We’re officially four years into the Nintendo Switch lifecycle — the halfway point, as Nintendo itself has put it. Unlike most other pieces of technology, consoles tend to thrive from being supported for several years. As it relates to game development, studios become more familiar with the hardware over the course of a generation and can thus produce increasingly ambitious projects. This has largely been the case throughout the history of gaming thus far. Yet, Nintendo Switch has proven to be a bit of an oddball in this regard.
Despite being four years into the Switch’s lifecycle, there hasn’t been much of an improvement in the technical complexity and visual quality of most Switch ports. Some folks may even argue that some titles are looking even rougher on average compared to in the system’s earlier days. So, why this weird set of circumstances? It has to do with what I choose to call the “performance budget.”
The performance budget is an informal term that I’m using to describe the capabilities of a system. Let’s think of it in conjunction with that of an actual monetary budget. Switch has a modest amount of power, so let’s put its budget at around 2000.
On the other hand, there’s PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, which have higher budgets at around 5000. Then there’s PlayStation 4 Pro and Xbox One X, which are around 7 or 8000. Finally, there’s the brand new PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X, which have the highest performance budget for consoles at about 10,000. For the sake of argument, we can throw high-end PCs at the very top of the spectrum at 12,000.
Looking at it this way, it’s pretty easy to see why developers have been having such a challenge with the Switch’s hardware. When it comes to the performance budget, while each game may get away with spending a little less, it cannot bear to overspend since there’s literally nothing left. Clearly, that ceiling is reached far more quickly on Switch than on the other platforms.
When Switch launched in 2017, it had to compete with the PS4 and Xbox One and their mid-gen upgraded counterparts. At that time, the highest developers could shoot for was a performance budget of around 8000.
Studios are not allowed to make games only for the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X, so even though the extra performance is there, games have still had to be made with the weaker variants in mind. This is likely what has helped Switch out over the years. 8000 is still pretty high compared to 2000, but 5000 isn’t as bad (bearing in mind that these numbers are, yes, just abstractions). But of course, now the situation isn’t so simple, after the recent introduction of the next-gen consoles and ray tracing-enabled PC GPUs.
New power to wield
PlayStation 4 and Xbox One aren’t going to fade away too soon, but their time is no doubt running out. As more and more titles begin to target next-gen only, that leaves Nintendo Switch in an extremely precarious position. Naturally, developers are going to want to use as much of that newfound performance budget as they can, so being able to work with a ceiling of 10,000 is far more comfortable than a mere 2000.
This is why ports of Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 titles have performed so well on Switch. If the Switch’s performance budget is 2000, then those systems were around 1000. Thus, Switch’s capabilities far exceed what 7th-gen titles were initially coded for. As a result, running on Switch has often resulted in better performance and higher-quality textures, as seen by the awesome port of GRID Autosport. That was a late 7th-gen release, so it was putting the older hardware through its paces. Switch, however, runs the title quite fine, even in handheld mode. But now the tables are turned with the Switch being on the lower end of the spectrum. Of course, this is where most folks will jump up and say: “Duh, this is where the Switch Pro comes in!”
I believe that, under this context, discussing the effectiveness of that rumored system is best left for its own discussion. As for the Switch hardware we have today, it’s hard to really determine how much fight it truly has left in it.
The not-so-easy street
For all of its drawbacks, developers are clearly still interested in creating modern ports for Nintendo Switch. For instance, Saber Interactive just recently showed off the first footage of its venerable off-roading sim SnowRunner running on the hybrid. This port actually looks really good, especially given that SnowRunner features extremely detailed environments, special effects, and complex simulations. Yet, Saber has seemingly got it running and looking rather well on Switch.
But for all of the genuinely good ports such as this, you have less desirable ones like the recent release of KT Racing’s WRC 9. While that is a feature-for-feature port on Switch, visually it’s a poor effort due to looking muddier and a lot less complex than many high-quality PS3/360 titles from several years ago. Again, this has to do with the fact that the Switch is far less powerful than the other consoles.
Nevertheless, the divide in the quality of a lot of Switch ports is simply jarring. It doesn’t help that, in the case of both the aforementioned titles, the Switch version is coming out a year behind all of the other platforms. So, for players who own only a Switch, it really is a kick in the shin to often have to wait longer than everyone else and still end up getting the lesser version. It personally baffles me how some projects clearly benefit from the extra optimization time, while others seem to do little, if anything with it, as we see here with SnowRunner vs. WRC 9.
Switch as we know it is a great system, but its already limited mobile hardware is getting older and older as time goes on. Developers have gotten somewhat more experienced with it, but by and large, games aren’t really going to start looking dramatically better on Switch at this point. While heavily optimized gems like the aforementioned SnowRunner and other notable titles such as RISE: Race the Future, MudRunner, Ultrawings, and FAST RMX are out there, they certainly are the minority.
Watching the clock
Nintendo intends to keep Switch running steadily for the foreseeable future, which means the challenge is only going to get grander for developers. The Switch’s hybrid functionality has drawn in a massive user base that is going to keep studios looking at it as a healthy platform. But as next-gen continues to bloom, it’s only a matter of time before developers come out and say that a port of their latest project just isn’t possible on a technical level. That’s already happened before with titles like Project CARS 2.
Ultimately, time will play a big factor in everything. PlayStation 4’s massive install base and the stunted growth of next-gen sales due to hardware shortages may very well keep the support of last-gen systems running a little longer than usual. That will leave Nintendo Switch with much better chances of port support until its inevitable successor does come to market, if not the fabled mid-gen upgrade. However, these are all “what ifs?” For now, in the present, the Switch will continue to sell well and break records. But we may have already seen all it has to offer in terms of visual fidelity.