There aren’t enough reasons to invest in an extra knock-off controller these days. Something translucent and brightly coloured, built around a sticky X key and a ‘turbo’ button with indeterminable function. In fact, there’s scarcely ever cause to connect another gamepad to a console at all. In 2019, the primary purpose of a second controller is to charge while you’re using the first.
You can still play co-op on your couch, sure – but chances are, you’re sitting on it alone, with your ally on the other end of a mic. That’s a cultural change that began nearly two decades ago, with the rise of Xbox Live. Microsoft, with the help of Halo and Rainbow Six, managed to convince console gamers that multiplayer was not only fun over an internet connection, but often better – in the sense that you didn’t have to wait until your mate Darren could come over after school, and wrap up when Darren’s mum said it was time for dinner 40 minutes later. Instead, you could play with different Darrens in different timezones, and all those staggered 40 minutes would make up a continuously raging battle happening all over the world.
It was tremendously exciting, but all that new energy console developers spent figuring out netcode didn’t come out of nowhere. Studios understandably prioritized their resources around online play over local multiplayer, and it’s been largely that way ever since. For the most part, indie developers have been left to pick up the slack, as they always do when big-budget developers leave a vacuum – designing games like Overcooked, explicitly made for jostling and jockeying around in a confined space.
But in the last couple of years, Nintendo has smuggled local co-op back into the mainstream under Mario’s hat.
But in the last couple of years, Nintendo has smuggled local co-op back into the mainstream under Mario’s hat. Or more specifically: by making Mario’s hat playable in Odyssey. If you played through the great plumber’s Switch journey in solo you might not have been aware that it was possible to split the responsibility of its two central characters between two controllers. The first player handles Mario’s hops, leaps, and jumps, and the second looks through the googly eyes of Cappy, sending themselves spinning through baby goombas like a peaked shuriken, or becoming a temporary stepping stone for their friend to bounce from.
Rather than a platformer about mastering movement, as it is in single player, this option makes Mario Odyssey a comedy exercise in control and timing, with one player gripping the steering wheel and another on the pedals, shouting directions. In retrospect, you can see that same idea emerging from its shell in Nintendo EAD Tokyo’s last game before Odyssey, Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker. There, a second player could use their Joy-Con as a pointer, highlighting secrets and obstacles as if directing a Powerpoint presentation, and tickling goombas to keep the sentient mushrooms occupied while the first player circumvented them.
In fact, just last month, Nintendo went a step further and updated Captain Toad with full co-op – letting each player take control of their own Toad and adding a new set of levels that tasked you with collecting a series of five power moons against the clock, pushing you to coordinate by spreading out across the level, like tennis pros covering the court.
It’s an approach that appears to be spreading in Nintendo’s closest circles, too. Pokemon’s Switch debut, Let’s Go, finally introduced co-op to one of the publisher’s tentpole third-party games.
What’s clever about this new wave of local co-op games is the way it’s delivered – on a single screen. In Pokemon: Let’s Go, the second player trails after the first. If they don’t keep up, they simply fall out of view. In Captain Toad you share a camera, each player holding down a button if they want to alter the angle – a sometimes frustrating compromise, but one that just about works in the game’s tiny dioramic levels. And in Odyssey, both players share a position at the centre of the screen. That’s the advantage of embodying headwear.
What’s clever about this new wave of local co-op games is the way it’s delivered – on a single screen.
It’s an approach that sidesteps the technical demands of split-screen, which can be greater than you’d think. Now more than ever before, players prize a flawless frame rate, and it’s that which is threatened by replicating the action across two cameras. When I talked to Grip publisher Wired Productions about the decision to add split-screen to its racer, it was clear a trade-off was involved.
“It’s something that we’ve had to look at and carefully optimise,” product manager Al Hibbard said. “Obviously, if you want the full, high-resolution, super frame rate experience then that is best in single-player.”
The new Nintendo take on local co-op avoids the issues of split-screen altogether, making Mario Kart 8 the exception, not the rule. And there are more than just technical benefits. Lest we forget, Nintendo is a family-friendly company and has made efforts in recent years to boost younger players up steep difficulty curves. Think the shiny invulnerability mushrooms that appear after you’ve failed the same level several times in modern Mario. Not that I’ve ever seen them myself, obviously.
Adding another player to the same screen is an organic means of achieving the same ends, allowing you to hop in when you can see a loved one struggling. It’s about parents, siblings, and friends gently supporting new or uncertain players, without taking control or the victory away from them. In other words, it’s local co-op the Nintendo way.
Jeremy Peel is a freelance journalist and friend to anyone who will look at photos of his dogs. You can follow him on Twitter @jeremy_peel.