My take on this is a restrictive one: I’m interested in video games that can be played co-operatively, and specifically in games that tend to be played by two people sitting together in the same room (or at the very least, close to each other in the same house).
Why? Largely because I think this style of play is horribly under-represented in the world of gaming, and that at its best it’s a wonderful thing that deserves more software from the best developers…
…and partly for related personal reasons. My wife and I are both gamers, and although we’re pretty competitive, I can safely say that the most fun either of us has ever had with gaming involved collaborative play. We lived in Brighton for a couple of years, and some of our happiest memories of that lovely city are – honestly – sitting together on our sofa at the end of a long working day, drinking tea, and playing our way through the astoundingly enjoyable PixelJunk Monsters on our PS3. Hence my first choice:
1. PixelJunk Monsters
In my opinion, the greatest tower defence game ever created, thanks in large part to the glories of its co-op mode. High resolution hand drawn graphics help; but what I most admire is the sheer crafted pleasure of its levels, and how perfectly they’re pitched for teamwork. The play dynamic is nicely, chewily, rewardingly tough too, as your two tiny characters race around on the same screen, building and upgrading towers, trying to stop the cute onslaught of enemy waves from penetrating to your base.
There’s something elemental about two characters weaving paths around each other to build up mutual defences: it reminds me of trying to defend sandcastles from the rising tide with my brother when we were young. Then, too, there’s the fact that PixelJunk Monster’s online scoring system encourages you to go back again and again – and again and again and again – to improve your total on each level and climb the global rankings.
2. New Super Mario Brothers Wii
I don’t think I’ve ever played a platformer with a better executed co-op mode than this. Even for those of very different abilities, it’s a delight. You can help or hinder your partner as you see fit; often, the level itself is a simply a distraction as you race around in twisting circuits trying to pick up the other player and hurl them into a hole or – if you’re feeling kind – out of one.
Getting two jumping characters on the same screen without causing intense frustration is a fine art; designing levels and play dynamics that actually make a virtue of this is an even finer one. No game I’ve played has done it better (the LEGO games, while on the list down below, don’t do it half as well).
3. Rock Band
Little explanation needed here, really. It’s a different kind of fun, but playing music with other people can be about as good as leisure gets – and if you don’t have the luxury of a house full of musicians and instruments, this is the next best thing. It may be a bit elaborate and gimmicky for gaming purists. But my goodness, it’s satisfying.
4. The Secret of Monkey Island
This one is completely cheating, I know: including an old single player game on a list of co-op games experiences. It’s here because it felt important to me to get across the shared delight that can come from playing through a fine single-player game of a certain type. As, indeed, I did during my youth with almost every one of LucasArt’s seminal point and click adventure games. And as I have, more recently, done all over again with the re-released ones via Steam.
Monkey Island will always be my favourite, but there are a dozen or so single player games that for various reasons I’ve played all the way through as half of a partnership. This kind of group play is, I think, to be treasured, and lies somewhere between watching a great film with friends and doing a crossword with them. Only at the same time, and with more excitement.
5. Double Dragon 2
My brother and I got Double Dragon 2 for our NES in the early 1990s. That was our evenings gone for as long as it took to master the game and complete it twenty times. Here was fun of the highest order: walking along a screen from left to right, and occasionally back again, in the company of another player, hitting and kicking things – and exploring what was, in those days, a stunning little virtual world. It felt, a bit, like being in a kung fu buddy movie: an adventure that was exciting because you were in it together.
I always preferred the Double Dragon games to Final Fight and other, later titles, perhaps because of their smaller sprites and simplicity; and because, somehow, it felt that a little more skill and less button-mashing was involved. And it ended with you fighting your own clones, which was pretty cool.
6. LEGO Star Wars
This isn’t a perfect game by any means, but it is a delightful one – and a much-needed lifeline for co-op seeking gamers on the current generation of consoles. The lovely styling counts for a lot, too, conjuring a world that’s often enormous fun simply to run and jump around together. If only you didn’t knock each other off the screen so much, or the puzzles were a little less fiddly, or the level design slightly sharper….
Still, this began a series of games that have brought the joys of co-op to a new generation. And if you feel like it, you can turn mean and chop up your partner with a lightsaber, which is worth a large number of brownie points.
7. Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2
Often, it seems, the simpler the shooter, the better. This non-scrolling XBLA masterpiece, with its single screens, luminous colours and tiny, frantic gameplay does pretty much everything right: and it creates a space within which wonderful complexity can emerge.
Saving your companion at the last minute in a burst of firepower as wave after wave of geometric baddies swoop across the screen is visceral, clever and exhilarating all at the same time. And it’s very hard indeed, which makes a welcome change for those of us who enjoy investing a few months in working our scores up inch by inch (see also PixelJunk Monsters above).
8. Portal 2
So: the first game was awesome, the second game is too. And then they made a co-op mode that actually manages to channel some of this awesomeness down unique, custom-designed channels, rather than just dumping you in a slightly tougher or more frantic version of the single-player experience. An object lesson in non-lazy design.
Speaking of games that simply up the stats of the single player experience in order to create a multiplayer one – here’s Borderlands. But it wins out over so many other FPS co-op experiences precisely because it was designed from scratch with this in mind, and offers a far less thrilling play experience to the individual player than to the duo, trio or quartet. Borderlands offers flawed but ambitious, involving fun – and a finely judged sense that you and your companion(s) are exploring a real, hostile other world. For my money, it’s a richer co-op experience than any other FPS out there. Apart from one…
10. Left 4 Dead 2
A confession: I’m not very good at this game. My wife is much better than I am. I still love it, though, for all the obvious reasons of atmosphere, action, pace and team dynamics. But most of all I love its simplicity, and the corresponding simplicity of your relationship with the other 1-3 players on your team. You’re battling for survival against the horde. You’re all identical: it’s just the stuff you pick up and the role you take on that differentiate you. None of that character class, talents, stats or levelling up rubbish. Horde of zombies: and you (plural). Try to make it out alive.
As with so many of the best games, the richness of the interactions between players seem inversely related to the simplicity of the basic concept. And that’s before you take on the role of the zombies and start wading into the fray on the other side.