Crappy Concepts Confounding Co-op
A few years ago, I was in a great relationship with someone who played games, so we did a lot of co-op gaming. It was a large part of the relationship until her raging alcoholism came back and ruined everything. On the other hand, my son was reaching the age where he could be a competent gamer, and since then, he and I have been doing a lot of co-op gaming. As in, this is literally most of our Friday nights these days after I pick him up. Aside from playing games mostly by myself, this is the other way I prefer my electronic entertainment. Someone else on the couch with me as we grind, power, shoot, maim, jump, help, and/or destroy our way through an awesome game campaign. At times, I even enjoyed some online shooty times with my brief time regularly playing Call of Duty with my ex. My son is starting to reach the age where I feel more comfortable playing some M-rated games with him that aren’t, you know, the hard-M titles. So this is broadening what we can do, and it only took about 5 seconds of Diablo III for him to think it was the greatest thing ever made.
That said, I’ve now grown very familiar with a lot of couch co-op gaming, and I have a few gripes about absolutely moronic concepts that utterly murder otherwise great games. Or if not great, they at least had some damn potential. So here are the concepts I’ve found that, sadly, all-too-often make the co-op gaming experience a waste of effort if not just a regular old pain in the ass.
Player 2 is a Non-Character
This is probably the smallest element that can hamper a co-op experience. The game is still very playable, you can move through it, have fun, maybe even get Achievements or Trophies. But Player 2 is a nobody. These are the travesties where player two might as well be a white square with “P2” stamped on it. They have no unique elements, no specific design, with a bare minimum of existence. Yes, these things exist. Picture a game where player one is an awesome, unique, interesting character-or a selection of characters-while Player 2 is basically a clone, a duplicate, or in some cases-literally nothing but a reticle.
I know, this sounds like an absurd step backwards from the era where we could all choose our own Ninja Turtle before diving back through time, or pick our own human or kangaroo to fill the streets with rage. But this actually happens. Notable offenders include Enter the Gungeon (shown above), Sin & Punishment: Star Successor, Super Mario Galaxy, and yes folks, even most Halo games.
Enter the Gungeon is particularly baffling because there are multiple unique characters to choose from. So Player 1 gets to choose some rad, unique character designed around a theme with certain perks. while Player 2 is stuck with a bland filler avatar with no special powers aside from an extra life. In S&P and Mario Galaxy, player 2 is reduced to just a targeting reticle. Halo games, aside from Halo 3 (I haven’t played 5, so I don’t know), the set-up is relegated to Master Chief and Master Clone. Only in Halo 3 was the co-op player (Arbiter) an actual character.
Not the Campaign
Another issue that comes up are games that look like they’d be fantastic co-op experiences where the multiplayer is little more than some badly tacked-on “extra” mode, and not the primary campaign. You know what this is-the game has a multiplayer mode completely removed from the core of the title. So the skills, experience, and fun of the focus of the game doesn’t translate over to this tacked-on multiplayer nonsense. It feels like a mode mashed into existence so that they could tick another checkmark on the description. “Yes! It has multiplayer!” It’s crap, but it’s there!
It’s baffling garbage is what it is. A waste of space. A throw-away distraction that you can’t even be bothered to be distracted by. ZombiU, Pikmin 3, and Splatoon spring instantly to mind as games that offered some multiplayer element, but it was completely removed from the main game and was certainly not the main campaign. They fundamentally altered the damn game for ZombiU and Splatoon to cobble together some semblance of multiplayer gaming. So who cares then? You aren’t surviving zombies or splatooning together.
Especially confusing is Pikmin 3, which featured a cast of playable characters and yet they couldn’t give the game a co-op campaign? Really? You switch between these characters in a single-player campaign! They’re already there! Let player two join in! On the upside, at least the multiplayer offerings delivered a variety of modes and didn’t alter the game completely. But this just annoys further seeing as major changes did not occur in that regard. So why couldn’t we play the story together?
Hampering Progress and Unfair Set-up
Let’s say the developers did understand the concept of being able play the primary campaign together–only to completely botch it in some other capacity. Co-op gaming designed so poorly that the game becomes a broken, unfettered pain just to slog through . Ultimately this inspires you to tell Player two just go away so you can play the game properly. Alone. Whatever it is, the core issue here is that the two players are not treated equally in the game, or it is not smoothly designed to facilitate enjoyable gameplay.
I’m sure this will angry up the blood in some of you as Nintendo fans seem to have a default setting of “defend regardless of criticism”, but Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is one such a disaster. DKC:TF does feature full campaign co-op, but is so brutally designed that it punishes players of even slightly different skillsets. This is on top of controlling like you are physically trying to push a live gorilla forward through a crowd. Instead of being a smooth and enjoyable experience, the game feels like a forced trudge through a headache while the characters amble about the environment awash in sadness. The camera can’t seem to decide which character to focus on, failure of one player seems to punish both-it’s just a giant pain and staggeringly un-fun. For a comparison of how to do co-op platforming well, seek out either Rayman Origins or Legends, where failure is not harshly punished, momentum can be maintained even with differently skilled players, and the games are actually bloody fun.
