While it’s hard to see much upside in our current COVID-19 pandemic, there’s at least one group for whom maybe quarantine life isn’t all that bad—gamers. Maybe you finally have the time (and nothing else to do) to work your way through some 100-hour plus campaign or to retrieve every star in Mario 64. Or, as someone with a partner/roommate/kid, maybe you suddenly never get a chance to game by yourself and have newly been embracing the joys of co-op and multiplayer more than you ever imagined. (Alternatively, maybe you’re sticking to whatever handheld isolation you can find instead under such circumstance.) Heck, maybe you’re just so bored you decided to finally torture yourself through Dwarf Fortress’ initial learning curve.
No matter how you slice it, video games have been one of the most reliable forms of at-home entertainment in both the best of times and the worst of times. So although sheltering-in-place has altered many aspects of life in unquestionably negative ways, around Ars we’ve stumbled into some gaming silver linings over the last month-plus. Here’s what’s been keeping our thumbs active in these quartan-times when the work keyboards have retired for the day.
Transporting back to 1994
My name is Nathan, I’m one of the fools who waffled on acquiring a Switch and now lacks any modern gaming device mid-quarantine. I’ve forever been a console player, and over the years as consoles gained connectivity they’ve become one of the easiest ways to regularly connect with my younger siblings. But here we are. I guess we’ll have to… talk? Scattergories works over video chat, at least.
As for my gaming fix, I’m not entirely without console-access luckily. The first gaming system I ever had was the SNES, a 1992 Christmas gift that my parents still discuss due to the new heights my seven-year-old vocal pitch reached out of excitement. So last year for my birthday, my sister sent the modern incarnation, the Super NES Classic.
Life right now has undoubtedly been hard, and I’m no masochist—Super Ghouls n’ Ghosts and Contra 3 remain untouched. I’m also not a gaming historian (sorry, Star Fox 2) and will never understand why Secret of Mana (a third RPG behind Earthbound and Super Mario RPG) had to be included over a big popular mid-90s port like NBA Jam or Mortal Kombat or even Dr. Mario.
Instead, I’ve spent my limited solo-TV time playing through a familiar side-scroller that’s fun with juuuust a touch of challenge: the original Donkey Kong Country.
The positives here probably don’t even need naming after 25-plus years, but here we go: The soundtrack remains filled with sneaky bangers. The game prominently features the perennially underrated DK (and his expanded universe) as opposed to the milquetoast Mario. The game’s animal mechanics felt revolutionary at the time and remain downright charming today (try smacking some gophers as a rhino right now and see if you feel better, I’ll wait). And the overall game play has the exact blend of ease and challenge I’m looking for—maybe I can breeze through the first eight levels without stopping to sip my coffee, but then “Mine Cart Carnage” hits and suddenly my accumulated extra lives are teetering on single digits and my right thumb is in pain from trying to time jumps over abandoned mine carts juuuuusssst right (I’m not the only who can’t handle this level effortlessly as an adult, thank you Kotaku). If the Switch Lite (I want that and not the docked version, right?) ever comes back in stock, rest assured this never-owned-a-Wii gamer will be Tropical Freeze-ing the worries away soon after.
—Nathan Mattise, Features Editor
Zoom gaming hour
I stay on top of the latest and greatest games, indie to AAA, for a living. But as shelter-at-home orders have kept me separate from friends and family, I’ve found the various Jackbox Party Packs have provided the perfect way to stay connected. These collections of casual party games run the gamut from trivia to word games to secret-information investigations to straight-up popularity contests, all with the slightly off-kilter humor you might expect from the team behind You Don’t Know Jack.
The Jackbox Party Packs satisfy all the requirements necessary for a successful online multiplayer experience with pretty much any group:
* The instructions are simple enough to explain quickly for newcomers.
* It’s not reflex-based, so no worries about Internet lag affecting player performance.
* It works on pretty much any platform; all you need is a videoconference that can “share your screen” and a smartphone web browser for each player.
* It encourages creativity and laughter in a mostly non-confrontational way.
We started with a weekly Friday night Jackbox meetup with a group of college friends but have since expanded to post-Seder games with the extended family just as easily. Even my five-year-old has gotten in on the act, laughing her way through a family-friendly edition of the Pictionary-like Drawful just before bedtime.
D tend to get self-conscious just looking at my reflection during video conference calls, and I think the idea of drinking alone together at a “Zoom Happy Hour” sounds excruciating. But a Jackbox game provides the perfect focal point and excuse to catch up with far-flung friends and family while doing something fun together.
—Kyle Orland, Gaming Editor
Free time is now game time
Two weeks before the lockdowns began, my wife and I moved from LA to Chicago to be closer to friends and family. Sadly, all this means we’re even more socially isolated now than we were in LA.
Or, are we? Through games, we’ve been more social than we have been in years. Our more gamer-lite friends who used to not have much time to play games online are now suddenly all-in. We started a Discord server with everybody and have been playing Minecraft, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, or Animal Crossing: New Horizons multiple nights per week. It’s been a blast.
On my own, I’m in the final chapters of the Final Fantasy VII Remake. I wasn’t expecting to like it, but I’ve been surprised and delighted.
I’ve been a Fallout 76 player since launch, and between the new folks coming in with the just-launched free Wastelanders expansion and old 76 friends playing more because they have more time at home now, the most positive game community I’ve ever been a part of has been hopping like never before. Haters can hate all they want, but Fallout 76 has its fans and we’re having a great time.
Also, I collect PlayStation games—all generations, to the tune of more than 1,000 games—and I’ve been casually poking around in some classics I never got around to playing before. For example: it turns out Dino Crisis is a roaring good time, if you’re into all the tropes and trappings of cheesy survival horror games from the late 90s—which I absolutely am.
On top of all that, I’ve been competing in the Kusogrande bad games speedrunning competition on Twitch, and I’ve made good progress on a text-based game development project I’ve been working on for the past year.
All this is to say that I have spent most of my free time with games since the shelter-in-place order came down. Everyone has their own way of staying sane amidst all this, and this is mine. It’s working well for me.
—Samuel Axon, Senior Reviews Editor
When play is for work…
I’ve been fortunate to write about some very big, time-sucking video games for you, dear readers, over the past few months. Some of the resulting reviews have already gone live at Ars Technica: Final Fantasy VII Remake, Resident Evil III Remake, Animal Crossing: New Horizons, Half-Life: Alyx, and Valorant. If that’s not enough, I have a few other game reviews in the works for this coming week.
So that changes the conversation on my end. What do I play to “wind down” when I’m not playing games for work? Nothing, really. Animal Crossing is a brainless exception when I partake in my state’s variety of legal inebriants. But mostly, during my downtime, I watch other people play games.
Twitch streams are my sweet relief. Within these feeds of familiar games, conversations between streamers and their chat rooms remain beautiful, shiny, and crystallized, like they were frozen in resin before the rest of the world joined their “stay home in front of a screen” party. Because, really, these folks were already prepared. They already set up immaculate green-screen rigs, paid for quality microphones and webcams, and erected secondary and tertiary monitors for things like monitoring chat rooms and managing their friends lists.
Twitch is a simpler place for me. It’s where I go when I want to hear people talk about something other than… *gestures around mildly*. (If you’re wondering about my favorites, they include the Apex Legends battles of NiceWigg, the Super Mario Maker 2 explorations of GrandPooBear, the fighting-game ruminations of Maximilian_DOOD, and the caffeinated exaltations of Viking_Blonde.)
—Sam Machkovech, Culture Editor