Red Dead Redemption on Nintendo Switch is an adequate port of an excellent game. It holds up incredibly well after thirteen years, and, while the port is definitely barebones, it’s such a good time that it doesn’t matter too much. It’s just nice to have it here, at the end of the day.
When it comes to Red Dead Redemption, I’m definitely not green, as it were. But that’s by no means a good thing – after 300-so hours with its more recent prequel, RDR2, going back to 2010’s game of the year had me a little scared. Surely, on returning, its age would be hard to overcome, especially given my love for its complex and meticulous bigger brother.
Well, no. Returning to RDR1 felt a little more like coming home. Its simplicity, beauty, and writing all spoke to me afresh, loudly and straightaway. Better yet, this time, it’s in the palm of my hand. And while it may not be a real stunner on Nintendo Switch, it’s more than good enough. All in all, Red Dead’s age charms, rather than dispirits.
It’s 1911, and John Marston is about to get on a train. Flanked by two suit-wearing city-boys, it sure don’t look like it’s up to him whether he boards or not. We ride with him across the plains, with well-to-do ladies complaining about the ‘savages’ that have now been tamed by the expansion of the American frontier. A young girl in front talks with a priest, asks incisive questions, and the priest concisely expresses manifest destiny. It’s their job to bring the word of god and civilize these lands.
This introduction brings up the first bit of Red Dead’s age – it feels very on the nose. The language and the straightness with which it’s all played is actually far more GTA than RDR2. And that’s kind of the whole story of the return: throughout my replaying, I couldn’t believe how “Rockstar” this game felt, in the classic sense; more Niko Bellic than Cole Phelps.
Either way, the satire is still intertwined with a great deal of seriousness, and John Marston’s stoic bad-boy-with-a-good-heart attitude sways you pretty quickly, even if the early conversations with Bonnie MacFarlane feel a little stilted. One of the nicer surprises is the nuance of Bonnie and John’s relationship – how many videogames have a woman and a man spend extended time together without romance nowadays, let alone in 2010?
After John alights the train, he goes to find Bill Williamson. Bill was an old gangmate, part of Dutch van der Linde’s gang, though we know little about that past without RDR2. For some reason, Martson just stands outside Bill’s fort shouting at him, then takes a bullet to the gut. Thankfully, Ms. MacFarlane is here to give him a hand.
Ms. MacFarlane is basically Ms. Tutorial Area. About five seconds after John can stand for the first time after his near-fatal wound, Bonnie gets him to do manual labor for her, so he can repay his debts. You learn about horse breaking, cattle herding, gun-slinging, and pretty much everything else you’ve got to do. It may be simple, but Ms. Tutorial Area is a mighty charming one, too.
From there it all gets pretty familiar – various markers on the map lead you to story segments that range from wild and long shootouts to wacky vignettes. There are manful men, slackjawed deputies, swooning ladies, and treasure-hunting weirdos. It’s often cartoony, but it’s also very fun.
In between all these story sections, there are random events littered throughout the world: some innocent fella’s about to be hanged, some lady needs a ride into town but actually just steals your horse, some folks are having a chat around a campfire. All simple, maybe a little too common, but entertaining nonetheless. So – you ride around, do big story bits, run into little story bits, and shoot a bird or an ocelot or whatever just because you can. Sure sounds like an open-world videogame.
Anyway, I’ve just completed the Herculean task of explaining a decade-old, world-famous game without once saying “who the heck would need to hear this?” Assuming you’re now caught up, all five of you, we can get to why we’re really here – the Nintendo Switch. How does Rockstar’s grand western adventure stand up?
Well, it’s fine. It’s neither impressive nor inadequate. It runs at a rock-solid 30fps whether docked or undocked, and, to my reasonably well-trained eye, there are no drops. In handheld mode it’s set at 720p and looks pretty good, while docked it’s 1080p, which is nice. All the basics are covered with this port, and it’s pleasant.
The main issues come with the shimmer – the sort of jagged white artefacts that appear on foliage or buildings. This has something to do with anti-aliasing, which is unadjustable on Switch, so any straight-edged buildings or busy trees just sparkle in the distance. At first, it’s incredibly distracting, but after about ten hours with the Switch port, I barely notice it anymore.
The other issue is what I assume is audio compression – the voice acting is as excellent as it ever was, but the voices sound crunchier, distorted, compressed. This doesn’t seem to have as bad an effect on the pitch-perfect soundtrack and is again one of those things that you forget about after a few hours in-game, but it’s a bit grating at first. Oh, and there are a couple of amusing bugs – nothing game-breaking, just a bit funny. You can check out a selection in the gallery below.
But for all those nitpicks, this is the sort of game that’s more than good enough, even with an average port. The game itself is so brilliantly well-rounded, that if you want to be a cowboy (baby) while riding on a bus, this is a great way to do it. It still definitely looks better than it did on my Xbox 360, that’s for certain.
As preparation for my Red Dead Redemption Switch review, I did a few things. I rewatched The Wild Bunch, listened to the soundtrack while on some dog walks, and also returned to its recent prequel, Red Dead Redemption 2. And while RDR2 is, of course, a far better game, returning to it didn’t mean I was disappointed by RDR1. In fact, I was mostly impressed by how much of the formula is there, eight years prior to its true flourishing.
If RDR2 is arguably an Animal Crossing, RDR1 is more like an Assassin’s Creed. While it feels, at first, like a bit of a throwback, by the time you’ve got your teeth sunk in, the formula just feels natural. You ride around a gorgeous West, explore wild plains for plants and animals, talk to strangers in town and hear strange tales, and delve deeper into an enticing tale of American exceptionalism in the making. American individualism is dying; true, rugged, self-sufficient folk are no more – the city boys are in charge, even of the cowboys. Rather than manliness, we get weariness.
And that is, of course, the focus of Red Dead: men. The women in the story, while not exactly 2D, aren’t painted with the same depth. Then again, it’s not like this game is raising these manful men to the heights of heroes. Even in RDR1’s power fantasy, these men are bad, often unlikeable, and ultimately, they’re failures. The masculinity that built these lands is now denying them entry into the new world that’s arriving.
And not so many games get to say they examine these sorts of things, even if Red Dead Redemption’s examination of it doesn’t come to many conclusions – and it may not even be a delicate examination for the most part – but it does it either way. It plays it straight, and that gives even the shimmery horizons of the decade-old graphics a timelessness. And, beyond all that, doggone it, it’s a goddamn good time.
For more beyond our Red Dead Redemption Switch review, check out some of our favorite cowboy games for even more. Or, if you agree with me that RDR2, with all its talking and hanging out, is a game like Animal Crossing, why not check some of them out?