Before we get into the premise and inspiration of this blog, let me say I think Tears of the Kingdom is a masterpiece. It's a technical marvel, and I have enjoyed almost all I have played of it. Its seamless transitions from the underworld and sky environments provide one of the most satisfying gameplay loops I have experienced in a modern game. Accidentally stumbling upon new mechanical creations or unorthodox solutions to missions or puzzles has been endlessly gratifying. And at the end of the day, exploring its rendition of Hyrule is profoundly moving and awe-inspiring at times, which is no easy task considering it is a sequel and parts of what you seek out are retreads of environments and themes from Breath of the Wild. Tears of the Kingdom provides you with a sandbox where you honestly feel that no single playthrough will ever be the same as your mindset when approaching its tools and situations is always bound to be unique. By all means, it is a work of art and a testament to the creative prowess of those working in Nintendo's internal studios.
Nonetheless, I want to posit a slightly negative takeaway that has been abscessing inside me since I reach the game's midpoint. Again, I want to relay a slight disclaimer that I don't want what I am about to postulate to take away from whatever joy you or others have derived from Tears of the Kingdom. However, while I relish the game, it represents, to me, the best possible endnote one could make for the Nintendo Switch as a console. And before anyone thinks this is going to be a long scree about the game's lack of graphical progress compared to Breath of the Wild or a series of grousings about the usual open-world bugs or framerate issues, rest assured, I am an invidious individual, but I respect your time. While some of that factors into my belief that Nintendo shouldn't dedicate further resources to development affixed to the platform's original SKU, something beyond that has been bugging me. For example, I would like to know how this hardware and controller allow Nintendo to continue to innovate and refine its core portfolio. Nintendo can only make a word larger or denser than in Tears of the Kingdom if they have new hardware that allows them that privilege. That is unless they want that game to be a flaming dumpster fire.
You Get The Sense The Switch Is Buckling At This Point
Most Switch devices in households are the original SKU dating to 2017. The critical issue is that the Switch's system-on-chip (i.e., SoC) is a first-generation Nvidia Tegra X1, with the OLED model sporting a modified update. I'm not DigitalFoundry, but we are now five generations removed from the Tegra X1 based on Nvidia's mobile SoC development timeline. Furthermore, everything you play on your Switch uses a CPU operating below 2 GHz, runs on 4 GB of RAM, and utilizes MultiMediaCard memory. I speak for everyone that it is a technical miracle that Tears of the Kingdom looks and runs as well as it does, considering it runs on six-year-old hardware. The game's issues with maintaining a stable framerate whenever there is a lot of water or significant fire effects on the screen become more understandable when you recognize it's using the guts of old mobile phone or tablet technology. The other issue with the Switch stems from its baseline memory. The original Switch still only sports 32 GB of SD Card-based memory with a slight bump to 64 GB if you have the OLED model. Yes, affordable memory cards are out there. Nevertheless, that doesn't change the fact that Nintendo and ANYONE developing a title for the Switch by decree must assume that whoever is purchasing their titles has 32 to 64 GB at their disposal. With Tears of the Kingdom crossing the halfway mark regarding memory requirements, the idea that Nintendo can continue to avoid memory inflation is utterly ridiculous.
More importantly, there's no denying that, as beautiful as Tears of the Kingdom is at times, the Switch shows its age. Everyone I have talked to who has played the game has at least one story of a vehicle or gadget they created phasing out of existence, without warning, before their eyes. Some might dismiss this as a graphical glitch, but after it happened to me a second time, I feel it is more a sign the game and its hardware cannot process past a certain number of objects or actions before you start seeing the game experience brain farts. And there's no denying that there are performance impacts to Tears of the Kingdom having a larger world with more complicated tools at the disposal of its players. More elaborate fights consistently dip below twenty frames per second. Nintendo had those same performance issues with Breath of the Wild, but they continued to trudge on with their enormous sandboxes with lush forests and intricate seas and lakes. Their creative aspirations are not in line with the hardware they were working with, but this is not a new phenomenon. Virtually every prior Nintendo or third-party title on the Switch has similar issues at times. If the Zelda team couldn't find an outright solution to these issues with a game sequel that got six years to bake, then no one is finding these solutions.
