A Hardcore Shmup Player’s Thoughts on the Nintendo Switch

+ My Thoughts on the Switch Lite in Regards to Shmups

 

 

Just a few days ago Eurogamer released an article called “The Switch might be the best console for shmups since the Sega Saturn.” My first response to this article was: Hey! Someone in the mainstream is talking about shmups … maybe I can get him on my podcast? While reading the article, I was happy to hear how enthusiastic the writer, Martin Robinson, was about the genre. As much as I scrutinize things and bark at the moon, I’m glad to see that more people are creating content and talking about the genre outside my little corner of the internet. By the sound of things, it seems like Mr. Robinson has been a dormant fan of the genre since the Saturn days and something about the Switch has reignited his interest in the genre. That’s really great to hear and he doesn’t seem to be alone in that regard. I’m not going to lie, I was a little disappointed that my personal favorite shmup console, the Xbox 360, didn’t get an honorable mention somewhere as I do think it can go toe-to-toe with the Saturn and bests the PS2, but different strokes for different folks. They’re all great and they’re all worth owning, so let’s not go down that rabbit hole right now. I’ll leave a link for the Eurogamer article at the bottom of the page.

Anyway, from what I have noticed talking to people both inside the hardcore shmup community and out of it, the Switch is definitely making some waves for the genre. Love it or hate it, the Switch is a force to be reckoned with and something that I think can be leveraged for a positive use for all shmup fans, whether or not you own or have an interest in the console.

If you’ve been following my material for the past year or so, I’ve been playing a fun game of predicting the mainstream coverage shmup releases will receive once they arrive on the Switch. The pattern is so clear and predictable it’s not even a  party trick at this point. Danmaku Unlimited 3, Rolling Gunner, and soon M2’s port of Esp.Ra.De all went from being unknown and irrelevant outside the hardcore community, to receiving a fair amount of mainstream shine once they arrived on Switch. Rolling Gunner is the biggest example because, before the Switch port, I doubt more than a few hundred people had actually played the game (you had to order a physical version from Japan from a jank little website). There were days where I wondered if they had even received my order, but it arrived eventually.

Also, I’m going to take this opportunity to give a hint to anyone in the mainstream who decides to review Esp.Ra.De when it comes to Switch. Be sure to look into the arrange mode and see what adjustments were made to minimize the ridiculous milking problem the arcade version has. This will be a big selling point of the port to hardcore players and I personally feel any review of the port that does not look into this concern is incomplete.

Before getting to the Switch Lite, specifically, I want to talk about the Nintendo Switch’s relationship with the hardcore shmup community. As I alluded to above, the hardcore community (myself included), has a love/hate relationship with the Nintendo Switch, especially when it comes to how the hardware was designed. On one hand, the Switch does have a bunch of handy features that makes it surprisingly well-suited to shmups. For example, the Switch has detachable controllers and can be played in TATE using a flip-grip. It also has a large screen, relative to other handhelds, which makes seeing and dodging bullets actually possible. Nintendo’s strong focus on indie titles and the company’s devoted fan base also creates an environment where shmups that would normally be lost in the ocean of PC games (again, like Dan 3 and Rolling Gunner), now have a ridiculous amount of discoverability. There are also mainstream outlets, like Nintendo Life, who will pay attention and write about whatever comes to the console, shmups included. So in that regard, the Nintendo Switch is a very valuable platform for the shmup community. Whenever I talk to shmup devs, or whenever I talk about the subject on my podcast, I always try to encourage them to get their game on the Switch, the benefits and discoverability is too strong to ignore.

So these are the positive elements of the Nintendo Switch that stand out to me. There is also the cool fact that the Switch can play a ton of popular shmups (like Ketsui and Dodonpachi) with very solid performance via Retroarch, but I hesitate to recommend that to the average Switch owner because if Nintendo catches you with homebrew, even something like Retroarch, they will ban your console into oblivion.

As versatile as the Switch hardware is with its ability to be both a handheld and a console and all of that, it has some significant drawbacks that have to be noted. To not note these, or to pretend like they don’t exist, just because the Switch is a cool console (that I own and like, by the way) is to bury your head in the sand, at least a little bit. There are two big problems that I struggle with when it comes to using the console. I’ll start with the biggest problem the Switch suffers, which is the issue of input lag. Yes, it’s not an Electric Underground article if I don’t talk about lag. Seriously though, this is a real issue, even if you aren’t generally concerned about this type of thing. Over the past few years owning the Switch, I have really dug into this lag problem and have some findings that I think will clarify what exactly is going on with the console.

