Image: Genki

With a wildly successful crowdfunding campaign behind it, the Genki Shadowcast has every right to be seen as a must-have accessory for Nintendo Switch owners. Indeed, its status as one of the world's smallest capture cards makes it eminently noteworthy, and it comes with some other cool tricks which might not be all that obvious at first glance. However, despite the impressive technical feats this tiny device is capable of, it's difficult to shake the feeling that it's a solution for a problem which never really existed in the first place.

Before we get to that, though, it's worth explaining exactly what the Shadowcast is. It's a dongle which plugs into the HDMI port of your Switch dock (or any HDMI port, actually) and allows you to display the resultant image on your PC or laptop's screen. You can also capture gameplay footage and screenshots at the same time, making this one of the smallest (and cheapest) capture cards available right now.

The Shadowcast has a HDMI connector on one end and a USB-C on the other. Using the bundled USB-C to USB-C cable (which is of impeccable quality, we must say), you connect the Shadowcast to your computer (if you don't have any USB-C ports on your machine, worry not, as a USB-C to USB-A adapter is included if you opt for the $50 bundle).

Check out the detail on Link's gauntlets and hair; you can clearly see that the Shadowcast struggles when it comes to displaying the full colour gamut — Image: Nintendo Life

One of the most impressive aspects of the Shadowcast is that it doesn't require any drivers or software downloads – you really do just 'plug and play' with this thing. Because your computer treats the device like a webcam, you can use software like OBS to run it – but Genki recommends you download its 'Genki Arcade' app instead (available for Windows, Mac and Linux) as this, it says, offers a lower-latency connection that demands less CPU bandwidth. Genki Arcade displays the video image in a scalable window and allows you to toggle between 'Performance' and 'Resolution' modes (more on those in a second) as well as record footage or capture screenshots.

Genki's pitch is that the Shadowcast allows you to game when you don't have a TV handy. You can use your PC monitor or laptop screen as a display – which means you can have your Switch running in docked mode at your work desk, for example. Because it will accept any HDMI signal, you don't need to stop there – your computer can play host to your PS5, SNES Classic or Sega Astro City Mini, if you so wish.

The benefits might not be instantly obvious (especially with Switch, which has its own built-in screen), but it basically means that if you carry a laptop around with you, you've basically got a portable display for your games consoles – something which might prove to be very useful for people who don't have unfettered access to a large-format TV (university students living away from home or younger members of the family, for example). And if you're running a Mac, then you can even use the 'Sidecar' feature to stream the picture to your iPad for a wire-free experience which dwarfs the Switch's built-in screen.

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Check out the red on Mario's outfit; when running the Shadowcast, it appears more blown-out and harsh — Image: Nintendo Life

However, while this all sounds great on paper, there are some caveats to mention. As we touched upon before, the Shadowcast offers two modes. 'Performance' focuses on giving the best experience with the lowest latency (around 6 frames / 100ms, based on our admittedly crude calculations) which means it runs smoothly but offers a slightly smeary, compressed look. The latency present isn't going to make things unplayable, but for games like Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, it could be problematic. 60fps is the target frame rate in this mode, but we did notice some dips during gameplay. 'Resolution' mode, on the other hand, delivers a crisper (yet still not totally uncompressed) 1080p picture but drops the frame rate down to 30fps, with latency being even more pronounced. Needless to say, this is the mode you're going to want to use when capturing footage.

While 'Performance' is going to be perfect adequate for most people, it does rather beg the question – if you're having to make do with a low-quality signal, why not just use the Switch in portable form? Unless you can stomach the high level of latency seen in the 'Resolution' mode, you're simply not getting the same experience you would if you ran the docked Switch on a proper TV, or a portable 1080p monitor (obviously, those are items which cost a considerable amount of money and might not always been readily accessible, it should be noted).

Another problem relates to the image quality the Shadowcast gives you. The colour gamut is noticeably restricted when compared to lossless capture from the Switch, with shades mixing together in a way which compromises detail. Reds also appear to be quite harsh and saturated. All of these issues naturally have an impact on the quality of the capture this device is capable of, so don't expect the Shadowcast to outperform other popular capture cards on the market. Sure, it's fine if you're looking to snap a cool moment in-game to share on social media or your personal YouTube channel, but compared to what's expected from video game capture these days, the Shadowcast falls short – but then again, its big selling points are its tiny size, lack of software requirements and low price. There's a balancing act at play here, and whether you can live with the shortcomings is going to be down to personal preference.

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The character select menu in Smash Bros. shows just how bad the compression can get when using the Shadowcast — Image: Nintendo Life

Genki also makes it clear that the Shadowcast has other uses, however. You can, for example, use it to connect your DSLR camera to your computer and use it as a super-sharp webcam – something that will prove to be incredibly useful for some people, even if it's not related to video games. We've got a pretty terrible webcam in the Nintendo Life office which we'll be supplanting with the Shadowcast (and a Panasonic Lumix GH5) from hereon in.

But we're getting off-topic. The Shadowcast is certainly a neat piece of kit considering its price and dinky size, and it's an absolute breeze to get up and running – but the fact is that for capture it lags behind the rest of the market, and for gaming, it always feels like something of a compromise when compared to running stuff on a proper, dedicated display. If you've only got access to a PC or laptop in your room, then this might be an acceptable solution – and for $50, you could argue that you've got nothing to lose. It's just difficult to overcome the impression that, while the Shadowcast is a clever bit of kit, it's trying to scratch an itch which simply doesn't exist.

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Thanks to Genki for sending the Shadowcast used in this review.