Another one I want to note in this travesty entry is Onechanbara: Bikini Samurai Squad on the Xbox 360, which was one of the first co-op games I played with my ex. It is a game no one should play alone, as you will no doubt feel a deep depression at your lot in life at some point. At least with someone, you can share in open mockery of what is so clearly a stupid, but occasionally fun hack-n-slash game. While the campaign can be played in co-op, about 2/3 of the way through, it comes to a grinding halt and literally forces you to proceed in single player. That is not an exaggeration. Player 2 is no longer allowed to play, and player one has to work through 2 or 3 levels alone before you can pick up that second controller again. And to top it all off, this ends with the most difficult and annoying boss battle in the entire game. That must be done alone. During the co-op game.
Shared Pause or Menu Screen
We all love leveling up and then taking a moment to open our menu and dig through the new skill points and see what new power or strength we’ll be adding to our character, switching out armors, repairing things, what have you. Especially when that character has just leveled up several times because your co-op partner is 60 levels higher than you.
You know what’s not fun?
Sitting there while one player does it and one sits there and waits.
When we pause the game to go into these menus to tinker with our badass mass-murdering wasteland wanderers, the game in question pauses for both players or at least not or. So why the bloody hell can’t both players access their damn menus at the same time? This infuriating lack of foresight doesn’t just hamper co-op games or shooters, either, but seems to infect a face-palming number of fighting games. When I pause to look through my moveset, why can’t the other player do that for their damn character? I read over a few moves, make note of them in my mind, then the other player pauses, does the same thing, and lo and behold, I forgot everything by the time we’re back to playing. Even the otherwise perfect Mortal Kombat X makes this bold, idiotic mistake. Why, back in the day, when I was looking up moves in Tekken 3, the other player could do it at the same time. This was back on the original Playstation. That is three Playstations ago. This should not be an issue now.
Even Diablo III, which I’ll gush about later, makes this moronic gaffe. You can spend several minutes digging through those menus, tinkering with your character, adjusting moves, armor, abilities, and skillpoints. It turns us into rude couch monsters forcing others to wait on us when the solution should be so simple: Design your menu to be accessible to both/all players at once!
Font for Ants
Bear with me on this one as I’m not bragging or anything, but I have an awesome TV. It happened to be clearance priced (50% off!) at Target as some poor sap had just returned it because they couldn’t handle being as awesome as I am wont to be. It’s a 65″ 4K TV, so I’m future-resistant for a good 6-10 months before 8K 3D Hologram TVs or some crap start appearing. But this is relevant, so stick with me. I also have stellar eyesight. This is also relevant.
I should be able to read the font on the fucking TV screen.
And it shouldn’t mysteriously get smaller when I’m playing a co-op game.
Previously, my TV was a 42″ 720 Panasonic. I loved that TV, and still do because it was awesome and is now in my son’s room with a Genesis hooked up. We played Plants vs Zombies: Garden Warfare 2 on that Panasonic and lo and behold could not read a bloody thing on those menus. The font, which was already ridiculously tiny, became positively microscopic when we got together for some co-op gaming. My couch is only about six or seven feet from my TV, so it’s not like we were far away from the screen, either. One of the first things I cheered about with the new TV was “we can read the menus in Garden Warfare 2!” That should not be something to champion.
Worse is Battleborn, the infamous red-headed, born-on-the-ground, perpetually-kicked-while-it’s-down shooter that failed to live up to Overwatch. One thing it does have, however, is offline couch co-op, and my son was more than happy to plunk down ten whole dollars on the game (new, mind you) to give it a shot. The text in this game is so damn small, it is almost unreadable on a 65″ television from 6 feet away. What the hell is the point of this?
Crap Screen Real Estate
Resident Evil 5 is a lot of things, and most of them are not good. One thing that was particularly awful was the obvious fact that it was designed with co-op gameplay in mind, where they completely forgot to balance the single player game. While I’m now a much bigger fan of co-op games, I was not when RE5 released, nor is Resident Evil a game I typically want to play with someone else. However, I did give it a try at first, and boy, that splitscreen was some contemptible garbage.
Instead of smartly separating the screen 50-50 to give both players adequate screen real estate, RE5 chopped things up in a manner more like 40-40 with an addition 20% of screen space taken up by useful black space. They didn’t even bother putting HUD elements in there, they just left it black. Great design elements, guys. While Battleborn does a similar thing, they at least fill that extra space with, you know, stuff. Life bars of bosses and maps and crap.
