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Why Nintendo's NX Console Needs To Be x86-Based (Op-Ed)

Nintendo recently stated that "NX" was the code name for a new game console under development. No information on this console has been given except the code name, but what does Nintendo need to do with its new game console?

The relatively new Wii U originally launched worldwide in Q4 2012, but it has faced problems since its inception, many of which can be traced to the hardware inside of the Wii U.

According to a page from an IBM manual, the Wii U uses three RISC CPU cores based off of a PowerPC architecture, which is the same architecture used inside of Nintendo's previous two game consoles. The core speeds have never been officially stated, but according to hacker Hector Martin, the cores run at 1.24 GHz.

The reason for maintaining a similar architecture is to make the new console backwards compatible with previous consoles, which is not an uncommon practice. Microsoft and Sony try to maintain backwards compatibility with older consoles as well, but they use other methods that are less restrictive on hardware, but suffer in other ways.

The Xbox 360, for example, is only able to play a portion of games from the original Xbox, and to make these games work, each one requires a separate download and may experience bugs and performance issues.

Maintaining backwards compatibility can hamper growth, though, as the best hardware for new consoles often isn't compatible with the older hardware. On the other hand, it does increase the console's available library of games.

As a result of the limited hardware, the Wii U has fallen behind the Playstation 4 and Xbox One in performance. According to the technical director on Frostbite for EA, Johan Andersson, the Wii U had difficulties running the Frostbite 2 engine, and so the company never attempted the Frostbite 3 engine on the console.

In the latest generation of gaming consoles, both Sony and Microsoft went with AMD x86 processors for the Playstation 4 and Xbox One, respectively. This benefits game developers by offering a high level of compatibility between the new consoles and PCs, making it easier, cheaper, and faster to develop and port games to these devices.

The Wii U's PowerPC CPU architecture is not compatible with the x86-based hardware and software used in other consoles, and as a result, porting games to the Wii U requires more time and is more expensive. The added cost, in addition to the limited hardware performance, has caused many companies such as Ubisoft and EA to halt production of several games for Wii U.

Despite the challenges, Nintendo has so far been able to profit off of the Wii U, but the sale of games and hardware units is much lower than the competition. The console's game library has been carried almost entirely by first-party games by Nintendo.

Although Nintendo has been able to keep its console going, it seems doubtful that the company can continue to produce first-party games at a rate that would satisfy customers long term without over-producing games in its major franchises. Too many Zelda or Mario games could drop in quality, or feature repetitive game play and ultimately leave customers dissatisfied.

Even if Nintendo is able to produce enough first-party games to satisfy customers who only buy a handful of titles a year, there are many gamers who can run through a game in a week and then want something new. No single company can produce a new high-quality game every week without the support of third-party game developers, and as a result many gamers turn to other consoles.

The only way out for Nintendo is to design a new console that can overcome the shortcomings of the Wii U. The new console would need to at least be competitive with the Xbox One and Playstation 4 from a performance standpoint, but that may not be enough to attract third-party game developers back over, as the cost for porting games would still be potentially prohibitively high.

The best solution for Nintendo is to design a console that uses x86-based processors, which would allow third-party developers to easily port games to the NX console. The largest first-party game library, combined with strong support from third-party game developers, could place Nintendo back on top of the home gaming console market.

Developing a new console could also cause Nintendo some problems, though; although a new console could be much more successful than the Wii U, the Wii U is only about 2.5 years old. Over 9.2 million Wii U consoles have already been sold, and it's a lot to ask customers to buy a new console so (relatively) soon.

Nintendo could try to support both consoles, but clearly the new system would receive the most attention and receive better content.

It's a tough situation for Nintendo to be in, but in the end a new console might be the only way to keep Nintendo in the home gaming market.

Follow Michael Justin Allen Sexton @LordLao74. Follow us @tomshardware, on Facebook and on Google+.

  • zanny
    The machine ISA of console targets matters very little when development is now happening predominantly at a higher level.

    Two generations ago it would have been a very valid claim to say consoles should homogenize on one architecture to minimize developer overhead in porting, but nobody is writing Xbone games in i386, and nobody is writing Wii U games (I don't think, at least) in PPC assembly. They use higher level programming langauges and the console manufacturers provide them compiler infrastructure to build for it. Xbone and PS4 already have different toolkits in this regard so any game targeting either must have two projects for the two different build systems plus whatever they are doing on PC (be it some visual studio project or something with makefiles or just a bundle for a game engine).

