Cooperative evolution

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.

15 thoughts on “Cooperative evolution

  1. Worse still, it’s becoming a trend to not even allow local multiplayer anymore!

  2. Why does every DAMN videogame have to have CO-OP play and online play in it?

    I don’t wanna play with anyone. I don’t want any internet friends. I like to play alone and be alone. What’s with all this social network community bullshit in videogames nowadays? I HATE IT!

  3. Not even local friends So-hee?

    I was just about to face the “Magic Wall” at the bottom of the temple of zombies last time I played SoM, with three players — and the game immediately turned to black fuzz, more painful than any spell. :) Hopefully the recent Co-Op experiences don’t have as many bugs to deal with… if so, then the industry is finally starting to GET IT like I’d originally hoped.

  4. Not sure why everyone suddenly thinks that coop is some sort of new or rare idea. Back in the days of the NES like half the game library had coop play. Not to mention that most arcade games have always supported coop play since the mid 80s. Even internet based coop isn’t anything new. MMOs have been doing it since Ultima Online. Sure the ability to get a coop partner has gotten better since then, but like Calorie said the local aspect is slowly being forgotten.

  5. It’s frustrating in game’s like MGO which were DESIGNED around Teamwork, that nobody online plays with teamwork, but would prefer to play “as multiple people in the same game experience” despite the fact that makes it a lackluster shooter instead of a great squad-based team game.

  6. Calorie: The death of local co-op/multiplayer definitely makes me sad. The cooperative experience is absolutely better when you’re in a room together, but at least voice communication has really changed the quality of the online experience. It’s something!

    wumpwoast: We probably got off lucky, because we didn’t encounter any game-ending glitches. Just AI too stupid to walk around rocks.

    Sami: Ikaruga co-op? Yes please.

    Macc: I think it’s an interesting phenomenon, because it’s having somewhat of a resurgence. Multiplayer has never died out, but I feel like quality co-op was mostly forgotten for a long time. I love old beat ’em ups like TMNT and Streets of Rage, but I’m also glad newer games are at least trying to do more with the concept, because the functionality and your your teamwork options back then were obviously limited. Gears 2’s option to have each person playing on a different difficulty level, for example, is really cool, as is the metagame Skulls and Scoring mechanic in Halo 3.

  7. I like how Left 4 Dead is nigh impossible without teamwork. There is nothing better than a game of Versus where someone on the other team wants to go Rambo or when a coordinated Infected ambush goes well.

  8. I’d just like to take a minute and say how sad it is that “Doom-clone” has dropped out of the vernacular. I’d also like to point out how happy I am that it has not been replaced by such nonsense as “Halo-clone,” or what have you.

  9. I’m really digging the resurgence of co-op.. I’ve always prefered doing my multiplaying that way. As long as the developers realised that games need to retain a solid single player experience (the majority of my multiplaying is done with someone on the other side of the world.. damn time zones) then I’m all for it. As soon as people start saying ‘oh there’s no point playing this single player, don’t buy it unless you have many people around’ for every second game that comes out, we’re in trouble. There are obvious exceptions (L4D and the like) but I think for a game like RE5 that kind of thing will hurt its sales and ultimately lead to disappointed punters if it’s true.

  10. @wumpwoast

    “Not even local friends So-hee?”

    Yes, not even local friends. I like being alone.

  11. Wes: The popularity of MMOs and the implentation of easier match making are good reasons why coop has made a comeback, but honestly I think the industry is just cashing in on the idea as of late. Just about every game lately is boasting about some sort of coop mode. I’m not against it, because most are doing it better than the past (see L4D), but for others it just feels forced because they are trying to go along with the new trend (see RE5). It has been the same with DLC since that was made the buzz word of this console generation.

  12. I had a recent co-op breakthrough with my girlfriend playing Trauma Center: New Blood. We delegated tasks based on our interests and abilities (cannot cut in a straight line, but I can grasp with forceps pretty well). The game’s difficulty has led to some rage-quiting though.

  13. I feel like there’s so much more that can be done with videogames instead of just co-op or competitive multiplayer. Having more than two teams/sides is a start, but what about complex things where you could have a game in which three people all have goals of their own but need to both impede and aid the other two in order to progress?? Maybe let one person take over the role of the A.I. director in Left 4 Dead but limit how many/how often they can spawn enemies and items.
    I know it’s been done but never worked well, but I still see some potential in the “most of the players are in FPS, but one is the ‘general’ playing a RTS” concept…

  14. If you talk to Dyluck and his men thoroughly in front of the Water Palace, you’ll get captured by goblins in a scene that causes Purim (the girl) to join significantly earlier than she would otherwise.

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