On last week’s SwitchArcade, we took a look at Bethesda’s port of Doom, which is a great port with the potentially (for some) significant caveat that the overall graphical fidelity of the game is turned way down to make it run on the Switch. This had me pretty concerned for Bethesda’s port of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, as while it is older, it feels like a “bigger" game and made sense to assume that similar sacrifices needed to be made. I’m happy to report that the Switch port of Skyrim is amazing. It’s so good it makes me mad, which I’ll get to later.
Skyrim is an open world RPG and a continuation of the legendary Elder Scrolls series. The games are notorious for players being able to play them in any way they want, and that has only gotten better with Skyrim. You can follow the main story line, doing tiny side quests along the way, or, among loads of other paths, you can become a vampire and play the game by killing every human you come across and disregard the main campaign entirely. Multiple races with individual perks, a seemingly limitless skill system, tons of in-game factions to explore, and so much more makes Skyrim the kind of game you can play over and over in different ways for years. (In fact, I know people still doing this.)
Basically, if you’ve never played Skyrim before, you need to fix that problem. Thankfully, Bethesda has made that easier than ever by ruthlessly porting Skyrim to every platform under the sun over the years. I first played it on the Xbox 360, and it was obvious from the first time I put the disc in the drive that it was pushing the console to its absolute limit. It was playable, but load times (even with the game “installed" on the 360’s hard drive) were straight up unbelievable. The game loaded for so long, and so often, that friends and I just started referring to the game as the “rotating 3D objects in black space" simulator as load screens feature a sword or something else from the game that you could slowly spin with the analog sticks.
These incredible load times eventually led me to give up on the game, as some quest lines (such as getting involved in the Thieves’ Guild) require constantly revisiting quest givers after quick tasks in the game world and making your way back down into the Thieves’ Guild often resulted in waiting for load times which substantially exceeded the amount of time it took to even do the quest. This was a huge concern of mine with the Switch port, as for as great as Switch games have been, it’s notoriously underpowered compared to other consoles. (Again, made very apparent with the Doom port.) Well, load times on the Switch are super speedy, and while they (obviously) don’t compare to playing on a PC, they’re fast enough to not impact gameplay at all.
While many will argue that the PC is the best platform to play on due to the limitless amount of mods, graphical settings, and everything else, for my play habits the Switch is where its at. I’m (obviously) big into mobile gaming of all kinds, because I find it fits best into my life. These days, I’m not really that interested in massive PC games that have me sequestered away in front of my PC for hours at a time. I’m far more excited for the kind of gaming the Switch has enabled: Me hanging out with the fam’, with something on TV, while I diddle around on my Switch. I’m not disturbing anyone gaming this way, and I’m not missing anything as I’m around and can (and do) just put the Switch to sleep whenever anything requires my attention. This is the same way I’ve played games on my iPad for years, and I love it.
Skyrim seems perfectly suited for this style of gaming, as most of the quests you get are divided into easily digestible chunks that are easy to take on for a few minutes at a time. A in-depth quest log combined with an objective marker system means you never lose track of what you’re supposed to be doing no matter how many times you’re interrupted. I feel like this is the way I wish I would’ve experienced Skyrim the first time, instead of giving up on my 360 then replaying most of the game to get back to where I was on my PC a few years later after I bought it again in some Steam sale.
Controls work just as they should, using a familiar FPS layout. Default controls are mapped a little weird, with X bound to jump instead of A, but that’s easy to fix and maybe just feels strange because I’ve spent so much time in Super Mario Galaxy. As far as other technical details are concerned, the frame rate is solid and the draw distance is great. The Nintendo-y stuff they added between the new motion controls and amiibo integration for Zelda loot both seem a little gimmicky, but both of those things are easy to disable or ignore.
This all sounds great, so why does the Skyrim Switch port make me mad? Well, at the end of the day the Switch is just a Nvidia Shield Android tablet in a Nintendo case with some attached controllers and proprietary OS. The X1 processor its based on isn’t even really that powerful compared to modern mobile devices. The primary differentiator between an iPad or the Android tablet the Switch is based on and the Switch itself is Nintendo is behaving like a game platform provider should, as opposed to the complete Wild West we’ve seen on mobile. If the iOS ecosystem was one that Apple had fostered into a platform where publishers like Bethesda could feel confident selling $60 games on, it’d perform even better on faster iPads.
Apple could’ve absolutely obliterated Nintendo’s efforts in portable gaming with a modicum of effort, but instead have chosen to have the App Store server as an advertising platform for Nintendo in what will likely be looked back on as one of the most puzzling chain of decisions in gaming history. Without the laissez faire attitude of letting anyone submit almost anything to the App Store and price it whatever they want, Apple could have been a major player in AAA gaming.
But, for many reasons, that’s not the reality we live in. Even though Skyrim is obviously compiled to run on ARM processors, it seems impossible to imagine a port like this ever hitting iOS- Or, at least not until it has completely run its course on every other possible platform where the game could be sold for more than a couple bucks (like we’ve seen with Grand Theft Auto games). It’s a massive bummer, and one the Switch seems to inadvertently constantly remind us of.
Anyway, Skyrim unlocks tonight and can be downloaded from the Nintendo eShop for $59.99. It comes with all the expansion content that Bethesda released over the years, which could provide yet another reason to revisit this classic if you never played any of the expansions when they were first released. The Switch port is better than I even hoped it would be, making Skyrim one more unbelievably fantastic game in Nintendo’s incredible first year of titles for their new console.