Two Xbox One controllers representing couch co-op multiplayer
Who said playing video games had to be a lonesome activity? (Illustration by June Le, Minneapolis College of Art and Design)

Why Couch Co-op Multiplayer Is Still the Best Way To Play Video Games

Especially now during a pandemic, gamers shouldn’t take for granted the social benefits the act of playing with their friends provided.

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Two Xbox One controllers representing couch co-op multiplayer

Especially now during a pandemic, gamers shouldn’t take for granted the social benefits the act of playing with their friends provided.

Did “couch co-op” multiplayer die? Considering the past few months spent in isolation, I’ve grown reminiscent of the good old days. No, not the days of eating out and going to crowded areas, but rather the better days of staying indoors with my friends and microwaving greasy snacks, sharing stories of misadventure, and most importantly, playing video games.

Surely, if not for the global pandemic, my friends and I would antagonize each other while chucking green shells in “Mario Kart 64,” right? Well, maybe not. The age of couch co-op dwindles as the years roll forward. Today, consoles thrive on high resolution and beautiful graphics, making a two-player split-screen a potential hindrance to the experience the industry is trying to provide its players.

When online features were first brought to console, players from nearly anywhere could game alongside one another. It was groundbreaking. Friends and family that moved away could still play games together. Distance was no longer an issue. Suddenly, your far away friend seemed right there on the couch beside you. But they weren’t, were they?

For a time, this feature didn’t get rid of couch co-op all together. They coexisted and created some favored gaming memories between my friends and I. Two friends in a sleepover could play games with a buddy out of town. It truly was what the gaming industry needed: more ways to get connected and play. It was good for business and good for entertainment.

But the industry gradually departed with features like couch co-op multiplayer. Much like those friendships from your hometown, the ones you spent countless afternoons with playing your favorite games, each of you would inevitably grow apart. Those memories spent with friends would become echoes of a nostalgic childhood. At least the games you would eventually enjoy playing alone are pretty.

Often the video game industry dives headfirst into a competitive rabbit hole of linear technological evolution. At any point in video game industry history, you will find a steady progression of gaming consoles (PlayStation, PlayStation 2, PS3 and so on) becoming more, as the industry saw it, technologically “improved.” This can be repeated with nearly every console generation. From 8-bit to 4K, the industry wants to grab your attention with a narrative that says, “Look how much better we got.”

Gaming publishers quickly had to adapt and prioritize the industry standard by swiftly ridding games of the features the industry was less enthusiastic for. Why? The answer as predicted: money.

If players want to play, people must pay. How do two people play the same game with online multiplayer? Well, let’s hope they have the same console as they won’t be able to play with each other otherwise. Each player needs an individual copy of the game and a steady internet connection. Did I mention gaming consoles charge an additional monthly or annual fee for online multiplayer?

But gamers weren’t so easily tricked. They noticed couch co-op disappear before their very eyes, prompting them to lash out with reviews online. In some cases, their cries were answered. Nintendo, for one, never let go of the traditions of the past. Successful titles were often part of an ongoing series, games with a history of couch co-op enabling experiences. Games like “Mario Kart” and “Super Smash Bros.” come to mind.

Nintendo continues to tailor player experiences toward shared play. The Nintendo Switch is a shining example of a gaming console made for couch co-op with its portability and controller capabilities. Sit down anywhere with your friends, detach the two controllers from the console’s side and play with a friend.

Things look even brighter with features like cross-platform multiplayer. This means that regardless of the system you’re playing on, you can play with a friend (that is if your friends still purchased their own copy of the game as well as online multiplayer subscriptions). At least your friends can play on the console they prefer, rather than an absurd additional system purchase.

Alas, this feature isn’t available with every game’s experience. Plus, cross-platform comes with unfair advantages when playing against PC computer and mouse users — I have had my share of relentless game lag — but it’s fair to say cross-platform is a step in the right direction.

But is it the gaming experience you crave? That’s up to you. I of course would rather feed my friends some snacks and play next to them via couch co-op. Some of my favorite memories with my brothers were shared at our Nintendo 64. I wouldn’t trade experiences like that for pretty graphics. But some might prefer a high-resolution experience on their own, and that’s okay too.

But I am grateful for the innovation in online multiplayer especially during times like these. I wouldn’t say I play video games nearly as much as I did in high school, but I enjoy being able to connect with people I wouldn’t otherwise as I explore the virtual universe of “No Man’s Sky.” Or even better, play with those I otherwise couldn’t during the current circumstances. Couch co-op would be essentially useless, and gaming would get lonely.

Since I moved to college, my roommates and I have all hopped on the “Fortnite” train, which offers cross-platform experiences. As we all gather in the living room and partake in the hilarity of couch co-op gaming, I can’t help but feel as though I’ve rekindled some lost glory days of being a nerdy kid in my hometown. I love being able to not only hear my friend’s laughter but also watch the amusement slap them in their face.

I’m thankful for online multiplayer, and I cherish those experiences too. But I miss the times spent side by side with friends, controllers in our hands, anticipating the fun that was about to unfold. I don’t think couch co-op is dead, yet. Not all friends grow apart; some things stay the same. That’s some comfort we can all appreciate. For now, I’ll be counting down the days until all my friends can safely play in person again.

This article was inspired by a video on YouTube by Nakey Jakey. If you’re interested, please go check it out.

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