Let’s Complain about the Nintendo Switch

Note: While I was writing about the potential Wii U backwards compatibility on the Switch I neglected to take into consideration that there is an option to play Wii U titles exclusively on the Wii U gamepad, which resolves one issue I brought up. That said, I still don’t believe we’ll be seeing backward compatibility on the Switch.


Recently, Nintendo announced their new… console? Portable gaming platform? Whatever it is, there isn’t a whole lot known about it outside of what we saw in the promotional video.

Google search results for backward compatibility on the Switch.
Google search results for backward compatibility on the Switch.

Let’s address the biggest “issue” I’ve seen popping up lately: The Switch is not backward compatible with the 3DS or Wii U. In a nutshell, no shit. The 3DS and Wii U are both dual-screen systems, so where this expectation came from that a single-screen system would support dual-screen games is beyond me.

Granted, Nintendo does have a history of supporting old games and hardware on new systems. The Super Nintendo could play Game Boy games and the GameCube could play Game Boy, Game Boy Color, and Game Boy Advance, though both had their own issues and required extra hardware. The Wii supported GameCube games and controllers natively due to the Wii simply being a faster GameCube, and the Wii U supports Wii games, Wii controllers, and even GameCube controllers with a USB breakout box. While not officially supported, it’s even possible to play GameCube games on the Wii U through some software hacking. Even the Super Nintendo was going to have backward compatibility with the original NES, at first natively, then through a hardware add-on, but proved cost prohibitive.

So why not support backward compatibility on the Switch? Let’s start with 3DS compatibility. The Switch has enough buttons to properly replicate the 3DS controller, but still only has one screen. In theory, it could be possible to use the Switch’s screen as the lower screen and your TV as the upper screen, but Nintendo has dispelled that already by designing a docking station (which is how you get video to your TV) that completely obscures the Switch’s screen. Additionally, the idea that 3DS games would be supported but only in very specific circumstances doesn’t make much sense.There’s also the issue of hardware differences between the Switch and 3DS. It hasn’t been confirmed if the Switch even has a touch screen, something an overwhelming majority of 3DS games require, or at least make use of in some way, which puts a huge limit on the number of games that can be played.

Traditional backward compatibility comes from similarities in CPU architecture. Like I stated above, the Wii uses the GameCube’s CPU to achieve perfect compatibility. The PlayStation 2’s CPU is vastly different than the original PlayStation’s CPU, so they included a PlayStation CPU inside the PlayStation 2 for purposes of backward compatibility. Due to CPU changes between the original Xbox, Xbox 360, and Xbox One, backward compatibility between generations was achieved through software emulation (that is, software pretending that it’s hardware, allowing the game to play on hardware it wasn’t designed for). Emulation was not available when each console launched, not all games were supported, and many which were supported exhibited graphical and performance issues. So if we apply that logic to the 3DS and Switch, sure, Nintendo could possibly get software emulation working on the Switch, but with potentially iffy results, a poor user experience, and the fact that the Switch provides no additional benefit over just using a 3DS, there is literally no reason Nintendo should support this.

Analogy of backward compatibility where it doesn't belong.
Analogy of backward compatibility where it doesn’t belong.

So what about the Wii U? All the CPU architecture and software emulation stuff still applies, so I’m going to skip over that part. The biggest reasons I could see this not happening are the storage medium (Wii U uses a proprietary disc format) and, again, lack of a second screen.

The Wii U stores its games on a 25-gigabyte disc that is similar to, but not, Sony’s Blu-Ray discs. The Switch doesn’t have an optical drive. See a problem? It’s not like Nintendo would let you rip your games from your Wii and transfer it to your Switch. Not to mention that we don’t know if there is a touch screen or motion controls (though the announcement of Just Dance suggests that this might be happening). Lacking either of these features would break plenty of games. Speaking of motion controls, the system is supposed to be portable; who in their right mind is going to be using motion controls on an airplane, at the park, or even in their own living room? How about four- and five-player games? On a 6-inch touch screen? No chance.

All of this isn’t to say that there won’t be any backward compatibility. Nintendo could breathe new life into their Virtual Console service, allowing players to play older portable games… portably. Kirby’s Dreamland on Game Boy? Pokemon LeafGreen and FireRed on Game Boy Advance? There’s even the potential for Nintendo 64 and GameCube titles to be played on the go, not to mention non-Nintendo systems that are already supported like the TurboGrafx-16 and Neo Geo.

The most important point to consider, I think, is that we already have devices that perfectly play 3DS and Wii U games: They’re the 3DS and Wii U. If these are the systems you want to play just by those systems. You’ll save money and have a much better experience.

