The realm of Hyrule goes wherever I go. So far, I’ve played The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild on a plane, a train, and a bus. It’s usually stuffed — along with the Nintendo Switch — into a suitcase or my jacket pocket. I’ve uncovered shrines while waiting for my daughter’s dance lessons to end, and I’ve climbed gigantic mountains while lying in bed.
The Nintendo Switch, it turns out, is perfect for a massive game like Zelda, letting you get in small moments of exploration on the go, before settling in for a lengthier journey while plopped on the couch. Naturally, the freedom has changed what I want and expect from huge open-world games. Whereas previously I was just fine with playing Mass Effect in my living room, now I want to take it with me everywhere.
The good and the bad of open-world games is that they devour time. I recently wrapped the sci-fi epic Mass Effect: Andromeda in just under 50 hours, and Breath of the Wild took me twice as long to complete. The lengthy playtime allows games to introduce stories and geographical scales that feel epic. You experience a plot, but you also inhabit a world. But these demands of time can feel like a burden: some of the best video games of this generation are incredibly daunting, requiring the equivalent of a 40-hour work week of playtime simply to progress through the main story. Not everyone has that much free time, particularly if it demands they be in their house on the couch.
Designers have created semi-solutions in the past. You can play a number of games across the Xbox One and Windows 10. If you are one of the brave souls who uses an Apple TV for games, you can use iCloud to sync progress with games on your iPhone or iPad. The best example is Remote Play, which lets PS4 stream games to the Vita through their home Wi-Fi.
But no option has been as simple as the Switch. iOS games are limited and meant for mobile play. The Vita lacks the inputs available on a PS4 controller, requiring the player to suffer some awkward touch controls. That’s assuming the Vita and PS4 can maintain a strong enough connection. If I’m playing Zelda at home and it’s time to leave, I pick up the Switch and bring it with me. There’s no syncing or worrying about signal strength. To borrow a familiar phrase that happens to be true: it just works. Compared to playing Fallout 4 on a Vita, it’s a seamless process.
These kinds of massive, 3D, open-world role-playing games are often thought of as the exclusive domain of the console and PC space, but that now feels like a result of hardware limitations. If anything, a game like Breath of the Wild feels ideal for the hybrid hardware. You can get lost in Zelda for hours at a time, but it’s also a world where you can get a bit done in 20-minute increments. You can forage for supplies in the forest, or solve one of the puzzle shrines, or try out some new elixir recipes.
The same is true for many other games. In Mass Effect, I can pop in for a bit to do some weapon crafting or chat with my crew; in Persona 5 I can spend half an hour hanging out with friends or going shopping in Shibuya. Larger games are increasingly loaded with side quests and busy work, stuff that threads the larger stories together. It’s amazing they weren’t designed with a commute and lunch breaks in mind.
The Switch allows for busy players to tackle games the way they might approach a novel: reading a few pages at a time when they can, rather than sitting down to gorge on multiple chapters. These play sessions are small, but in aggregate can help you chip away at the enormous task of actually completing one of these games. The portability is one of my favorite aspects of Zelda, and the flexibility the game offers has made it hard to go back to open-world games on hardware locked to my living room.
It also represents an opportunity for Nintendo. If the company can lure more open-world games to its new console, which are among today’s biggest blockbusters, it can offer a selling point — portability — that none of its competitors can match. I’m constantly wishing I could get in just a few more minutes of Mass Effect when my kids are napping or before I go to sleep. Instead, I just keep going back to Breath of the Wild.