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A beginner's guide to getting into gaming

Kaz Fantone/NPR

Around 3 billion people play video games. But if you're not already in on the fun, the barrier to entry can be daunting. New consoles cost hundreds of dollars, not to mention the price of individual games, which can go as high as $70 each.

Thankfully, you can get started on many games for free or for a few dollars on devices you may already own. So if you crave some entertainment for when you're on the move, want to relive childhood Mario or Zelda memories, or loved HBO's The Last of Us and want to play the series it was based on, here are some tips to get you started.

Games for your phone

Best for: Casual gamers on-the-go.

Cost: Free to a few dollars.

Classics like Hearts and Solitaire have graced phones for decades. But if you like card games, consider the mobile app Marvel Snap and its dramatic matches that last mere minutes. You'll aim to conquer locations from Central Park to Atlantis with a personalized deck of superhero and villain cards.

Like most games on the Android and iOS stores, Marvel Snap comes free — with a catch. It'll initially shower you with new cards but also entice you to spend real money to expand your collection. This "freemium" model dominates mobile gaming especially, along with market-tested psychological tricks to keep you hooked.

However, there's one game subscription you may already have. Netflix has been broadening its gaming catalog with prestigious titles like the live-action mystery Immortality and the indie adventure Oxenfree II. Just open the Netflix app and hit the "Games" section at the bottom of the screen to download them on your phone.

Level up: More mobile games

Apple Arcade and Google Play Pass offer hundreds of titles for $5/month including: excellent puzzle games like Mini Metro, the monarchical dilemma simulator Reigns: Her Majesty, and Escheresque delight Monument Valley and its sequel.

Streaming games to computers, tablets and TVs

Best for: Those with 5G or Fiber internet who want to try big-screen titles for cheap.

Cost: Anywhere from $5 per month to $15 per month or more, depending on the service and tier.

Popular franchises you've likely heard of — Mario Kart, Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto — tend to be designed for bigger screens and controllers.

You can buy LEGO Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga for PC, Nintendo Switch and PlayStation, but you can also stream it and hundreds of other titles with Xbox Game Pass.
/ Warner Bros. Games
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Warner Bros. Games
You can buy LEGO Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga for PC, Nintendo Switch and PlayStation, but you can also stream it and hundreds of other titles with Xbox Game Pass.

Take LEGO Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga, for example. It's great for families and has a little of everything: podracing, space battles, lightsaber duels and more. Yet its graphics are demanding enough to require a relatively powerful computer or a recent console.

So instead of purchasing the game individually for a device that may not be up to snuff, you could subscribe to Microsoft's Xbox Game Pass Ultimate ($15 a month) and play LEGO Star Wars off the cloud.

Amazon and Nvidia offer similar services, enabling you to stream hundreds of games so long as you've got (very) fast internet and a tolerance for occasional glitches.

Consoles and more

The Nintendo Switch

Best for: Families and those interested in Mario, Zelda or Pokémon.

Cost: $200 to $350.

Nowhere else but on the Nintendo Switch can you play the latest Mario, Pokémon, Animal Crossing, Splatoon, and Fire Emblem games — not to mention The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, one of the biggest gaming hitsever.

The Switch also lives up to its name. You can play handheld on its built-in screen or transform it into a home console by connecting it to a TV through a dock. Compared to other consoles, it's relatively cheap, ranging from a handheld-only Lite model at $200 to a $350 OLED version with a bigger, nicer display.

It's also a blast with family and friends, with brilliant cooperative games like Super Mario Odyssey and Kirby and the Forgotten Land, alongside competitive classics like Super Smash Brothers, Mario Kart and Mario Party. However, Nintendo games rarely sell at a discount (unlike PC, PlayStation, and Xbox games) and will usually run between $40 to $70 each.

Play solo or with a buddy in Kirby and the Forgotten Land, a perfect game for kids and beginners.
/ Nintendo
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Nintendo
Play solo or with a buddy in Kirby and the Forgotten Land, a perfect game for kids and beginners.

Xbox Series X/S

Best for: Those who want a one-and-done option.

Cost: $300-$500.

The modest Series S (starting at $300) and the much more powerful Series X ($500) can play anything from Xbox's vast digital library, but they're also built for Game Pass, which lets you download or stream hundreds of games for $10 to $15 a month. That includes new titles and big-budget mainstays like Halo that might otherwise cost you $70 per game.

PlayStation 5

Best for: Fans of fancy graphics and cinematic storytelling.

Cost: $400 to $500.

If you loved HBO's The Last of Us, you might consider a PlayStation to play the original game or its wrenching sequel, The Last of Us: Part II. You can also buy critically-acclaimed exclusives like Demon's Souls, God of War Ragnarök and, most recently, Final Fantasy 16. If you're willing to shell out for a PS Plus Premium subscription, you can even access its impressive back catalog.

The Last of Part II, available exclusively on PlayStation 4 and 5.
/ Sony Interactive Entertainment
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Sony Interactive Entertainment
The Last of Part II, available exclusively on PlayStation 4 and 5.

PC Gaming

Best for: Tinkerers, PC superusers.

Cost: Variable, but really starts at $400.

Traditionally the domain of tech obsessives, PC gaming has never been more approachable thanks to the arrival of new handheld computers like the Steam Deck, which looks like a chunkier Nintendo Switch, and runs from $400 to $650. While this option isn't for the faint of heart, it's a plausible starting point for folks familiar with PCs who want dedicated gaming hardware.

Virtual reality headsets and beyond

Best for: Fans of fully immersive experiences with plenty of floor space.

Cost: Starting around $300.

Finally, VR headsets look goofy and take some adjusting to, they can also be surprisingly intuitive. Instead of having to translate buttons to on-screen motion, when you want to move your arm in VR, you just move your arm. When you want to look around, you just turn your head.

That natural movement propels Beat Saber, a rhythm game that's helped sell many a Meta Quest 2 ($300). While it requires room to swing your arms and slide around, it makes you feel like a dancing swordmaster as you rock out to Lizzo, Queen and more classic tracks. I'd also recommend Superhot VR to anyone who wants to dodge bullets and pull off stunts like Neo from The Matrix.

But not every game comes so easily. Some are far more technical and can even induce motion sickness. And despite Meta's continued commitment to VR, and the efforts of competitors like PlayStation and Apple, it has yet to go truly mainstream.

Video games can be admittingly overwhelming, so if you're interested, start small. Borrow a friend's Switch. Download a Netflix phone game. Try a game-streaming subscription service for a month. While you might be daunted initially, the field has grown varied enough that there's some patch of it perfect for you.


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Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

James Perkins Mastromarino
James Perkins Mastromarino is Here & Now's Washington, D.C.-based producer. He works with NPR's newsroom on a daily whirlwind of topics that range from Congress to TV dramas to outer space. Mastromarino also edits NPR's Join the Game and reports on gaming for daily shows like All Things Considered and Morning Edition.
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