Written By: Erika Haase
The other night I finished up the last story missions of Toukiden: Kiwami on my PS Vita, eager to throw in Toukiden 2 and continue the near Sisyphean task of getting through my gaming back-log. I’d spent long hours with the original PS Vita iteration of Toukiden: Age Of Demons and was determined to see the new heaps of story content and characters through to their respective ends before starting the sequel. It was very satisfying, and as the credits rolled after a beautiful ending cutscene, I had a moment of pause for the way in which I was experiencing this grandiose tale about Oni who devour time itself, and heroes who are fueled by the souls of heroes from Japanese legend.
No, this is not a review of Toukiden – that would be simple. (Go play Toukiden, it’s really good) This is about my choice to play a game that consumed nearly 100 hours of my life on a screen that’s somewhere between my phone and the Nintendo Switch in terms of visual real estate. Toukiden is only the most recent title to occupy this amount of time in my life. Before that, Trails Of Cold Steel spent a collective total of 200+ hours between both games telling me its far-reaching story of a country at war and the young minds that would set it right. I did buy the PS3 versions of those games for the times I felt like having a big screen experience, but the truth is I spent a solid 80% of my time, if not more, playing those titles on a handheld. Dragon’s Crown, Soul Sacrifice, and Dungeon Travelers 2 are other long-lived titles that come to mind which are all reasons in and of themselves to own a PS Vita.
Looking over to my, admittedly, ridiculously large collection of Nintendo DS systems of varying sizes, designs, and “3Dness,” I’ve put in some serious chunks of life on that handheld as well. Etrian Odyssey: The Millennium Girl and The Fafnir Knight, Bravely Default and Bravely Second, Dragon Quest IV, V, VI, VII, and IX, Corpse Party, and the mother of all time sink – Animal Crossing: New Leaf, a game I played every day for at least an hour a day for a year straight. Doing some rough math for the sake of my sanity, on the Nintendo handheld alone – and just these titles mentioned, mind you – that is approximately 1,200 hours of my life, 50 days of time, on a screen not much bigger than an adult’s index finger.
In the age of “bigger is better” televisions in every manner of high definition available, why would anyone choose to embark on epic adventures on a tiny screen when there are so many grand scale games with hyper realistic graphics that tell equally compelling stories and can, obviously, push the technical envelope further?
This may be a throwback to an older time. This may die out in the decades to come as gaming companies struggle to decide if they should focus strictly on consoles or also splinter their resources into developing a handheld device. However, much like reading a book has not strayed far from the original method of intake, I have a feeling that handheld games will prevail far longer than people might realize, for the sheer fact that there are levels of comfort and intimacy they provide that a television simply can’t give you. There’s something all-encompassing about reading a great book (either on print or a Nook/Kindle), curled up in the corner of a couch, or comfortable chair in a coffee shop, sipping a hot beverage and lost in your imagination. Similarly, with or without earbuds, curled up in bed or killing time on a commute, handhelds give you a proximity to the gaming experience that is the closest thing I’ve felt to being directly plugged into the adventure I’m playing. I am, quite literally, closer to the experience as it is held an unhealthy distance from my eyes. I’m probably sitting in a position that’s ruining my posture because I forgot to move for hours after a particularly good plot reveal. If you have an emotional reaction – be it frustration, sadness, joy, or a jump scare, it seems so present since you either startle the person sitting next to you, or have to bottle it up to avoid having a rage-quit moment on the subway. In those quiet moments where it’s just you and the device, yelling out – even a quick gasp – seems so loud. When I’ve played games in rooms of people before, they usually can’t see my screen. When my eyebrows go up and my eyes go wide, I’m invariably asked by a friend “Oh, did something good just happen?” It’s a private little moment between you and the game.
I’m by no means a handheld fanatic. I own, and have owned, all the major consoles going back a longer while than I care to admit. I am a junkie for photo realistic graphics, jaw dropping CG, big-budget AAA games, and the high levels of action and engagement these games usually provide. I love the console experience, but I’m aware it’s in a completely different way. It’s in a big, bold, loud manner that lets me sprawl on a couch eating junk food and drink coffee till 2 AM, pretending I’m way younger than I actually am. It takes up my living room so much so, that if my husband wants to do something, he actually needs to vacate the space, or put on noise cancelling headphones.
And then there’s the spoiler moments. The two of us have a system in place where we’ll physically throw the other out of a room to avoid ruining the plot for the other if need be. That’s just what true love is all about.