    But we are already moving hugely away from in house engines anyway. Recent announcements and ongoing trends point to 2016-2018 seeing an extreme derth of in home games, where almost eveyone will be using Unity / UE4 / Frostbyte / Source 2 / etc. Because its the only thing that makes sense anymore - and in that case, the engine vendors handle the eccentric differences between the targets.

    You can easily make a Wii U 2 using PPC to maintain backwards compatibility that is competitive. Nothing about the PPC architecture in recent years says you cannot optimize an out of order prefetching predicting chip competitive with what is in the Xbone / PS4 - look at how the Cell ten years ago was PPC based and decimated x86 in edge case SIMD operations. And for games, that is almost always what you are doing on your CPU cores.

    The problem is just plainly that the Wii U uses such an underpowered SoC that it cannot even compete with high end smartphones today. They would have better horsepower throwing the next generation Qualcomm Snapdragon Chip in a plastic box and calling it their next console than what the Wii U has today. They just need a lot more horsepower, regardless of architecture, to be competitive.
    Reply
  • alidan
    if the next console is a living room console, all it needs to do is target 1080p 60fps from all first party games...

    if its a handheld, while i love the idea of 3d, on that small a screen it doesn't add much and would be better off without 3d being considered... again... whatever they chose, so long as its an upgrade and targets 60fps.

    as for needing x86... that has no benefit for me the consumer... in fact, in 10~ years time when the console is no longer new, and because of how hardware is on consoles sense ps2+ there is no guarantee you can even get working consoles after a certain length of time, and as the xbox emulation team said, x86 may not be emulateable so this generation may die with the consoles...

    really, i don't want to see nintendo with ports... they haven't been the leader in hardware or visuals sense gamecube (its arguable xbox had the best hardware, but apparently gamecube still had life in it, in the form of an impressive tech demo, when it died, where as xbox had at its best ninja gaiden) and if i'm going to play a game thats ported across the consoles, i'm playing it on the pc...

    nintendo may not make a crap ton of money (and at this point i would be ok if they just went full publisher instead of system manufacturer) but so long as they dont sell at a loss of commission billion dollar chips, even reduced (still large) sales would be just fine.
    Reply
  • alidan
    15607338 said:
    The problem is just plainly that the Wii U uses such an underpowered SoC that it cannot even compete with high end smartphones today. They would have better horsepower throwing the next generation Qualcomm Snapdragon Chip in a plastic box and calling it their next console than what the Wii U has today. They just need a lot more horsepower, regardless of architecture, to be competitive.

    and here you see the games make the games, not the hardware.
    cellphones could be supercomputers for all i care but their games made just for them suck and arent even worth getting them when they offer em up for free much less the dollar they normally cost.
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  • ddpruitt
    Contrary to most opinions Nintendo actually knows what it's doing. Unlike the PS4 and Xbox One, Nintendo was able to make money on the console from day one. What hurt Sony was the fact that for years it was taking a loss on every PS3 sold, MS is in a similar position. Nintendo generally makes money every year, the same can't be said of Microsoft's and Sony's gaming divisions. Most companies release a huge set of tools that companies use to develop games for the consoles. Unless your a huge company (like EA or Ubisoft) you don't have the time to optimize down to a level where hardware differences matter. Even then most don't, Mantle is only available on PC, not Xbox One or PS4.

    Hardware doesn't make the console. When the consoles were mostly PowerPC based Nintendo still had trouble attracting 3rd party devs, that doesn't change with hardware.

    Nintendo has an image problem not a hardware problem.
    Reply
  • blppt
    IIRC, the cost of making the new gen x86 consoles (PS4,XBone) initially is much lower than when PS3 and X360 were first sold at a loss. Sony, I think, even went on record saying that they actually MADE money on each PS4 sold at launch.

    But I think the main benefit of Nintendo going x86 has little to do with porting ease, and more to do with the massive amounts of R&D put into consumer x86 processors by AMD and Intel, versus IBM and its POWER line for anything but servers, etc.

