In the summer of 2006, retailer EB Games outed the existence of a PSP port of Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, and though a small contingent of fans reacted to the leak with enthusiasm, the news was generally met with skepticism. How could the developer of one of the biggest western RPG series of all time possibly cram such a massive, open-world experience onto a handheld whose hardware was at least a generation behind the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 consoles?
At the time of the game’s reveal, Bethesda wasn’t providing much in the way of answers, though an interview with Bethesda’s Todd Howard published on IGN in October 2006 revealed a few key pieces of information. First: load times were good, because the developer was ditching the open-world exploration that made the game’s console and PC siblings so popular, focusing instead on dungeon crawling and action-based character development. Second: despite the controls needing to be simplified to work with the PSP’s smaller selection of inputs, Bethesda was hoping to keep the feel of the series intact.
Aside from a handful of screenshots that appeared in the October 2006 issue of the Official U.S. PlayStation Magazine, that interview was pretty much the only confirmation we ever had that the game existed in playable form. Then, in November 2007—following up on rumors earlier in the year that the game was being shelved due to production issues at developer Climax Group London—Kotaku’s Michael McWhertor reported that Gamestop had begun calling players who’d pre-ordered the game to let them know that it’d been cancelled.
Two years later, Unseen64 detailed a few more tantalizing specifics about the game’s design: it featured both a hub world, and an assortment of non-player characters that would change in reaction to the progress players made through the game. And that was pretty much all she wrote about a PSP Elder Scrolls game.
Fast forward to May 17th, 2016—a full ten years after The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion was announced for PSP—when the game resurfaced via YouTube channel PtoPOnline, which, according to its founder Andrew Borman, “covers the rarest and most obscure prototype and unreleased gaming titles from gaming’s deepest and darkest corners, with the goal of raising awareness of the ongoing effort to preserve these titles forever.” According to Borman, a reddit user named Mordorax discovered multiple playable builds of the game under mysterious circumstances, and after Tamriel Foundry contributor Benefactor purchased the builds from Mordorax, they were provided to Borman, who in turn published full playthroughs of all of the builds on YouTube.
That in itself would be exciting enough, but on June 7th, 2016, I was given access to the builds myself, and after putting them through their paces for several hours, I’ve come away extremely impressed by what Climax managed to accomplish a decade ago on Sony’s first handheld platform. For starters, the game retains the telltale Elder Scrolls look and feel, with detailed, moody graphics, a stirring, sometimes ominous score, and a rock solid 30 frames of animation per second with very minimal tearing. As someone who’s always been a handheld gamer first and foremost, I’ve long held some pretty pie-in-the-sky views about what my favorite gaming platforms might be able to accomplish performance-wise, and what I’ve played of Elder Scrolls Oblivion on PSP has completely blown my expectations out of the water.
Moment-to-moment gameplay is not far off from what was established by 2002’s Morrowind and ultimately refined for 2011’s Skyrim. In typical Elder Scrolls fashion, my character awakens in a dungeon in which he is most certainly meant to rot, and shortly thereafter is rescued by a hooded figure who declares that I am the only one who can save Rhalta—a location that, to the best of my understanding, hasn’t been featured in any previous Elder Scrolls game. The hooded figure is summarily dispatched by a fire-wielding scamp, and from that point on, it’s all about the battles. Controls take some getting used to, but they’re pretty well implemented on a console with only one analog stick. Basic movement is handled with the analog stick, while targeting and circle strafing are accomplished by holding down the left shoulder button. The right shoulder button allows me to look while standing in place, which is incredibly useful when I’m engaged in melee combat as it allows me to target specific body parts of enemies. Aside from that, there’s a pretty straightforward selection of action commands: square blocks, x attacks with swords, bows, or axes, and circle lets me use whatever spell I have equipped. I start with two basic spells—flare, and restore health—but by the time the most robust of the demo builds crashes on me at what seems like the end of its available content, I’ve purchased an additional 15-20 spells, including several from the illusion school of magic.
There are several areas to explore in the longest build: two prison areas, an Oblivion plane, two town sections, and a Mages Guild headquarters. Within each area lies a variety of pursuits: scamps, goblins, skeletons, soldiers, evil mages, and Daedric warriors to kill; simple quests to complete (“kill 5 scamps,” “collect 7 signet rings”); and NPCs to push the story forward and dole out the aforementioned quests. There’s also plenty of loot to collect and utilize, from weapons, ammo and shields to restorative items, Skooma, and gold with which to purchase spells from the Mages Guild.
Altogether, there’s about two hours of gameplay among all of the available builds, though once I’ve experienced all of them, I realize they’re all basically iterations on each other, making for a solid half-hour of unique gameplay on the longest build. That doesn’t sound like a ton of game, and it’s not. But other than the occasional hard lock that requires me to restart my PSP Go, there’s never a moment where I’m not having fun with the game. The controls can be clunky, sure, but as someone who’s spent his entire life settling for compromised handheld ports of games that originally appeared on more powerful hardware, it never gets in the way of my enjoyment. And the fact that there’s no open world never detracts from the experience these demos have given me: I’ve finally played a real Elder Scrolls game on a handheld system, and it feels great.
I could easily see myself sinking 30-40 hours into the cancelled PSP Elder Scrolls game, had it ever been completed. By early 2007, the game was already in an incredibly polished state, with sound effects, animation, music, fonts, dialogue and environmental effects all looking and sounding fantastic on the PSP. So why the cancellation? Bethesda isn’t saying, but it seems most likely that the publisher simply lost faith in the product when Climax continually failed to meet deadlines or operate on budget. Sadly, we’ll likely never see a similar project from Bethesda, but thanks to the efforts of a group of dedicated fans on the Internet, each and every one of us now has the opportunity to experience a little slice of gaming history that was thought to be lost forever.