I dedicate most of my gaming time these days to shooters for a number of reasons. There’s something incredibly rewarding about the skill-based competitive atmosphere of neck-and-neck multiplayer matches, and I enjoy a good game of free-for-all — but not nearly as much as I delight in team-based games, where coordination and collaboration are key to victory. Apparently, I’m not alone. Alongside the recent proliferation of first- and third-person shooters, partially spurred by the success of the Xbox and Xbox Live, more and more games have been integrating cooperative modes into their campaigns.
[[image:090323_secretofmana.jpg:Hey, I didn’t have 999 health when I got to the Fire Gigas!:right:0]]Co-op gameplay seems to be the new buzzword for the shooter genre, and its popularity is spreading to other corners of the medium. Games like Fable II and Command and Conquer: Red Alert 3 added two-player components to their campaigns, and Capcom clearly intended Resident Evil 5 to be a cooperative experience. Each of these cases represents a traditionally single-player game series that has been adapted or expanded to support an additional person, and the game industry must have remembered that a lot of the time, playing with a friend is even better than playing alone. But what makes the recent co-op surge so interesting is that, even 16 years ago, those same elements were present in Secret of Mana, and Square’s classic manages to deliver a more rewarding cooperative experience than plenty of games published well over a decade later.
Parish has already written at length about what’s great (and not so great) about Secret of Mana, and having played a few hours into the game on two separate occasions in the past, I was well aware of the fact that it has its share of flaws. Even so, ever since its release on the Virtual Console, I’ve been jonesin’ to give it another shot — but with a friend, this time. It takes awhile just to recruit the Sprite Child and open up the option to play cooperatively, and from that point we got off to a rocky start. Missed hits were a constant source of frustration, and I found myself clumsily negating my Mana Sword-wielding compatriot’s charge attacks with petty spear pokes for 4 damage. Yeah, he didn’t like that too much. Worse, we forgot to save after defeating the Fire Gigas, forcing us to redo the encounter again and again. Apparently we used up whatever beginner’s luck we’d had in defeating him by the skin of our teeth on the first try.
It was around that time the game began to click. Suddenly, we were dying less, staggering our charge attacks for maximum damage, and managing to keep our mentally challenged AI lackey alive. From there, things only got better, and what had been awkward frustration began to morph into slick coordination — we knew when to use items, when to use magic, and how to take on a group of enemies without getting in one another’s way. That’s when the real beauty of Secret of Mana’s co-op began to shine through. In modern co-op games, especially shooters, I often feel like my partner and I are playing together without really playing together; we’re each immersed in the same game world, but we’re more or less doing our own thing, dispatching whatever enemies that we see without devoting much effort to genuine teamwork. That’s not to say that recent games don’t offer their share of great co-op moments — taking alternate paths in Gears of War and Gears of War 2 and covering your partner can be rewarding, and cohesive teams in Left 4 Dead are magic in motion. But way back in 1993, even with simple combat, wonky hit detection and an awkward menu, Secret of Mana managed to demonstrate the core of what makes co-op such an engaging experience: the beauty of successful teamwork.
Sadly, by the time we’d really dug into the adventure, it was time to pack it up for the weekend. The game worked so well once we really started rolling that I don’t want to touch it again until the co-op session reconvenes. And next time, we may have to recruit a third player, a Girl to our Hero and Sprite. The simplicity of the Virtual Console makes it easy to forget how significant co-op for three players was in 1993 — even today, with consoles that support four local players out of the box, the majority of co-op games only allow for two people.
Until our Secret of Mana session reconvenes, I just might have to go out and buy Resident Evil 5 — the basic elements of cooperative gameplay may not be so different than they were years ago, but being able to play online has filled my life with instantly-accessible teamwork goodness. That is definitely an advancement to love.