As we inch closer toward a new console war (or not-a-console war?) between Sony and Microsoft, it’s only natural to wonder how Nintendo will partake in the next generation of gaming.
How will the House of Mario compete with the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X? Two reports this week — one from Taiwan’s Economic News Daily and a new story from Bloomberg — claim Nintendo is planning to release an “upgraded” Switch in 2021. While END stops short of sharing any real details, Bloomberg says Nintendo is considering “including more computing power and 4K high-definition graphics.”
This isn’t the first time we’ve heard rumors of a “Switch Pro” (as many have dubbed the console). Around this time last year, rumors of a Switch Pro echoed across the internet, only for Nintendo to announce a regular Switch with an upgraded battery and shrunken Tegra X1 chip. Nintendo also launched the Switch Lite, which shrank the Switch’s screen, stripped out the signature Joy-Cons, and ditched the dock that allows it to be connected to a TV.
Still, reports of an upgraded Switch persist. The Switch turned three this past spring, and its hardware is really starting to show its age when compared to the PS5 and Xbox Series X, which promise ray tracing, higher frame rate support, near-instant loading times, and 8K resolution (PS5).
But expecting Nintendo to compete head-on with an upgraded Switch is to misunderstand how the company thinks and operates. Nintendo doesn’t need to release a Switch Pro because it zags when everyone zigs. Nintendo only exists today because it stopped chasing performance and graphics years ago. 4K Super Mario on the Switch? Sounds nice, but Nintendo doesn’t need it.
Finding blue oceans
To understand why Nintendo doesn’t follow trends, you have to revisit the company at its lowest points. The eras when Nintendo almost died and rumors that it would pull a Sega and put its IP on PlayStation and Xbox were constantly circulating in video game magazines and online.
The ‘90s and early ’00s were a tough time for Nintendo. Despite the Nintendo 64’s 3D graphics and CPU both being technologically superior to the PlayStation 1, Sony’s console still ended up crushing Nintendo’s by the end of the ‘90s.
There are many reasons why the N64 sold worse than the Super Nintendo (about 33 million versus 50 million). The main one being: the N64’s cartridges were more expensive and held less data than the PS1’s CDs and Sony therefore lured more third-party developers to its platform (the importance of Final Fantasy VII can’t be overstated).
Nintendo’s misfortunes continued with the GameCube in 2001. Again, despite having the more powerful console compared to the PlayStation 2, Nintendo lost the console war again for similar misguided reasons: the GameCube used expensive mini-DVDs instead of standard DVDs, online multiplayer was an afterthought, and therefore developer support was terrible. The GameCube ended up selling even worse than its predecessor.
With two failed consoles in a row and the Game Boy Advance on its last legs, Nintendo had to do something to turn around its fledgling home console business. After becoming president of Nintendo in 2002, the late Satoru Iwata made a calculated gamble to stop competing on power and graphics for its game consoles.
To save Nintendo, Iwata adopted tactics from a business book called Blue Ocean Strategy written by W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne. What is a blue ocean strategy?
From Kim and Mauborgne:
Blue ocean strategy is the simultaneous pursuit of differentiation and low cost to open up a new market space and create new demand. It is about creating and capturing uncontested market space, thereby making the competition irrelevant. It is based on the view that market boundaries and industry structure are not a given and can be reconstructed by the actions and beliefs of industry players.
Applied to Nintendo, a blue ocean strategy meant creating new and unique video game experiences as opposed to incremental updates to graphics and performance to leapfrog Sony and Microsoft. Iwata's blue ocean strategy ended up working perfectly.
In 2004, Nintendo released the DS, a dual-screen device (one of which was a touchscreen) with a stylus that broke with the Game Boy’s tradition of a single screen. The DS became a phenomenon overnight. Not simply because two screens offered more pixels to look at, but because its library of games expanded beyond the traditional definition of “video games.”
Prior to applying blue ocean strategy, video games were thought of mostly as certain established genres like platformers, or shooters, or role-playing. But the DS challenged this definition and gave birth to non-traditional games like the pet simulation game Nintendogs and the brain-training game Brain Age: Train Your Brain in Minutes a Day! I, myself, ended up owning unorthodox games like My Chinese Coach, a game that teaches players Mandarin Chinese.
