15 years later, the smartest shooter ever made still holds up
“Thank you for helping us help you help us all.”
Booting up Portal for the first time on Nintendo Switch brought a tear to my eye. Something about seeing Valve’s classic logo as the game loaded was heartening, especially since this is somehow the renowned developer’s first game for Nintendo Switch. As revealed during the June 2022 Partner Showcase, the Portal Companion Collection shadow dropped for Nintendo Switch, compiling both games in the series for only $20. While the second game is undoubtedly more feature-rich, it’s hard to deny the importance of the first installment — a game that would influence shooters and puzzle games — even 15 years later.
Spoiler warning for the original Portal.
The fact that Portal still feels unique and fresh, even to this day is a testament to its timelessness, with mechanics that rival even 2022’s most innovative games. On paper, it’s such a simple premise: Place a portal on a surface and use a second portal to go through it. But its simplicity is an asset, allowing other mechanics — such as the implementation of a Companion Cube — to shine, without totally stealing the thunder from placing portals.
Things get complicated towards the end of the game, but thanks to the gradual ramp in difficulty, no challenge ever feels insurmountable. Each obstacle feels fair, and it’s due, in part, to the meticulous placement of every single test chamber that came before. The game starts with simple tasks, such as placing a portal up above to reach the path ahead. But towards the end of the game, you need to use momentum and physics to propel yourself across massive rooms at just the right angle, while avoiding dangerous turrets and other deadly obstacles, all as the game’s villain, GLaDOS tells you what a horrible person you are.
Despite its gradual jump in difficulty, Portal never feels too easy. Your first run might take several hours, especially due to some of the later puzzles. But once you master the game’s mechanics, you can conceivably speedrun through the game in less than an hour, and this aspect gives Portal nearly infinite replay value. Watching someone breeze through the game in less than 16 minutes is absolutely mesmerizing, giving us a newfound appreciation for the game.
The Switch edition features all the previously released content over the years, including developer commentary, and even supports motion controls (which work surprisingly well). Being able to experience this classic on the go is an absolute joy.
A charismatic villain
But cool mechanics only get you so far.
Why is your character doing what she’s doing? What are her motivations? Your only contact with another character throughout the entirety of the first game is with a computer named GLaDOS, who oversees the testing done at Aperture Science Enrichment Center. GLaDOS serves as a driving force, “guiding” you through each test chamber, while offering some companionship to Chell, the game’s protagonist. The computer’s voice comes across as soothing, yet ominous, with an underlying element of mystery throughout.
Around 75 percent through the game, GLaDOS turns on you, in one of the greatest gaming twists of all time. Not only is this unexpected, but the way GLaDOS betrays you is particularly gruesome, sending you on a seemingly inescapable plummet into a fiery furnace. By today’s standards, this is a brutal premise, but in 2007, it was inconceivable.
As you make your way through the latter sections of the game, GLaDOS taunts you, with memorable lines such as “Remember when the platform was sliding into the fire pit, and I said 'goodbye,' and you were like 'no way!' And then I was all, 'we pretended we were going to murder you.' That was great." The way actress Ellen McLain delivers the lines, in conjunction with the writing itself was unlike anything we had ever experienced in 2007 and to this day.
The game ends with a wild boss battle against GLaDOS, testing your skills and forcing you to prove you’ve mastered the game’s mechanics. But even though GLaDOS is a despicable villain, you can’t help but love her. Maybe it’s because of her witty one-liners, or the way she breaks the fourth wall while pretending to care for you — either way, she’s cemented herself as one of the great video game villains of all time, and for that alone, Portal deserves all the praise it has received over the years.
The Portal Companion Collection is available for Nintendo Switch now.