Tears of the Kingdom’s Graphics Have Fans Running to Emulators

Gamers are up in arms over Tears of the Kingdom's graphics and performance, but is it really worth trying to emulate the new game?

Legend of Zelda Tears of the Kingdom
Photo: Nintendo

Tears of the Kingdom is here and, in case you haven’t heard, the game is phenomenal. It offers an across-the-board evolution of the gameplay elements that made Breath of the Wild so special, and it shows how imaginative the modern open-world genre can be. If Tears of the Kingdom ends up being the Switch’s last major game, it will certainly be an appropriate one.

However, Tears of the Kingdom‘s performance certainly showcases the Switch hardware’s age. In fact, Tears of the Kingdom‘s graphics have sparked a ton of interest in the viability and legality of Switch emulators.

How bad are Tears of the Kingdom‘s performance problems? Early tests of the game reveal a variety of issues of varying degrees of severity. On the lower end of the performance report spectrum, you have things like visual tears and pop-in. On the more serious side of things, you have slower loading times and notable frame rate drops.

However, I have to agree with those who call Tears of the Kingdom a minor miracle from a performance perspective. This is a massive title from a pure content perspective that functions relatively well in core areas. Nintendo certainly pushed the Switch to its limits with this game, but they didn’t try to go too far.

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Mind you, Tears of the Kingdom will not make you forget that the Switch is a six-year-old console that wasn’t that powerful in the first place. This game never dares to offer more than 30 FPS performance and 1080p textures (at the very best). However, it rarely drops below those marks as well. Well, at least it doesn’t if your Switch is docked. If you’re playing Tears of the Kingdom in handheld mode, you should lower your expectations in terms of both resolution and frame rate. The Switch OLED will offer crisper graphics in handheld mode, but the game’s base performance remains the same.

If you’re worried about the kind of performance issues that prevent you from being able to play and enjoy the game, though, you won’t find them here. Everything is best described as “functional.” This isn’t a Cyberpunk 2077 situation.

However, that’s just not enough for some fans. While Tears of the Kingdom is certainly functional, any praise for its graphics will typically be limited to its excellent art direction. Visually, the game is incredibly blurry, and its most notable visual flourishes (specifically its combat effects) are only slightly better than what we saw in Breath of the Wild. The scope and depth of this game are impressive, but Tears of the Kingdom doesn’t look that much different from a game released in 2017 that was also designed to run on the Wii U hardware.

Also, while Tears of the Kingdom‘s frame rates are pretty steady (minus some drops during specific sequences/actions), 30 FPS or slightly less isn’t a high bar these days. If you’re used to the performance offered by modern, next-gen, high-end new releases, Tears of the Kingdom may give you a bit of whiplash.

That brings us to emulators. Theoretically, it’s possible to play Tears of the Kingdom through an emulator and enjoy 4K-ish graphics as well as 60 FPS gameplay. Granted, you will need to download an additional series of mods to reach those benchmarks, and you’ll still need to manage your expectations. After all, we’re talking about 4K resolution and modified 60 FPS gameplay for a game that wasn’t meant to natively support either of those things. It’s going to take a lot more than day-one fan efforts to make Tears of the Kingdom look and run like a proper next-gen title.

Even still, an emulated and modded version of Tears of the Kingdom looks significantly cleaner than the base game. It’s hard to look at a version of the game running at its best (at least for the moment) and not find yourself wishing that the game would look and perform like that on your Switch.

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That’s why many fans are suddenly finding themselves asking “Is it legal to play Tears of the Kingdom through an emulator?” The answer is a very complicated “Yes, but…” As we’ve previously discussed, emulation has long existed in a legal grey area. I highly recommend you read as much as possible regarding the legality of specific emulation techniques, but the basics are pretty simple. Emulation technology itself is often legal. However, downloading, sharing, and playing certain ROM files can be illegal. Did you download a Tears of the Kingdom ROM file without buying and uploading the game yourself? That’s probably illegal. Did you buy the game, upload it, and then play it through an emulator? Theoretically, you should be fine.

However, that situation became more complicated recently when Nintendo started going after certain Switch emulators following Tears of the Kingdom‘s pre-release leaks. Now, some Switch emulator makers are halting or stopping the development of their technology due to new legal concerns. Those concerns have prompted new, similar concerns regarding how safe the entire process is from a user perspective. While the basics of emulation legality seem to remain the same, those looking to play Tears of the Kingdom through an emulator (especially if they’re looking to stream or uploaded that emulated footage) are now rightfully a bit more worried than they previously were.

Again, you should research this topic thoroughly before you decide to play Tears of the Kingdom via an emulator. Those following the right guidelines should be fine, but we’re again talking about a historically complicated subject. You want to feel comfortable before you ever walk down that path, and some will feel better if they simply stick to the most official means possible.

At the moment, though, more people are simply wondering if Tears of the Kingdom‘s graphics and performance are so bad that you basically need to play via an emulator. To that, I’d say “No.”

It’s incredibly disappointing that Nintendo hasn’t released an upgraded version of the base Switch hardware (aside from the Switch OLED, of course). It’s slightly disappointing that one of the biggest games of 2023 looks and performs strangely similar to a 2017 title. However, take the complaints you hear about the game’s graphics and performance wiht a grain of salt. A lot of them are coming from gamers who are coming to Tears of the Kingdom after playing high-end modern titles, and they’re judging the game on that basis.

Their criticism are valid, but it’s kind of like saying that the CGI in a 2023 movie looks better than the CGI in a 2003 movie. It’s probably a technically accurate observation, but it doesn’t tell you the full story of the quality of the individual movies. If that information does tell you all you need to know about the quality of those things…well, then you probably also already know whether an emulator is for you.

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If you’re generally comfortable with what the Switch, Nintendo, and the Zelda franchise realistically have to offer at this point, you’ll find that Tears of the Kingdom is perfectly playable and either expected or slightly underwhelming from a purely visual perspective.