The Nintendo Switch has a performance issue.
This is not news for Switch fans (or haters). The limitations of its humble Nvidia Tegra X1 chip were visible in early exclusives like Xenoblade Chronicles 2, which ran at 720p pegged but sometimes dropped below 30fps. Yet the problems were rarely bothersome.
But now, six years after the Switch was released, the cracks visible at launch have widened into gaping cracks, sometimes quite literally.
IGN’s Rebekah Valentine saw this first hand during the review Pokemon Scarlet and Purple. “These games run like garbage,” she says. “There are also tons of weird clipping issues where Pokemon can get stuck in walls or underground, or the camera gets stuck at an odd angle and shows a blank void over half the screen.”
The problems are too numerous to detail here (read his review for the full scoop), but easy to summarize. They are bad. So bad that they spoil what should be a refreshing open-world take on Game Freak’s usual Pokémon formula.
It’s not just Pokemon
Pokémon Scarlet and Violet are singularly terrible examples of how modern Switch games perform, but they’re not the only games struggling.
Bayonet 3 Ambitiously targets 60 FPS but fails, with numerous detours to 45 FPS and below. The Switch port of sound borders is significantly reduced, running at or slightly below 30 FPS and additionally suffering from major object pop-in. Some publishers, like Square Enix, have dropped “real” Switch ports of graphically demanding games like Kingdom Hearts 3, instead of releasing cloud version who stream the game from a remote server.
It’s not all bad news. Splaton 3 achieves a stable 60fps in gameplay (although city sections are at 30fps) and Xenoblade Chronicles 3 runs at a much more stable 30 FPS than its predecessor.
Still, these improvements are small comfort to Switch fans hoping for ports of elderberry ring Where Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2. These games, along with many others released on the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X, will likely never see a Switch release. The gap between the Switch’s capabilities and those of its competitors is too big for most developers to fill.
This is a problem, but not a surprise. The Nintendo Switch is six years old. The Nvidia Tegra X1 chip that powers it is even older: it was first released in 2015, meaning it was already a bit outdated when Nintendo released the Switch. A 2019 chip revision improved efficiencyincreasing the battery life of newer Switch consoles, but performance remained unchanged.
The Switch’s lackluster performance could be contributing to slower sales. Although a success for Nintendo with over 114 million consoles sold to date, Switch sales have lost steam over the past year and the PlayStation 5 has outstripped the Switch in recent months (in the US, at least). Nintendo attributes this to production, not demand, but that explanation seems incomplete with Switch consoles regularly in stock at major retailers.
What would a Switch Pro do for you, really?
The decline in Switch hardware sales contrasts with its continued dominance in software. Pokémon Scarlet and Violet sold 10 million copies in their first days. According to NPD’s latest October report, six of the top 20 best-selling games in the US were Switch exclusives (another, NieR: Automataclinched its spot thanks to a new version of Switch).
Gamers want to play Switch exclusives. We’d just rather do it on better hardware. So what can a Switch Pro do?
The most obvious improvements would be in resolution and framerate. First, the bad news: a Switch Pro will struggle to handle 4K at 30 FPS, let alone 60 FPS. Still, the current Switch is so behind the curve that more meager improvements will seem impressive. The most ambitious Switch games run at 720p to 900p resolution in docked mode, and despite that, many stick to 30 FPS as well. A constant 1080p at 60 FPS would feel like a win.
A Switch Pro could also support technology that the current model doesn’t, like HDR and Adaptive Sync. The latter could be particularly useful if implemented well. Adaptive Sync would smooth out minor detours below 60 FPS, making those dips imperceptible to gamers.
And don’t forget machine learning. Nvidia DLSS 2 uses neural rendering to enhance games with incredible results. Nvidia DLSS 3 can even insert new AI-generated images. DLSS 3 performance mode can use AI to generate up to seven out of eight pixels visible in a 4K image which, in the best case scenario, can improve performance by up to 5 times compared to native rendering. It’s a great choice for a power-limited device like a new Nintendo Switch…in theory, at least.
The miracle chip does not exist. Still.
Gamers want an upgrade, and Nintendo needs to boost declining hardware sales. Granted, a Switch Pro is about to be announced. Right?
Switch fans know the hopeful rumors all too well. The Switch Pro was about to arrive in 2019then 2020, then 2021. Those rumors were put to rest by the Nintendo Switch OLED, which arrived last year with a gorgeous new screen and the same old silicon.
I wasn’t surprised by this decision for one simple reason: it was never clear what exactly would power the so-called Switch Pro. The Switch’s unique hybrid design ties it to a much lower power target than competing console hardware, meaning designs found in other consoles, as well as gaming laptops, won’t work for the Switch. .
The situation is complicated by Nvidia’s decision to step up a gear on Tegra. It was originally launched to compete in consumer devices with ARM market leaders like Qualcomm (the first Tegra-powered product was the Microsoft Zune HD), but it stalled. So Nvidia changed tack. The lineage is now referenced by names like Xavier and Orin and focuses on automotive, industry and robotics with a focus on machine learning. These new chips, which target a wider range of power consumption and offer substantial I/O connectivity, are less suited to a portable game console.
That doesn’t mean it can’t happen. The lower-powered Nvidia Jetson Nano and Jetson Orin Nano chips target a design thermal output of 5-15 watts, which is fine for the Switch. The latest Switch Pro rumors rely on a custom chip, codenamed T239 (the “T” is for Tegra) based on Nvidia’s Orin. This seems plausible: the cost, die size, and power consumption of the chip all seem to be on target. A variant of Orin Nano could probably handle 1080p at 60 FPS, albeit in more graphically modest games. It also has the potential to add features Nintendo fans are looking for, including HDR, adaptive sync, DLSS, and ray tracing.
However, custom chips are time consuming and the more customization required, the longer it takes. If the rumors surrounding the T239 turn out to be true, Nintendo and Nvidia started working on it around mid-2021 (the first reference to it appeared on Twitter in June last year). But these leaks only relate to Linux kernel APIs and updates, which is less compelling than prototype hardware, leaked plans for chip production, or shootouts.
Nintendo President Shuntaro Furukawa also publicly stated that there will be no new hardware in the company’s current fiscal year, which runs until April 2023. It’s possible Nintendo and Nvidia are keeping secrets and surprise-launching a Switch Pro in the summer of 2023, but that would be an aggressive timeline for a Switch sequel that isn’t yet. officially announced, nor even suggested. Belief in such miracles requires an unhealthy dose of hopium.
So buckle up, Nintendo fans: it looks like we have at least another year of questionable Switch performance to go through.
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