Back when the Nintendo Switch was still the 'NX', we asked the community about their priorities in the great 60fps / visual fidelity debate. Perhaps as a result of our poll wording, or because most people want everything all at once, in general the majority of respondents wanted games both good looking and boundary pushing, with 60fps also a priority. Here's the thing though - you can't often have both.
Now, beauty is in the eye of the beholder - for example I've been replaying Super Mario 3D World recently, and at some points I think it looks gorgeous. This despite the fact it's upscaling from 720p, but the fluidity of movement at 60fps combined with some smart visual design and a colourful aesthetic is terrific. This is something Nintendo did well on Wii U, with examples including Mario Kart 8 and Super Smash Bros. for Wii U, the latter of which was even native 1080p.
Of course, technology moves on apace. Due to some crafty bargain hunting following the early death of my old TV I got a solid 4K TV a while ago, before clocking the fact that my options of utilising Ultra HD were limited to streaming TV shows (or paying over the odds to rent 4K movies). Rather like going back to playing a Wii game a few years ago, going back to early-ish Wii U games shows how our eyes reflect expectations - what wowed me in 2012 / 2013 may not wow me any more.
Another example is with The Last of Us Remastered on PS4 - I thought the original on PS3 looked great, then loved the near-60fps and improved visuals on PS4, and then recently played it on my old PS4 with HDR (high dynamic range) enabled. Playing it minus HDR would now disappoint me, my eyes looking for more vibrant colour.
Shifting expectations are deadly for technology companies, and I've been following the reaction to the PS4 Pro with interest. I don't have one, and have been wrestling over whether it's worth the money. Some are happy, and clearly went in with realistic expectations on what the Pro can do, but the 60fps vs graphics debate has also been prominent. As the system's CPU boost is modest - again, to allow sane pricing - a lot of games boast of native or upscaled 4K but are limited to 30fps (or struggle with 60fps targets). In a few cases games are currently performing worse when outputting at 4K on Pro than they do on vanilla PS4s, which is naturally not part of Sony's plan and will likely be tackled in software updates. In plenty of cases, though, the gameplay experience is the same, but with sharper and more visually arresting graphics.
Some titles, often it must be said remasters or less graphically taxing games, do target both 4K and 60fps, fulfilling the dream normally reserved for those with pricey PC rigs. Other games offer a choice - upscaled 4K (or even 1080p) with a target or locked 60fps, or native full-fat 4K at a lower framerate threshold. I'd be fascinated to see data on what Pro owners with 4K displays are choosing in these cases - these options epitomise the visuals vs. performance battle.
Though there are exceptions, the reality with quite a lot of console gaming is 30fps in exchange for attractive visuals. We all get used to different things, but one of my complaints as an individual with the PS4 / Xbox One generation has been the effort to make trees look more realistic but often with disappointing performance. I've also praised Nintendo in the past for (mostly) prioritising smooth performance over eyeball-popping textures; it's clearly been a philosophical choice, depending on the game.
It does matter what genre a game is, of course. Large-scale adventure or open world games generally go for visual splendour to immerse players, which in Nintendo's case will surely apply to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild; Pikmin 3, too, went for pretty visuals at 30fps. The Wii U BoTW demo we played in the summer was struggling to hold 30fps, but the hope is that it'll be better on Switch, plus it was also an early build. Platformers, shooters and sports games, however, should really focus on the smoothest framerate possible, as quick reactions are key; many, to be fair, still do. As we often see though, compromises made by developers rarely satisfy everyone, no matter how much PR spin is applied. Ubisoft was mocked in 2014 for claiming that 30fps was more 'cinematic', based on a bizarre comparison to the refresh rate of films. The difference is you don't control a film's lead protagonist and rely on them to jump promptly on command.
What the talk around PS4 Pro, and to an extent the so-called Microsoft 'Scorpio', demonstrate is that the technological arms race is always being lost by consoles. Every console, the moment it's released, is immediately out of date, like the declining value of a new car once it leaves the sales garage. While the Steam-driven PC game industry is here, consoles will always be a compromise, unable to match hulking rigs that enthusiasts build. Consoles are always the cheaper, more convenient choice.
For Nintendo, the Switch offers an interesting conundrum in the face of this graphical battle. Pitched as a 'home gaming system', it's really a portable, with the power driven by the tablet-like handheld console. Utilising a custom chip of NVIDIA's Tegra technology for its GPU, it could do impressive things within its limitations, depending on multiple factors and its other innards. As the 'Shield' systems show, the technology aims to drive strong performance with modest power consumption, all as efficiently as possible within a portable device. That's all nice, but the reality is that the Switch, probably like the Wii and Wii U before it, will probably not offer developers the same grunt and resources they get on other 'home' consoles.
This is where expectations come into play - the Switch could be pretty impressive as a portable device, competing on a technical level (potentially) with high-quality tablets and smartphones. Plug it into the dock to play on a 50-inch TV, though, and will the results then feel underwhelming? Perspective and expectations are everything.
The focus for Nintendo, and third-parties, will therefore be interesting. We can be confident, if Wii U taught us anything, that tentpole first-party games will deliver strong performance and visuals that push the system's capabilities - with third-parties, though, it will likely be inconsistent. Nintendo's marketing of the hardware will also be vital - if it's a 'home gaming system', it has to perceivably deliver enough quality to satisfy those gaming primarily on their TVs, at least proving passable to modern eyes used to impressive graphics and high definition. It'd help if the Switch can at least support 4K TV streaming through apps like Netflix and Amazon Prime - which isn't unrealistic, actually - just so it can say it has a small hat in that ring.
Concept and performance will likely have to be the selling points for the Nintendo Switch, with Sony and Microsoft scrapping over the 'hardcore' 4K and HDR gaming trophies. As with every gaming console, there will be compromises.