Last night I plopped on the couch, watched the Rangers eliminate the Canadiens from the playoffs, and then caught up on a few episodes of Doctor Who. At the exact same time, I defeated dozens of tiny blue slimes and leveled up my sword fighting skills while playing Dragon Quest VIII on my iPad. As an old-school, lengthy role-playing game, the PS2 classic might not initially seem like the best fit for mobile — but it turns out that a portable version of a 10-year-old Japanese RPG is just about the best Netflix companion you can ask for.
As great as these games can be, they can also be incredibly repetitive. Exploring towns and dungeons is fun, and there's a lot of satisfaction that comes from building up your character, but the experience is padded out by an endless barrage of random battles. And aside from bosses and other high-level enemies, these fights are pretty mindless. So the obvious solution is to do something else while you're grinding for experience — and a mobile version of the game is perfect for this.
It can feel weird playing in portrait
The mobile version of DQ VIII looks really strange at first, because for the first time you're playing the game in portrait mode, and it feels especially weird if you're a veteran of the series. But with a few tweaks to the interface, this makes it possible to play the game entirely with one hand, making it really easy to tap through tedious battles while only half paying attention. Just choose the "fight wisely" option and your adventurers will pretty much always do the smart thing. Likewise, the game includes an automatic run button, so that those lengthy treks across the game's map require very little input from you, aside from occasionally guiding the hero left or right.
It sounds strange that a game gets better when it requires less input from you, but in the case of DQ VIII it lets you skip over the boring stuff and save your brainpower for navigating dungeons and strategizing ways to slay giant monsters. I always have an iPad in my lap while watching TV anyways — it only makes sense that I'd use it to tap through RPG battles while watching hockey.
DQ VIII isn't perfect, of course. Those new menus are functional but ugly, the iPad version has some weird letterboxing, and while the wonderful characters look great on a Retina display, the rest of the game has a washed out, blurry appearance. The camera is also annoying to control, a problem with most games from the PS2 that hasn't been rectified here. You also shouldn't go into the experience expecting to hear any voice acting — this is a port of the Japanese version, which has no voiceover and doesn't include the orchestral score from the Western release. And then there's the sticking point of the price: the game costs $19.99, making it one of the more expensive mobile games you can buy, though it's in line with what developer Square Enix typically charges. (It's also still cheaper than picking up a used PS2 copy.)
Japanese RPGs have struggled to find a place in modern gaming, but DQ VIII on a smartphone might just be the answer: they're games you play while doing something else. You can grab it now on both iOS and Android.