The first thing that needs to be understood is that the Switch suffers from additional lag on two fronts, via a controller issue and via a display issue. Of course, all consoles, especially modern ones, have problems with controller and display lag, but the Switch adds another layer of lag that other consoles do not. In regards to the controller lag, the most responsive way to control the console is with the Joycon attached. As soon as you take them off and control the console via Bluetooth, you have additional lag. However – and here is where this gets tricky – if you play the Switch docked, with a USB connection to the dock, this actually adds more lag than playing the Switch with a wireless controller. So a quick recap: direct attach Joycon is the most responsive; then wireless controls, either docked or undocked, are laggier, but not as laggy as the Switch in docked mode with usb directly attached. I have a theory on why this is that I will get to shortly. However, even if I am incorrect about the cause of why this happens, I do know that I am correct about the results. Below are links to my lag tests and such that you can check out:

 

http://electricunderground.io/shmup-input-lag-database/

 

My theory on why this happens is because when you have the Joycon attached, they’re interfacing with the console directly. When you are in wireless mode, then the Joycon are using Bluetooth (obviously) and the Switch seems to have slow Bluetooth. Finally, the reason why going through the dock via USB is so laggy is because the dock is a big old buffer between the controller and the console. First, the input needs to leave the controller; then, it needs to arrive on the dock USB; after that it needs to exit the dock and arrive on the Switch’s USB-C port, which, by the way, is also handling the video output. It’s just a long complicated mess. Below I have a picture which shows the input lag of the different setups under the best possible conditions (v-sync disabled homebrew on the native display).

*I understand that using 240p test suite does involve a human element of timing, but after repeated trials on the various setups the average time of each becomes more obvious and consistent than you would expect.*

These results all reflect the different ways you can connect a controller to the Switch and how that setup affects lag. Please note that the top left result, the “Direct C-Port” is NOT using the dock, this test is when I connected my arcade stick directly to the C-Port in handheld mode. For docked lag results, look at the link I provided above. Also, the numbers shown here are likely not the actual concrete input lag number, but they are very useful at providing a scale to compare the responsiveness of each setup. If I were to provide my overall impressions, I think it’s safe to say that direct attach is essentially lagless/comparable to other consoles. Wireless mode adds about half a frame of lag and docked USB adds an entire frame. Again, keep in mind that this is just the controller lag, there is still display lag that we need to reckon with.

Remember earlier when I talked about how the dock is a buffer that adds lag to the controls? Well it does the same thing to the video output. Based on my tests, I don’t think this additional lag is that high, but it is enough, when coupled with the controller lag, to cause an additional frame of lag before the video signal ever hits the display (which, itself, has its own internal lag). I have a very in depth explanation of all this on my lag database, so you all can check that out if you have any further questions, but what this all boils down to is that, in the most optimal setting (which most people are not using), the Nintendo Switch will always be a frame or two slower than its PC counterpart. It will likely be a frame slower than its PS4/Xbone counterparts as well, but I haven’t done enough testing on these platforms to be sure of that.

Also, even in handheld mode, you are going to experience about half a frame of additional lag over PC, because of the response time of the screen and v-sync. However, this really isn’t too bad for the most part and, when it comes to lag reduction, handheld mode is your friend. I’ll elaborate on this further.

Again, I have to emphasize that this one frame of additional lag while docked is in the best possible conditions. Most people are not playing in these conditions because you have to go out of your way to make this happen. This also only applies to cases where devs actually care about lag and have done a great job at keeping the lag as low as possible. In many cases, like the appalling ZeroDiv Psikyo ports, lag can get completely out of control and even render the games unplayable, from a shmup boi’s perspective. Understand, I have spent a good deal of time with the laggier ports and sure, if you really are just chilling, you can tolerate the first stage or two. But for the people who will reply to this article and say that the lag doesn’t matter, it’s not a big deal, show me a second loop Gunbird clear where the bullets practically spawn faster than the game can receive your inputs. Also … my heart goes out to the poor bastard who takes me up on that challenge ;-D

So that’s enough lag talk, now let’s move onto the second major issue I have with the Nintendo Switch: the lack of a d-pad or way to easily control shmups in handheld mode. Now, before your fingers attack the keyboard, I am aware of and own the Hori Joycon as well as the case mod for the stock Joycon, so be patient and I’ll go over why these don’t completely solve the problem. In the case of the Hori Joycon, it pretty much lives on my Switch and I think it’s a great way to control horizontal shmups in handheld mode. However, the Achilles heel of this device, as I’m sure you all are aware, is that it cannot be used with the Flip-Grip because it lacks a wireless mode. So when you want to take advantage of the Switch’s unique TATE handheld mode with the Flip-Grip, you are stuck using the stock Joycon. And while the case mod is a big improvement over the stupid C-Button design, it still is below what I would consider a quality d-pad. It has no rotation and it often bottoms out, so moving in an arc or a diagonal is messy and ugly. I’ve gotten so sick of this that I don’t even bother with the Flip-Grip anymore. I’ve tried to apply additional mods to the stock Joycon and even resorted to the analog stick a few times, but no dice, the games do not control well in TATE handheld. This is a huge bummer for me personally. What I have been experimenting with is just using my Hori Joycon in TATE while trying to use what I call the “overhand” grip. What is overhand grip, you ask?