    Maybe an ARM-based Nintendo console would make sense, since the smartphone/tablet world certainly puts tons of development into ARM, although if i'm not mistaken, even the latest and most powerful ARM consumer-level chips cant compete with the mainstream x86 cpus.
    Reply
  • iam2thecrowe
    Nintendo, bring back ROM cartridges! We have advanced enough now in solid state technology that this is inexpensive. No more installing console games or loading screens! Go back to the roots of what console gaming was all about. Add in to that an inexpensive x86 solution and gpu that can do 1080p and its a winner.
    Reply
  • Jalapenoman
    AMD is making the cpu for the next Nintendo console, and they just licensed an ARM ISA. Nintendo merged their mobile and console dev teams last year. It stands to reason that the next console might be based on an ARM core in order to be cross compatible with any new mobile device that they design.
    Reply
  • eklipz330
    i think you guys and the author are mistaken. i'm pretty freaking sure that this will be a sony vita tv/roku 3/ouya like competitor. it's going to be a cheaper option to play video games. it's not going to have the hardware to run newer games. i think the wii u will still be their flagship.

    whatever jalapenoman is saying may just be a rumor, but it is confirming my suspicions. this is nintendo's way of broadening their IPs into other brands/platforms while still retaining control of them. I think the NX will be their "Google Nexus" platform, as a performance/developer standard basically.
    Reply
  • IInuyasha74
    Nintendo, bring back ROM cartridges! We have advanced enough now in solid state technology that this is inexpensive. No more installing console games or loading screens! Go back to the roots of what console gaming was all about. Add in to that an inexpensive x86 solution and gpu that can do 1080p and its a winner.

    I wanted to say this is actually a genius idea that I had not thought of before. Anymore the price of MMC or a small amount of NAND storage that could hold a game, although more expensive than an optical disk, would still be an affordable means of distributing games. In addition it would take up less space and would greatly help load times. Not to mention the physical console could be reduced in size and the disk drive is the largest part of any Nintendo game system since Gamecube.

    I'm glad to see many of you reading my article with a variety of different views on the situation. I did want to point out that I am not attempting to say Nintendo is not profitable with this article, but the Wii U is not as profitable for Nintendo as the XB1 and PS4 are for Microsoft and Sony. The fact that a new console is in development already would point to Nintendo feeling the same.

    I could be wrong, but I don't think the new console will be a handheld or OUYA like competitor. The New Nintendo 3DS devices will likely be Nintendo's competitor in the portable gaming sector for the next year at least, if not two. As for the OUYA like device, OUYA itself was not a commercial success and there is a large number of Android devices that can offer this type of experience. Nintendo has never been one to try and follow other companies, and tends to have fairly unique products. As a result it doesn't seem likely for Nintendo to pursue the home Android gaming market.

    @zanny: You made some good points with your comment, but I think you are miss understanding me a little. I don't mean to imply that porting games from PPC to X86 is as hard as porting games and software was in the past. I know that these are running at a higher level with gaming engines and APIs that help to ease the porting of games. I am simply stating that it is more difficult to port a game to the Wii U's PPC CPU, than another x86 system. Even if there are numerous tools to aid in porting games, it still consumes more time and monetary resources. Likely with faster hardware this wouldn't be a major problem, but for two reasons it is a problem.

    The first one is obvious, the WIi U has weaker hardware. Second, even in the x86 world between PCs and game consoles we have lately seen several games released that are poorly optimized and performance suffered as a result. The reason behind it is that game developers don't want to put additional time and money into optimizing games. When major performance problems are observed on the same architecture, you can only imagine what might happen going to an entirely different system.
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  • alextheblue
    I wanted to say this is actually a genius idea that I had not thought of before. Anymore the price of MMC or a small amount of NAND storage that could hold a game, although more expensive than an optical disk, would still be an affordable means of distributing games. In addition it would take up less space and would greatly help load times. Not to mention the physical console could be reduced in size and the disk drive is the largest part of any Nintendo game system since Gamecube.

    This is a foolish idea and I'm glad you're not at the helm. Modern games are often huge. It would not be uncommon to see a AAA title in the 20-50GB range. Sure some garbage flash is fairly cheap, but that still would add $5-10 to the cost. A reasonably fast external flash solution would add more, something like an extra $10-20 per game - I'd rather not have to pay that much extra for each title.

    That doesn't even factor in downloads, which obviously still requires local mass storage, which puts you halfway back to where you started anyway. Add an optical drive and boom you've come full circle and landed back safely in sanity land.
    Reply