Sony would challenge the DS in 2005 with its more-powerful-do-everything PlayStation Portable (PSP), but it would ultimately be eclipsed by the DS’s broader appeal. This is not to say the DS didn’t have its share of traditional games — it got plenty of blockbusters like Pokémon and Super Mario — but by catering beyond the established gamer audience and focusing on fun with the touchscreen and stylus, the Nintendo DS absolutely destroyed the PSP. To date, the DS has sold over 150 million units worldwide compared to the PSP’s 80 million.
The DS’s outside-of-the-box-thinking paved the way for the Wii. Once again, Nintendo opted to not battle with Sony’s PlayStation 3 and Microsoft’s Xbox 360 head-on. While Sony and Microsoft fought an ugly battle over HD resolution and performance, Nintendo sidestepped them both with the Wii Remote and Nunchuck motion controls. Just like the DS’s triumph over the PSP, the Wii’s unique controls, combined with games like Wii Sports that were more casual and accessible, brought in new gamers that the PS3 and Xbox 360 overlooked. Even without HD graphics, Nintendo sold over 100 million Wii consoles worldwide and left the PS3 with 87 million units and the Xbox 360 with 85 million units over their lifetimes.
There’s little incentive for Nintendo to give the Switch a half-step update.
The blue ocean strategy has been fundamental to Nintendo’s global success since the GameCube. The Switch and its hybrid handheld/home console gameplay is another perfect example of how effective this tactic can be when executed successfully. It's important to note that not all of Nintendo’s blue ocean strategies were a hit like the DS, Wii, and Switch. The 3DS had a very slow start mainly because Nintendo couldn’t communicate the appeal of the glasses-free 3D display. Luckily, a roster of strong games like Pokémon turned things around and the console became more a sequel to the DS. The Wii U also stumbled, but, unlike the 3DS, its great games and unique tablet qualities couldn’t be recovered without a complete overhaul to both the brand and its core idea. A combination of bad marketing and weak third-party games support ultimately doomed it to become Nintendo’s worst-selling console of all time.
All of this comes back to the Switch. What kind of “blue ocean” would the Switch conquer? 4K resolution and a more powerful CPU aren’t blue oceans, but red oceans. These red oceans are waters that Sony and Microsoft already have ships in with cannons firing at each other for the next generation. If Nintendo were to steer its ships into these packed oceans now, it’d be blown to pieces. It would have both a less capable console with a more expensive and smaller storage medium. There’s little incentive for Nintendo to give the Switch what would essentially be a half-step update.
I could spend all day breaking down Nintendo’s operations, but one thing that I can always count on when it comes to Nintendo consoles is a consistent gaming experience. Even despite the Switch Lite's lack of dock capabilities, the platform is not fragmented the way it is on PlayStation or Xbox.
Every game runs the same no matter if you bought a Switch on launch day or one yesterday. Everybody is on the same hardware. There’s nobody who is getting a better experience than you. Everyone’s limited to 720p resolution graphics when their Switch is in handheld mode and 1080p when docked to output to a display.
This equal playing field has more advantages than disadvantages for both developers and users. For developers, it means less optimization for different hardware configurations. That in turn means shorter development time since there’s less debugging and Q&A required. For gamers, it means no one else has a competitive edge over you, especially when it comes to online games. You can play any game with confidence knowing that nobody has better graphics, a higher frame rate, or any of a number of hardware advantages that a more powerful CPU affords.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not dismissing the different versions of the PS4 or Xbox One, or the benefits of being able to tweak every little CPU and graphics setting when gaming on PC. It’s nice to have the option of a PS4 Pro or Xbox One X. But I very much like the idea that there’s no fragmentation on a gaming platform. It keeps things fair. And Nintendo, the stubborn Japanese company that it can be at times, always tries to be fair. In a world of cheaters, it feels good to know that my fellow Switch gamers are experiencing the same joys and frustrations that I am.
