Old is the new new

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The heady combination of the relentless passage of time and plain old life in general have lead me to what just a few years ago would’ve been an unthinkable place: Living in a SCART-less home and without the time, space, energy, or plain old money to keep shelves of increasingly esoteric consoles, computers, and PCBs all nicely set up and ready for what in reality would amount to ten? twenty? thirty? minutes (if I was very lucky) of retro-tastic action.

Modern gaming hasn’t fared much better for me either as being able to find the time – real time, where I can sit uni- [literally interrupted for half an hour here] -nterrupted for as long as a game dictates between permanent save points – happens roughly… never. That never happens. I’ve heard about it though, the mythical unicorn known as “Time to do something without distractions”. Sounds nice.

[cough]

So for a long time now I’ve been using gaming laptops to try and find a happy place that balances modern gaming with practical accessibility, and to some extent it’s been working: There’s no doubt that I’ve got more modern gaming done on my laptop than all my consoles combined in the past decade – fantastic, in a sad sort of way. But even when there’s been a will and a way it’s still a struggle to play these wonderful games as intended, and I often have to leave them running idle in the background or break them down into a thousand tiny portions, stolen at random during another busy day. Chipping away like this does work but something’s definitely lost in the process, and no matter how many games I beat this way I’m still acutely aware of the gulf between how I’m “coping” with them and how they’re supposed to be experienced.

Luckily for me when one door closes you can usually find an open window lying around somewhere, and so I’m stepping into 2019 with more focus on what I can play rather than fighting for a brief and possibly unsatisfying session on something that I can’t.

And that means handhelds.

Now the Switch, 3DS, and Vita are all excellent portables stuffed to the gills with games I adore – play Splatoon 2 on a train! EX Troopers on your lunch break! Phantasy Star Online 2 in the bath! (please don’t play handheld games in the bath) – but as the laptop struggles described above have hopefully shown it’s not enough simply to be “hardware you can carry around”, it’s still a square peg in a round hole. We’re at the point now where these handhelds have more features built in as standard than we’d ever dream of asking from a console just two generations ago, but rarely are games for these systems built with the needs of the on-the-go/time-poor gamer that might naturally gravitate towards these devices in mind.

So when I say “handhelds” I’m really talking about “pre-GBA” formats: The original “brick” Game Boy, Sega’s Game Gear (fun fact: On good batteries I can get more gaming time out of that than I can my phone), the best colour Game Boy Color (translucent purple, like you didn’t know already), and to round out the AA-dependant portable family;  the Neo Geo Pocket, WonderSwan, and even my mysteriously-still-working-since-Christmas 1990 Lynx (Hey! The Lynx has some great games!) too.

Which isn’t to say I’m retreating entirely from modern gaming, old consoles, or that this is going to turn into a tedious post about the superiority of Ye Olde Waeys: Modern technology and game design trends have brought a lot of good to gaming! I don’t want to live in a world without Lost Planet 2 or Devil Trigger on repeat again or any of the incredible indie titles that would struggle (“dead in the water” is probably more accurate) to get through the traditional publisher vetting process.

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However it’s not unfair to say that there’s been a change in the way we’ve been asked to play over the years, the best way I can frame it is as a kind of pressure to perform. Whether that’s passively through worldwide leaderboards and achievements or directly through competitive online play and streaming; it feels like there’s always something that’s checking up on you and asking how you’re doing, how well are you doing it, and why haven’t you cleared all of this precious content yet, to the point where I find myself wondering that if I can’t get a game done then perhaps I’m wasting my time.

I really dislike that feeling, especially when it’s coming from what is supposed to be a pleasurable (and expensive) activity I choose to spend my free time on. It’s also the wrong way to think about these things, even when you’ve got a mountain of unplayed games leering at you from their infrequently-dusted shelves. “Time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time” as the saying goes, and that is what makes these little self-contained islands of gaming such a perfect fit for me right now, their straight-to-the-point arcade-like priorities putting just a button press or two between myself and the action.

It wasn’t until I seriously say down and played for a while that I realised how far I’d strayed from this classic gaming mindset: “Level 1 again? But I did that weeks ago! Why should I do something I’ve already done?!” But when you start to remember that it’s built into the basics of the game I found it relaxing and actually pretty liberating, even when I wasn’t making that all-important progress. I’m completely off the hook, the vast majority of these old portable games neither knowing nor caring if this was my first go or my hundredth, and equally not caring if I force my way through for the sake of seeing the credits or if I switch it off in a few seconds because the kettle’s boiled. I’ve redisovered something I’d forgotten I had, and that was being free to play until I’ve stopped having fun.

So here’s to 2019 and a new, more relaxed, way of playing! Welcome back to the late 80’s/early 90’s and all of those “little” games that serve a separate purpose to the usual console fare. Let’s celebrate those imaginative and experimental titles that try to do so much with so very little!

