During my time writing strategy guides, people often assumed that I had played all of the biggest, most popular releases. They were always surprised to discover I never carjacked in Grand Theft Auto, sang in the space opera of Mass Effect, or embraced any of a number of popular hits, from Assassin’s Creed to Civilization to World of Warcraft or even Demon Souls or Skyrim.
This isn’t to say that I didn’t buy some of these games (or Gamefly them when physical media was still a thing). I did. And it’s not to say I didn’t play games that I didn’t write guidebooks for. I did that too. What I didn’t do was play the large-scale games that required dozens (even hundreds) of hours. I stuck with games that asked less of me. Plastic guitar games, tower-defense games, racing games, Gears of War multiplayer.
Pick up, play, and forget until the next project was done.
Embracing the Epic
I entered my retirement from strategy guide writing with over forty unplayed games on my Steam account, another ninety on my wishlist, and a new Falcon Northwest gaming PC that can play anything on Ultra settings. Those who subscribe to my monthly newsletter have no doubt spotted some of the games I’ve been playing in my Reading|Playing|Watching updates.
The most recent installment showed Skyrim: Special Edition, the not-so-special remastered version of the Elder Scrolls game released in 2011. The accompanying strategy guide is over a thousand jam-packed pages. People have been known to squeeze over a thousand hours of gameplay from this title. It’s big.
I bought Skyrim when it first released on Xbox 360 (played it for 2 hours) and then a year later on the PC (9 hours), but since I also had the expansions for the PC version, I got the Special Edition free when it released last month.
I’m currently at 18 hours and counting.
I limit my gaming to 45 minutes or so most evenings and a bit more on the weekend if we’re not doing anything. Though I’d like to camp out in front of the monitor for a marathon session, finishing the first draft of my novel is the only “epic quest” I’m on right now (180 pages and counting). It’s also the reason I’m not training to race across Washington State in the spring (though every time I click that link, I get the urge).
Gaming has been a lifelong release for me, a great way to wind down. Now that it’s completely separate from my day job, I’m enjoying it even more. Or am I?
Though I’m now approaching the larger, more complex games with the attention and time they require, I’m finding that my patience for high difficulty isn’t what it used to be. Skyrim, on the default difficulty, can get pretty hard. It begins easy, then jumps in difficulty after ten hours or so. It’s not uncommon for my character, a level 18 Imperial at the time (battle-mage) to get slain by a handful of level 5 Bandits.
The game was forcing me to experiment and branch out from my trusty Flames-and-Elven Axe combo. I learned to quicksave often, gave the Staff of Paralysis a try, dual-casted Flames, and I advanced, clearing Faldar’s Tooth and stealing the plans for some such thing… I don’t really pay attention to the story.
Yes, this is me embracing my inner geek.
Last month I ripped through the hilariously funny, yet slightly boring South Park: The Stick of Truth role-playing game. There were many “Dragonborn” references within it, responsible in part for me playing Skyrim now. A quick check of Steam player stats reveals that I only played Stick of Truth for 14 hours, yet completed the game. That’s barely considered a flirtation with Skyrim.
I considered quitting Skyrim the other night after an ill-timed quicksave and an accidental auto-save combined to trap me between a Bandit Chief and a hard place. My most recent other save was from an hour earlier. I was ready to give up on this third and final attempt at enjoying the game, content with the knowledge that the Elder Scrolls games just weren’t for me. But I somehow fought my way through, escaped the cave into the bright of day and encountered a dragon. Slaying that dragon made it all worth it.
Yet, I feel my attention waning.
Mainly, I want to play something with a bit more pick-up-and-playability, a bit more just-one-more-match-itis. Like Hearthstone which, I have just taken a break from writing this to re-install. I hadn’t touched it in over a year.
Or maybe my interests lie on something smaller. Older.
Alas, there is another dragon on the horizon. A familiar one.
Enter the Mini-NES
If you’re between the ages of 35 and 45, you’re probably keenly aware that Nintendo has recently released the original NES console in miniature form, pre-loaded with 30 of the best original games, and equipped with HDMI outputs for modern televisions.
You’re probably also aware that the damn thing is almost impossible to find. Don’t expect it for Christmas unless you happen to have Indiana Jones as your Secret Santa. Apparently, Nintendo would rather have the publicity of widespread sell-outs than the profit that comes from shipping millions of units. I’m not surprised, as the Mini NES is, in my opinion, just a tool to stoke the fires of fandom before the Switch releases in March.
Obtaining a Mini NES won’t be the only challenge, however. Those games were hard. Today’s games may be complex and filled with numerous systems and smarter AI, but the games of the 80s were physically hard. I hadn’t thrown a controller in a long time, but with the Mini NES, I know that streak will end. The games of the 80s demanded pinpoint precision and lightning-quick reflexes. Sixty bucks is a fine price for a trip down memory lane (only a fool would pay the exorbitant ransom the scalpers are demanding online) but I suspect it will be a quick trip for many of us.
Though the Mini NES now has the ability to save your progress at any time (so long, password saves!) I still doubt many of my peers will find the constant trial-and-error of the 8-bit era to be much fun. We only put up with those challenges back then because we were young and new games often only came on birthdays and Christmas. You wanted to play, you played the game you had. Nowadays, there’s always something newer, better, available. Alas, adulting with discretionary income! Even if Steam sales didn’t make gaming cheaper than ever, our time is too valuable to spend beating our heads against the wall. But gaming is cheaper than ever. Hence, my immense backlog of unplayed games. Most were purchased at 50-70% off during Steam winter and summer sales. Like so much in our first-world lives, we suffer from too much choice.
If it feels like this post is meandering, lost in the woods, I agree. It’s partially intentional. Or, at least, unavoidable. It’s because, when it comes to gaming, I can’t really figure myself out anymore. I was given a free download of Gears of War 4 and haven’t played it for a minute. Are my old Gears friends playing it on Friday nights? Probably. Maybe. For years, it was my favorite franchise, particularly multiplayer, but I just don’t care to bother with it.
I want the Mini NES as much as I know I don’t need it.
I play Skyrim each night, hoping to finally uncover what made the game so popular. I’ve yet to find it.
I re-installed Hearthstone knowing what a massive time-suck it is.
I’m changing. People change. Gaming has changed. I don’t know what I want from my lifelong hobby anymore, other than for it to be accessible, mentally stimulating, and casual. No wonder Hearthstone keeps pulling me back in just when I think I’ve broken its spell for good.