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Nintendo Switch's lowest resolution games tested - and how a next-gen successor could boost image quality

Plus: Ark Survival Evolved revisited ahead of its Switch revamp.

The Nintendo Switch wasn't pushing the envelope in terms of performance when it launched with an modest Tegra X1 chip back in 2017, but its relatively modern graphics meant that the system could run recent titles without a massive development effort. On the flipside, its meagre levels of compute performance - a necessary compromise for a power-limited mobile device - often required big sacrifices to rendering resolution. With the Switch reportedly soon to be replaced by a successor, we thought we'd survey some of these efforts to see just how low-res the most demanding titles got - so just how low can the Nintendo Switch go?

First, some ground rules. We've evaluated these games by their lowest typical resolution, in portable mode, with full 3D graphics - but note that this is meant to be 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 854x480 in portable play, with no anti-aliasing. When you're at a resolution this low, AA sometimes hurts more than it helps, so you will notice that several of these titles drop the technique entirely. In practice, Crash Team Racing looks quite messy in motion on the Switch - the screen is flooded with jagged edges. On the plus side it does look fairly sharp, but it certainly does distract from what is otherwise a solid version of the kart racing remake.

Our video explains why some Switch games look blurry - it's all about finding a balance.Watch on YouTube

Not quite so sharp is one of the most technologically impressive of Switch's 'impossible ports' - conversions that manage to squeeze a top-end title onto Nintendo's power-limited hybrid console. Most visual settings have been scaled down fairly elegantly - but there's no hiding the cut-back resolution, which drops as low as 810x456. The Witcher 3 is a slower-paced game that renders detail into the far distance, and really demands a much higher level of precision in my view. By default, there's a fairly mediocre post-process AA enabled that does a decent job of cleaning up the image at the expense of some blurriness. Interestingly, many of the game's settings can be disabled, including AA. With everything dialed down, 576p seems like a more common typical resolution, and the game can actually reach a full 720p in some scenes - a big improvement from the default, albeit at the cost of some key features. Regardless of the options you pick however, this isn't a particularly clean experience - open world titles benefit enormously from pixel-precise detailing and Nintendo's console is simply not up to the task.

We can go much lower than this, however. On paper, Mortal Kombat 11 is one of the most ambitious Switch conversions out there. It's a full-fat conversion of a sophisticated 60fps fighting game, and critically retains that 60fps target even on Switch. There are plenty of settings downgrades of course, but the slashed resolution is the most visually conspicuous problem. MK11 renders at just 682x384 at lowest, which you'll typically see during cutscenes and fatality moves. Perhaps sensibly, AA is dropped as well here, which gives the title a chunky but sharp look. This is a title that ships with clear compromises, but manages to deliver something special - a modern fighting game at 60fps on mobile hardware. I tend to find that titles that 'lean in' to a lower-resolution aesthetic scale pretty well on the small portable Switch screen. When games try to hide reduced pixel counts, through techniques like TAA, lower resolutions sometimes stand out more, paradoxically. Modern AA struggles to resolve clean detail at very low pixel counts, which is an issue highlighted in our next title.

The Witcher 3 is one of the best "impossible ports" for Switch. Watch on YouTube

Doom Eternal, alongside 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 portable. In general, these ports retain most of the visual features fundamental to the engine but sacrifice frame-rate. Doom Eternal is perhaps the least complete, with cuts to key post-processing features like depth of field and motion blur. Moreover, the dynamic res system is put under serious strain, dipping to just 360p at its lowest in portable mode - and with TAA that produces a soft, messy image. It's still an impressive port, but you get the sense that this is probably about as far as the Switch can be pushed before image quality completely slips away.

For evidence of that, just look at WRC 8. The WRC games are somewhat infamous on Switch thanks to massive compromises relative to their home console counterparts. WRC 8 packs more background detail than later entries, but perhaps as a consequence, image quality suffers. Again, this title dips to 360p at lowest, with resolutions often hovering not much above. Making matters worse, there's some aggressive sharpening at play, which serves to highlight the game's image quality faults. With a more careful reworking I imagine 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 surveyed my substantial Switch library, which contains over 400 titles, I found it difficult to find anything that actually went below 360p. Perhaps that's for a good reason - with half the resolution on each axis, games that render at 360p are actually rendering at one-quarter the overall pixel count of the Switch's built-in screen. That's a very low resolution indeed and it seems like a sensible floor for dynamic resolution scalers. However, I did manage to find three titles that do offer sub-360p rendering.