Right away I’m sure you all can spot the problem with this solution … you have to control the d-pad with your right hand, rather than your trained-from-birth left hand. Funnily enough, I am somewhat ambidextrous in general, so I’m adapting to the new setup reasonably well, but I highly doubt many people will adopt this method of playing.

So how does this all shake out? In the end the Nintendo Switch is a console that I enjoy using in handheld mode and pretty much play it exclusively in that manner. Aside from the frustrating control quirks that still need to be hammered out somehow; I think it is a solid handheld shmup machine. Indeed, when you combine its native library with its homebrew abilities, it is able to defeat the PSP and Vita as the choice for my handheld shmups while out and about.

Docked, I personally do not like the console in docked mode because of the lag issues I mentioned earlier. Plus it’s hard and expensive to find a good way to control the games in docked mode since the pro controller has an awful d-pad as well and dedicated arcade sticks or arcade stick internals are expensive. In my experience, the best way to solve this issue is to just buy a Brooks Universal fighting board and call it a day, that way you can use it for a bunch of other consoles as well. For the sake of your own sanity, please do not use the Brooks PS4 or Xbone to Switch converters, that’s just adding another source of lag on top of the already out of control delay fiesta.

Another drawback that I forgot to mention earlier is that the Switch is unable to natively stream or record gameplay, unlike the PS4 or Xbone. Of course, there are external work-arounds, but I find this to be a big deal because I don’t want to invest in an external capture card that streams just for the Switch (I have a cheap one that local records, but that’s it).

So my personal advice that I give to people, which you all can take or leave, is that if you are a handheld shmup guy, then the Switch is worth the money, even despite the control issues in TATE. However, if you only want to play in docked mode and don’t care about handheld mode, the PC and PS4 are stronger options. You can be cool and own everything, of course, but I’m saying in the case of if you have to choose just one. By the way, I think the Xbonex is great hardware wise (it supports freesync), but the problem is that it just doesn’t have the library of exclusive shmups that the PS4 does. And, of course, the PC’s shmup library, performance, and overall utility are so insanely strong that it’s almost mandatory at this point (unless you’re an arcade boi or have a bunch of PCBs or something).

 

Thoughts on the Nintendo Switch Lite

Now that I’ve established that I am a fan of using the Switch in handheld mode, you all can see why I’d be interested in the Switch Lite. What’s funny is that I have been imagining what this product would be like for over a year now, and Nintendo delivered exactly what I was expecting/hoping for. Right away let’s talk about the d-pad. Thank Miyamoto they came to their senses and added the d-pad. What is making me nervous though is that the d-pad in the pictures looks remarkably like the pro controller d-pad. I’m really hoping this is not the case. I don’t know what happened between the Wii U and the Switch, but someone forgot how to make a quality d-pad along the way. If the Switch Lite ships out with an awkward d-pad, that’s a deal breaker for me. As I mentioned earlier, the Hori alternative d-pad is rock solid, it just can’t be used in TATE unless you overhand – which you will have to do with the Switch Lite anyway. It’s my hope that the smaller form factor will make overhanding less awkward.

Speaking of the form factor, I’m curious if the smaller size will improve portability or not. As of right now, I have a system of carrying around the Switch with me where I put it in a case and then holster the case in the back of my pants like I’m smuggling a sawn-off shotgun. Being able to squeeze the handheld into a pocket would be nice though. With that said, I’m hoping that we don’t lose too much screen real-estate because that’s just going to make the tiny bullets that much harder to see. I’m sure the specs and dimensions of the Lite are available, but it’s really hard to judge how it will affect shmup game play until I try it out in person.

On the homebrew side of things, I’m sure the original Nvidia hardware exploit has been removed.  I think it has been removed from the newer OG Switch units already. I’m not worried though. As rabid and active as the Switch hacking scene is right now, I’m fully confident custom firmware will make its way on there at some point. Judging by the scene’s current track record, custom firmware will probably appear very quickly.

Improved battery life would be a selling point for me as well. Right now, I always seem to be fighting my Switch’s battery, partly due to the Hori Joycon leeching it, but even in wireless mode it feels like having the Switch charged is a chore. It’s like a Tamagotchi you have to remember to feed electricity on a daily basis. Hopefully the Switch Lite won’t be as needy.

Come September, I’m looking forward to getting a Switch Lite and seeing how it stacks up as a handheld shmup machine. Being $100 cheaper and devoid of all the lag issues that crop up on the OG Switch, it feels like an easier recommendation to people wanting to play shmups on a Nintendo console … provided the d-pad isn’t trash.

 

Thanks for reading!

Cheers!

–Mark MSX

 

Eurogamer Article:

https://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2019-07-03-the-switch-might-be-the-best-console-for-shmups-since-the-sega-saturn

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