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.

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