Though I wouldn’t say I’m an overly competitive person, I do miss the days of playing against people in person, the days of couch competition.
Hanging out with a friend the other day, I suggested we pull up a couple chairs and play the new Halo. Imagine my disappointment when I found out we couldn’t play together…at least, we couldn’t play together unless he brought over a TV, a XBox One, and his own copy of Halo 5.
Turns out there’s no local split-screen play available on the game at all. For a franchise that was one of the basement-party staples during my childhood, I’ll admit I lament the loss of local multiplayer. Then again, I think really it’s not so much the feature I miss as the days where there was no alternative to local, “drinking” at a party meant getting another can of Surge and it made sense when 12-year olds yelled at me when I killed them; I was 12 too, after all, and they were sitting right next to me.
Video games were always a big deal for kids my age; We missed the heyday of the arcades, and though we played the NES, but we truly cut our teeth on the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis. When you had a bunch of friends come by for a sleepover though, only two could play a game at a time: the Sega only supported two controllers, and the SNES could only use four if you had the special Multitap adapter; even then, only certain games like NBA Jam supported 4 human players.
Then the Nintendo 64 happened.
The Nintendo 64 felt like a piece of modern magic. It had 3D graphics, a controller that could vibrate when you got hit if you bought the special Rumble Pak, memory card saving so you could take your save files over to friends’ houses, and more. But two aspects of the N64 changed parties and sleepovers forever: support for up to four controllers, and Goldeneye 007.
The competitive first-person shooter existed before Goldeneye in PC games like Quake, but playing those with friends required that each kid have their own computer, usually a bulky tower with an even bulkier CRT monitor, and either play over a dial-up modem or carry all their expensive computer equipment over to a central location for a LAN party. There you’d spend a bunch of time wiring all the computers together with complicated routers and switches before playing, and if your computer wasn’t as fast as the others, the experience could be miserable.
The N64, on the other hand, was simple: plug up to four controllers in to the console, and let loose as James Bond, Natalya Simonova, Oddjob, and more, all on the same screen. We pulled the TV right up to the entertainment center and sat ridiculously close to 17″ CRT TVs, straining our young eyes to make precise shots on 1/4 of that screen. We’d never really had anything like it. Halo and Call of Duty followed in Goldeneye’s footsteps, taking us all the way through college as teenagers, sitting on bunk-beds and mini-fridges while wielding virtual weapons, laughing, cheering, and talking smack to each other with every move.
That said, the Era of the Couch offered way more than first-person shooters for friend vs. friend competitions. Other competitive fighters like Nintendo’s arena-fighter Super Smash Bros. Melee, Namco’s 3D melee weapon-brawler Soul Calibur II, and even the minigame-filled board game Mario Party 4 were just some of the ways we played against each other for minimal fame and glory, and I could hold my own in those games. Guitar Hero came out while I was in college and convinced an entire section of the population who never touched a guitar or a controller before to play pretend chords with plastic buttons and learn classic rock. Rock Band took the experience to the next level, bringing a plastic guitarist, plastic bassist, rubber drummer, and a vocalist (can’t fake that one) together to drunkenly rock out frat parties and dormitory contests. All of those experiences put people right next to each other, for better or for worse, playing and experiencing together.
The rise of high-speed internet and internet-based gaming networks like XBox Live disrupted couch-centric play. LAN play, which was originally reserved for folks with still bulky and expensive computers, became more popular, particularly in dorms. Headsets for the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 allowed players to talk with anyone around the world, opening the doors to new challengers new friends, and an unfortunate new era of smack talk, one riddled with racist, sexist, and homophobic slurs hurled at strangers. Gaming hadn’t been a particularly “open” space before, but as players retreated from their communal couches to their respective TVs and computers, anonymity and machismo reigned supreme in the online game space. Some would say they still do today.
When we gamed on the couch together we were forced to be somewhat reasonable to each other even when we were furious. I can think of any number of friends who I gamed with who I thought were complete assholes when they made fun after a particularly poor game of Halo, CoD, Melee, or even Pokemon Stadium, but there were only so many things they could say, so many actions I could take. I was playing with real people who I’d see in school the next day, maybe friends who I still wanted to remain my friends even though I was pissed off and wanted them to take a non-lethal fall down a flight of stairs or thirty.
Local play with friends meant we needed to moderate our reactions and learn to control our emotions, skills one doesn’t really have to use when anonymous and online. Players online with weren’t your friends and usually never would be, so the reactions to disappointment and loss could extreme and outlandish. I never felt comfortable raging like I’d heard other people do, but it doesn’t mean I wasn’t tempted to on occasion.
Today, Halo 5 lacks local, split-screen multiplayer of any kind. Call of Duty: Black Ops III lets you bring one player in on split-screen to cooperate with in its game modes. Smash Bros is still local, but the Wii U audience is small. An entirely new genre of multiplayer competitive games, Multiplayer Online Battle Arenas (MOBAs), exist and require each player to bring their own screen to the experience. Couch-based competition nowadays seems relegated to mainly fighting games, sports titles, and indie games developed mainly for PC audiences, genres which hold their own, but aren’t as ubiquitous as the first-person shooter.
If gaming is a neighborhood and other gamers are our neighbors, then couch-based play is the equivalent of a neighborhood block party. Many of us have block party memories, some exciting, some not-so-great, but they feel like a product of a bygone era. I think the resurgence of card and board games is in part due to that longing for in-person connection that online gaming simply doesn’t provide. As an adult living hundreds of miles away from my friends, online play is the only way I can connect and game with many of them, and I’m certainly glad it exists. That said, I miss the days of sitting next to each other, all sharing the same screen, fighting against each other, but yet truly together.