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8 thoughts on “Old is the new new

  1. This was very therapeutic to read, thank you for sharing!

    I’ve been in love with my gaming laptop since I got it. I either hook it up to my TV and use it as if it was a console, or do the complete opposite and lay in bed using it XD Obviously there’s a ton to play on PC itself, but I’ve also used the PS4 remote play app to stream those games to my laptop when I’m too lazy to go downstairs… The wonders of technology!

    I honestly wish we could get back that feeling of not being under pressure to advance, finish, or fully complete games. It’s probably the biggest hurdle in my backlog, trying to remember what I was supposed to be doing when getting back into a game I haven’t played in a long time. Just the idea of booting up the game and having to figure that out makes me want to take a nap instead XD

    I’ve always gravitated towards handhelds to begin with and the convenience nowadays is really appreciated to whittle away at my backlog. Even if I’m just at home, powering on my Switch and playing it for 15-20 mins at a time is so much faster than booting up a PlayStation or something. Even if we can’t get rid of the pressure to perform, not having to commit to a big sit-down session helps out a lot!

    (Thank you SO much for the Gameboy Ghostbusters gif)

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    1. You’re very welcome!

      And I know what you mean about stopping playing before you’ve even started – I can think of plenty of games sitting here that I’d love to go through but require the sort of commitment I just don’t have the time to give, no matter how cool they look :S

      (Heehee~ my pleasure! Those between-stage cutscenes are a real treat!)

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  2. Handhelds are a wonderful thing, and although you’re correct that Vita, 3DS et al do offer a lot of “console-style” experiences that demand time and attention, there are also a lot of developers who are still doing it “right” for the handheld platform — providing short, bite-size pieces of entertainment you can enjoy without guilt for a few minutes at a time, or that you can sit down and really get your teeth into if you so desire.

    Interestingly, one of the handheld titles I’ve found most effective recently is the Atari Flashback Classics collection for Switch. While some turn their noses up at such old and primitive games, what I’ve found is that 2600 and 5200 games are absolutely PERFECT for handheld play, since in that era many games were still very much designed in the arcade mould: two minutes of play, then either bugger off or put more money in. Fun fact (well, I found it fun anyway): the typical duration of an Atari 2600 game (two minutes and 16 seconds) is precisely calculated to be the closest possible value to this “magic number” while taking into account a 60hz refresh rate.

    I really need to get my old Game Boys up and running and collect a few more games for them. My mum found a bunch of Game Boy and DS stuff back home a little while ago and is going to send them to me, so that’s a slight head start on my presently paltry collection of Harvest Moon, Final Fantasy Legend II, Zelda DX and Pokemon Red 🙂

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    1. Sorry if I appeared to be implying that 3DS, etc are devoid of handheld-style games – I didn’t mean for it to come across that way!

      And your current GB collection may be small, but there’s no doubt that it’s perfectly formed 😀

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh no, I didn’t think you implied that at all — I do know what you mean, however. There are a lot of “beasts” on those platforms, and titles that play up the handheld angle are becoming less prominent. Not necessarily a bad thing at all, of course, but sometimes you just want to fire something up for a quick blast.

        Yeah, I’m pleased with those few GB games I do have. I remember enjoying FF Legend II a lot more than a lot of people, though I don’t think I ever beat it. Hmm. Maybe time to revisit…

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  3. That is the thing I really like about the 3DS and Switch; you can boot them up and start playing a game in a matter of seconds. That’s not really the case with the PS4; you often have to wait for updates (or barring that, longer load times). Not only that, but being able to tote the games on trips allows you to get some time in whenever you have a moment. There was one day in which portable games were simply watered down versions of console experiences, but with the 3DS and especially the Switch, the former have been able to easily keep pace with the latter.

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  4. I think the outlook on handhelds in general has just changed… somwhere around the GBA era. Now they are protable consoles, being able to deliver full gaming experiences just on a smaller screen. But before that handhelds were the “quick fix”, the thing that let you get gaming in on the go when you couldn’t get it from the “real” thing in front of the TV. Kind of what smartphone gaming fills these days.

    I was never a patient gamer, never liked having to replay stuff. But somehow, last year Dark Sousl Remastered found its way into my libary and I really enjoyed it. The franchise doesn’t quite fill the “quick play here and there” mentality, despite being able to quit out of the game and pick back up right were you stand at any time, they still expect you to have a good junk of time available to put into a gaming session mostly. But the intrinsic design mentality of “You died” the whole experience is build around really helped me in not minding having to stuff over again – at least to an extend. Also, I love Dragon Quest for letting you keep your EXP and gathered items (and money if you put it in a bank) upon death, since it doesn’t quite have the “I have to do it ALL over again” feel to it.

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