For most of my life, there were two types of video games: those you played at home and those you played on a handheld. There was a clear distinction. Even when a powerful device arrived, like the PlayStation Vita with its “console quality” graphics, you could almost always tell the difference; the games had their own platform-based feel. metroid on GameCube was very different from metroid on the Game Boy Advance. But that all changed when the Nintendo Switch launched five years ago.
I came across the power of Nintendo’s tablet in a unique way. In 2017, I was tasked with reviewing The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wilda gigantic open-world game that shook up the classic Zelda formula. I started playing it in my living room, much like I had with previous games in the series. It was good. But then I had to cover the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, which meant hours on planes, in hotel rooms, and waiting in long lines inside the Moscone Center. All of those moments were spent exploring Hyrule – and the fact that I was able to seamlessly pick up from where I started at home was transformative. (In a personally surreal twist, the day I finished writing the review, I also got to spend an hour chatting with the game’s directors.)
This is obviously not a situation most people will find themselves in. But it makes the point even clearer: the Switch is a device designed to fit into your life, even if you have a really weird job like me. In a world where games are more time-consuming than ever, with daily quests and open worlds lasting hundreds of hours, this was a big deal. Just after breath of the wildevery time I played a big game – whether Mass Effect Where Character – I wish it was on the Switch. (Seriously, how is it possible that personas 5 hasn’t been worn yet?)
And I’m not the only one. Fans begging for Switch versions of their favorites have become a meme at this point, and the Switch version of fortnite – which was initially not compatible with the PS4 version – helped usher in our current era where cross-platform play is an expected feature for major live service titles because gamers have gone so crazy.
It’s a long way to say that the freedom of the Switch fundamentally changed the way I view video games. This distinction between console and portable which defined my first memories with the medium no longer exists. Now when a game comes out, I think long and hard about How? ‘Or’ What I will play it. If it’s a live game like Genshin Impact Where fortnite, I want to know that I can progress with me on the Switch or a smartphone. If it’s a long RPG, I might wait for a Switch version, even if the graphics take a hit. The same way my Netflix experience follows me from device to device, I want my video games to do the same. Personally, I regret playing the excellent skateboarding game OlliOlli World on the PS5 as it would be perfect for short sessions on the Switch.
This desire to take video game worlds with me now extends beyond Nintendo hardware. There are cross-platform games that support mobile; Xbox games that work on PC, console and cloud; subscription services like Apple Arcade and Game Pass that work across multiple devices; and – most exciting – a brand new device in the Steam Deck that extends the concept to all those unplayed games in my Steam library.
That said, as the lines between console and handheld have disappeared, we’ve lost something noticeable. I felt it especially when the Nintendo 3DS was discontinued: there’s something very special about games designed around the limitations of a handheld device that no longer exists today. The DS era was a creative zenith for Nintendo and its partners, with everything from inventive takes to Zelda to the wonderful quirks of the touchscreen like Nintendogs and electroplankton. Change title Metroid Dread would probably not exist without its predecessor The Return of Samus. Luckily, that spirit still lives on as a kind of niche thanks to products like Analogue Pocket and PlayDate.
When it comes to playing games on multiple devices, things are often still messy. Platform exclusives and annoying cross-progression restrictions mean you don’t always have that kind of freedom; things aren’t always as seamless as removing a Switch from its dock and bringing a game with you. But thanks in part to the Switch, the last five years have seen a dramatic improvement in the accessibility of games on all devices. I’m too embarrassed to tell you how many devices I have fortnite installed, but it’s many.
This, in turn, has improved my relationship with the game, as has having BOTW on the switch did. The platform hasn’t just changed the way I look at games, it’s made me enjoy them in a whole new way.