Let’s rewind for a moment. It's the 90s... TV has taken the fast train to Boringville, but you don’t care. There’s no internet to pull you away, no social media to scroll, it's just you and a friend with a game. Put in that cartridge and push the button. Then untangle the cables, plug in the controller, press Start. Welcome, Player 2! You and your buddy, brother, or sister are excited for that long-awaited night of gaming. You’re lying prone on sleeping bags in the dark, feet curled in the air behind you with a bowl of noms between you. You laugh. You’re told to keep it down and you giggle it away. There are games like Contra, Double Dragon, Mario Kart, Final Fight, Streets of Rage. There’s cheating, there’s banter, and there’s the occasional punch in the arm.
This is co-op gaming, and it is local.
At one time, the console was the hub that brought groups together under one roof. We planned gaming nights, invited our buddies over, or visited a friend's house to check out the newest games. I remember some of the best gaming memories I had as a kid were family game nights. We would prepare in advance: take a trip to the store, load up with all the sugar and candy. We would settle down for the night around the console. It was an event! The curtains were closed, the phone off the hook (actually off the hook, and not in a rad way, kiddos)—we closed ourselves off from the outside world for quality time within our family unit.
We would also visit arcade halls for those group experiences. It was an opportunity for us to see the future of gaming: these impressive, interactive rigs with rideable motorcycles, guns in holsters, and incredible graphics for the time. They were all multiplayer!
Fast forward to the multiplayer gaming of today that's replaced the local play with an online experience. Hundreds of players are playing in a single game simultaneously. Teams are taking on teams in huge matches across the globe. Headsets and microphones are at the ready, with players speaking hundreds of languages in a huge melting pot of community. It’s a dream come true for gamers to see their passion become so global and widespread. But in this age of connectivity, why do I feel so disconnected?
Where is Player 2? Can I play with you?
I can’t help but feel that there has been a loss in the personal, more direct social experience through the years. There is something simple about closing the doors to the rest of society and sharing a moment with the person beside you.
On a recent trip, my husband, Jacob, and I packed our Nintendo Switch. We were in a home somewhat isolated with less-than-stellar internet, and it was a rainy day. It did not matter. We played Mario Kart 8 in 4-way local multiplayer with our young niece and nephew. You'd better believe we schooled those kids in how we immature adults did it back in the day! We laughed and joked. They promised they were going to beat us, and we showed them otherwise. They also showed us a thing or two!
So why is there a decline in split-screen co-op? Looking back at the evolution of gaming, it seems clear that once consoles and PCs started offering network connectivity, the world opened up to new possibilities in gaming. LAN parties grew in popularity. And, as accessibility to the internet became easier, more players could connect around the globe.
Online gaming was upon us. Multiplayer no longer had to be local.
Searching further, an article on the website Highsnobriety.com mentioned how "there's a more practical reason for the decline in split-screen gaming, which is that it simply eats up too many console resources. This results in reduced frame rates and impaired graphics, sullying the 'perfect' impression one gets from a game in single-player mode."
I understand that split-screen and co-op modes can be taxing on graphics and performance, which may take away the immersive experience that developers work so hard to achieve. I feel like I would take some of the downgrades for a chance to play amazing games with the person next to me. It is achievable. There are some big modern games out there such as Gears of War, Halo, and A Way Out that are still impressive games and yet offer co-op options. But in an absolutely huge collection of games available, there isn't a lot to choose from.
As the Little Mermaid sings so desperately, "I want more…"
Being an avid gamer who also stays tuned in to gaming trends, I still feel that there is a healthy demand for local cooperative gaming. When a game is released that touts a pure co-op mode or split-screen, there is genuine excitement in the gaming community. Is it because the split-screen co-op is such a rare gem these days that adding the feature brings something "new" to the mix?
Online multiplayer gaming has a lot of advantages over the local co-op. It’s great for meeting new friends and staying connected to those at a distance and allowing gamers to challenge themselves and play with more competitive or skill-matched players. It’s also great for gaming when you don’t want to leave the house or put on pants.
Ideally, I'd like the best of both: online multiplayer games and more 2-player split-screen/co-op games for some balance.
A Quantic Foundry Survey found that local co-op was the most consistently appealing mode across all age groups. I also feel like a lot of people prefer to play with people they know and have it as an extension of their friendship. Co-optimus.com user SirGaryColman said, "A lot of gamers that grew up on couch co-op STILL play video games. We have girlfriends/wives/families in the house that we'd love to play with."
I can relate to this. Jacob and I are big fans of couch co-op and have noticed the lack of two-player content as the consoles have evolved into the modern era. These days, when buying a new console, getting a second controller isn’t necessary. It makes me a little sad that the new age of gaming that's so connected and so open to the world isn’t as inclusive to the rest of the household as it once was.
It's also not hard to see that some of the funniest episodes of Retro Replay feature two-player on the couch fun with banter and laughs and interaction that gets missed over a mic and headset. Check out John DiMaggio in the basement with Nolan playing Metal Slug:
There's still hope for us fans of the couch co-op!
There are still some really good modern two-player games for consoles and PC. Borderlands has been a favorite of ours, and the continuous split-screen campaign has kept us revisiting the franchise throughout the years. As mentioned earlier, Halo, Gears of War, and A Way Out offer great experiences. Diablo 3, It Takes Two, and Overcooked also come to mind, and these games have sold over a million copies each! The game-modding community has not forgotten the local co-op experience, either. Did you know that there are mods out there that can turn Star Fox and Super Mario 64 into local split-screen co-op games?
Although modern gaming may have shifted away from the traditional couch co-op, interest from both avid players and certain developers are keeping the local co-op alive. And if those game developers drop out, it looks like the game-modding community has our back. Hope is not lost for us couchers just yet, so pick up your controller Player 2! Press Start! You’re still in the game!
Do you have any treasured local co-op or arcade memories, or some games you'd like to see add a co-op option? Share your stories in the comments!