Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Co-op Gameplay on Consoles

I have always been drawn to games that have good cooperative gameplay. Since I have a twin brother who is also into video games, it is nice to be able to play the same game as him at the same time. It is no wonder that some of my favorite games from my childhood were the SNES classics Secret of Mana and Kirby's Superstar.

Back in the days of the NES and SNES, cooperative gameplay was not uncommon. Part of it was certainly the greater influence of arcades back in those years. Cooperative beat-em-ups like Final Fight and Co-op shooters like Contra used to be a staple of arcades. Some arcade games, like the old Simpsons arcade game, supported up to 4 players at once. In those days, the cooperative mode of games was inseparable from the main game mode. In fact, it was often possible for a second player to join a game in the middle of a play session.

Unfortunately, there ha not been very many really good examples of cooperative gameplay being a major selling point of a game ever since the transition to 3D games in the Playstation era. The biggest reason is that 3D games are not well suited to co-op gameplay. In order to have effective co-op gameplay, all of the players need to be able to see their own characters at the same time. This was not a problem in the days of 2D sprite based games, but it is a major problem for 3D games, where having a functioning camera is hard enough when there is only one character. This has led to an unfortunate decline in co-op games over the years. Nowadays, only a handful of games have cooperative play.

There are really only a handful of ways to handle cooperative game in a 3D game. The first and most common method is using split-screen. Unfortunately, splitting the screen in half (or more) severely limits the visual range of the players. It also forces the designers to scrunch the HUD of a game into a smaller area. Larger HDTVs can lessen these problems, but it doesn't change the fact that players will compare the split-screen game to the single-player game experience. Online cooperative gameplay gets around the limitations of split-screen, but it doesn't allow for two people in the same room (such as me and my brother) to enjoy the co-op mode.

In order for a 3D game to have multiple players looking at the same screen at once, there are still a few options. The first option is to use a static camera that looks down on a large area that contains all of the characters. Essentially, a developer has to emulate the effect of a 2D game. Unfortunately, this approach constrains the actions of the players. The characters, as is usually the case in old side-scrolling 2D co-op games, would not have the ability to split up and handle different objectives. Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles and the forthcoming Super Smash Bros. Brawl use this approach. The other approach is to use asymmetric characters in the co-op mode. This is done in the N64 game Jet Force Gemini, where one player controlled the main character and his movement, and the other player controlled a floating robot named Floyd that floated next to the main character's head, and could shoot at any target on screen. The recently released Super Mario Galaxy uses a similar mechanic. This solution relegates the second player to a supporting role, but it does have the advantage that the second player can theoretically join in at any time, as was the case in the arcade days.

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