Top-down, or angled games tend not to have this issue, but instead suffer from either piss-poor camera distance or making your characters nearly impossible to see amid a sea of, oh say, dozens upon dozens of zombies. Dead Nation: Apocalypse Edition is one such a game where players are pretty much just identified by the color of laser sights on their guns which, during hectic gameplay, basically makes them just plain old invisible. That makes the fun equally visible.
An ideal co-op game should involve both players equally, treat them equally, and encourage them to play towards each other’s strengths, right down to basic teamwork. You can tell the games that accomplish this, because players actively rely on one another. Left 4 Dead and Gears of War instantly spring to mind-your co-op partner really is a partner. You depend on them to watch your back.
Any co-op game that ultimately makes your partner a negligible add-on, or a worthless hindrance is missing the point. In Diablo III, you can recruit characters to fight alongside you in a single player game, which allows for a constant co-op dynamic. They help draw the attention of enemies so you are not constantly overwhelmed. The same with Divinity: Original Sin. In the latter game, success in battle is dependent on players working together and communicating. Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris and Portal 2 require players to work together to solve puzzles and levels.
Donkey Kong Country, again, does not work in this regard. One player can, whether deliberately or not, totally hinder the other. Working together is difficult and hardly required, and if one player up and dies, the other can just keep going without them. In Super Mario Galaxy or Sin & Punishment, the second player can put down their controller and just leave, and nothing changes. In a co-op game, for the most part, you should both matter to the other person playing. Not hinder them. Not be pointlessly unnecessary. You’re a team, dammit. If you didn’t want to be a team, you’d play the game alone.
Trophies for One
This one, for whatever reason, bugs me the absolute most. Trophies/Achievements are not bloody hard to implement. This is literally just a few lines of code and Valve, Microsoft, and Sony all handle them in pretty much the same way. If they work for player one, it should not be so terribly hard to get them to work for any additional players. While this gripe will, admittedly, hamper the game the least as it is outside of regular gameplay, it is also the one botched the most frequently and in such an absurd number of ways. This category counts double for player stats and records.
For instance, Guns, Gore, and Cannoli Trophies only work for player one, but the actions of player two actually affect them!
Nom Nom Galaxy’s Trophies can barely be tracked, and Trophies you’d expect to work don’t, while others seem to occur almost randomly. My son accomplished all the same things I did during our campaign, but has less than half the Trophies. What the hell happened here?
Another even more sinister bone-headed design goes out to Brut@l, wherein the co-op is a pretty big draw. Players can evidently go through the entire campaign together and even use unique characters-and yet, quite literally every Trophy demands you play the game in Single Player. Who the hell thought that was a good idea?
A simply ludicrous number of other games exclude them completely for additional players, which I personally view as both lazy and just plain old unfair. Again, this should not be difficult to implement. A few lines of code that recognizes that another person playing is, indeed, a different gamer profile. But it can be a motivation killer to see one player constantly earning Achievements or Trophies while the other player gets nothing. No, they “don’t matter,” but then again, neither do video games as a whole, so if this is your retort, shut yer trap for a change and try listening. Players have thrown tantrums about a great many things in recent years from the terror of women playing video games to a boob slider being removed from Xenoblade Chronicles X, so don’t act like getting shafted on something that would literally be a few lines of code to implement is not annoying. Especially when there would be a constant reminder of that shafting every time player one unlocks one. It’s a bummer. It makes player two an afterthought.
The best that I’ve found:
1. Diablo III (Only major fault, the lack of split menus.)
2. Borderlands 1 & 2 (Almost no failures on any front: Campaign, personal menus, adjustable camera, teamwork, etc.)
3. Divinity: Original Sin (Still playing through it, but aside from some camera issues, everything is done really well.)
4. Gears of War 2 & 3 (Pick me up! Pick me up!!)
5. Alienation & Helldivers (Most skillpoint checking and leveling is done in menus outside gameplay, good camera, teamwork, and Trophies.)
6. Rayman Origins and Legends (Learning-curve friendly, fast-paced and smooth, only missing Achievements for both players, at least on the first game. Players could use different characters, easy rescues of fallen pals. I played the second on Wii U where both players got shafted on an Achievement system.)
7. Lara Croft & the Temple of Osiris (Puzzles require teamwork!)
8. EDF: Insect Armageddon (While the outlier in this franchise, this one handled co-op gaming far better than 2017 or 2025 on pretty much all fronts: Stats, achievements, leveling, etc.)
9. Ratchet & Clank: All4One (Only failed on the Trophies front, because the PS3 couldn’t do this in general.)
10. Left 4 Dead (Does everything really well.)
11. Portal 2 (Has a separate co-op campaign, but designed specifically for it.)
12. Halo 3 (Arbiter)
13. Rocket League (Across the board.)
14. Crimsonland (So much noise.)
15. Any old-school beat-em-up: Streets of Rage, Die Hard Arcade, TMNT II-III-IV, etc.
16. Forgotten Worlds way back on the Genesis (also on Wii). The only way to fail at this shmup is if you both die at the same time.