When we have friends over, the Nintendo Wii (and yes, even the Wii U) is pulled out with all its 500,000 versions of controllers, so we can play Mario Kart. Someone demands revenge for a blue-shell stolen victory and they decide to settle it (usually) with Guilty Gear Xrd on PS4. In many years past, my brothers and I came to actual blows over “being cheap” in Tekken 3.
Not so with the little hand-held. I remember my moments playing Crisis Core on the PSP and feeling the quiet sadness behind Zach’s final moments. I also remember yelling at the ceiling after getting killed numerous times over in two particularly annoying boss fights in Growlanser: Wayfarer of Time and immediately realizing that the person one room over probably thought I was a crazy person. My personal favorite moments might be in breaking out a calculator and piece of paper to try and figure out a puzzle in Virtue’s Last Reward, determined to not look up the solution on GameFaqs.
There are other purposes that handhelds have served me, as well, over my life. In a slightly more personal side-note, I’ve dealt with some dark times that sparked anxiety and feelings that life wasn’t going to get better for a long time. The world felt too big, life felt too big, and even the big screen and a AAA game adventure felt “too big.” My inner self wanted to curl up and find the tiniest corner to occupy where nothing could be disturbed because everything else felt like it was crashing down around me. However, games are a huge part of my life, and in those moments of darkness, I still wanted to find a way to have this medium that felt like a close friend be near me. If games completely disappeared, it would be a loss of normalcy I didn’t want to face. With very few exceptions, actual people were often too overwhelming after a short time, as many just simply didn’t know what to do or say to make me feel better. So, I picked up a Nintendo DSi, jammed earbuds in my ears, and started Dragon Quest IV. The simple music, the basic premise with objectives I could reach through comforting repetition, and even the challenges, were all just right. The music was cheerful and cut through looping thoughts in my head just enough to find a bit of peace for the time I played. I felt moments of confidence flickering back through the haze of my every day as game after game would give me a purpose, tell me “you must save the world” without question or doubt in my ability, and send me on my way with a guaranteed party of friends.
Animal Crossing is another game I would find solace in when I couldn’t sleep at 4 AM. Music that should be classified as therapeutic tinkled through earbuds as I sat up in the dark, fishing or hunting for gems, and giving my animal neighbors chairs, balloons, and letters that made them happy. It is in complete truthfulness when I say that I almost started crying once when the town threw me a surprise party, simply because no one I knew in real life had ever done something like that for me, and I couldn’t see a future yet where that would possibly happen. Sure, it was a happy penguin telling me I was wonderful and the best Mayor they could have hoped for, and sure I’d rather get that affirmation from people in the real-world, but sometimes – sometimes at 4 AM in the middle of an anxiety attack, a happy penguin is about all you can handle.
(Yes, I’m doing much better now, thank you for asking. My life is in a far different place. However, for many people, this is still their reality and may be for a long time to come. I can’t pretend to not understand the comfort they find from moments like this.)
Much like books have their movie adaptations that are big, bombastic, and full of special effects, a good story has many ways of being enjoyed. Also, much like in books, sometimes a story is better left told in the quiet spaces of our imagination and simply doesn’t translate well otherwise. When it comes to gaming, the consoles will always win out for the spectacle, but I don’t think we’ll ever want to give up those little moments we get to keep to ourselves within the multiple routes of a visual novel, the horrifying ghost stories of Corpse Party, or the relaxing routine of Harvest Moon and Animal Crossing. Unlike any mobile game I’ve played yet, being able to wrap your hands around a set of buttons and screens gives you a feeling of control. Music and story are as good as their creators allow them to be, and sometimes, it’s simply just about great game-play like Lumines, Pokemon, or the age-old classic Tetris.
Having recently started playing The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild, I can say that this feeling of “gaming intimacy” is definitely reproduced (at least for me) on the Nintendo Switch – a “console” that is a handheld no matter how they choose to market it. There are many who also hope to see Sony put out a “Vita 2” in response. Even NieR/Drakengard creator Yoko Taro was quoted as saying he’d like to see another Vita be made. While there are plenty of skeptics as to the success of either idea, the Nintendo Switch has seen an extremely successful launch and the game companies are showing up to create product for it.
I must not be the only person, then, who remembers sitting up under a blanket with a flashlight attached to a GameBoy. I simply wonder what the equivalent experience will be as we move forward into the vast potential of new tech. I refuse to believe, however, that any of us will ever willingly surrender the quiet comforts that come with, if I may use the quote, holding the power of the Sun in the palms of your hands – and letting no one else be the wiser.
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