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‘Bring Back the Battletoads’: Couch co-op is hurting, and it’s not getting better

Couch co-op has been on life support for longer than I care to think. Now even the staples are starting to get away from split-screen. With next-gen shockingly close, it doesn’t seem things are going to be getting any better.

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Battletoads gave a nostalgic feeling for a time when every great game seemed to be better with friends. That’s still true for today in many ways – so long as you’re not actually sat next to those friends. Keeping those you game with at a distance might be better for some, I don’t know. But it isn’t better for me.

The Death of Couch Co-op

Golden Axe, Streets of Rage, Mario 3 – the best games of yesteryear allowed you to play together in some way. Sometimes that was just passing the controller, sometimes it was head-to-head. Often it was just being able to gang up on those annoying little dwarves in bonus stages.

Then, as games grew up, they became more individual. The biggest games started to be titles that forced you to act alone. Co-op was reduced to Fifa and the occasional puzzle game.

I guess it got harder to program games for more than one person. Something like Uncharted just wouldn’t have been possible with split-screen, not just because of the chosen style of storytelling, but because all that power goes into making sure the game runs well. See base editions of any Borderlands game, which usually run like they’ve been programmed by sock puppets when you play in split-screen. That’s not their fault of course, they’re doing something incredibly ambitious. Those kind words are most certainly after the fact though. My language was a little bluer when I had my third crash of the hour in Borderlands 3.

Maybe it was partly down to the changing face of gaming. Those PS2 and early Ps3 years were famous for the Grand Theft Auto-style single player titles, where edginess was the talk of every playground. “I murdered a prostitute or two over the weekend.” “Oh yeah? I thrashed my Dad at Bubble Bobble, but he got me back with a blue shell in Mario Kart.”

Whatever the reason, couch co-op disappeared in almost all genres. There were always things to play – hours of Dynasty Warriors 3 will prove that. And that’s without mentioning Halo, perhaps the greatest co-op title of all time.

But even that was plentiful compared to how things turned out.

Into the Dark Ages

Married couples and those with kids are pretty much forced to rely on the old dependables these days. Smash Bros is still incredible, followed by a round or two of Mario Kart (although real gamers should play Sonic Racing Transformed).

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Halo temporarily ditched its split-screen. Call of Duty – a must for fans of split-screen – has locked most its modes from those playing with a wife or child. I can’t be too harsh about that one though. As annoying as it is to play Warzone on two devices, nothing comes close to a few rounds of Gungame with your wife.

The best co=op experiences are smaller scale. Overcooked is a new staple, a must-play for anybody who wants to test their marriage (or who wants a divorce). Battletoads is up there as well. While critics were upset you couldn’t play only, my wife and I played every level and loved it. The difficulty just ramped up our enjoyment. Streets of Rage 4 was another recent co-op classic. Both of them borrow so heavily from their ‘ancestors’ that it’s probably more updated nostalgia than a new game, but still.

A tiny percentage of gamers play couch co-op, which is the overriding reason it has disappeared. In that context, we’re probably quite lucky with what we’ve got. If you’d have told me I’d ever be playing a new Streets of Rage game, and it would actually be damn good, I’d have laughed and laughed.

The future of couch co-op

The future of couch co-op hangs in the balance. I mean that literally, I’m not just being dramatic. On one hand we have a new generation, where graphics and power will be at the forefront of almost every decision. That means co-op will be at the back of the queue for almost every title. Even Nintendo, if the 4k machine rumours turn out to be true, are looking back at playing with the big boys, even if I can’t believe they’ll ever drop couch co-op entirely.

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On the other hand, we have a machine like the Series S – a console designed almost entirely for kids or casuals. This device needs its equivalent of Mario Party, of Golden Axe, of Timesplitters. Great co-op games would be a homerun among those this console is aimed at – Fortnite and Apex aside.

And so we come to a crossroads. A lower priced entry console, along with the popularity of the Switch, could mean more co-op games in the future. But those take effort and aren’t always well supported. Gamepass could change that. The Series S could change that.

But more likely developers will continue to ignore those of us who don’t want to play over two devices. they’ll put their effort into great single player experiences, and it’s hard to begrudge them of that. It’s hard, but those of us who love couch co-op will manage it anyway.

Conclusion

The likes of Battletoads and Streets of Rage 4 are exceptions. They’re certainly not the rule.

But gaming is more fun with friends – actually with friends. I’d like tosee more that takes advantage of that.

I know i’m not alone. We all have families, some of us have kids or wives. More and more, my gaming experiences are enhanced by playing with people, almost like in the 90s.

Those days are gone, but they’re not forgotten and maybe, just maybe, they might come back.

 

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blank Mat Growcott has been a long-time member of the gaming press. He's written two books and a web series, and doesn't have nearly enough time to play the games he writes about.

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