I spent a lot of time with the Pocket Analogue over the weekend. The thing about retro games and the cornucopia they provide is figuring out where your attention will finally alight. I’ve never played early Fire Emblem games (and found Three Houses on the Switch to be a little impenetrable) so I gave the GBA version of Fire Emblem a shot and it has stuck.
That doesn’t mean I didn’t fiddle around with quite a few more. I added the Sega Genesis core, which netted me Samurai Shodown. I don’t know how many quarters I pumped into that at the PX in South Korea in 1994. The only sword-fighting game I’ve enjoyed more was probably Bushido Blade on the PS1. I found a few more games I remembered with fondness that aren’t so great on handhelds: Power Monger and Populous from Bullfrog, which were great on PCs or sprawled out on the living room floor, but far too fussy for a tiny screen.
And while we were out for breakfast on Saturday morning we walked past a vintage game store I didn’t even know existed on Foster. I impulse bought Super Monkey Ball Jr. for $8 and felt my eyes water a little at the $65 price tag for an actual Fire Emblem cartridge (no box).
Anyhow … Fire Emblem … it suits the handheld use case perfectly: Turn-based, so you can get distracted or set it down for a second and it’s just sitting there waiting when you pick it back up. Its cousin — Advance Wars: Dual Strike — was one of my favorite NintendoDS games for the same reason.
The whole experience so far has made me look at my Nintendo Switch a little differently. I think I bought it because I saw someone at work playing Breath of the Wild, and that sold me on the spot. I hadn’t owned a handheld for a few years … I’d had an early Nintendo 3DS and a DS Lite before that … and it was hard to believe I was seeing a handheld.
Since then, the games I’ve really enjoyed on it have been Animal Crossing, Dead Cells, Mario Kart, Alien: Isolation, Sky Force, and a handful of others – usually stuff I could have played on iOS/iPadOS. Oh, also the mildly bonkers Everything – I played that a lot. I bought quite a few more before I realized I wasn’t really enjoying them. Ben actually got into my Switch and patiently tallied the hours played on everything and shamed me on the matter.
With the Switch, I never really felt like I recaptured what I loved about the DS Lite. The draw of ports for major titles was always there, and I’d fall for it every time, forgetting that you’re not getting the pared down version of the thing … you’re getting the whole thing. Wordy cut scenes, long load times, etc. And some ports are just half-baked. I was thrilled at the thought of X-Com in a handheld — I’ve been playing variations of that game since the PS1 port of the original in the ’90s. But it was as close to a straight port as you can get: I couldn’t read the microscopic text, and the UI was sort of glitchy and ill-suited to thumbsticks. And, finally, there’s just the form factor. It’s a big device, and sort of ungainly to keep on the desk for quick breaks.
In the end, it feels to me like it’s perhaps symptomatic of what happened to games — the gaming market, anyhow — in general: Things got serious. It’s not that you couldn’t be an obsessive gaming dweeb on a GameBoy or DS, it’s just that they could only achieve so much, and couldn’t sustain the pretension to narrative and visual immersion that was waiting to be realized by ever-more-powerful consoles. They might have longish cut scenes or “cinematic” intros now and then, but past that you were just playing Meteos, Tetris, or some other obviously handheld version of something that itself wasn’t in the same ballpark as what is normal today.
When I think about it rationally, the right move would have been to just ignore the Switch. It has some great titles that suit an aging casual like me, but there’s always the pull of the major ports and the big games, and it is utterly unnecessary, and less well suited than its ancestors, for the “pick up and play during spare moments or lazy Sundays” use case.
I’m remembering the day I donated all my DS games and really regretting it – that particular combination of hardware and software in particular was some kind of peak, given the dual screens. It enabled a sort of complexity and expansiveness that was still somehow constrained. If Analogue decided to make a DS version of the Pocket I think I’d be all over it, and if I’d thought my Pocket use case through a little more I may have just bought a refurbed DS Lite and spent the difference on games at the vintage store.
As it is, the Pocket is pretty good and does what I want (and remember enjoying). Given original titles it’s a step down from the DS Lite, but not a big step — definitely not big at all if your thing is turn-based strategy — and there’s a small market of indy games for it that traffic in a kind of self-referential and distanced nostalgia that’s a little ironic in the fun way.
Standing in the vintage game store on Foster Rd., though, I noticed a bunch of 2DS and DS Lites sitting around with spare chargers and batteries. I wonder what the long-term repair picture on those things is, because to my mind that’s possibly the last, great generation of handhelds and I wouldn’t mind rescuing a few.