The Nintendo Switch has a performance issue.
This isn’t news to Switch fans (or haters). The limitations of its humble Nvidia Tegra X1 chip were visible in early exclusives such as Xenoblade Chronicles 2, which ran at 720p docked but sometimes dropped below 30 frames per second. Yet the problems were rarely distracting.
But today, six years after the Switch’s release, the cracks that were visible at launch have widened into gaping chasms – sometimes literally.
IGN’s Rebekah Valentine saw this firsthand while reviewing it Pokémon Scarlet and purple. “These games run like crap,” she says. “There are also plenty of bizarre clipping issues where Pokémon can get stuck in walls or underground, or the camera gets stuck at an odd angle and shows an empty void on half the screen.”
The problems are too numerous to describe here (read her review for the full scoop), but easy to summarize. They’re bad. So much so that they sour what should be a refreshing open-world twist on Game Freak’s usual Pokémon formula.
It’s not just Pokémon
Pokemon Scarlet and Violet are extremely terrible examples of how modern Switch games perform, but they’re not the only games struggling.
bayonet 3 ambitiously aims for 60 FPS, but falls short, with many detours to 45 FPS and below. The Switch port of Sonic Limits scales back drastically, runs at or slightly below 30 FPS, and additionally suffers from large object pop-in. Some publishers, like Square Enix, have the “real” Switch ports of graphically demanding games like Kingdom Hearts III, let go instead cloud versions that stream the game from a remote server.
It’s not all bad news. Splatoon 3 achieves a 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.
Still, these improvements are small consolation for Switch fans hoping for ports of Elder ring or Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2. These games, along with many others released on the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X, are unlikely to ever see a Switch release. The gap between the Switch’s capabilities and that of its competitors is too wide for most developers to bridge.
It’s a problem, but not a surprise. The Nintendo Switch is six years old. The Nvidia Tegra X1 chip powering it is even older: it was first released in 2015, meaning it was already a bit outdated when Nintendo released the Switch.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 efficiencywhich extended the battery life of new Switch consoles, but performance remained unchanged.
The Switch’s lackluster performance may contribute to slowing sales. While it was a hit for Nintendo with over 114 million consoles sold to date, Sales of switches have lost momentum over the past year and the PlayStation 5 has been faster than the Switch in recent months (at least in the United States). Nintendo blames production, not demand, for this, but that explanation feels incomplete with Switch consoles routinely stocked at major retailers.
What would a Switch Pro actually do for you?
Declining Switch hardware sales contrast with continued dominance in software. Pokémon Scarlet and Violet sold 10 million copies in the first few days. According to NPD’s latest October report, six of the top 20 best-selling games in the US were Switch exclusives (another, NieR: Automataended up due to a new Switch release).
Gamers want to play Switch exclusives. We prefer to do it on better hardware. So, what could a Switch Pro bring?
The most obvious improvements are resolution and frame rate. 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 far behind that more meager improvements will seem impressive. The most ambitious Switch games run at a resolution of 720p to 900p in docked mode, and yet many also stick to 30 FPS. A consistent 1080p at 60 FPS would feel like a win.
A Switch Pro could also support tech that the current model doesn’t support, such as HDR and Adaptive Sync. The latter could be especially useful if implemented properly. Adaptive Sync would smooth out minor detours below 60 FPS, making such dips unnoticeable to players.
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 of every eight pixels visible in a 4K image which, at best, can improve performance by up to 5x over native rendering. It’s a great fit for a device with limited power like a new Nintendo Switch…at least in theory.
The miracle chip does not exist. Yet.
Gamers want an upgrade and Nintendo needs to boost declining hardware sales. Sure, a Switch Pro is about to be announced. Right?
Switch fans are all too familiar with hopeful rumors. The Switch Pro was about to come in 2019then 2020, then 2021. These rumors were quashed 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 move for a 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 the hardware in competing consoles, meaning the 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 switch to Tegra. It was originally launched to compete in the consumer device space with ARM market leaders like Qualcomm (the first Tegra-powered product was the Microsoft Zune HD), but it stalled. So Nvidia changed tactics. Now referred to by names like Xavier and Orin, the line focuses on automotive, industrial, and robotics with an emphasis on machine learning. These new chips, which aim for wider power consumption and provide significant I/O connectivity, are a less obvious fit for a handheld game console.
That doesn’t mean it can’t happen. The least powerful Nvidia Jetson Nano and Jetson Orin Nano chips target a thermal design power of 5 to 15 watts, which is suitable for the Switch. The most recent Switch Pro rumors lean on a bespoke chip, codenamed T239 (the “T” is for Tegra) based on Nvidia’s Orin. This feels plausible: the cost, die size, and power consumption of the chip all look good. 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 crave, including HDR, adaptive sync, DLSS, and ray tracing.
However, custom chips take time – and the more customization is required, the more time is required. If the rumors surrounding the T239 are correct, Nintendo and Nvidia will have started working on it in mid-2021 (the first reference to it appeared on Twitter in June last year). But these leaks only cover APIs and Linux kernel updates, which is less convincing than hardware prototypes, leaked chip manufacturing plans, or those shots.
Nintendo president Shuntaro Furukawa also recorded that there will be no new hardware in the company’s current fiscal year, which will continue through April 2023. It’s possible that Nintendo and Nvidia are keeping secrets and will launch a Switch Pro in the summer of 2023, but that would be an aggressive timeline for a Switch sequel that hasn’t been officially announced or even released yet suggested. Belief in such miracles requires an unhealthy dose of hopium.
So brace yourself, Nintendo fans: it looks like we have at least another year of questionable Switch performance to endure.