I don’t think Sniper Elite 3 is a fantastic game. The parts that work are the ones that clearly received the most effort and attention: the countless opportunities for players to snipe Nazis from creative vantage points and watch the resulting slow-mo carnage. But that singular focus only serves to make the rest of the stealth game surrounding it seem that much more uninspired. It’s not something I would normally be interested in for very long.
However, because Sniper Elite 3 is on the Nintendo Switch, I’ve played far more of the game than I would have otherwise, taking potshots on the train during the morning commute (when I still had those) or in between weekend errands. The open-world North Africa levels may seem like a poor man’s Metal Gear Solid V, but that still looks nice and runs pretty smooth on the small screen. It’s just cooler and more impressive in this form.
With more publishers now quenching the Switch port thirst with modified versions of cutting-edge and technically demanding AAA console games, I’ve reached a conclusion: Just because a game may look worse on Nintendo Switch doesn’t mean it’s a worse version.
There’s a kind of hardcore gamer condescension to the idea that you should only play The Witcher III: Wild Hunt (or any AAA port) on Switch if you have no other choice. It fails to consider that by just having a portable option, this version may best fit into some folks’ lives. Obviously, people are free to have whatever gaming preferences they like, but these days I praise Nintendo not just for its games, but because it keeps doing things that don’t align with these increasingly rigid priorities about the One True Way To Play.
A video game culture that prioritizes graphics and raw quantitative technical specs above anything else is prone to ignoring other, more experiential benefits you may gain from giving up some of those specs. It’s the classic example of trading the strength of a gaming PC for the convenience of a console. The uniquely underpowered yet portable Switch makes this continuum even more extreme. Would you trade the dream of the most premium, yet isolated and time-consuming gaming experience possible for something more modest that fits into your busy life and lets you play more games on average? It’s the same reason why Labo VR on Switch won me over, despite weak specs; it was something real people could theoretically use.
Everyone has different values and limits for what they’re willing to trade off. I don’t have a problem with ambitious ports of Burnout Paradise, Doom, Journey to the Savage Planet, Mortal Kombat 11: Aftermath, Wolfenstein, or 2K’s Bioshock, Borderlands, and XCOM collections on Switch. However, I found the poor, pre-patch performance in, say, Bloodstained, Mutant Year Zero, SpongeBob SquarePants: Battle for Bikini Bottom, or The Outer Worlds on Switch too much to bear.
For another example, consider A Hat in Time (published by Humble, owned by the same company that owns PCMag). The crowdfunded 3D mascot platformer always seemed like a perfect fit for a system that literally has Mario on it. Because the game ran on Unreal Engine 3, as opposed to its more flexible successor Unreal Engine 4, the developers at Gears for Breakfast originally maintained that a Switch port was “impossible.” A similar problem plagued the Switch port of Rocket League at first.
It turns out that wasn’t the case. A Hat in Time is now on Switch and the game is better for it. Does it look quite as good? No. The game’s art style constantly threatens to tip over into generic if not for truly bizarre details like a planet of mobsters and a war between two bird movie studios. I experienced some hitches, as well. Still, compared to something like Yooka-Laylee, the scale and creativity of these sandboxes along with your hat-based (sorry, Cappy) platforming tools for playing in them are simply joyous. On Switch, in my case the Switch Lite, you can enjoy these big worlds in bite-sized pieces thanks to the formula Super Mario 64 already laid down almost 25 years ago.
Power Versus Flexibility
Someone else might feel differently about different examples. Some may also care more about the cost of physical cartridges keeping these ports of old games at higher prices than on competing platforms—the dreaded Switch tax. But for me, and surely others based on the Switch’s success, the added ability of easy and frictionless quick portable play is more often than not a bigger material benefit than some extra technical fidelity. I rarely notice or care about those flaws unless I’m watching a (however fascinating) Digital Foundry video on frame rate and resolution. I’m not saying I don’t also enjoy seamlessly switching to the TV and using a pro controller. I’m just saying being completely tethered to a TV is a compromise, too. Folks just aren’t as used to realizing that.
