One of my fondest memories from my early days of gaming was of Hot Wheels: Micro Racers‘ split screen races. The controls were, admittedly, fairly cumbersome and my friends and I wrestled over the keyboard and mouse to find the perfect position, balancing the view of both the screen and the controller. Several fights ensued. But through it all, we bonded, as gamers and as friends, in ways that no other type of game has come close to replicating. Legendary games such as Super Smash Bros and Mario Kart embraced the couch co-op to bring together – or tear apart – friends and family in a shared gaming culture.
In the years since then, however, online multiplayer has taken the stage from the glory days of the local co-op, with gamers connecting with each other from way beyond their living room. Games that can be played locally have all but disappeared, replaced by ones that emphasize global competition, exemplified most pointedly by the e-sports scene. While multiplayer games are incredibly fun, and it’s pretty evident why they’re ruling the roost right now, there’s a few things that these games simply can’t offer in the way the couch co-op can.
My favourite part of gaming with a friend sitting with you, are the moments that happen as you play – the shouts, the cusses, the laughter – that happen naturally, in that very instant. There’s a sense of camaraderie built from kicking ass together, or failing and figuring out a way to play it right the next time. More recently, the co-op Zombie modes from the Black Ops games offered that opportunity: yelling at each other to shoot the undead before they got you, nick-of-the-moment revives, and blasting through the hordes with both of us powered up, laughing maniacally. These vignettes may be possible in a multiplayer game, but the sheer joy of experiencing them in person, fist bumps and back slaps included, is absolutely impossible online.
While the experience of couch gaming itself might not be around as much, there’s also a significant difference in the kinds of games being released now due to the prevalence of online multiplayer. Due to a few genres, such as FPSes and MMOs (duh) being better suited to the online format, we’ve been flooded with games from these genres. There’s little diversity in these games, and developers have succumbed to market pressures, shifting focus – sometimes wholly – away from other modes, such as single player and co-op. As such, gaming as a whole has suffered. While couch co-ops have suffered from a similar oversaturation in the past, there’s incredible scope for some truly innovative games of the type. I recently stumbled upon Can’t Drive This, an interesting upcoming game, where one player drives a car while the other one builds the track. This sort of live co-operation simply doesn’t appear in an online multiplayer, and these games aren’t bound by the genre expectations of dominant multiplayer games. This also opens up new avenues to indie developers, to creatively tackle a niche that hasn’t, of late, been exploited to its full potential.
The fact also remains that online multiplayer has become intensely competitive, with victory being the goal for a vast chunk of players, rather than the enjoyment of the game itself. This alienates casual players, ones who simply want to pop into a game for a while, have some fun with friends, and move on. The couch co-op, when done right, can fill this gap, reintroducing us to games that can be played intensely, or casually, depending on the player. Take the acclaimed indie title, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, that requires some serious work together to complete its puzzles, but is also one that doesn’t require intense investment, and can be played casually, in shorter installments.
The wonderful thing about gaming, despite its relative youth as an entertainment form, is its continuing evolution. Older forms have died, some have been revived, newer genres have cropped up, an we’re only getting started. The couch co-op, in my opinion, can be one of those that can be reupholstered with newer gaming tech to create an exciting gaming experience. All it requires is a slight readjustment of resources and elimination of the tunnel vision many developers seem to be stuck in with regard to online multiplayer. Here’s hoping someone takes up the mantle.