John Linneman investigates Doom Eternal's hellish - or more accurately, heroic - appearance on Switch. Watch on YouTube

A Short Hike is one of those games, a charming indie adventure offers a resolution of 426x240, or just 11 percent of 720p. The super-sharp but low-res approach harkens back to the 3D rendering common on systems like the Nintendo DS. Stylistic concerns are key here - I can't imagine the Switch is particularly taxed by this title, and other platforms display the game at similarly low resolutions.

The next game is equally low-res, but for perhaps less noble reasons. Ark: Survival Evolved is a notoriously low-quality port, with awful image quality and miserable framerates. At lowest, I counted a resolution of 384x216, which is a mere nine percent of 720p - though it may go lower, depending on content. TAA is used to try to clean up the mess but makes the game look worse - this is simply too few pixels to work with. Ark looks more like a painting than a game. Odd decisions have been made here too, such as including demanding post-process techniques like screen-space reflections and screen-space ambient occlusion - typically the first effects removed for a Switch port.

Fortunately, there is good news - Studio Wildcard has taken the nearly unprecedented step of commissioning a brand new re-port of the game to Switch. Early offscreen footage looks promising, showcasing big improvements to draw distance and framerate. We'll have to wait and see exactly what the final release looks like of course, but it already appears like a substantial upgrade.

Ark: Survival Evolved is a legendary game in Digital Foundry lore. It's getting a revamp but the latest version of the OG version is re-tested in the lead video above. Watch on YouTube

There's one last title to discuss - the absolute lowest resolution 3D game I could find on Switch. Retro shooter throwback Dusk renders at 720p by default on the Switch's display, a perfect match for the panel with very good image quality. Delving into the game's advanced display settings, however, and you can set the resolution as low as 1/8th on each axis. On the Switch's 720p display that means a resolution of just 160x90, or an astoundingly low 1.6 percent of 720p.

With a resolution beneath most graphing calculators, the game itself is borderline unplayable in this mode. There's no AA and nearest-neighbour scaling seems to be in use here, just like with A Short Hike, evenly scaling up the image by representing each virtual pixel with 64 display pixels. It's a curious and amusing option that's worth fiddling around with for a few minutes if it's in your library. However, it's worth stressing that the default mode is an excellent 720p - this one only makes the list thanks to the lower resolution options. It's in here almost on a technicality, therefore.

In terms of true performance-constrained low-res rendering however, the winner of this exercise has to be Ark: Survival Evolved. I couldn't find any other graphically sophisticated titles that came close to matching Ark's dismal pixel counts. With a basket of modern rendering features, performance-sapping open world simulation, and with perhaps less care and attention from the development team than it deserved, Ark shows the Switch simply pushed too hard - and we geniunely can't wait to see the much-improved revamp coming soon.

This got me thinking: how might a future Switch cope with similar challenges? I suspect advanced reconstruction techniques, like AMD's FSR 2.0, will be the key. These techniques produce more detailed images with 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 tech is a tantalising possibility. We'll have to wait and see, but if Nvidia can deliver a tuned version of DLSS suitable for a SoC that might only consume a few watts in portable play, that could give the system enough breathing room to handle more complex current-gen titles. Even still, there are likely to be many other hangups - storage speed, RAM, and CPU power among them - but perhaps there may be room for new "impossible ports" on future hardware that don't make such stark image quality concessions.

On a more basic level, upgraded hardware could potentially revitalise some of the more challenging software from the Switch's existing library. Recent Microsoft and Sony systems have given older software the ability to run with higher clock rates and greater access to system resources. A hypothetical "Switch 2" might allow older games to run like this, maximizing frame-rate and dynamic resolutions in the process. Of course, that all depends on Nintendo following industry conventions, of which there is no guarantee - but at least years of modding reveal that most games run perfectly fine with system-level overclocks applied.

For now though, the Switch remains a great hybrid system that can still deliver good-looking graphics on the go - some software simply pushes the console too hard.

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