Old Man Musings – The Olden Days of Couch Coop

I recently sat down and played Dynamite Cop with a friend. For those who have no idea what I’m talking about (which is very understandable), Dynamite Cop was a Sega Dreamcast title made in the same vein as the Die Hard Arcade game. Basically, it’s mindlessly fun 3d brawler gameplay with silly little quick time events between brawls. Honestly, it’s not a very good game, but it does have cooperative play, and that makes all the difference in the world.

I may be old now, but when the world and I were still young, there were all sorts of couch coop games out there. Things have changed quite a bit, but one thing hasn’t changed at all: even the most mediocre of titles becomes fantastic when you’re playing it with a friend. So find a spot on the couch, grab a controller, and we’ll play our way through memory lane.

It’s hard to say exactly when I first started getting in to co-op gaming. Probably at the arcade, cranking quarters into the X-Men brawler longside my little brother. I probably played co-op of some sort before that, in fact I’m sure I played some Battletoads and Double Dragon quite early on, but the arcade is where I really remember developing any real interest in cooperative gaming (prior to that it was just nice to not have to hand over the controller and watch – we could both play). Passion for couch coop all comes down to a single title, one that every couch coop experience I’ve had since has been trying to catch up with but unable to do so. I’m sure this is the same title a lot of people really learned to love coop with: Secret of Mana.

I’m not going to make any claim that Secret of Mana is this perfect, untouchable experience. It’s a damn good action RPG, but I’m not sure I could say it’s the best (even in the World of Mana alone, I prefer Legend of Mana). What it does have going for it is fun (and beneficial) multiplayer. All of the grinding of spells and weapon levels becomes trivial when you have a friend sitting next to you to talk to and help it go faster. Bosses are way easier when you can tag team and keep them in stunlock for a healthy portion of the fight. Pretty much every aspect of the game is improved by plugging in a second (or third, if you’re a cool kid with two friends and a multi-tap) controller. As a kid that loved to play games with his friends, this was the game to have back in the day.

Since SoM I’ve played plenty of coop games: Gauntlet Legends/Dark Legacy, Mario Kart Double Dash (actually, I want to know why it’s so hard to include a Double Dash mode in Mario Kart 8. What’s with that?). Even my least favorite genre (FPS) becomes tolerable and even fun when there’s a buddy sitting next to me and we’re cranking through it together. But over time, things changed. People grew up, moved away, and (here’s the big one) the games industry fell in love with online play and multiplayer versus, and couch coop seems to have drifted away as well.

I really enjoy Dark Souls. It’s a damn brilliant game, and one of the best single player experiences I’ve had in a decade. The way it (and its sequel) handles multiplayer seems like a great point of reference for the general approach to multiplayer these days. The multiplayer versus is with random and unknown elements, which is always nice and helps prevent issues like griefing and harassment. The multiplayer coop is more telling, and requires risking multiplayer versus to engage in, and has no support for any efforts to intentionally play cooperatively. As far as couch coop (aside from the fact that it certainly wouldn’t work in this game), there is no support at all. You know, now that I’ve mentioned it, game design in general seems to have moved away from games where couch coop is even a real option.

We don’t need every game to support couch coop, and it would certainly be a bad idea to center a game around it. But what happened to the action rpgs of yore? The World of Mana was overturned in favor of Kingdom Hearts (hardly a good trade), and the pure bliss that was cruising through a world together in Secret of Mana has been replaced by Disney, original characters, and an insane number of non-numbered titles that are spread over a handful of systems.

Speaking of Square Enix and coop, it’s worth taking a moment to talk about Heroes of Ruin on the 3DS. I was very excited when I first picked up Heroes of Ruin. The premise sounded fun enough, and I had a friend with a 3DS that had just moved away, and the idea of playing through it together was all the incentive I really needed to pick it up. Unfortunately, it follows the Diablo school of game design – crunch over fluff. That’s not inherently a bad thing, and I’ve enjoyed my time with plenty of games like that, but I guess I was holding on to the idea that the Square part of Squeenix might still be alive in there somewhere and putting out a great coop game with a captivating story. What I got instead was a very mediocre title (even with the coop – since the coop didn’t really enhance the experience in any way) with a game breaking bug. My mistake for expecting the World of Mana out of a one-off modern Squeenix title.

Fortunately, there are still good coop titles out there, and Monster Hunter makes it very easy to buddy up with friends (in the same room or online) and go on some hunts. It’s not quite the same though. The lovingly crafted setting of Secret of Mana and enjoying that world and story together with friends shouldn’t be a thing of the past. There’s always more games being made, and maybe I’ll get a couch coop experience to topple Secret of Mana yet.

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