Okay, so what else are people complaining about? Battery life. In this article from Forbes, contributor David Thier says “It would appear to be a pretty powerful machine for the size, and that doesn’t come cheap power-wise. So we’re going to need a machine that gives us 5+ hours of playtime — if we’re short of that, we’re going to have a problem.”

Hello? We’re going to need 5+ hours of play time? Okay, hang on. We need to talk about use cases. Computers and game systems don’t use a constant amount of electricity; it varies depending on what you’re using the system for. This Gizmodo article tests Apple’s claims of 10+ hours of battery life on the original iPad. With approximately 50% video watching and 50% gaming, they got just under 6 hours of battery life. What’s important to note here is that the iPad’s twin battery is massive. Yes, processors have become more efficient and battery capacities have grown, but it gives you a realistic expectation. CNET claims 3-5 hours of game time from both the PlayStation Vita and 3DS. The Switch looks to be quite a bit more powerful with a bigger screen, resulting in more power consumption. I think David Thier is going to have a problem, but only because of unrealistic expectations, bordering on entitlement.

The last issue I see people complaining about is price. We don’t know all the details about it; we don’t know what all it can do. Is the screen 720p? Does it output native 4K? Upscaled 4K? 1080p? What is the quality of the graphics? Last-gen console? Top-of-the-line tablet? We don’t know anything about what we’ll actually be looking at come March, so making blanket statements about “It can’t cost more than…” really doesn’t make any sense.

Let’s all just take a long breath, exhale, and just take what we know at face value.

Of course, the most important thing we know is that a new GameFreak-made Pokemon game is coming to the Switch.

Retro Gaming in the Modern World, part 1

You know that feeling when you start to look up something on WebMD and you start to panic because you think you have some terrible disease? That’s kind of what happened to me when I started looking up retro gaming video quality. My WebMD, in this case, was the My Life in Gaming RGB Master Class. I had been doing a lot of research on playing retro games on modern displays, but my only modern display was a Panasonic plasma TV, which is not ideal for retro games due to the risk of image retention and burn-in. As luck would have it my large CRT has started to act really strange when it first turns on and has only been getting worse. The replacement for my failing CRT handles retro games with surprising grace but still falls flat in a few areas. To address those issues I’ve purchased a video upscaler. Why not just plug in my consoles and let the TV do it’s thing? Well, that takes a lot of explaining. In part 1 we’ll address some of the technical information we need to know before diving head-first into what the scaler does.

Pixels, Sub-pixels, and Resolution

An example 4-pixel by 3-pixel display with each red, green, and blue sub-pixel shown.
An example 4-pixel by 3-pixel display with each red, green, and blue sub-pixel shown.

When an image is displayed on a screen you’re actually looking at small squares called pixels (short for ‘picture elements’) that, when viewed from a distance, make up an image. On top of that, each pixel is made up of three sub-pixels, each one displaying either red, green, or blue (RGB). Colors are created by changing the brightness of each red, green, and blue sub-pixel individually. For example, if red and green are at full brightness and blue is completely darkened you get a bright yellow.

Standard definition is 480i, or 480 lines (rows) of horizontal resolution with interlaced video. Interlacing displays only the odd lines of a video frame (1, 3, 5…), then the even lines of the next (2, 4, 6…). Modern displays are typically 1080p, with 1,080 lines of horizontal resolution with progressive scan. Progressive scan means the whole image is drawn in a single pass, on every line, rather than alternating the lines. The result is a much better quality video when there’s fast motion or scrolling test.

It should be noted that I’m only mentioning horizontal resolution. This is because the vertical resolution, or the vertical rows that made up the image, could vary wildly. Even the true resolution of standard-definition was much wider than what the TV was able to display, and some games ran at wider resolutions than other, even though the horizontal resolution was the same.

Retro game consoles only had the processing capability to generate 240p video, which, despite being a non-standard resolution, TVs were able to display without issue. It wasn’t until the Sega Dreamcast that consoles could display 480i and 480p images. Most modern TVs are able to accept and display a 240p image, but they see this non-standard resolution as 480i and attempt to deinterlace an image that is not interlaced to begin with, ironically making the image appear interlaced and introducing other potential issues. This can be as minimal as a blurry image, but can also interfere with flickering transparency effects, effectively making some sprites and characters disappear when taking damage. The process of upscaling this “480i” signal to 1080p can also introduce input lag, making time-sensitive games like MegaMan or Beatmania impossible to play.

Connection Types

So now we understand what makes up a picture, but how does that picture get from the console to the TV? When the console generates each frame of video it leaves the image processor and enters a digital-to-analog converter (DAC), which turns the video into a signal that the TV can display. The quality of the video that gets sent to your TV depends largely on two things: the quality of the DAC, which you can’t change, and the connection type used, which you usually can.