And yet, series director Eiji Aonuma has reiterated that Tears of the Kingdom's format will likely be the blueprint for the series' future. Let's be honest for a minute. A new Zelda doesn't come out before we see a hardware revision or successor to the Switch. Nintendo knows that; I know that; you know that. Flat out, the worlds the Zelda team wants to create cannot get bigger or denser with this technology. It will be challenging for its design leads or directors to explore alternate art styles or aesthetics if Nintendo continues to drag its feet regarding hardware. Furthermore, the buzz in the industry is that other divisions and branches in Nintendo are privy to many of the ideas and successes that Nintendo EPD and Aonuma's team experienced with Tears of the Kingdom. However, I have a hard time imagining other development teams, Nintendo or otherwise, being able to replicate the dark magic Nintendo EPD did in getting the world of Hyrule we see in Tears of the Kingdom to work on the Switch. How many other third-party studios have six years to spare and the collective brainpower Nintendo has? As I will discuss in another point, most development studios love the Switch's massive user base, but there are signs that many more are tired of working around the Switch's limitations. So, the likelihood of anything coming close to topping Tears of the Kingdom is slim.
The Esoteric Design Of Tears of The Kingdom Highlights A Need For A New Controller
I must be careful how I word this because my previous attempts at expressing my feelings about Tears of the Kingdom's control scheme were met with instant hostility elsewhere. Certainly, Tears of the Kingdom is a fun game, and I'm not disputing that. Nonetheless, I do feel like its esoteric design and open-ended gameplay butt up against the Switch's default controller. First and foremost, there are plenty of examples in Tears of the Kingdom where there are not enough buttons on the controller when you dock the console. The "wiggle the right stick to un-fuse something" is the first example that jumps to mind regarding something the game asks you to do repeatedly that I desperately wish you could do by pressing a button. However, when I look at what every single input on that controller already does, I have no idea how you would map that without jeopardizing the player experience with another similarly necessary and repetitious action. Then there are the critical player actions that must be mapped to alternate positions because of gameplay triage. I cannot begin to list the number of times I kept hitting L to try and switch to a different weapon when I needed to use the D-Pad instead, but it drove me crazy even though I understood why that was made the way it was.
Yet, there are other times when the game's controls are broken apart with granularity when they probably shouldn't. I am still trying to understand why the default control scheme has Link's sprinting and horse sprinting on different buttons, but that was the wrong call. Similarly, it annoyed me to no end when I would be holding an item in the menu, and while navigating my fingers, I accidentally tapped B, which exited me from the menu and caused me to redo everything I was doing. To the design and programming team's defense, there were few viable answers or solutions to avoid this problem. When the Switch first launched, it was focused on micro-games and titles that still valued Nintendo's love for waggling shit. Also, at that time, we all thought it was incredibly "cute" to break apart the default controller and have friends play with you using just a Joy-Con, but that got old real quick, and now more ambitious titles like Tears of the Kingdom are paying the price. Even then, the controller still feels unwieldy at times, with you needing to reconcile that sometimes, you're just bound to hit the wrong thing while your hands navigate the big hunk of plastic that is the Switch.
No matter, there are other more pressing occasions when the controls feel unwieldy, and the Switch's controller is the prime culprit. Sure, there are times when the game's clunkiness can be squarely pegged on Nintendo being Nintendo. The best example of that has to be Nintendo continuing to be the last stalwart of the right-face button being "accept." However, there are plenty of times when the game needs you to go to the menu to follow Byzantine steps to complete straightforward actions that feel like they should be simple button presses. To highlight, throwing weapons sucks. There are only a few times when you are outright forced to do this, but I need to look up the proper steps every time. The fact it is NOT just Select Menu -> Select the item you want to throw-> Hold the item -> Use R drives me crazy. Instead, as most of you know, you need to have the article you want to throw at the ready, hold the throw button, hold UP to select the item you want to throw, and finally wait for Link to switch to that item so you can throw it. Bopping in and out of menus needs to be done in this game because there are few alternatives. Every button on the Switch Controller already has a purpose, and if you want to fix one command, it must come at the cost of another.
Nintendo Needs To Figure Things Out When It Comes To Its Relationship With Touchscreens
This section will be the briefest of this blog because I'm confident I can get my point across in record time. For those of you who are younger, I want to take you back to when Nintendo made video game devices with good touchscreens. I know it sounds unbelievable, but hear me out on this one. The year is 2012, and Nintendo releases the Wii U, a pretty mediocre platform. It's not terrible, and it even had some memorable gems. Still, it was poorly marketed, and Nintendo's communication on what it was and how it was an upgrade from its predecessor was awful. It also never had good third-party support. But, it had an incredibly high-quality touchscreen that made menu-based games a seamless affair (e.g., Mario Maker). Nintendo also had the 3DS in its portfolio, which had an even better, more importantly, responsive touchscreen. Flashforward to today, and Nintendo, and everyone for that matter, has completely stopped giving a shit about using the touchscreen on the Switch. The reason for that is simple. The touchscreen on the Switch is dog shit, and playing docked is preferred for more substantial titles like Tears of the Kingdom.
