The Nintendo Switch wasn’t pushing the limits in terms of performance when it launched with a modest Tegra X1 chip back in 2017, but its relatively modern graphics meant the system could run recent titles without a lot of development effort. On the other hand, its meager levels of computing performance, a necessary compromise for a power-limited mobile device, often required large sacrifices for rendering resolution. Since the Switch is reportedly soon to be replaced by a successor, we thought we’d examine some of these efforts to see just how low resolution the most demanding titles got, so how low can the Nintendo Switch go?
First, some basic rules. We’ve rated these games for their typical lower resolution, in handheld mode, with full 3D graphics, but please note that this is intended as a sampling rather than a definitive list.
The first game I looked at is firmly in standard definition territory. Crash Team Racing: Nitro Fueled renders at 854×480 in handheld play, no anti-aliasing. When you’re at such a low resolution, AA sometimes hurts more than it helps, which is why you’ll notice a number of these titles ditching the technique altogether. In practice, Crash Team Racing looks pretty cluttered in motion on Switch: the screen is awash with jagged edges. On the plus side, it looks pretty sharp, but it certainly distracts from what would otherwise be a solid take on the kart racing remake.
Not So Sharp is one of the more technologically impressive ‘impossible ports’ of the Switch: conversions that manage to squeeze a high-end title into Nintendo’s limited-power hybrid console. Most of the visual settings have been reduced quite gracefully, but there’s no hiding the reduced resolution, which drops all the way down to 810×456. The Witcher 3 is a slower paced game that shows details in the distance and demands a much higher level of precision in my opinion. By default, there’s a pretty mediocre post-processing AA enabled which does a decent job of cleaning up the image at the expense of a bit of blur. Interestingly, many of the game’s settings can be turned off, including AA. With everything scaled down, 576p seems like a more common typical resolution, and the game can hit 720p in some scenes – a big improvement over the default, albeit at the cost of some key features. Regardless of which options you choose, though, this isn’t a particularly clean experience – open-world titles benefit greatly from pixel-precise detail, and Nintendo’s console just isn’t up to the task.
However, we can go much lower than this. On paper, Mortal Kombat 11 is one of the most ambitious Switch ports out there. It’s a complete conversion of a sophisticated 60fps fighting game, and it critically maintains that 60fps goal even on Switch. Of course, there are many downgraded settings, but reduced resolution is the most visually visible problem. MK11 renders at only 682×384 minimum, which you’ll typically see during cutscenes and fatal moves. Perhaps sensibly, AA is removed here as well, giving the title a thick but crisp look. This is a title that ships with clear compromises, but manages to deliver something special: a modern 60fps fighting game on mobile hardware. I tend to find titles that ‘lean’ to a lower resolution aesthetic scale quite well on the Switch’s small portable screen. When games try to hide a low pixel count, through techniques like TAA, lower resolutions sometimes stand out more, paradoxically. Modern AA struggles to resolve clean details at very low pixel counts, which is a prominent issue in our next title.
Doom Eternal, along with Panic Button’s other id Tech 6 games: Doom 2016, Wolfenstein 2, and Wolfenstein: Youngblood, are some of the most impressive efforts on Nintendo’s handheld. In general, these ports retain most of the core visual features of the engine, but sacrifice frame rate. Doom Eternal is perhaps the least comprehensive, with cuts to key post-processing features like depth of field and motion blur. In addition, the dynamic resolution system is put under a lot of pressure, going down to just 360p at its lowest point in portable mode, and with TAA that produces a soft and messy image. It’s still an impressive port, but you get the feeling this is probably as far as the Switch can be pushed before image quality slips away entirely.
For evidence of that, just look at WRC 8. WRC games are somewhat infamous on Switch thanks to massive compromises relative to their home console counterparts. WRC 8 contains more background detail than later entries, but perhaps as a consequence image quality suffers. Once again, this title drops to 360p at a minimum, with resolutions often not much higher. To make matters worse, there’s aggressive sharpening at play, which serves to highlight the game’s image quality flaws. With more careful reworking, I imagine the image quality could be improved; perhaps a re-implementation of key rendering systems to better suit the Switch would give the game enough headroom for higher resolution rendering.
