The Nintendo Switch was underpowered when it came out six years ago, but that doesn’t stop The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom being one of the biggest game releases of all time.
Next Friday one of the biggest gaming events in recent memory, and arguably one of the biggest of all time, takes place on a six-year old console, the Nintendo Switch that was considered underpowered when it first appeared on 3 March 2017. But for the millions of players waiting for The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom to drop, the number of pixels and polygons on the screen is way less important than what they depict and there’s probably a lesson in there for all of us; you can chase resolutions as much as you like, but it’s the content that really counts.
Phil Rhodes made a similar point after this year’s NAB, stating that “the tech is so good that technique is even more of a differentiator than it ever has been.” And while it’s difficult to equate a multinational giant of an entertainment corporation, even such a wilfully eccentric one as Nintendo, with a spare room auteur, what has happened with Tears of the Kingdom is fairly remarkable. Even more so when you consider it in the context of the huge advances in realtime raytracing seen with Unreal Engine 5 and people claiming a game is faked because it looks too photorealistic.
No one is going to accuse OKTOTK of photorealism. Its washed out colour palette and heavily stylised, very animated look is the polar opposite of a photoreal first-person shooter, and much of it is done to enable the game to run on the Switch’s limited hardware.
The Switch features a custom Nvidia Tegra X1 chipset (a chip which first debuted in 2015) and has a meagre 4GB RAM and 32GB flash storage (though the Switch OLED, released a couple of years ago, bumped that up to a still parsimonious 64GB). It can display 720p at up to 60 frames per second in handheld mode, and 1080p at up to 60fps in docked mode.
That’s all it can do too. Even if the actual graphics performance of the unit is undercooked in the extreme, the Switch can’t even output what it can produce in 4K while the gaming grail of 120fps is a very distant dream. And that 4GB RAM can make load times feel like ad breaks on network TV, especially from the slow game cartridges; seriously they can go on for ever.
It should not have been a success. Based on that hardware profile it certainly should not have sold 122.5 million units (and counting), only lagging behind the Playstation 2 and the Nintendo DS in the all-time rankings of console sales. But it has because Nintendo has always realised that it is gameplay that counts.
Building on Breath of the Wild
One of the launch titles accompanying the switch was The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, TOTK’s immediate predecessor. Yes, even in 2017 other games at the time looked more technically proficient, but Nintendo squeezed everything it could out of the console to make a game that was considered genuinely groundbreaking and is a mainstay of all-time top 10 video games lists.
The key to BotW’s success, and why many are still playing it six years after launch, is it is a genuinely open world game. See something, you can climb it. See something in the distance, you can travel towards it. It has as much linearity as you want with a complex main story line, but that’s really only just the start of it. You can deviate from the story at any time and busy yourself with any number of side quests or just explore the massive landscape.
And Nintendo put a lot of thought into that landscape. Some open world games rely on procedurally generated landscapes, but Nintendo added another layer of genuine design on top of them. Triangles feature heavily as they give the player two choices, whether to go straight over or round, and designers can place objects behind them that are therefore revealed slowly as the landscape is traversed (not to mention lowering the stress on the Switch’s graphics processing)
Six years on, people are still finding new ways to play the game; an achievement for Nintendo considering its a solo game with no online multiplayer component but also not that much of a surprise as you can complete the main story line and still find yourself at only just over 30% completion. The record time for being able to assemble all the ingredients to bake a loaf of bread, for instance, is 15m 38s, which requires split second timing, mastery of all sorts of arcane playing techniques, and even the exploitation of the odd glitch to work. And for more on glitches have a look at the frankly insane examination of the current speed run record for completing the whole game in 23m 51s below.
Having spent many hundreds of hours in the game myself (315 hours for an 85% completion rate, since you ask), it would be easy for me to rhapsodise for several thousand more words about the wonderfulness of it all — not to mention the sheer evil that is the Rohta Chigah Shrine — but that’s not the point. The point is that Nintendo created a silk purse of a game to run on a sow’s ear of a console and it looks like the company has done it again with TOTK by concentrating once more on the gameplay experience.
Doubling down on gameplay
Despite the odd leak, a week from release there are more thing that we don’t know about TOTK than we do. One of the things we do is that the journalists that have been able to spend a couple of hours with a special pre release build of the game and a limited new map say that it runs at 30fps docked most of the time, but performance sometime dips when certain in-game abilities are used.
This might, of course, be sorted for release, but more people have wanted to talk about what the game does and how it plays; specifically how it lets you join two elements together to create new objects, and build vehicles and more in an agreeably intuitive take on the crafting element of many titles; how vast the environment looks with whole new aerial (and potentially subterranean) elements to the Hyrule map; and how the game presents you with problems and allows you to work out multiple ways to save them. If Breath of the Wild was a triumph that cemented the reputation of the Switch platform, then early impressions are that Tears of the Kingdom might be able to beat even that stratospherically high bar.
And that it will do so on hardware that is probably less capable nowadays than the phone in your pocket is a remarkable achievement. But it shows the wisdom of making the most of what you have got; of making the experience the best possible for the end user and not just chasing numbers, be they polygons or resolutions around the screen. It’s the triumph of creativity and technique over technological limitations. Hey, it’s the triumph of Link over Ganondorf if you want to put it like that.
There will be a Switch 2, of course, but as yet Nintendo has not announced anything official and best guesses run everywhere from later this year to it being a couple of years’ out still. Realtime raytracing? Probably not. Chances are that the Switch 2 will be as underpowered compared to the current generation of consoles as the Switch was to its compatriots in 2017.
But given the lengthy development cycle of a game such as TOTK, it will inevitably have been built to run on a forthcoming Switch 2 as well, and maybe then we can experience the Kingdom of Hyrule in 4k or 60fps. That though will just be a bonus; it’s the gameplay that really counts and the main event starts next Friday, a mere 2260 days since the Switch first hit the shelves.