So, you’re practicing social distancing. Great! It’s one of the best ways of slowing the spread of covid-19. The downside is that you might find yourself with more free time at home than you know what to do with. Those of us who play blockbuster video games probably have a huge backlog to tackle. But what if you don’t play them at all, but are thinking that now might be a good time to learn?
If you’re a Kotaku regular, you don’t need this post for yourself. But maybe you’ve been pointed here because one of your friends or family members reads us every day, and found this post, and thought of you. Maybe you used to play all the latest video games, but fell out of it after college. Maybe you’ve really never gotten into games, but someone close to you thinks you’d really enjoy them if you gave them a try.
I’m not going to lie: There’s definitely a learning curve to playing modern video games that doesn’t exist with, say, mobile phone games. But it doesn’t have to be a second job.
Making the jump from Super Mario Run on iPhone to Super Mario Odyssey on the Nintendo Switch is no small commitment, but it’s well worth it. What are known as “triple-A” games—games backed by big budgets and built by massive teams—tend to have exponentially higher production values than the standard time-killer on your phone. You don’t play them to waste your time. You play them to spend your time.
Do you like genre fiction? Sci-fi? Fantasy? Horror? Some mangled combination of the three? Want something to break your heart? Make you think? Make you feel things? Games can give you that, if you know where to look. They’re also a great value, if you know how to shop. You can buy games for a few dollars that will entertain you for 100 hours or more. Whether you just want to dip your toes or dive in off the deep end, these tips should help you get started.
You don’t need to buy a new gaming console to expand your gaming horizons. You probably already have a machine that can run great games. That supercomputer in your pocket can do a whole lot more than load up a rage- or fear-inducing social media feed. It can also play some of the best video games around.
Sure, games like Candy Crush, Pokémon Go, Monument Valley, and Plague Inc. have all had zeitgeist moments. They’re all fine games in their own right, but there’s so much more on the Apple App Store or Google Play Store than the mega-popular flavors of the month. (Many games, like Fortnite, are even free!) For a starting point, consult our lists of the best games for iPhone, iPad, and Android and see which seem the most appealing to you.
If you really want to turn your phone into a gaming supermachine, pick up a controller. Doing so won’t drastically change your experience when it comes to playing touchscreen-focused, like those we mentioned above. What it will do is make playing console-style games on your phone feel much more like the real deal. And, hoo, boy, there are a whole lot of terrific console-style games on mobile today. The list is too long to name them all, but, depending on your operating system, you can easily start with (deep breath) Final Fantasy VII, Half-Life 2, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, Sonic the Hedgehog, Bastion, Transistor, Life Is Strange, the original Doom, or Star Wars: Knight of the Old Republic.
These pared-down versions won’t play exactly like they would on the big screen, but playing on a mobile phone with a controller gives you a true taste of what you can expect. The $46 Beboncool controller for Android and iOS phones features the buttons and thumbsticks you’d find on a traditional game controller, and you can dock your phone right into it, creating a bona fide miniature console.
Or, if you’d really rather not spend a dime, ask a gaming friend of yours if they have a controller to spare. Both Xbox One and PlayStation 4 controllers will pair via Bluetooth with up-to-date iPhone and Android devices.
You might also have game-playing devices hooked up to your television already and not even know it. If you recently bought an Apple TV, for example, you can play many different console-quality games with an Xbox One or PlayStation 4 controller. The Apple Arcade game subscription plan also works for Apple TV, so if you’re paying for that on your phone, you might have a whole library of TV games already at your fingertips and not even know it!
If you think your computer can’t run video games, think again. Pretty much any computer today can download and run Steam, the most popular digital storefront for computer games. That doesn’t necessarily mean you can run every game offered on the service, though. It’s up to your machine’s specifications to decide whether or not you can actually run the games you want to buy. Will your older PC be able to run an extremely high-end game like Red Dead Redemption 2 without hiccups? Probably not. But you’ll still have access to more than 30,000 games of all stripes and colors. (Yes, you still have to pay money for most of them, although Steam sales can lower the price of even major games significantly, so you’re only spending a few bucks for many hours of entertainment.)
