Finding Comfort in the Handheld RPG
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Finding Comfort in the Handheld RPG

Two hours deep into a dungeon, I find myself in the midst of a constant stream of random battles, draining my party’s health and my own morale. “Can I make it?” I ask myself every few minutes. There aren’t many healing items left, leaving me with few options—risk losing that time on the way out or attempting a mad-dash to the boss I’m almost certainly not equipped for. Ten minutes later, after witnessing dramatic dialogue, I’m face to face with the dungeon’s boss and… “David, it’s time to go!” I put my PSP in rest mode, awaiting my next RPG excursion.

RPG Final Fantasy 20th Anniversary

Thus began my lifelong attachment to handheld role playing games. There’s something intrinsically special about playing a gargantuan, mechanically dense RPG on the go. Such adoration was born out of convenience and circumstance. This affinity for convenience is seen today with children glued to their smart phones (or parents’ smart phones) and tablets like I was to my GBA, PSP, and DS growing up.

My mother used to work ten-plus hour days six or seven times a week, leaving little time for me. She didn’t have access to babysitters or family friends that could watch over me while she was at work or running errands, meaning I rarely spent time home. If my mom was at work, I was usually there with her. If she went out running errands, I’d have to go with her, often to my dismay.

These trips harbour my most mind-numbing memories. Nearly twenty years later, I still resent the hours I’d spend tapping my feet and scratching wall paint as she perused clothing stores. Just when I tasted moments of freedom, she pulled me into another store. You can imagine how this could drive a six to twelve-year-old insane.

“Nothing touched the level of engagement afforded by RPGs.”

This is where handhelds come in. Because I wasn’t home often, most of my childhood gaming sessions were spent on handhelds from the Gameboy through to the PSP. My mother sensed when I was particularly antsy, as she’d buy or rent me a new game to keep me occupied while I was with her. At some point, I began picking RPGs on a more regular basis. Whether it was Dragon Ball Z: The Legacy of Goku or Final Fantasy 1 20th Anniversary, role playing games shaped my on-the-go habits. I loved playing New Super Mario Bros. in the car as much as the next person, but nothing touched the level of engagement afforded by RPGs.

Even as a dumb child that couldn’t beat most of these games, their complexity was what I needed. Their elusive nature captivated a wide-eyed David, making every trip outside the house feel like an adventure. Rather than resenting the wasted time, every errand or work day was an opportunity to bust out my handheld. I wouldn’t mind how long I’d spend outside the house because every RPG consumed me in a way no other genre could—length playing a crucial role.

In a genre where forty hours is on the shorter side, asking my mom for two RPGs meant I was set for several weeks or even months. Because I wasn’t quite old enough to grasp some of these games’ systems—I was playing games like Valkyrie Profile Lenneth before I hit my teens, after all—a suggested sixty hour game would be closer to ninety hours for me.

These games never felt more like expansive journeys than when I was out and about with my mother. I would have initially experienced these games a certain way, only to realize I was playing incorrectly, prompting a restart dozens of hours in, paying closer attention to stats, items, and skills the next time. This micromanagement was a game in and of itself, and is my favorite facet of the genre to this day.

“If it was an RPG, I picked it up.”

That didn’t matter, though. My childhood self welcomed the challenge. Regardless of how difficult games got, I was still a kid. I had more patience and time than I do now, meaning restarting a thirty hour file because I screwed myself was no big deal. If I could watch the same The Fairly Odd Parents episodes day after day ad nauseum, I could handle restarting an RPG run once or twice.

This childhood perseverance proved to be a blessing, as it built up my tolerance for the genre, leading to countless blind buys over the years. I read gaming magazines and websites when I was younger, but mainstream coverage still let plenty of games slip through the cracks. If it was an RPG, I picked it up despite going in with no knowledge.

While I love most genres and can appreciate different types of experiences, when it comes to spending my own money or asking my mother for games before I got a job, I was more cautious. RPGs were the only exception to this rule. Building such a tolerance for some of the genre’s worst conventions, namely slow beginnings and obfuscating tutorials, I was sure to enjoy even the most mediocre entries.

“An unmatched sense of warmth.”

This became particularly formative during my early to mid-teenage years, where I experienced countless RPGs by chance—such as the Shin Megami Tensei franchise, long before Persona became a household name. I didn’t think much of it as a fourteen-year-old, but that first experience with Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor would go on to symbolize what RPGs mean to me.

Although I don’t engage with dedicated handhelds in the same way I used to, I still have access to my PS Vita and 3DS. On the occasions I fire my 3DS up to play Etrian Odyssey Nexus or any of the countless Shin Megami Tensei games on the platform, the happiness they bring me tie back to my childhood. Even as an adult, playing an RPG on a dedicated handheld provides an unmatched sense of warmth.

Titles in the genre are often long and layered with tons of mechanics, making them perfect for chipping away at whenever you have the time to spare. There’s nothing cozier than laying up in bed with a sixty-plus hour RPG with five cans of soda on the night stand. It’s the only time I ever feel like a kid again.

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