The Nintendo Switch is having a performance issue.
This isn’t news for Switch fans (or haters). The limitations of its modest Nvidia Tegra X1 chip were evident in early exclusives Xenoblade Chronicles 2, which ran at 720p docked but sometimes dropped below 30 frames per second. Even so, the problems were rarely distracting.
But today, six years after the Switch’s release, the cracks seen at launch have widened to gaping cracks – sometimes literally.
IGN’s Rebekah Valentine saw this firsthand when reviewing it Pokemon scarlet and violet. “These games are running like crap,” she says. “There are also tons of bizarre clipping issues where Pokémon can get caught in walls or underground, or the camera can get stuck at a weird angle and show a blank space halfway through the screen.”
The problems are too numerous to describe in detail here (Read her review for the full overview), but easy to summarize. You are bad. So bad that they spoil a refreshing open-world take on Game Freak’s usual Pokémon formula.
It’s not just Pokemon
Pokemon Scarlet and Violet are uniquely awful examples of how modern Switch games work, but they’re not the only games struggling.
bayonet 3 Ambitiously aims for 60 FPS, but misses it with many detours to 45 FPS and below. The switch port of Sonic Frontiers is drastically scaled back, running at or slightly below 30 FPS, and also suffers from larger object pop-ins. Some publishers, such as Square Enix, have dispensed with “real” Switch ports of graphically demanding games Kingdom Hearts III, let go instead cloud versions streaming the game from a remote server.
It’s not all bad news. turn 3 achieves stable 60 frames per second in gameplay (although the city sections are 30 FPS) and Xenoblade Chronicles 3 runs at a much more stable 30 FPS than its predecessor.
However, these improvements are small consolation for Switch fans hoping for ports elden ring or 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 bridge.
It’s a problem, but no 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, so it was already a little dated by the time Nintendo released the Switch. A 2019 chip revision improved efficiencythereby increasing the battery life of the new Switch consoles while keeping the performance unchanged.
The Switch’s lackluster performance could contribute to a drop in sales. Despite being a hit for Nintendo with over 114 million consoles sold to date, Switch sales have lost momentum over the past year and The PlayStation 5 has outperformed the Switch in recent months (at least in the US). Nintendo blames production, not demand — but that explanation feels incomplete given that Switch consoles are routinely stocked at major retailers.
What would a Switch Pro really do for you?
Declining Switch hardware sales contrast with its continued software dominance. Pokémon Scarlet and Violet sold 10 million copies in the first few days. According to NPD’s most recent October report, six of the top 20 best-selling games in the US were Switch exclusives (another, NieR: Automatalanded his spot because of a new Switch release).
Gamers want to play Switch exclusives. We’d just prefer to do it on better hardware. So what could a Switch Pro deliver?
The most obvious improvements would be in resolution and framerate. The bad news first: a Switch Pro will struggle to handle 4K at 30 FPS, let alone 60 FPS. But the current Switch is so far behind the curve that meager improvements will seem impressive. The most ambitious Switch games run in docked mode at a resolution of 720p to 900p, and yet many remain at 30 FPS. A steady 1080p at 60 FPS would feel like a win.
A Switch Pro could also support technologies that the current model doesn’t, like HDR and Adaptive Sync. The latter could be particularly useful if implemented well. Adaptive Sync would compensate for minor detours below 60 FPS and make such drops imperceptible to gamers.
And don’t forget machine learning. Nvidia DLSS 2 uses neural rendering to upscale games with incredible results. Nvidia DLSS 3 can even insert new, AI-generated frames. DLSS 3 performance mode can use AI to generate up to seven pixels out of every eight visible in a 4K image, which at best can improve performance by up to 5x over native rendering. It’s a great match for a limited-power device like a new Nintendo Switch… in theory, at least.
There is no such thing as a miracle chip. Still.
Gamers want an upgrade and Nintendo needs to boost declining hardware sales. Surely a Switch Pro is about to be announced. Right?
Switch fans are all too familiar with hopeful rumors. The Switch Pro was about to arrive 2019then 2020, then 2021. Those rumors were dispelled by the Nintendo Switch OLED, which launched last year with a gorgeous new screen and the same old silicon.
This move didn’t surprise me 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 performance target than the hardware in competing consoles, meaning the designs of other consoles, as well as gaming laptops, won’t work for the Switch.
The situation is complicated by Nvidia’s decision to switch to Tegra. It originally started to compete in consumer devices with ARM market leaders like Qualcomm (the first Tegra-based product was Microsoft Zune HD), but it stalled. So Nvidia changed tactics. Now referenced by names like Xavier and Orin, the line focuses on automotive, industrial and robotics with a focus on machine learning. Targeting a broader range of power consumption and offering significant I/O connectivity, these new chips are less obviously suited to a portable gaming console.
That doesn’t mean it can’t happen. The lowest-performing chips, Nvidia Jetson Nano and Jetson Orin Nano, aim for a thermal design power of 5 to 15 watts, which is suitable for the switch. The latest Switch Pro rumors are based on a customized chip, codenamed T239 (the “T” stands for Tegra), based on Nvidia’s Orin. That feels plausible: the cost, chip size, and power consumption of the chip all look 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 that Nintendo fans have been craving, including HDR, adaptive sync, DLSS and ray tracing.
However, custom chips take time – and the more customization that is required, the more time it takes. Should the rumors about the T239 come true, Nintendo and Nvidia will have started working on it in mid-2021 (the first hint of it appeared on Twitter in June last year). But these leaks only affect APIs and Linux kernel updates, which is less convincing than prototype hardware, leaked chip production plans, or die shots.
Nintendo President Shuntaro Furukawa also stated that there will be no new hardware in the company’s current fiscal year, which lasts until April 2023. It’s possible that Nintendo and Nvidia are keeping secrets and will surprisingly launch a Switch Pro in summer 2023, but that would be an aggressive schedule for a Switch sequel that hasn’t been officially announced or even hinted at yet. Belief in such miracles requires an unhealthy dose of hopium.
So buckle up, Nintendo fans: it looks like we’re going to have to fight our way through at least another year of questionable Switch performance.