You can check your specs on a Mac computer by clicking on the little Apple icon on the top-left corner of your screen and hitting “About This Mac.” On Windows 10, it’s a touch more complicated. Hit Start, type “Control,” and click on the Control Panel app when it pops up. (It should be at the top of your search results.) From there, click System, and you should see a rundown.
To see a game’s specs on the Steam storefront, just scroll down until you reach the System Requirements section. As long as your machine hits the listed requirements, you’ll be fine.
You don’t need a PlayStation, or even a particularly capable computer, to play the latest PlayStation 4 games. If you own a PC and have a good Internet connection, you can use Sony’s “PlayStation Now” service to play many of its biggest games via streaming. With a $65 DualShock 4 controller and a $10-per-month PS Now subscription, you can stream a library of 800 PlayStation games right on your PC. And you can do this with a lower-end PC—all you need is 2 GB of RAM, 300 MB of hard drive space, and Windows 7 or higher. It’ll work with a 2.0 GHz I3 processor, but Sony recommends 3.5 GHz or higher. Still, the most important thing is a fast internet connection.
It’s hard to recommend Google Stadia, a similar service offered by Google, at this point. The barrier to entry is much higher: Currently, you have to pay $129 to get a Google Stadia controller, a Chromecast Ultra, and three months of the Google Stadia Pro service. If your internet connection rocks download speeds of at least 10 mbps, you’ll be able to stream games right to your device, although you have to pay premium prices for them. Currently, the list of the available games is pretty thin, but some of the biggest current games—like Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, Final Fantasy XV, and Tom Clancy’s The Division 2—are on there.
If the last time you played video games was Super Mario World, then sticking with Nintendo for your re-entry into the world of games might be your best bet. The $300 Nintendo Switch is the safest way to wade into buying a new game console. It’s user-friendly, geared at audiences of all ages, and full of accessible games of all kinds.
The Switch is basically a small tablet with controllers attached to either side. It hooks up to your television, but you can also use it as a portable game machine. So if someone with whom you are currently quarantined wants to take over the TV for an Avengers marathon or a How I Met Your Mother binge (no judgement!), that doesn’t mean you need to stop playing. Just remove it from the dock and pick up where you stopped. Depending on what game you’re playing, the Switch battery can last anywhere from four to nine hours.
There’s also the Switch Lite hardware. This is only $200, but it can’t hook up to the television. But it will let you play almost all the games on the system.
Nintendo’s games have a reputation for peerless quality. They’re meticulously well-crafted, relatively easy to pick up, and, most importantly, fun. Here are five picks:
- The racing game Mario Kart 8 Deluxe features “smart steering” and “auto-acceleration,” making driving a total breeze. As a result, this entry in Nintendo’s longtime racing franchise is easier to pick up than a three-month-old kitten.
- If you’re shacked up indefinitely with your family, consider Super Mario Party. It plays somewhat like Monopoly—roll dice, move spaces, run up the score—but, at the end of each round, everyone partakes in a mini-game. It’s all the fun of a board game without the hassle of setting up.
- The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a massive adventure that you can take at your own pace. Want to fight monsters? Go for it. Want to collect and cook various delicious food items, instead? Sure. Its grand adventure is so compelling and accessible that avant-garde musician St. Vincent—who didn’t play video games before nabbing herself a copy—sunk 300 hours into it.
- Pokémon Sword and Shield are the latest Pokémon games. The core concept hasn’t changed since the series debuted in the late ‘90s, but this is the first mainline Pokémon game done up in full 3D. It’s a stunner.
- On March 20, Animal Crossing: New Horizons hits shelves. It’s a placid life simulator that’s bound to dominate headlines (and players’ lives) for the foreseeable future. You embark on an island vacation. There, you set up camp and get to work building up a small town amid a bunch of adorable anthropomorphic animals. Can you think of a better escape for these trying times?
What’s more, picking up a Switch is, without question, the best way to play the classics today. Signing up for Nintendo Switch Online at the low price of $20 for one year grants you access to an all-you-can-play digital library of more than 60 classic games from the NES and Super NES consoles. If you never played Super Metroid or The Legend of Zelda back in the day, or if you want to revisit them, the Switch opens up those doors. There’s also a collection of Sega Genesis games that you can buy on the Switch, in case that’s the old library you want to revisit.
