Bioshock: Definitive Edition (Nintendo Switch) review: Returning to the circus of value

Credit: Fergus Halliday

The Pitch

When I was in high school, Bioshock felt just about as good as AAA gaming could get. 

A polished pinnacle of design and aesthetics, the first Bioshock went all-in on an instantly-iconic setting and embraced themes, ideas and imagery that went slightly beyond what other AAA of its time offered. It had fun gunplay that emphasized exploration and experimentation. It was a shooter that encouraged you to make interesting decisions and find ways to take advantage of your abilities, your opponent’s weaknesses and the environment around you. 

Credit: Fergus Halliday

While all of the above are pretty compelling on their own, it was the ways in which Bioshock weaved all these different threads together - a feat often credited to so-called gaming auteur Ken Levine - that’s stuck with me. At the time, Bioshock managed to feel cohesive and cinematic without coming across as overly-shallow or scripted. 

In 2020, my perspectives on all the above - especially Levine - have changed, but Bioshock - now available on the Nintendo Switch - hasn’t. 

Happy Anniversary

If you were too young to remember it, Bioshock was a science-fiction first-person shooter released in 2007. The game saw you venture below the surface of the sea to the underwater dystopia of Rapture, a city built atop the flawed objectivism of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and powered by Adam and Eve. These addictive substances gave you the power to alter your own genetics and bestow yourself with fantastical mutations like the ability to throw lightning bolts (or bees!) at your enemies. 

Credit: Fergus Halliday

Without veering too close to the game’s iconic story moments, the broad-strokes premise of Bioshock involves trying to topple Rapture’s despotic ruler, Andrew Ryan, and escape from the half-flooded metropolis with your life. It’s a blend of survivor horror, imm-sim and first-person shooter. If you like any of those things you’ll probably enjoy what Bioshock has to offer. That was the case with the original game and it’s much the same case with the new Switch version of it.

One of the more interesting details worth touching on here is that, while other Switch ports like The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt or Overwatch have had to make severe or significant compromises in order to run on Nintendo’s handheld, Bioshock doesn’t. It first released on the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3. The Switch honestly feels like it’s more than capable for what 2K have thrown at it. 

As visually-rich and crisply-detailed as your memories of the first time you played Bioshock might be, the reality is that it hasn’t aged all that well when it comes to graphics. Textures look blurry and blocky. Of course, the upshot of this is that squeezing them onto the Switch’s smaller LCD display doesn’t feel like that much of a downgrade. 

Credit: Fergus Halliday

The Nintendo Switch version of Bioshock doesn’t look like a bad version of Bioshock, it just looks like Bioshock. What’s more, while standards for fidelity have changed since the first came out, the sound and environment design here go a long way to helping keep the game’s rich sense of atmosphere and tension intact. 

The Bottom Line

If you’re wondering whether Bioshock runs well on Switch, fret not. 

Irrational Games’ submersive shooter just might not look as you remember but, otherwise, this is a perfect port. If you’re ready to return to Rapture and don’t mind sacrificing a little bit of immersion for portability, the Nintendo Switch version of Bioshock: Definitive Edition is easy to endorse. 

Credit: Fergus Halliday

These days, many modern AAA games commit the crime of being too big. Even smaller releases nowadays are loaded with long-tail challenges and post-launch content designed to keep you coming back. Bioshock predates this trend and, upon revisitation, there’s something refreshing about that sense of finality. 

Sure, Bioshock 2 and Bioshock: Infinite exist but the story here stands on its own. Levine and co. know when to let the curtains fall and the credits roll. 

At the time it was released, Bioshock felt like the pinnacle of what gameplay, art, writing and sound design could achieve by working in unison. And while gaming has moved beyond what Bioshock offered on all these fronts (as have I), the fact that the Switch can recapture that appeal feels so much more like the future of gaming to me than any amount of teraflops promised by the Playstation 5 and Xbox Series X.

Bioshock: Definitive Edition is available on the Nintendo Switch now as part of Bioshock: The Collection, which also includes remastered versions of Bioshock 2 and Bioshock Infinite. You can grab it via Amazon here.

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Fergus Halliday
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