Nintendo banks on great art style to make up for weak hardware

Nintendo banks on great art style to make up for weak hardware Metroid Dread Zelda

Nintendo Switch OLED was unfortunately not the hardware upgrade that many of us were waiting for. Off the heels of a killer E3 Direct, there were hopes that the rumored Switch Pro model would be a much-needed shot in the arm for the graphics of games such as Metroid: Dread. However, the situation isn’t all bad. Games like Advance Wars 1+2: Re-Boot Camp and the sequel to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild still looked refreshing and beautiful thanks to vibrant art styles. Gamers have complained about the underpowered Nintendo Switch holding back various games from their real graphical potential, but in cases like these, a unique art style can make up for that difference. Does it always work out that way?

Nintendo hasn’t focused on graphics in generations

Nintendo hasn’t made the graphics of its consoles a priority for a long time, basically since Wii but starting as early as Game Boy, and its visuals have lagged behind those of the competition for multiple generations now as a result. Instead, Nintendo focuses on achieving new innovations with each console such as motion controls with the Wii or portability with the Switch. Looking at the financial successes of the company, it’s hard to dispute the results of such a strategy.

wii bowling for some reason, Nintendo banks on great art style to make up for weak hardware

This approach is likely why Nintendo has tried to create games that stand out with more unique art styles, to make up for the shortcomings of its hardware. If Nintendo’s brightest developers can still garner praise and attention this way, then it gives the company time to go wild with other experiments such as Nintendo Labo or Ring Fit Adventure. Even when the Nintendo Switch OLED model has been released, its hybrid nature will still be a bigger selling point than its crisp screen, and that’s telling of where Nintendo’s priorities for the future may lie. However, how do first-party games made with all of this in mind fare, especially when compared to third-party exclusives?

The exclusive story

Nintendo unsurprisingly makes great use of its own hardware, and its games have stood the visual test of time as a result. The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker’s cel-shaded style has aged far more gracefully than those of other games of that era, including the more realistic The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. Games in the Kirby and Yoshi franchises have been successfully experimenting with different art styles for generations now, and the Paper Mario series’s aesthetic is also timeless. More contemporary games such as Mario Kart 8 Deluxe or Splatoon 2 have opted for a clean and colorful Pixar-esque style, and in the same vein as those, Luigi’s Mansion 3 is debatably the best-looking game on Switch.

EGLX 2018 Wind Waker

However, some of Nintendo’s first-party games have definitely benefited from an HD upgrade. Titles like Super Mario Galaxy and Xenoblade Chronicles looked fine-to-great upon release, but the HD remasters of both games demonstrate that they were long past due for an upgrade. Similarly, the water color style of The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword was let down by the standard-definition Wii hardware, and its HD re-release goes a long way towards rectifying that.

Third-party exclusives can be a mixed bag. Excellent examples like MadWorld’s black-and-white violence, Astral Chain’s neon anime vibes, Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle’s bold colors, and even Capcom’s sublime use of the RE Engine in Monster Hunter Rise showcase the best of what third parties can do. On the other hand, Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity’s technical performance is a far cry from Nintendo’s own standards, and even recent Pokémon entries have been panned for underwhelming visuals. Nintendo’s exclusives often benefit the most from creative art direction and even succeed in spite of it, but what about the multiplatform space?

The third-party problem

Nintendo and its third-party partners often make up for underwhelming hardware with unique art styles, but multiplatform games are rarely in the same boat. Every new multiplatform release on Switch is scrutinized for its graphics, and it’s not hard to understand why. Notable releases such as Apex Legends, Doom Eternal, or The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt are commendable for working on Switch at all. But unless Switch is your only console or portability is important, most players would recommend these games be played on stronger hardware that more fully exploits their technical potential.

In the indie space, multiplatform games fare better, likely since they often have less demanding graphics and depend more upon unique art styles in the first place. Titles like Cuphead or Ori and the Will of the Wisps transitioned to Switch without missing a beat. If Nintendo’s exclusives and indie hits can make the most of the available hardware, then whom would a hypothetical Switch Pro benefit? The answer is the AAA multiplatform space. Titles like the aforementioned Apex Legends need better hardware, and it would be in Nintendo’s best interest to appease multiplatform developers in order to maintain the fantastic third-party support it’s been receiving in the Switch generation (even if games would of course still need to be able to run on the original hardware as well). Better internals could also of course iron out issues with first- or second-party games like the frame rate problems in Age of Calamity, but the games are selling well enough that this might not be a priority for Nintendo.

Unique art styles can make up for the shortcomings of Nintendo’s hardware, but limitations inevitably appear from time to time. Ultimately, it’s multiplatform games that suffer the most, as those developers don’t have the luxury of creating a unique Switch version of their games.

Do you think a good art style is enough to make up for Nintendo’s hardware?

Chirag Pattni
Psychologist and long time gamer. Has a love-hate relationship with technology and enjoys all things Japanese.