Several decades ago, a 2 or 4-player version of a single-player, story-based campaign was an important consideration in the design and release of a game. Now, that is not so much the case.
With the cost of most 1st party games necessitating the need to cut corners, the decline of couch co-op has been an inevitable reality that gamers have had to face.
That is not to say that there has not been an emphasis on multiplayer in video games, as titles like the Call of Duty series, Halo, Fortnite, and many others over the history of online multiplayer have proven. Multiplayer is what draws in the most dedicated gamers. However, there is a distinct line between online multiplayer and sitting on a couch with friends.
Since I’m in my 30s and a bit of a dinosaur by today’s standards, I think it’s also important to consider the origins of multiplayer gaming itself: arcades.
In the earliest arcades, games like Pong, Tennis for Two, and Spacewar gave gamers the opportunity to test their skills against friends. This was a great leap ahead as it made the singular, somewhat isolating experience of video gaming a more social, competitive event.
My earliest memories of cooperative or competitive multiplayer gaming in arcades came in the form of beat-em-ups like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1989), Turtles in Time, Simpsons Arcade, Golden Axe, or X-Men: The Arcade Game. I also have very specific memories of playing Terminator 2: The Arcade game which was a rail-based shooter and then fighting games like Street Fighter 2, the Mortal Kombat Series, and Killer Instinct.
There was a local, dumpy arcade that was attached to the cheap-o movie theater in our town’s dirt mall: The Village Mall. The movies were $1.50, the popcorn was cheap and stale, the floors were sticky, but I was really just in it for the arcade experience afterward.
I spent many hundreds of dollars of my dad’s money in quarters playing Turtles in Time and Terminator 2 alongside him. It became a treat he could use to bribe me into going to church on Sundays.
He used it as a reward for good behavior, but I knew deep inside that it was also a way for him to spend 1 on 1 time with me. I value moments like these and the technology which made them possible.
This was the beginning of my affinity for local multiplayer and the way it could weave social interaction and gaming into a cohesive whole.
When it came to a more literal “couch” co-op, my first home console was the SNES. I had played the NES over my cousin’s house and other friends who had the system, but I was just around the cut-off where I wasn’t foaming at the mouth for video games until I was around 6 years old. This was when the SNES came out. The Super Nintendo was my crown jewel of gaming and I’ll never forget that Christmas morning.
As far as the earliest co-op on the SNES, I remember playing Super Mario World with my sister quite regularly. I actually preferred the color scheme of Luigi at the time, so I actually opted to be second player on most occasions. We’d trade off level to level. I remember how fun it was to finally reach the smiley clown helicopter Bowser at the end and pelt him with wind-up toys until he was dead. These are the memories that childhood was meant for.
Another game that I distinctly remember playing with friends was the SNES port of Turtles in Time. There is no more perfect a beat-em-up for a child that age than one featuring their favorite cartoon characters and villains in gloriously colorful pixel art beating the everlasting shit out of each other. The ending (super) Shredder fight in that game was so fun to play with friends because you’d constantly get to make fun of each other for getting turned into a baby turtle by Super Shredder’s mutagen ray attack.
On the more action-oriented side, Contra 3: The Alien Wars was an insanely challenging game to play 2 players, but it was worth every second. The constant action and the way (just like the NES version) that the game was actually HARDER with 2 people made it a great mountain to attempt to climb. I remember my friend up the street had the game and we’d spend hours trying to shoot our way through it. The game reminds me of Mountain Dew and Jolt cola, Dorito-dusted fingers, sweaty controllers, and Friday night sleepovers.
The RPG I remember tackling with friends was Secret of Mana. Although the first portion of the game is only single player, when you finally unlock the second character, Primm, you can both wander the world slashing rabbites and bees to your heart’s content.
Secret of Mana was the first multiplayer RPG I had ever played and I can’t recall many subsequent ones that were very good, so this one sticks out to me. It gave a massive world with a fantastic story a means to be enjoyed by more than a single player simultaneously and I’m grateful to have had the experience.
Although I remember a bunch of SNES games with couch co-op, I believe the heyday for me came with the next 2 generations of consoles, specifically the n64 and the original Xbox.
On the n64, to this day I can still get down on some Mario Kart 64. The battle mode in that game was so much fun with 4 players. There’d be many temporary team-ups, betrayals, frustration, and laughs to go around as you tried to knock the balloons off your friends in sprawling, multi-level maps. It’s a real shame that the newer Mario Kart games have pretty much phoned in this part of the experience and it’s extremely lackluster now.
The one that did not age as gracefully as Mario Kart 64 was Goldeneye. Although I wouldn’t necessarily ever want to play it again, it deserves a huge mention because of how many hours I spent playing couch co-op in this game.
Remote mine match ups on Facility are one of my best gaming memories. I still remember that if you hit A+B+Z at the same time as you threw a remote mine, you could detonate it mid air. There was even a glitch where you could jump back up into the vents from the bathroom stall with a spin move.
Goldeneye was the game that brought the modern first person shooter to the mainstream. Sure, there was Doom 2 and other PC games that came before it, but none had the same modern sensibilities as Goldeneye. It paved the way.
The last 2 n64 titles I’d call out by name would be the Mario Party series and Super Smash Bros. The hours of fun that could be had on the virtual game board full of mini-activities of the former and the all-out item-heavy battle royale mayhem of the latter should go without saying.
Moving onto the original Xbox, this was my personal pinnacle of local co-op and some of the best memories of my friends from high school. My one buddy who had the most epic bedroom in the basement of his mom’s house became the de facto host of our debauchery on more occasions than he probably would have liked.
Connecting his Xbox and our other friend’s via system link cable and 2 TVs, we had some of the most intense and incredibly fun 2 vs 2 capture the flag matches on Blood Gulch in Halo: Combat Evolved. The combination of being high as fuck on good weed, Pizza Hut grease on our fingers, and 2 liter bottles of Pepsi filling our veins made these the some of the most competitive, cutthroat, entertaining CTF matches that the history books have ever recorded.
I’ll never forget a match where I was camping in the highest point behind the base with the sniper rifle and kept sniping one of my friends as soon as he spawned. He was the easily-angered type. He kept threatening me and telling me to stop sniping him. Being the lifelong troll that I am, I did not stop. I would not stop. I kept seeing his head pop in and firing a shot right at his face with precision. He eventually bubbled over, tackled me, and sprayed me with a can of Lysol. Yup, we were pretty well-adjusted teenagers.
In the end, while the decline of couch co-op is an inevitability with the rising cost of game production and the rising demand for solely online multiplayer, my hope is that game companies (especially independent ones) still find a place in their hearts to create even a bare bones couch co-op mode. If only to foster social interaction beyond just cursing at children over a gaming headset, the effort is worth it.