I’m Addicted To Old Console Games, And It’s All My iPhone’s Fault

Years after leaving the PlayStation behind, I've found my way back into video games — or maybe they've found their way back to me.

Area of Expertise is a column on niche interests, personal passions, and other things we might know or care a little too much about.

Some stranger was yelling at me on the internet the other day, the way they do, and in the process said something that I hadn't heard in a while: You're not a gamer.

Those words, like a Proustian madeleine composed of garbage and hatred, whisked me back to another time when that line was a regular refrain of the Gamergate debacle, an incantation intended to dispel any statements the self-anointed “gamer” disagreed with. One of the funny-awful side effects of formerly subcultural interests, like comic books and video games, coming not just into the mainstream but into cultural dominance, is that you have all these resentful fans patrolling their borders, insisting that only a select few have the right to hold an opinion on some of the most widely consumed entertainment offerings in the world.

But also, LOL, joke's on that dude, because at the moment I'm actually playing more video games than I ever have in my life. And I'm playing them in a way that really suits me: decades out of sync, and on the most half-assed of platforms. I have become a connoisseur of playing old console games — specifically, the kind of sprawling, immersive action and role-playing games that take upward of 40 hours to finish — the way they were never meant to be played: on my phone.

My gateway drug was Jade Empire, a Chinese-inflected BioWare action RPG that wasn't a hit when it first came out in 2005, but in the years since has become a kind of cult favorite. When it was initially released for the Xbox, I was so broke I'd been sleeping on a papasan cushion in a sublet and not exactly investing in electronics, so it wouldn't have been on my radar anyway. Jade Empire's iOS release in 2016 was the first I'd heard of it, and the first I'd heard that console games were being ported over to mobile, a platform I associated with the lower-key pleasures of Two Dots and Tiny Wings.

It was enrapturing to have something so epic on the tiny device I already owned.

I have no idea how many hours it took me to play through Jade Empire because I spread it out over seven or eight weeks. Playing on a phone obviously involves huge compromises, from the screen size to the touch controls, plunked awkwardly in the corners on top of the action. But it was enrapturing to have something so epic, that used to require a console or a computer that could handle it, on the tiny device I already owned. Sure, I could invest in something portable that was actually made for gaming, like a Nintendo Switch, but it felt more luxurious to make do with the phone I was always carrying with me anyway. It freed me up to impulse dive into the game in 20-minute chunks during, say, my morning commute, rather than having to park myself in front of a TV.

Jade Empire keeps track of your compassionate or self-serving choices as you play the game, and assigns you an according good/evil alignment. Like any hopeless brownnoser, I drifted to the side of good so compulsively that my character forever glowed a self-righteous blue. So when I finished Jade Empire and moved on to the game this morality system had been borrowed from, 2003's Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, I made a point of going hard toward the dark…but could only bring myself to do it on my second play-through, when I was rewarded with a much more satisfying ending. Then I flopped over to the Final Fantasy series of games, most of which are available for iOS (except, mystifyingly, the one I know best, VIII), but generally spendier than the average offering, port or otherwise. I sprung for but couldn't commit to the 1987 original, then invested in and made it through VI (great), VII (forever overrated, fight me), and Tactics (whose gameplay transferred best to playing on a phone) in rapid succession.

Rapid, in this case, meant weeks spent on each, because I was playing these games in relatively constrained chunks of time — on the train, or before the start of a movie, or while waiting for a friend to show up at a bar. Lately, I've been tootling my way through a few of the Grand Theft Autos, swapping between III and Vice City at whim. The titles I've been picking have been, for the most part, from a period in my life when I had only a peripheral awareness of what was happening in the video game world. The pleasures of sampling games this way now are not just in catching up with what I missed back then, but getting to run up and down the offerings within this timeline, taking in the improvements made in leaps and bounds in terms of graphics and gameplay.

There are absolutely “better,” non-jury-rigged-for-mobile options for experiencing these games. But I like that, on my phone, I can fit them around my life instead of surrendering to them. Something I'd always been wary of about gaming is how frictionlessly it could gobble up hours, leaving me to emerge later, eyes bleary from focusing without blinking enough, body aching from being in the same position for too long. Having it be something I can do out in the wild makes it feel different, less all-consuming — a way to pass the time, rather than an intense, solitary indulgence.

When you're really parceling out your time with these games, you look at them differently, trying to assess how they best break up into manageable chunks, holding back on big fights or long missions until you know you won't be cut off before saving. When the timing's off, it can get frustrating, but more often it feels like savoring something, teasing it out a little longer instead of urgently devouring the experience in enormous gulps the way the age of bingeable media has trained us to do with everything.

I will, indeed, never be a gamer in the sense that Twitter rando meant it — as an identity that has as much to do with cultural and demographic associations as with seriousness. But I have, to my own surprise, gotten really good at being a bad gamer — and it feels great.

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