The Human Touch – The Death of Couch Co-Op

Recent Couch Co-op History

My friend recently bought The Quarry, a cinematic horror game where you can determine the fate of nine counselors at the eerie Hackett’s Quarry. Movie night became interactive as the game randomly assigned us the characters we would personally save or purposely miss a quick time event (QTE) while jumping over a creek. Don’t get me wrong, we all wanted the counselors to survive. However, the possibility of seeing a faceplant to the ground or a quirky remark was too tempting to resist.

The main cast of the Quarry having a bonfire

After playing a couple of chapters of the Quarry, it made me reminisce how compelling it was to play a video game within the vicinity of others. Maybe it was the burgers and hot dogs talking, but something is endearing about laughing and enjoying each other’s company that you can’t capture through a headset. An important objective in any game is to win. Alternatively, the main objective of a couch co-op game is to have fun.

With the establishment of more stable internet connections and the recent COVID-19 epidemic, the appeal of couch co-op has faltered throughout the years as convenience and comfortability are ever more accessible. So what is the future of co-op? Has the presence of couch co-op seen its final run? 

Oldhead: Reminiscing About the Good Ol’ Times

“Back in my day”…would be how I started this section if I believed the state of video games had depreciated throughout the years. But that is simply not the case. Gaming has evolved to be more immersive than ever with more expansive worlds, intricate storylines, and polished gameplay. 

Gaming has transcended multiple generations, meaning that the community doesn’t pertain to only teenagers and young adults, but also to kids, parents, and grandparents. The advancement that gaming has seen throughout the years has made me overly excited for what the future will behold. Separately, it has also made me appreciate how far the platform has come. 

Gone are the days when you could microwave a hot pocket before starting up the internet, blow on a Nintendo 64 cartridge hoping for a miracle, or squint at an 11 x 11 screen when playing 4-player co-op on a fatback tv. However, there is something heartwarming about gathering around one of your friend’s living rooms and playing Halo 2 slayer split-screen, Mario Party 2 mini-games, or Goldeneye’s big head mode. The younger generations may have missed out on this experience. 

Modern gaming has learned from its predecessors by refining its core gameplay mechanics to be more attached to a sense of realism through more advanced software. Better refinement means fewer mistakes when creating a simulation-based experience grounded upon perfection rather than exploitation. This presence of exploitation is what my friends and I refer to as “jank,” meaning certain components of the game are not as refined as other sections or what the developers have intended. Not all “jank” is bad, in actuality, a good proportion of it is quite hilarious. 

Games transitioning from 2D graphics to 3D graphics had some trouble transferring the pristine controls of 2D platforming into a 3D domain. This meant that “jank” was held in its highest regard. Goldeneye 007, a game revered as one of the greatest shooters of all time, actually had mechanics that were pretty cumbersome. It featured map layouts that left you more lost than when you attempt to remember your keys after an outing with the boys (speaking from personal experience). Yet the game is still celebrated as a hallmark for what any shooter strives to be. Why is this the case? 

A session of Goldeneye 007's 4 player co-op involving the Rocket Launcher, Phantom, KF7 Soviet, and DD44 Dostovei

Goldeneye 007 understands the concept of fun better than the majority of games, modern or not, especially if you had the luxury of playing it with friends. Screen-peaking your friend’s location, picking up the golden gun, or attempting to aim with the z button wasn’t dependent upon skill, but rather the luck of the draw. As the great Bob Ross once said, “We don’t make mistakes. We just have happy accidents.” 

Couch Co-op Gameplay for the Modern Age

The concept of multiplayer in today’s environment often follows a competitive agenda. Battle royales and shooters are constantly being produced and updated, such as Apex Legends, Call of Duty: Warzone, or Fortnite. The consummation of the majority of these games is pretty similar as the stature of being the best or being the last man standing is relegated to the utmost importance. However, what about those gamers who don’t want to have such an intense input when playing but still desire a collaborative approach to a common goal?

That is when indie games come to the forefront. These developers rely more heavily on lush content and addictive gameplay when they don’t have the economic backdrop as these triple-A titles. Indie games may also be more attuned to their community’s preferences. Early access and beta versions allow for constant communication to persist between hopeful fans and bright-eyed developers. This communication ultimately entailed local support for marquee titles that gained critical acclaim, such as Rocket League, Cuphead, and Overcooked.

The implementation of local co-op shows that many gamers still embrace the human element that they grew up with. Whether that meant smiling coyly when stealing a star from your frienemies in Mario Party, rocking out to Led Zepplin with your Guitar Hero squad, or playing through an adventure-filled campaign of Resident Evil 5. These feelings still persist to this day and it wasn’t better personified than the award-winning game, It Takes Two by Hazelight Studios.

It Takes Two Delivers a Fantastic Couch Co-op Experience

It Takes Two is an action-adventure platformer involving Cody and May, a married couple who are planning to get a divorce. They ultimately get trapped in these hand-made dolls created by their daughter, Rose, as they partake in a “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” type of adventure. Through the story, they attempt to recapture their human form and rekindle their relationship. What came as a result, was an experience that was outright endearing and surprisingly innovative. 

The game had a feature called the “friend pass” which allowed both players to play the game even if only one person bought it. The implication of the “friend pass” brought a welcoming nostalgia of my friend’s living room even though we were in separate houses. The presentation of the game maintained a split-screen dynamic even when you played online. The emphasis on teamwork never becomes stale, as every stage introduces new powers as well as a myriad of colorful characters. 

My friend and I were transplanted into a scintillating wonderland. We saw moon boot powers and a space baboon archenemy, magneto nails and a sentient toolbox, tree sap machine guns and talking squirrels, and so much more. It Takes Two seamlessly transplants a child’s imagination into over joyous gameplay that blossoms with creativity. Even with the prominence of teamwork in the foreground, the one portion of the game that stole the cake for me was the integration of mini-games.

Mini-games allowed for a break in the action, as teamwork transformed into competition. The main objective of becoming humans again was pushed aside for an intense battle of whack-a-mole where one player was the mole and the other was the hammer, shuffleboard on ice as each new round involved different terrain, and volleyball on floating clouds. There are 25 mini-games sprinkled throughout the levels with each piece being a figment of a child’s imagination. And the beauty of a child’s imagination is that they can make any game fun. 

Cody and May falling from an explosion

Final Thoughts and the Future of Couch Co-op

Online netcode is only going to improve as more resources will be poured in for better servers and updated software. Ultimately, this should create a more seamless experience when playing online. As such, this brings up the argument regarding the necessity of local co-op modes as some triple-A manufacturers don’t provide an option for it anymore. This omission is surprising given it was a mainstay a couple of generations ago. 

Does that mean the high-fives after executing a signature play in “Beach Volley Folly” in Mario Party 4, the puffed-up chest of posterizing your homie in NBA Street, or the executed “Let’s Go’s” after playing Army of Two’s campaign will begin to fade from our gaming vernacular? 

Not necessarily. With commercial success reaching games like Cuphead, Gang Beasts, and It Takes Two, local/couch co-op will remain persistent for many future generations. People long for a sense of interaction and connectivity among others, meaning that the appeal of couch co-op will always persevere. This lends way for innovation. The essence of couch co-op, playing to have fun rather than to win, will always be a central component for any gamer, young or old.

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