When I sifted through my substantial Switch library of over 400 titles, I found it hard to find anything that was actually sub-360p. Perhaps for good reason: With half the resolution on each axis, games rendered at 360p actually render at a quarter of the total pixel count of the Switch’s built-in display. In fact, that’s a very low resolution and seems like a reasonable floor for dynamic resolution scalers. However, I managed to find three titles that offer sub-360p rendering.
A Short Hike is one of those games, a charming indie adventure that offers 426×240 resolution, or just 11 percent of 720p. The super sharp but low resolution approach harkens back to 3D rendering common on systems like the Nintendo DS. Stylistic concerns are key here – I can’t imagine the Switch being particularly encumbered by this title, with other platforms displaying the game in similarly low resolutions.
The upcoming game is similarly low-res, but perhaps for less noble reasons. Ark: Survival Evolved is a notoriously low-quality port, with horrible image quality and miserable frame rates. At a minimum, I counted a resolution of 384×216, which is only nine percent of 720p, though it may be less, depending on the content. TAA is used to try and clean up the clutter, but it makes the game look worse – there are simply too few pixels to work with. Ark looks more like a painting than a game. Strange decisions have been made here too, such as including demanding post-processing techniques like screen space reflections and screen space ambient occlusion, usually the first effects removed for a Switch port.
Thankfully, there’s good news: Studio Wildcard has taken the almost unprecedented step of commissioning a new game report for Switch. The first off-screen images look promising, showing big improvements in draw distance and frame rate. We’ll have to wait and see exactly what the final release looks like, of course, but it already looks like a substantial update.
There’s one last title to discuss: the lowest resolution 3D game I could find on the Switch. The throwback of the retro shooter Dusk renders at 720p by default on the Switch screen, a perfect match for the panel with very good image quality. However, by digging deeper into the game’s advanced display settings, you can set the resolution as low as 1/8 on each axis. On the Switch’s 720p display, that means a resolution of just 160×90, or a shockingly low 1.6 percent of 720p.
With a resolution below most graphing calculators, the game itself is borderline unplayable in this mode. There is no AA and nearest neighbor scaling seems to be in use here, as with A Short Hike, uniformly scaling the image by rendering each virtual pixel with 64 display pixels. It is a curious and fun option that is worth playing with for a few minutes if it is in your library. However, it’s worth emphasizing that the default mode is an excellent 720p; this one only appears in the list thanks to the lower resolution options. It’s here almost on a technicality, therefore.
However, in terms of low resolution rendering with performance limitations, the winner of this exercise has to be Ark: Survival Evolved. I couldn’t find any other graphically sophisticated title that came close to matching Ark’s dismal pixel count. With a basket of modern rendering features, a performance-sapping open-world simulation, and perhaps less care and attention from the development team than it deserves, Ark shows that Switch was simply pushed too far, and we’re really looking forward to it. see the lot of upgraded -renewal coming soon.
This got me thinking: how could a future Switch deal with similar challenges? I suspect advanced rebuild techniques like AMD’s FSR 2.0 will be the key. These techniques produce more detailed images at low input resolutions. The elephant in the room is Nvidia’s DLSS. With Nvidia widely tipped to deliver future Switch chips, a version of Nvidia’s AI upsampling technology is a tantalizing possibility. We’ll have to wait and see, but if Nvidia can deliver a tweaked version of DLSS suitable for a SoC that only draws a few watts in portable gaming, that could give the system enough breathing room to handle more complex current-gen titles. . Still, there are likely plenty of other issues (storage speed, RAM, and CPU power among them), but maybe there’s room for new “impossible ports” on future hardware that don’t make such strict concessions on image quality. .
On a more basic level, the updated hardware could potentially reinvigorate some of the more challenging software in the existing Switch library. Recent systems from Microsoft and Sony have given older software the ability to run at higher clock rates and greater access to system resources. A hypothetical “Switch 2” could allow older games to run this way, maximizing frame rates and dynamic resolutions in the process. Of course, it all depends on Nintendo following industry conventions, of which there’s no guarantee, but at least years of modding reveals that most games run just fine with system-level overclocking applied.
For now, though, the Switch remains an excellent hybrid system that can still deliver compelling graphics on the go; some programs just push the console too hard.