An objective difference in graphical quality doesn’t mean an objective difference in overall quality if those drawbacks allow for a version in a form players may honestly enjoy more. I’m not playing Dragon Quest XI on Switch because I’m some poor soul with no other options. I work in an office surrounded by some of the beefiest PC gaming rigs on the market. I have the current most powerful console in the world, the Xbox One X, which now makes a Taco Bell noise.
No, I genuinely prefer playing Dragon Quest XI on Switch because I just like the cool intimacy of holding a huge world anywhere in my hands. Handheld gaming has real, proven value. There’s an entire new nifty retro machine, the Analogue Pocket, dedicated to celebrating the history of handheld play. So I appreciate the Switch bringing those strengths to games you wouldn’t expect, even if it has to make some sacrifices along the way.
That’s also why I love playing The Witcher III: Wild Hunt on the handheld. Having heard the highest praise for this game for years, my expectations were pretty steep. When I first started playing I couldn’t stop hearing Geralt as Solid Snake and noticing all the gameplay systems these later Assassin’s Creed RPGs ripped off. I also couldn’t stop admiring the exquisite character writing, deep action role-playing mechanics, shockingly fleshed-out Gwent card game side mode, and lush open fantasy worlds to explore for hours and hours. Yes, lush worlds to explore, even on Switch where it’s an uglier yet clearly recognizable (and nicely stable) version of the same massive game.
You can see how The Witcher slots in nicely with similar expansive fantasy epics in the Switch’s portfolio like Skyrim, Xenoblade, and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. The appeal of portable play that publishers and players alike saw in those games applies to The Witcher as well, even if Geralt’s luscious white hair is a little blurrier when it bounces as you watch him get out of the tub. It’s details like those that make the gigantic file size of this (and basically every game mentioned in this article) worth it. A later update even lets you transfer your save file between Switch and PC, so there’s truly nothing to lose.
Another prominent AAA Switch port, Overwatch, is a bit of a trickier proposition. And not just because buying the popular hero shooter means tacitly supporting Blizzard’s past controversial decisions surrounding China. Overwatch is a twitchy multiplayer shooter that requires a constant online connection. So, you can’t whip it out on a bus. While I haven’t yet experienced any technical issues while playing the game, other writers have, including entire colorful character models going missing in the middle of a match. Hopefully patches have helped. Plus, esports players more hardcore than me are more likely to care about wonkier voice chat and the bump down to 30 FPS, even if the added motion controls makes shooting more precise compared to a controller.
Despite those caveats, the Switch has made me more motivated to casually play Overwatch for the first time since launch three years ago, and not just because I wound up liking some of the new characters I missed out on, like the cowgirl and the hamster. As the Wii U proved, a handheld device has its positives even when you can’t exactly take the device anywhere. Off-TV play on the GamePad to me was the biggest selling point of the doomed system, because I often found it more comfortable to play in bed or lying down on a couch as opposed to sitting at attention in front of a TV. The Switch obviously has far more freedom than the Wii U. So, even with its internet requirements, Overwatch also gains a subjective but real qualitative gameplay benefit from being on Switch. I reject the idea that it’s inherently inferior across the board.
Any Port in a Storm
I understand why some people prefer that their Switch games have no differences compared to versions on other systems. That’s the ideal situation. Obviously, Nintendo first-party exclusives don’t have this issue. Those Switch ports without compromises do exist, typically in the smaller indie space. The brilliant, brain-contorting, lo-fi murder puzzle game Return of the Obra Dinn on Switch is the same acclaimed game that launched on PC last year, now on a handheld. Another smooth translation is Ruiner, a slick little top-down shooter oozing with dirty, futuristic cyberpunk production value in its moody city and junkyard battlegrounds.
It’s also totally valid that some people would just rather not play certain games on Switch when there are alternatives they consider superior, especially if they have zero interest in portable play. The upcoming PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X will make the gulf in power even more difficult to deal with unless Nintendo releases an enhanced Switch of its own. Ports may dry up. Overwatch 2 is coming to Switch but Cyberpunk 2077, CD Projekt Red’s Witcher follow-up, probably won’t.
Still, even when parity isn’t possible, I just want to tell the developers (and contractors like Iron Galaxy, Panic Button, and Virtuous) attempting the impossible that their efforts are worthwhile. They aren’t just making a worse product to cash in on a trend. For players like me, sometimes shrinking down a game can have big potential new benefits.