Nintendo's no stranger to hardware revisions, though. The DS saw several iterations with new features like cameras and the "new" Nintendo 3DS added a tiny, second circle pad. The latter also added a slightly more powerful processor, more RAM, and two extra shoulder triggers. Good idea, but new games that made use of all of its extra features weren't backward compatible with older models.
Going to 4K and adding a marginally faster clock speed to support it would not only fragment the Switch mid-lifecycle, but also chew through more power.
This is the perfect transition to talking about battery life. It’s already not great on the Switch when it’s in portable mode: 2.5 to 6.5 hours on the original Switch and 4.5 hours to 9 hours on the “V2” version released last year. Most people get about 4 to 5 hours on a charge.
I hate being that guy, but from a power efficiency standpoint, 4K and more performance would almost certainly negatively impact Switch battery life. I know this from a decade of experience reviewing smartphones, tablets, and laptops. Quadrupling the Switch’s current resolution would require a substantial increase in the amount of battery needed to power the screen, especially if Nintendo doesn’t switch to a more energy-efficient screen technology like OLED.
Nintendo could use an OLED panel instead of an LCD. But that would also add an additional cost to the increased resolution and CPU, and the last thing Nintendo would do is release a product with lower profit margins per device. Nintendo is just not a company that typically launches new hardware that is sold at very low profit margins or at a loss. It’s one of the main reasons why new versions of the Nintendo 3DS did not receive a resolution increase after almost a decade on the market, despite cheap high-resolution panels being commonly available.
Another way to counterbalance increased power consumption from new features would be for Nintendo to use a more power-efficient chipset. We see this every year with the chips in smartphones. For example, new Qualcomm Snapdragon chips are always more powerful, while being more power-efficient than their predecessors. This is achieved with die shrinkage. The smaller a chip’s fabrication process is (measured in nanometers), the less power it uses up. There are whispers Nintendo could use Nvidia’s Tegra X1+ chip (the same one in the latest Shield TV and TV Pro), which is up to 25 percent more powerful than the Switch’s current Tegra X1 chip. The chip also has AI features to assist with upscaling resolutions. The Tegra X1+ chip would be the most logical silicon to go with in order to preserve backward compatibility with all Switch software, but unless Nintendo can balance battery life, the extra oomph wouldn’t be worth it.
Fun > visuals
All of this doesn’t even take into account that existing Switch sales remain really strong; the system surpassed 61 million lifetime sales and helped Nintendo achieve over 160 percent year-over-year increase. COVID-19 caused a temporary shortage, especially after Animal Crossing: New Horizons drove a spike in Switch demand, but it’s not difficult to find one anymore.
At three, the Switch is still finding new audiences to delight, and there are no signs of the system slowing down. That says a lot about the strength of Nintendo’s IP and its philosophy of making unique and fun games which is always the greater priority over graphics.
How many people are really looking at the Animal Crossing on their TV and thinking “no thank you, it’s not in 4K” or Paper Mario: The Origami King and dismissing the Switch because the graphics don’t have ray tracing? Literally nobody. Players come to Nintendo for quality IP, innovative titles, and long-lasting gameplay (hello Super Smash Bros. Melee!), not graphics.
If you take anything away from this somewhat lengthy analysis of Nintendo and defense of the current Switch, it’s that Nintendo is very much focused on fresh gaming experiences beyond the polygon gloss. Who else would come up with a game like Ring Fit Adventure? I concede that maybe Nintendo is simply upgrading the Switch's display from 720p to 1080p and the dock can upscale 1080p to 4K resolution on a TV, but that's hardly a "pro" feature.
So no, Nintendo doesn’t need to sell you a Switch Pro with 4K. It could coast on the Switch for a few more years so long as it keeps rolling out interesting games and Pokémon. No game makes graphics irrelevant as much as Pokémon. What Nintendo should address in upgraded Switch hardware is the Joy-Con drift issues that still exist. Or how about adding built-in Bluetooth support so people can use their AirPods without some silly third-party dongle? Or Netflix? The Wii, 3DS, and Wii U (friggin' Wii U) had Netflix, but the Switch doesn't? It makes no sense. There are a dozen things Nintendo should add to a Switch Pro. 4K and a processor bump should be at the bottom of the list.