When we first played The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim in 2011, we certainly wouldn’t have imagined that it would be a game we’d be able to play on any portable console, never mind a Nintendo console.
It was so far from likely, it actually wasn’t something we even considered wanting. Yet six years later, we’ve just Fus Ro Dah’ed our way through an entire commute and enjoyed every minute.
Yes, Skyrim has come to the Nintendo Switch and though it feels strange to find ourselves humming the Dovahkiin theme at random intervals once again, we’re pretty happy about it.
Blast from the past
That’s because we can say with some relief that this is a very competent port – though given it’s a six year old game it would have been rather embarrassing if it hadn’t been.
While it works well across all of the Switch’s modes, it's in handheld mode that Skyrim really shines.
It’s not hard to figure out why; playing Skyrim on a handheld console makes what could be a very well-worn gaming experience feel fresh and new again.
We’ve been able to take up the role of Dragonborn for years, but now we can be Dragonborn on the bus, Dragonborn in the pub and Dragonborn on the toilet as well as Dragonborn in the living room.
Sure, you can play the game in docked mode but if you have Skyrim on any other home console there isn’t really much appeal to this. It’s the Switch’s handheld form that offers the kind of smooth, portable experience you’re not going to find anywhere else. If this is a game you’ve already sunk hundreds of hours into, it’s probably the best way to revisit it right now.
Given that it’s very much a six year old game, Skyrim isn’t really going to blow your mind to the same degree anymore in terms of what gameplay it can offer you. But seeing that expansive world in the palm of your hand is a new kind of a thrill in itself.
That’s not to say it’s perfect. To make it possible to take an entire Tamriel region on the go, some compromises have had to be made.
You won’t get HDR, incredibly high resolution textures or fantastic draw distance here. And the lack of brightness adjustment is a pain in the retinas when you’re in a dungeon.
However, the frame rate is admirably consistent and when you’re playing in handheld mode these visual compromises aren't overly noticable.
It’s not just playing the game in a different location that makes handheld feel so refreshing, though. We actually found it changed the way we played. For one thing, rather than whiling blocks of hours away at a time on quests, we’re now dipping in and out of the game because the Switch’s portable form factor makes that feel more possible.
A new way to play
Further to this, on our home consoles we preferred a third person view, but the smaller screen of the Switch actually made the game’s first person view preferable. This could be seen as a drawback, but it actually just ended up feeling like a more intimate gameplay experience.
This intimacy is something the game tries to enhance with Switch motion control integration but they’re a bit of a hit and miss. Literally and figuratively. While they’re great from a novelty perspective (and the first thing we did when we got our hands on a sword was detach the Joy-Cons to swing it for ourselves) they get old fast.
It’s fun at first to be able to lift your left arm and see your shield come up in front of you, or swing your right for a heavy sword attack. But in busy combat situations you can feel like a butterfly catcher swinging a net rather than a dangerous warrior. Don't even get us started on the frustration of lock picking.
That said, these controls fare slightly better when it comes to aiming your bow and arrow or casting spells and they’re still an exciting new way to experience Skyrim. Just don’t try using them on the busy bus to work.
With Super Mario Odyssey, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and now Skyrim, the Switch is fast becoming another world you can carry in your pocket (okay, your bag. We understand your pockets don't have quite the same depth as your Skyrim character).
With the approach it’s taking on the Switch with regards to first and third-party releases, Nintendo has created something of a win-win situation for itself.
With the console's docked mode we get brand new first-party Nintendo titles on the big screen just like the Wii U offered. But while the Wii U was limited by the fact it could really only offer this, the Switch offers a handheld mode that allows us to revisit some classic console games in a refreshing, convenient way.
It’s like someone in Nintendo took the Wii U, the 2DS and an Xbox 360 into a lab and created the kind of creature Victor Frankenstein only dreamed of.
That said, soon the novelty of having portable access to these games will wear out and it’s key that Nintendo seizes on the fact that it's now proven the console to encourage third-parties to bring their new games to it.
The oldness of Skyrim might have been given a polish by the newness of the Switch but that’s not something that will work forever.