Accessibility

The plight of the blind gamer

As graphics get better, handheld games are getting harder for vision-impaired players to see.
Accessibility

The plight of the blind gamer

As graphics get better, handheld games are getting harder for vision-impaired players to see.

I remember when kids first started showing up to my elementary afterschool program with the marvel that was the Game Boy. One of them finally parted ways with his for a moment and let me have a turn at Super Mario Land. I had never experienced anything so cool — the Game Boy was like my prized NES at home, except it was portable. But I quickly realized the game was noticeably harder than anything I had ever played. The enemies in the foreground blended in with the background. The dot matrix screen was blurry. And everything was just so small. I squinted at the motion on the monochromatic green screen, which was not even three inches wide, trying to discern which blob was Mario and listening to the audio cues, but playing was nearly impossible. I wanted to cry.

I’m legally blind due to albinism. I don’t drive, and I need a magnification program in order to use a computer. I also love video games. Ever since the original Game Boy kicked off the revolutionary genre of handheld gaming, I’ve been tormented by trying to play games made for screens that I can’t see.


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I asked my mom for a Game Boy even though we both knew I’d have trouble. I ended up mostly playing Tetris since I just had to identify the shapes. Anything like Super Mario Land, Zelda, or heaven forbid, games that require reading, was simply a waste of money. But still, I couldn’t help myself from falling for the latest handhelds over and over — as anyone could understand, I wanted to play.

1991: After the Game Boy, the next handheld I got was Sega’s Game Gear. It had a slightly bigger screen, beautiful colors, and all the pixels a kid could want, as long as batteries were in large supply. It had almost the exact same problems as the Game Boy, though: Trying to cram an entire game onto a 3.2 inch screen meant there was a lot to make out, and the colors actually meant more to process and be distracted by visually. I could play Sonic, as the blue ball was easier to keep up with, but I often couldn’t tell which enemies hit me or missed jumps and dodges. I found myself squinting, and I would get painful headaches and eye strain.

There was a magnifying adapter for that system called the Wide Gear. The Wide Gear, also called Big Window, was a plastic lens that clipped onto the device, enlarging the images on the screen. This helped a lot, although it made some games worse. I even got a smaller but more powerful magnifier from my eye doctor, but that meant playing with one hand or sitting in an uncomfortable position. I mostly stuck to games that required no reading or fast reactions.

Someone once suggested I just watch playthroughs of these games on YouTube, but I want to actually play.

1994: The Super Game Boy was a big moment for me. This accessory allowed Game Boy games to be played on a console and therefore on the bigger screen of a TV, and the games looked great. I could finally see the new Castlevania games and Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins. I now own two of these. Of course, the configuration took away the main purpose of the original device — portability.

2005: Sony entered the mobile market with the PlayStation Portable. The PSP seemed like a truly next-generation device, with a long list of improved capabilities and a much bigger screen at 4.3 inches. This had to be the device that would finally work for me. New technology means new problems, though, as more graphically intense, detailed games with a panned-out view meant there was more I had to see. Me playing the PSP was disastrous.

A shot of a racing game on the Sony PSP after its release in 2005. The screen was large, but the graphics in the games were more detailed and the perspective was zoomed out, making it harder for some vision-impaired players to see.

A shot of a racing game on the Sony PSP after its release in 2005. The screen was large, but the graphics in the games were more detailed and the perspective was zoomed out, making it harder for some vision-impaired players to see.

2011: Nintendo reemerged strong in 2011 with the 3DS/2DS — their modern takes on the Game Boy — introducing the XL versions with larger screens and even more games I wanted to play. The 3D effects were tough for me, however, and I had to sit those games out.

2016: The Nintendo Switch. When the latest and greatest handheld gaming system, the Nintendo Switch, was announced, I thought it might be my lucky break. The system can transform from a normal console that hooks up to your TV to a handheld device that you can play in bed. Even when it’s in handheld mode, the Switch has a six-inch screen — the largest ever for a major handheld device.

The Switch also reached out to visually impaired gamers with one of its launch titles, 1-2-Switch, which is a series of mini games that use haptic feedback and audio cues to help guide the players through the activities. This has even allowed some completely blind people to take part in this party game, and gives a large amount of hope for other games to follow suit in the future.

You can listen to an audio discussion about gaming with vision impairment on our daily podcast, The Outline World Dispatch. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen.

The best games are still being made for sighted players, however. Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild looks fantastic on the small screen when you’re just running around the world, but combat, seeing things in the distance, and navigating the item menus are impossible. I tried for an hour before I gave up on the handheld mode and switched the game to my TV, where I was able to sit much closer and only squint a little at the text.

2017: This year, I caved once again and bought the most recent model in Nintendo’s DS series, the 2DS XL, which has two screens, a 4.88-inch LCD screen and a 4.12-inch touch screen. I still have trouble seeing, but I understood this would probably be the best I could get in a true handheld. I am careful about what games I buy, sticking with titles like Mega Man Legacy Collection, something I knew didn’t require much visually. I’m only truly comfortable with games I’ve played before on the original consoles, like the aforementioned Super Mario 64 DS, and even then only for half an hour before the headaches come. I dread all the reading in Zelda and navigating the map with Metroid.


Awareness of the broader market for players with vision impairment and other disabilities has grown. Players with disabilities have won more and more accessibility options from both studios and console makers. NetherRealm added audio cues to newer fighting games like Injustice: Gods Among Us and Mortal Kombat X to help players with sight problems, while World of Warcraft, Overwatch, and others have a colorblind mode. In 2015 Sony introduced button remapping, or the ability to change which buttons do what, on its PlayStation controllers, which is a huge help for gamers with limited movement. Some companies are reportedly bringing disabled gamers in for playtesting. And there are more options than ever thanks to the thriving underground market for emulators, a legally gray category of apps that allow games to be played on a computer.

Video games broadly have gotten more accessible, but these improvements have been slower to trickle down to the handheld market.

These improvements have trickled more slowly into the handheld gaming sphere, which makes up a much smaller slice of the market but is home to unique and critically acclaimed titles. I sat on the sidelines when Samus Returns, which Polygon gave a rare 9 out of 10 and called an “essential” part of the wonderful Metroid series, debuted on the Nintendo 3DS. The sensational Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, a direct sequel to what is undisputedly one of the greatest games of all time, Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, earned a whopping 9.5 from Polygon when it came out on 3DS. I couldn’t play it, either. There are also plenty of games that aren’t considered showstoppers that I wish I could play, Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X for Sony’s Vita has been high on my list, but there is also 3rd Birthday from the Parasite Eve franchise on the PSP, or Tails’ Adventure and Shinobi II: The Silent Fury for Game Gear. These systems are all hell on my eyes. The fact that game graphics are getting more detailed and realistic actually makes it even harder for me.

It’s been nearly 30 years since the Game Boy came out, and I still feel like I’m missing out on an entire genre of my favorite pastime. Someone once suggested I just watch playthroughs of these games on YouTube, but I want to actually play. My hope is that the makers of handheld games and consoles will recognize the market for gamers with vision impairment, and include features that will allow us to play, too.

Stephen Wilds is a writer based in Georgia.