RF adapters

RF adapter for the Nintendo Entertainment System.
RF adapter for the Nintendo Entertainment System.

There was a time where many consumer TVs in the United States only had a single input for their video; the coaxial connection also called the antenna connection. This was used for both over-the-air TV signals as well as cable TV signals and was often the only way to plug in your video games. Internally the game system would convert the video signal, which is digital when it’s originally created, converts it to an analog signal, then sends it to an RF (radio frequency) adapter which converts the analog signal to another kind of analog signal that, to the TV, looks just like a TV broadcast. If you remember having to use radio adapters to listen to your iPhone in your car, it’s the exact same thing but with a physical connection. The signal was also susceptible to interference from other devices, like TV broadcasts, which would create distortions and ghost images. All this, combined with cramming all the audio and video information into a single cable, really took a toll on the image quality.

As a side note, even if you wanted to connect your console to your modern high-definition TV, many no longer come with analog TV tuners (since it’s no longer used in the US), so this may not work at all.

Composite

Typical composite cables, red and white for audio and yellow video.

Where RF combines audio and video data into a single connection, composite only transmits video data; audio is transmitted over one or two separate RCA cables (white and red). Picture quality is greatly improved because there’s less information to transfer over a single connection, there one less signal conversion and the connection is not susceptible to the same interference as RF. A lot of newer TVs support composite, but not s-video, so for some situations, this may be the only connection type you can use.

This connection is also referred to as “AV” or “RCA”, though RCA the physical connection type and doesn’t refer specifically to composite video.

S-video

S-video cable, carrying separate chroma and gamma .
S-video cable, carrying separate chroma and gamma .

S-video, short for ‘separate video’, splits the video signal into two connections: one for color information and one for gamma (brightness) information. Composite video carries both of these signals on two separate frequencies. These signals can interfere with each other, causing blurriness in the image. Separating these into their own connections means they cannot interfere with each other, providing a higher quality image.

If your TV supports it, S-video is typically the way to go. Most consoles support it and it’s typically the best video quality you can get with a very minimal investment.

Component

Component cables for YPbPr video. Audio cables not shown.
Component cables for YPbPr video. Audio cables not shown.

The correct name for this connection is YPbPr, but is known largely as ‘component’. It carries video over three separate RCA cables; one for gamma, (which is basically a combination of the red, green and blue color information), one for gamma minus red, and one for gamma minus blue. Green is created by subtracting red and blue from the gamma information. It’s also possible to carry an RGB connection over this connection, which the PlayStation 2 has the option to do, but most TVs don’t support this option.

For consoles with AV multi-ports it should be possible to get YPbPr video by using a SCART cable with an SCART-to-component adapter, though your results may vary depending on the console and TV used. You’ll also be getting 240p output, so you’ll end up with similar blurring, interlacing, and input lag issues that you would get with composite and s-video.

What’s the Result?

I took a screenshot of Super Mario World and did some Photoshop work on them to give you an example of the kinds of image quality differences you can expect with each connection. For a more real-life comparison check out the RGB Master Class series.

So What’s the Solution?

There’s a group of video products called scalers that take standard-definition and output them at 720p and 1080p. Most of these devices are expecting a 480i signal, so while you might have less input lag and other issues caused by the TV’s misinterpretation of the 240p signal, you might still end up with some distortion. Common issues are halos around sprites from heavy-handed sharpening and image stretching to fill the TV screen. While there are plenty of options out there, the best so far seems to be the Micomsoft XRGB Mini, also known as the Framemeister. This piece of hardware was designed specifically for 240p video, allowing for proper, distortion-free scaling. Mine was just delivered today, and I’ll be documenting my experience with it as soon as I’m back from Korea.

Another solution is console-style emulators like the Retron, but I’ve never liked that solution. Yes, it uses cartridges, but there’s nothing authentic about the feel of it, the controller is garbage, there’s apparently some amount of input lag, and I already have a PC to connect to the TV, so why pay for an emulator that you could legitimately download for free?

There’s also official emulation from Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft, as well as backwards compatibility from newer consoles with higher quality output. Some consoles offer perfect compatibility, like playing PlayStation games on a PlayStation 2, but the Xbox 360’s emulation of original Xbox games hit hit-or-miss, but usually ‘miss’. Having a single solution that solves all my video issues, rather than a dozen bandaid solutions, is the better option for me, and the HDMI-out from the XRGB Mini also allows for easy capture of extremely high quality video for streaming or recording gameplay videos.