Nintendo just announced its newest console, the Nintendo Switch, which will be coming out next year. Long-rumored and much-anticipated, the Switch isn't quite a console and it isn't quite a handheld. It's the best of both worlds. Whether you play it on the go like a Game Boy or plug it into your TV like a Gamecube, the Switch will run the same games and make them look great on screens of either size. It's practically magic.
Nintendo whipped up a few attention-grabbing modular tricks to make this happen. For instance, it has controllers that bolt onto either side of the portable screen but can be removed and used on their own if you're hooked up to a TV.
But the real star of the show is something you can't see, something buried deep inside the Nintendo Switch's very core. It's the that makes it go. It's a chip that's been slowly improving, battle-tested in devices that have been pulling the Switch's showstopping trick for years. The bones of the Switch have been in plain site all along. You just didn't notice.
You Gotta Have the Guts...
The idea of a console that works on the go and on a TV is an obvious one, but it's impractical without the right kind of guts. The chip that provides all the graphical horsepower needs to be small enough to fit in a handheld gaming machine you'd actually want to carry around. But it also has to be powerful. It takes a lot more computing power to make a game look pretty on a giant TV than it does to make one run well on a phone-sized screen.
Nvidia is perhaps best-known for its PC graphics cards that run the top-tier gaming machines required for gadgets like the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive. But in the past few years, it's been exploring smaller fare. It all started in early 2013 when Nvidia released a weird little gadget called the Shield that used Nvidia's Tegra chip for brains.
The was more than a little strange, but the chip—Nvidia's take on the type that powers phones and tablets instead of PCs—was the secret star. It was small and efficient enough to fit in a handheld, but powerful enough to run games that looked great, and run them in high enough resolution that you could stream them to a TV. It was our first real glimpse of the trick that makes the Nintendo Switch look so great. It just didn't have the modular controllers, the stylistic fit and finish, or a historic brand name.
The Shield itself never quite took off, but Nvidia kept refining the tech. Over the years it has released new versions of the clamshell device, , and finally, also called The Shield, which uses Nvidia's to function like a little Android-powered game console. The whole line was extremely impressive, but it never really caught on for one important reason: There wasn't anything worth playing.
...And You Gotta Have the Games
Until now, Nvidia's Tegra has been used exclusively in Android devices, and Android just doesn't have great games. Sure, it has Threes and Pokemon Go and Candy Crush and all that, but not much on the level of real consoles like the Xbox or Playstation, or real handhelds like the Playstation Vita or Nintendo's 3DS.
Meanwhile, Nintendo has had the games, but not the tech. After decades of domination in home consoles and mobile systems, Nintendo has a bench of games that's almost absurdly deep, including ones that work on the big screen or on the go. We're talking Mario, Zelda, Metroid, and Kirby when it comes to the old standbys, as well as more modern classics like Smash Bros., Fire Emblem, Splatoon, and Pikmin. That's just scratching the surface.
In recent years—pretty much since the wild success of the original Wii starting in 2006—Nintendo's actual hardware has been underpowered. The Wii had Wii Sports and other blockbuster hits, but never really had the horsepower to handle the Call of Duty and Skyrim titles that were melting faces on the Xbox 360 and PS3.
The Wii U couldn't stop the technological backslide. The confusingly named console hinted at a wonderful future of mi mobile and handheld, but ultimately fell sort. Ports of popular, high-tech games were promised, but often fell through because of the console's lack of horsepower. Meanwhile, Wii U's unwieldily and large screen-controller let you play games on the go, but . In the end, Nintendo was left with a beefy stable of properties living on lackluster hardware.
So Switch It Up
The Nintendo Switch is a perfect solution to both company's biggest problems, but more importantly, it is—potentially—the perfect game console for 2017. The age of the smartphone almost destroyed the handheld gaming market, because who needs a Game Boy when you've got a phone? But the Nintendo Switch isn't some phone; it's got some of the best, most-loved games out there and the horsepower to play them well.
That probably wouldn't be quite enough on its own. But with , the Switch will be powerful enough to run games on a TV screen as well. Will it be able to play the newest whizz-bang shooter that comes out on Xbox One, PS4, and PC? It's unclear right now, because Nintendo has yet to announce a lot of the details on its new machine, but it seems unlikely. Especially when you consider both Microsoft and Sony are already prepping more powerful versions of their previous consoles.
But with one of the most graphically-powerful mobile chips around, the Nintendo Switch will be both small enough to use on the subway and powerful enough to plug into your TV, complete with some of the most-loved and best franchises in video game history. It's a perfect match of tech and games, and it's been hiding in plain sight all along.