Let’s say you’ve got money to burn and know you want to get a high-end game console, but aren’t sure what types of games you’d want to play. In this case, we’d recommend getting an Xbox One. Why an Xbox One, and not a PlayStation 4? In part because of a service called Xbox Game Pass. It’s a lot like PS Now, the Sony service we mentioned earlier. For $10 a month, you get access to a massive, Netflix-style library of games.
What makes Game Pass better than Sony’s similar service is the fact that Microsoft’s newest games—like Ori and the Blind Forest, The Outer Worlds, and Gears 5—all come out on Game Pass on day one.
There are three different models of Xbox One. The $400 Xbox One X is the highest-end model. It plays the exact same games as the others, but with higher-resolution graphics. The $300 Xbox One S is a slight step down from that, but still looks great. The $250 Xbox One S All-Digital Edition isn’t a great buy. You save $50, but lose the ability to play disc-based games, which can often be purchased at lower prices than the downloadable versions.
The other reason to get an Xbox One is that it’ll be relatively future-proofed. While Microsoft is releasing a new, even more powerful console this fall called the Xbox Series X, it has promised that, for the foreseeable future, it will release its own games like Halo: Infinite to be compatible with all Xbox One machines, not just the Series X. And they’ll still come to Xbox Game Pass on day one. So picking up a standard Xbox One now doesn’t mean the thing will be rendered obsolete in a year.
Similar to a friends list on Facebook, modern-day gaming consoles allow you to connect with your buddies. Provided you have a good internet connection, you can connect, play games, or even just chat like you’re on a normal phone call. Some games, like last year’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, allow for “cross-platform” play, meaning that players on different types of game machines can play together. But these are the exceptions, not the rule. For the most part, if you’re playing games on Xbox One, you won’t be able to team up with your PlayStation 4-owning friend.
This has very real real-world applications. By using voice chat functionality, you can talk to your friends as you play—even if you’re not playing the same thing at the same time. It’s an easy way to stay close despite any distance. In these times, when state and local governments from sea to shining sea are recommending folks hunker down at home, such a tool for instant connectivity is priceless.
Never let anyone tell you the “right” way to play games. Many games these days have various difficulty settings, ranging from hand-holding easy to controller-chucking hard. You might hear certain players sneer at “Easy” or even “Normal” difficulties. Don’t listen to them. Whatever works for you is the best way to play, and if you’re a newcomer to video games, that very well could mean playing on Easy mode.
In fact, if you’re just starting out, I fully recommend playing games on Easy mode. Enemies won’t be as aggressive. Your character might be able to take more hits before dying. You’ll get a good handle on the game mechanics and pick up skills that can be transferred to other video games. Playing on Easy mode is the best way to ease yourself into bigger games.
Some games give these settings fancy names. For example, in last year’s popular Star Wars game, Jedi: Fallen Order, the settings range from Story Mode (easiest) to Jedi Grand Master (hardest). The Halo games call the hardest difficulty “Legendary,” while Deus Ex games dub their easiest mode “Give Me A Story.” In general, the difficulty at the top of the list presents the lowest skill barrier. Start with that one.
It may sound counterintuitive, but forcing yourself to play video games could very well flip a switch in your brain. After all, you’ll never know if you truly enjoy something without giving it a fair shake.
I recommend making use of a time-tested time management trick called the Tomato Timer. Here’s how it works: Start by setting a timer for 20 minutes. For those 20 minutes, laser-focus on playing a game. When the timer goes off, take a five-minute break. Pet the cat. Make some coffee. Do anything else. Then get back to it for another 20-minute session. Every three rounds, extend that five-minute break into a ten-minute one. Rinse and repeat the whole cycle. (Why “Tomato?” As the story goes, the guy who invented this hack used a timer shaped like a tomato.)
The Tomato Timer has a long history as a productivity tool—for everything from mundane chores to office work—but you can easily repurpose it as a hobby-builder. Set aside a couple of hours of your day. If you still don’t like playing video games after a few rounds of Tomato Timer-ing, by all means, throw in the towel. But if you find yourself wanting to continue playing through those five- or ten-minute breaks, hey, look at that: You’ve found yourself a new hobby. And a fun way to pass the time in the coming months.