Fancy graphics are fine, but all gamers know in their hearts that nothing will ever top the drama of Final Fantasy VII or the pure physicality of Super Mario Bros. 3. Playboy’s Retro Gaming articles look at why we love the classics and give you your nostalgia fix.
It’s a Friday night. You and your mates are off for the weekend and someone makes the blindingly brilliant suggestion of getting together for a little gaming tournament with a guest appearance from a few crates of beer. The evening descends into competitive chaos with friendships being tested left, right and center. It’s glorious.
Put the game online, however, and sure, you’ll have fun, but all you’ll be doing is raining profanities and “your mum” jokes down the microphone to a snotty-nosed kid who’s up way past his bedtime.
With the game industry’s inevitable and persistent shift to an “always online” approach to basically everything, some core elements of what social and competitive video gaming stood for has fallen through the cracks. Few games have splitscreen multiplayer or “couch co-op” anymore, and it’s harder than ever to find a game to play with some mates around the house. There’s now an entire generation of gamers that probably only own one controller, have never heard the words “system” and “link” in the same sentence and scoff at the idea of game modes that aren’t competitively ranked with 10 different leaderboards. That’s a scary thought to me.
Call me old fashioned but gaming has always presented itself as a social activity to me, with the option of a solitary experience on the side. In a game like Goldeneye, you’d play the single-player missions to unlock cheat codes that you’d use in multiplayer, a template that many games of the era used. The modern take on this is to lock all the extras behind a paywall of add-on content or stuff everything into pre-order bonuses or some contrived ranking system that keeps all the good stuff locked up until you’ve already sunk 50 hours in.
In a relentless mission to make gaming as social as possible, developers and platform holders like Microsoft and Sony seem to have completely missed the point and deconstructed one of the most social aspects gaming could offer. For example, PlayStation haphazardly pushed the idea of couch multiplayer in the build-up to the launch of the PS4, claiming the system would use its optional PlayStation camera peripheral to view the controllers’ light bars and recognize who’s playing. In practice and over a year on, the PS4 has yet to take any real advantage of this.
It’s an odd omission, considering the wealth of couch cooperative titles already available in the PlayStation Store thanks to more lenient publishing access for independent studios. This has enabled fantastic smaller titles boasting strong couch-based multiplayer experiences to gain traction, ranging from the wildly bizarre Binding of Isaac to the goofy four-player action of Sportsfriends and the more recent phenomenon Rocket League.
Even the most recent game in the Halo franchise, once the king of sweaty, glorious LAN parties everywhere, doesn’t have splitscreen multiplayer. If that’s not bleak I don’t know what is.
ONLINE AND LONELY
The ability to play with people around the world is bewilderingly impressive, and to be able to communicate with them freely is even more so, but I can’t help but feel it’s robbed the charisma out of competitive play. An always-connected online world, with its varied population of strangers, feels sterile and lonely compared with the richness of a close circle of friends experiencing the same match face to face.
On the flipside, it’s hard to ignore the positive aspects of online multiplayer. You don’t have to fork out for a second controller, which is especially good when you realise how much they charge for them now. You don’t need to worry about losing—just quit the match to avoid the verbal assault of jeers after only gleaning one kill all game. Heck, you don’t even need friends! Just log into a lobby and voila, you’ve got however many like-minded individuals looking to kick each others’ asses just waiting for you.
This new always-online world has also spawned the all-new professional-grade competitive side of gaming with the rise of eSports. This has shifted gaming from the living room into massive, sold out arena experiences. Tens of thousands of people scream for their favorite players as they watch them compete for millions of dollars from atop their celebrity-like pedestals. It’s pushed gaming into a limelight I never thought it would see, adding a whole new revenue stream for publishers while basically handling marketing as a bonus side effect. To see competitive gaming reach these heights is staggering, but for an old fogey like me it only adds salt to the nostalgic wounds.
There are examples of developers that still cling to the idea that split-screen and local multiplayer is important and must be preserved. Star Wars: Battlefront is a prime and recent example of this, launching with a dedicated Mission mode that supports a splitscreen cooperative experience. It’s not all doom and gloom. The signs are certainly clear but fear not, couch multiplayer is highly unlikely to ever go away entirely. It’s more likely that we’ll see competitive, couch-based gameplay relegated to a genre of its own, receiving titles dedicated to the experience much like and not as an assumed aspect of the multiplayer package.
I’m not saying online multiplayer is wrong. I’m not even saying it isn’t fun. What I’m saying is it’ll simply never produce comparable experiences to local multiplayer. We lost the competitive and unifying spirit of arcades when gaming shifted from the cumbersome arcade machines to compact living room consoles. Now we’re losing the friendly competitive spirit altogether, reducing friendly banter and a few hours of socializing to microphone taunts and digital lobby waiting rooms. The game industry is bigger and better than ever, turning over billions of dollars and bringing creativity and art to millions, but I sincerely hope the microcosm of local play isn’t lost entirely during this digital entertainment uprising.
Ben Tarrant is a big fan of Fallout 3, his N64 and nachos. Maybe one day science will find a way of combining all 3? You can connect with him on Twitter @ben_tarrant.
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