that it’s identical or lessened.
What remains to be seen is how Unreal 4 ports will fare when it comes to games that are more visually taxing. In theory the pros and cons of working in the engine on Switch ought to be similar, and the same goes for Switch’s strengths and weaknesses handling Unreal’s often bleeding-edge capability to various degrees (which, though a pretty game, are probably not being fully tapped by Snake Pass).
We’ve also seen glimmers of promise from Fast RMX, a Switch release that exhibits quite hearty improvements over its Wii U predecessor. The real test, of course, will come not from souped-up Wii U titles, or even polished new entries from series that appeared on Nintendo’s now-decommissioned platform a year prior. Taking this a step further, even if Unreal Engine 4 titles far more demanding than Snake Pass do shine on Switch, a definite possibility, it won’t be the be-all-end-all some folks are looking for.
The real test, as is often the case, will be whether or not proprietary, cutting-edge game engines find their way to Nintendo’s new hardware, and though some may scoff, I feel that this will come down to effort on the part of said tools’ creators rather than limitations of Switch’s own chips and specifications. Thanks to Nvidia and what appears to be a pretty standard (albeit perhaps slightly tweaked or enhanced) version of its Tegra X1, Nintendo hardware is no longer particularly challenging or arduous to develop for. And with a partner like Nvidia, even if the X1 itself proves long in the tooth over time, you know that from a firmware perspective the chip in Nintendo’s device isn’t going to skimp on efficiently utilizing all available capability and features.
If Rockstar Games, as an example, never releases a title on Switch, to me it’s more of a GameCube scenario than a Wii scenario. It’s not that they can’t, it’s more that they just don’t want to. With titles achieving 4K resolutions on PS4 Pro and Xbox One S, I simply can’t be convinced that even something as graphically complicated as what Red Dead Redemption 2 will likely be can’t be miniaturized down to 720p and still look, generally speaking, plenty impressive on Switch. The fate of such releases will be determined by the hardware’s install base primarily. If Call of Duty came to Wii, then anything is possible.
Ultimately, Switch hardware will truly shine when Nintendo unleashes its own full potential, and given what Breath of the Wild does with Wii U constraints, we haven’t seen anything yet. Arms will likely be the first release to indicate what’s possible for first-party titles, followed by Super Mario Odyssey this holiday which I fully expect to be a true graphical pleasure if Super Mario 3D World is anything to go by. The same could be said of Super Mario Galaxy’s near-Xbox 360 quality splendor, somehow achieved in 480p on the Nintendo “two duct-taped GameCubes” Wii.
In theory, the ultimate Switch reality check that would force non-first parties to get serious about visual presentation on the platform (which, to be fair, it’s too soon to say if they have or haven't) would be a new Metroid Prime title. At the time of that series’ release on GameCube, it was the title Nintendo fans could counter something like Halo with; “I guess that’s cool, but have you heard of Metroid Prime?” The state of Halo as a cultural presence these days renders the analogy somewhat moot, but you get the idea. Even Corruption on Wii, no longer granted hardware parity with the competition as Prime was on GameCube, managed a minor graphical miracle that still looks impressive today.
Reggie says Nintendo has a big E3 planned, and Retro Studios has been awfully quiet (and strangely suggestive), so it’s certainly possible. Regardless, it seems at least safe to say that Switch’s hardware prowess will surely fare better than Wii, and likely better than Wii U as well, relatively speaking. In tandem with the platform’s other strengths, that alone is incredibly promising, even if it’s true we won’t ever see it run the latest CryEngine at 4K and 60fps.