Face-Off: Minecraft on Switch takes on PlayStation 4

Resolution is locked to 720p, but the package still compares favourably overall.

By Thomas Morgan. 19/05/2017

As one of the best-selling games of all time, Minecraft is available on virtually every relevant platform - but Switch is the first to bring seamless support for gaming both at home and on the go. Nintendo's console hybrid is powerful enough to offer Minecraft's top-tier visual feature set but at the same time, it also offers up anything up to four-player split-screen action, even in portable mode - something completely unique to this version. In practice though, just how does the experience stack up to the other console editions? And to set the bar as high as we can, can it compare favourably with the PS4 release?

There are some limitations, but Switch users can rest easy - it's an impressive conversion overall. This latest Minecraft edition arrives comes via 4J Studios, and is based on the full-fat console experience, complete with most of the visual bells and whistles you'll find on PS4. That includes the same texture quality, features like ambient occlusion, the smooth lighting mode, and cloud rendering.

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However, the one big drawback is resolution - as reported already, Minecraft on Switch does indeed operate at native 720p no matter how you play, and as usual with the series, there's no anti-aliasing whatsoever. Bearing in mind we're getting a true 1080p output from games like Mario Kart 8 while docked, it does come as a disappointment - at least at first. An update from Microsoft reveals that "[this] isn't a question of system power, but stems from issues currently experienced shifting from one resolution to another while docking and undocking."

It's a curious statement, because no other Switch game so far has had problems changing resolutions while moving to and from the dock, and such functionality should be built into the core system APIs - in fact, it's one of the core foundations of the entire system. Being able to tap into Switch's higher GPU clocks while docked is one of the system's key selling points, and a way to get more from a game when connected to an HDTV. Minecraft on Switch runs smoother when docked, so it's definitely tapping into the higher clocks available. We approached 4J Studios directly about this, who confirmed that "Minecraft: Nintendo Switch Edition is running at a native 720p in both docked and undocked modes. We are investigating supporting native 1080p when docked, as a possible future update."

We may or may not get 1080p in the end, but a few other interesting points were revealed in this exchange as well. For starters, 4J Studios confirms Minecraft is indeed using Switch's maximum GPU mode while portable, which Nintendo developer documentation we've seen pegs at 384MHz, compared to the lower, alternative 307.2MHz mode. Using these higher clocks, 60fps is a confirmed priority on Switch too, whether that's in portable mode or not. And to achieve this, all visual settings are kept precisely the same whether docked or undocked, except in one area: rendering distance.

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Rendering distance is easily one of the biggest factors in Minecraft's performance. Thousands of individual cubes draw simultaneously, but when you take Switch out of the dock, the game dials back this setting back to introduce more pop-in. To explain, one 'chunk' in Minecraft equals 16x16 blocks on the x and y axis, with a 256 block height. According to the developer's livestream, the Switch in docked mode renders 11 or 12 of these chunks overall. However, when in portable mode, that lowers to seven chunks.

In our video presentation, you'll see that difference in motion and it makes for a big contrast: whole buildings are in view while docked that only appear when you move closer when playing in portable mode. However, it's worth stressing that viewing directly on Switch's smaller screen makes the difference less apparent. Yes, you'll see barren areas ahead, but it's still a big step up over other portable versions of the game - for example, the Vita version only pushed out five chunks overall.

Focusing on the docked single-player experience, Switch's 11/12 chunk limit manages to hold up nicely against the PS4 and Xbox One versions, which both operate using 18 chunks. In built-up areas like the tutorial level, with lots of occluding buildings and mountains, it's hard to catch the difference - not impossible, but clearly the balancing point chosen by 4J works out well here. The only area where you'll really notice the limit is when flying around in the Creative mode, but that goes for all editions of the game to a certain extent. And for perspective, the PC version still trumps all others in this area, with the Windows 10 beta letting you run at a 22 chunk render distance - which largely eliminates the issue.