When our family used to take summer trips to the same beach every year, portable gaming was always right there with me. The road from the top of Pennsylvania to the bottom of North Carolina is excruciatingly long, and would take us multiple days to actually drive to our destination and back. Thank goodness I had my Game Boy with me to pass the time, and over the years would be upgrading systems as they became available. The road trips always hold precious memories for me, but it also illustrates why portable gaming is excellent even as it emphasizes its many strengths.
Given how samey the road gets, I would have gone out of my mind without portable gaming. Luckily, it’s home to many good, long RPGs that let you pass hour after hour trying to unravel their lengthy campaigns. The advent of saved games via battery backup were a godsend for my road trips because that meant I could tackle such meaty games without worrying if the batteries would run out before I did. I have good memories of playing through the Final Fantasy Legend games on my Game Boy and, while I never finished any of them – they are still SaGa games, after all – I got shockingly close for something on a battery-hungry system. Even better still was the fact that I could experiment with lesser-known titles like the GBA’s Riviera: The Promised Land, a wild mix of on-rails JRPG and a dating simulator. Having all that time to myself really got me to broaden my taste in games.
Given how samey the road gets, I would have gone out of my mind without portable gaming.
Once we actually got to our destination, handheld play took on a different shape, one more recognizable to commuters. I have a distinct memory of playing some version of Mortal Kombat, constantly climbing the tower of the single player mode with each and every fighter. I couldn’t really be hassled with actually learning the moves, so I instead spammed uppercut until I won. I also remember finding little souvenirs to buy for each fighter I won with to commemorate the occasion.
The quicker games like this ended up creating a pattern where games and reality would punctuate each other. Our family would be going to eat at a nearby restaurant, so I’d break out Mortal Kombat for a match or two. When we got there, I’d be thinking about it and, seeing a vending machine with various doodads in the lobby, got a ring with a gaudy plastic green stone in the middle, and used that to represent the fighter Jade. Then I got back in the car and started working on another fighter.
However you choose to use handheld gaming, whether it’s through short bursts of play or extended time wasters, handheld gaming has a shocking breadth and depth of experiences that will absolutely play well untethered by a television.
My silly example was the whims of a bored child put to reality, but it illustrates one of the most powerful lessons of handheld gaming, which is how neatly it compartmentalizes itself into everyday life. Maybe it’s a game of Fire Emblem that you’re plugging away at on your commute. The thing about handheld gaming is that the game stays with you even once you stop. There’s a constant ebb and flow of moments when you can play and can’t, and your mind tends to fill in the spaces you can’t with the echoes of when you could. That’s an impressive magic trick.
The standard of putting Sleep Mode onto systems, where you can just pause whatever you were doing and make the system inactive, was another revelation that basically changed how I played my road trip games, but it also eventually revealed the myth of handheld games. Because Sleep Mode allowed you to just put a game down and pick it back up later with no hassle, it lead to powerful systems like the PlayStation Vita and the Nintendo Switch to bring console gaming to the smaller screen. The result? Games of all sorts, not just ones designed for the handheld experience, can and do thrive when you can take it on the go with you, whether it’s through an extended plane ride or a short train ride.
However you choose to use handheld gaming, whether it’s through short bursts of play or extended time wasters, handheld gaming has a shocking breadth and depth of experiences that will absolutely play well untethered by a television. We now have games like an amazing version of Diablo III, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey all under the handheld banner, and all meaty, console-worthy experiences that just so happen to thrive on handheld. It makes those boring trips worth taking, and certainly lives on as my favorite part of traveling.