These points are not a secret, hence, why so few developers use the touchscreen in any capacity. I have had resistive touch screens on PDAs that felt more responsive and intuitive to use than the Switch's touchscreen. The consequence is that there are a LOT of fiddly menus and inventory management that honestly would have been a lot better and more intuitive to butt up against if I could tap on the screen and get things done. When I think of things I wish I could tap on a screen to complete, the radial menus for picking whichever tool you want to use come to mind. It's wild to believe this is an issue because Breath of the Wild was a Wii U title that did not have this problem. Nevertheless, I know 90% of the people reading this are bound to chime in that they only ever play this game docked. Fine, but that's ignoring the reckoning Nintendo needs to face about which direction they wish to go in the future with their Switch successor. Will they try to split the difference and make another portable console hybrid? Probably. But then you have to consider how that impacts your development ambitions in the future. Likewise, an entire SKU (i.e., the Switch Lite) is all handheld. Are only one out of five Switch users going to play Tears of the Kingdom undocked? Sure, but that's still 20 to 30 million people, and leaving them behind is shitty.
There Will Be TotK Imitators, But Developers, Especially Small Indie Outfits, Are Already Skipping Switch Ports
For my final point, I want to emphasize how Nintendo cannot plan a better console swan song than Tears of the Kingdom. With this game having thoroughly pushed the hardware to its limits, I desperately hope the company has made a selection for its next generation of hardware. If any of its core development studios are busy working on four to five-year projects on the Switch hardware, then that's all but a waste of their time. Furthermore, what more is there to do with the console at this point regarding innovation? Ring Fit Adventure rejuvenated the world of fitness games; Splatoon 2 and 3 rocked the multiplayer front; Fire Emblem: Three Houses spearheaded innovations in the tactics genre where even Firaxis is taking notes from it; Animal Crossing: New Horizons was the greatest Pandemic pick-me-up; Super Mario Odyssey was a masterclass in modern 3D platforming while finding innovative ways to honor its progeny; Super Smash Bros. Ultimate continues to dominate the genre its franchise pioneered and spawned countless cheap imitators; Breath of the Wild practically redefined modern open-world game design. When you also consider the console has ELEVEN Pokemon games, including spin-offs, In that regard, Tears of the Kingdom feels like a victory lap more than anything else.
And other development outfits are aware of that last note. Review the number of canceled Switch games on Wikipedia; you might be shocked at how few titles are on the list. Nonetheless, there are some notable games on Wikipedia's state-sanctioned list, like Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire, Pathfinder: Kingmaker, Final Fantasy XV, and Marvel's Midnight Suns. Looking at that list, you'll notice some commonalities with each canceled title. For one thing, you'll see a growing number of developers that are actively following tech, software, and hardware improvements in the world of video game development. The Switch's comparatively ancient architecture often makes adapting products from developers following recent tech and software innovations daunting, especially for smaller indie outfits. You might look at some of the games I listed and chime in, "But ZombiePie! Most of those games are PC games!" First, everything I listed, besides Final Fantasy XV, has an Xbox or PlayStation port that is very much comparable to the PC version. Second, let's also not forget that several upcoming titles are simply skipping having Switch releases even if the console has a massive customer base. Our very own Jeff Grubb has said that the rumored Final Fantasy IX Remaster will not have a Switch release due to its development team not believing there's a viable way to make their game work on the platform. The Switch deserves credit for fostering greater indie game representation than its predecessors. With the console, Nintendo dramatically lowered the barrier to entry for its digital storefront, but these technical limitations are courting a very particular style and type of indie game.
It's not just prominent studios with big AAA titles that aren't excited to grease their gears to work on Nintendo's highly successful but aging console. As odd as it might sound, the most requested Switch release continues to be Genshin Impact, and if it doesn't happen in 2023, it's not happening. And think about that one. If Epic can find a way to make Fortnite work on the Switch, what's miHoYo's excuse? Part of it is a reluctance to work with the Switch hardware knowing there's likely something new coming around the corner, and a belief that the compromises made to get something to work on the Switch aren't easy. Vampire Survivors was the most heralded indie game of 2022, and there's no sign it will ever come to the Switch. While the game employs a simple 2D art style, I think we all understand it's a resource-intensive game that would take considerable work to run satisfactorily on 4 GBs of RAM. I get that Nintendo EPD got a game far more complex and ambitious to run on the Switch, but again, not everyone making games has the time and brainpower Nintendo is willing to burn. And even if they have people still excited to work with the console, I don't know that I want them to. I'd rather their big pie-in-the-sky ideas go unimpeded without butting against as many technical limitations as they are running into right now. So, let Tears of the Kingdom be how we say goodbye to the Switch. The present and future are bright; here's to more cool things like it!