Another week, another fresh batch of Switch rumours. The most recent include renewed whispers from the Wall Street Journal concerning potential hardware revisions for your favourite ‘homeheld’. The paper reported back in October last year on Nintendo’s potential plans to introduce a smaller, portable-focused model in 2019 – a rumour to which Nintendo issued the standard “nothing to announce” statement back in February – but sources now suggest that two new SKUs (say that quickly five times) are on the cards.
If these rumours turn out to have real substance, that would mean three different versions of Switch available to purchase. On the surface, that might seem like a bad idea - while consoles invariably see updated iterations across their life cycle, three variants of a handheld that's only just celebrated its second birthday is surely going to confuse the general public. Of course, Nintendo has form when it comes to marketing upgraded/downgraded versions of handheld hardware, as evidenced by the convoluted 3DS family tree and its confusing mixture of 'New' prefixes, 'XL' suffixes, and numbers that go down instead of up. It's fine for people like us who keep on top of these things, but it's not immediately obvious to a non-gaming parent that the original 3DS is technically inferior to a New 2DS. That's a problem that needs to be managed carefully. The long-rumoured Switch ‘Mini’ – a cheaper model without detachable Joy-Con or HD rumble – would presumably be aimed at the exact market that the 2DS theoretically caters for at the moment, so it's imperative that Nintendo doesn't muddy the waters too much.
That said, a smaller, more durable SKU continues to make eminent sense, especially now that it’s finally safe to say that 3DS has left the building. While the portable loitered around the exit for a good while, launch sales of Bowser’s Inside Story were abysmal and Switch’s popularity seems to be crossing over into the younger demographic. In addition to Nintendo’s usual line-up of family-friendly software, things like Labo are explicitly targeting that audience and a 3DS under the tree this holiday season could well result in Christmas tears (although we’d be more than happy with one of those Super Nintendo XL models, if you're reading Santa).
The 3DS will continue to exist as a sub-£100 option for families on a budget, but unless it lurches back in classic zombie style for one last swing, it looks like Kirby’s Extra Epic Yarn will be the handheld’s final encore. A new, smaller Switch around the £180/£200 mark – with a more robust design to better withstand being dropped in the footwell on a long car journey – would take over its role very well. Just – whatever you do – don't stand in front of a mirror and say "New Nintendo 2DS XL" five times.
Central to making the console more ‘childproof’ (and smaller) would be the rumoured integration of the Joy-Con into the main housing. Presumably you’d still be able to dock the console and link standard Joy-Con wirelessly; many games like Super Mario Party require detachable Joy-Con and we highly doubt Nintendo would create new hardware that prevented you from playing (and more importantly, buying) existing software.
The removal of the HD rumble motors could reduce the form factor of the casing while keeping a similar sized battery – a sensible option for a portable-focused variant. Having the controllers permanently attached should also save juice that would otherwise be used for wireless communication. Assuming this smaller version could still connect to a TV, it might require an ‘adaptor’ to work with the existing dock, but then Nintendo has never shied away from charging for extra plastic accessories. Cha-ching!
There are plenty of other ways Nintendo could make a cheaper model even more attractive – how many iterations of the 3DS did you go through? There’s no reason to think we won’t see multiple colours or perhaps even detachable plates like the non-XL New Nintendo 3DS, especially if it’s marketed as a model for younger gamers. We never did get our hands on those beautiful hanafuda card faceplates.
All that’s well and good, but it’s this second supposed SKU that gets our pulses racing. Rumoured to have ‘enhanced features targeted at avid video gamers’, it’s this version that will apparently appeal to the enthusiasts. What exactly could ‘enhanced features’ mean, though?
Well, we’ve looked before at potential improvements that we think any revision could benefit from – including a reduced bezel and better screen – but WSJ’s sources state that this ‘Pro’ model is more than a ‘New Nintendo 3DS’-style revision. Now, the New 3DS did still get a minor specs boost which resulted in better performance and a very small selection of exclusive titles that wouldn’t run on an original model, but the main Nvidia chip that powers the Switch – the Tegra X1 – was getting a little long in the tooth when the console launched. The logical upgrade would be to replace that with a chip based on the X2, or something even newer.
So, how could this effect games? Could an upgrade to the main chip make, for example, 4K output possible? With the falling price of Ultra High-Def TVs arguably making them the default purchase when buying a new television nowadays, there are certainly gamers – us included – who would be very interested in a Switch ‘Plus’ that incorporated upscaling to output an image that looks better on 4K displays. While we’d argue that native 4K rendering is still out of Switch’s league for the time being, we’ve seen checkerboard rendering solutions produce excellent results on PS4 Pro when the content itself is output at sub-UHD resolutions.
To be clear, we’re talking about some sort of baked-in solution that would apply to all software – we’re not suggesting for one moment Nintendo are working on a portable to rival the power of PS4 Pro or Xbox One X. The WSJ article states explicitly that parts suppliers and developers who have seen the prototype hardware confirm it will not be as powerful as Sony and Microsoft’s more hardcore offerings. That sort of performance from a mobile chipset simple isn’t practical in 2019, certainly not at consumer-friendly prices, but we don’t think it’s unreasonable to speculate that the extra juice from an upgrade could be used to make your Switch library look a less jaggy when blown up on an 2160p display.
In addition to a larger screen with a reduced bezel around the edge, a potential Switch ‘Pro’ might offer ‘docked‘ performance in handheld mode, making a 1080p screen viable for the portable. Other upgrades could be applied to ‘Pro’ or ‘Plus’ versions of the Joy-Con – how about analogue triggers to use with (crosses fingers) GameCube games or an in-built microphone? Sticks that don’t drift would be a start, and obviously any upgraded controllers would be compatible with the existing Switch.
Rumours suggest this new hardware will be announced at E3 this year – and with signs that Microsoft are looking to ‘go big’ at the event (and with details on PS5 surely coming this year), it makes sense for Nintendo to maintain its current momentum with its hybrid console. Whatever happens, segregating the player base with these potential revisions would be unwise – fragmenting the audience between those who can guess the number of ice cubes in their Joy-Con and those who can’t even remove their Joy-Con would be a mistake, only stalling the progress the console is making. For that reason, we expect any new hardware to integrate fully with existing software and accessories.
But, hey, Nintendo is capable of pretty much anything. Whatever the company has up its sleeve, it looks like it’s going to be an exciting (and expensive) year, but it will take some careful messaging to differentiate between its offerings, especially if the Nintendo Switch 'family' is going to look anything like the 3DS equivalent.
Which of these two revisions would you prefer to see become a reality? Share your thoughts on these rumours below.