by Jarrod S. Lipshy
Online multiplayer may now be the method du jour of competing with flesh-and-blood opponents, but while a good online Halo session might be exhilarating, there’s nothing quite like being in the same room as your opponent and trying to keep that poker face when getting your ass whooped. Coercing friends to come over and grab a second (or third or fourth) controller used to be the only way to get the rush of breaking the will of another human being within the confines of your living room.
The violence would sometimes even spill over from the screen into real life! Many controllers were thrown and shoulders punched as tempers flared. Being able to retaliate against a physical entity might be a prime fun factor for local multiplayer, but there’s also the thrill of outwitting a genuine human brain as opposed to an inevitably flawed AI. People are, after all, the most dangerous game.
So, in honor of the almost bygone joys of shoulder-to-shoulder, hands-at-controllers rivalries, I present to you some of the lesser known games that have solidified or destroyed friendships over the years…
1. Gundam Wing: Endless Duel (Super Famicom, 1996)
Considering that it was only released on the Japanese version of the Super Nintendo, this entry is more of an honorable mention. If you have a decent emulator setup, however, or a penchant for importing games this one’s definitely worth a look. It’s a one-on-on fighter akin to Street Fighter II, but with the twist that all the playable characters are giant robots from the 90’s mech-anime Gundam Wing (which was dubbed in English and shown regularly on Toonami here in the states).
What sets this fighter apart from others is the simple control scheme; most moves consist of a simple Hadouken button combo or an up, down, and attack sequence. This creates a Smash Bros.-like environment, which emphasizes clever combo chaining or planning ahead rather than a full-on button mashing attack, or even worse knowing that one spammable move.
In addition to the appealing control setup, every suit can double jump in midair and jet around the levels much higher up than any game from its time. The massive level backgrounds, characters, and eye-popping visuals also put many other contemporary games to shame. Overall, it’s a fun, flashy fighter that’s easy to pick up and play.
2. Life Force (NES, 1987)
While many people credit Contra as the penultimate example of Konami’s NES co-op dominance, I’d argue that Life Force was more satisfying in the long run. This US port of a space shoot-em-up game called Salamander reinstituted the upgrade system from Gradius. The system makes you choose between immediately using your power-ups from fallen enemies for mediocre gains, or saving them for more substantial fare like a protective shield. The best strategy in this game is saving up for the “option,” an orb that gives you the firepower of two or even three ships.
Playing in co-op mode meant that you could not only have the advantage of coordinating a takedown of the more difficult enemy waves and bosses, but that you could also steal each other’s power-ups! Nothing caused more strife than having your friend gun down an enemy only to have you swoop in and snag the item it dropped. Adding insult to injury, if your friend had saved up enough power-ups to activate the option and then had the misfortune of dying, you could snag the orb before it floated away!
The contention between cooperation and competition made an extremely difficult game all the more engaging. Getting past the fourth level is nigh impossible without plenty of skill and familiarity (unless you are a dirty cheater and put in the Konami code). Couple this with precise controls, impressive 8-bit graphics, and a killer soundtrack, and it’s easy to understand why this game is a classic. It’s available now on the Virtual Console if you don’t have an NES handy.
3. Guardian Heroes (Saturn, 1996)
Guardian Heroes was one of the few games that could counter the blank stares you got when you uttered the words “I own a Sega Saturn.” The game was made by Treasure, the Japanese studio responsible for such classics as Ikaruga and Gunstar Heroes. Guardian Heroes was a 2D beat-em-up like the venerable Streets of Rage or Final Fight series, but with complex fighting moves and also an RPG-esque equipment and upgrade system.
Unlike most beat-em-ups, rather than being able to move up and down the level at will your character is relegated to only three “planes” within the screen. This means that you can use the d-pad to pull of crazy, fighting-game-level combos rather than moving willy nilly about the playing field.
The game also has an involved (though not entirely serious) plot that differs based upon your decisions at key points within the levels. This adds to the replay value, not to mention keeps the game fresher than beating the same series of levels over and over again. The creative missions, characters, and control scheme mixed with rock-solid game design makes this game quite memorable. If you don’t have a working Saturn (I wouldn’t blame you) it’s available on the XBLA and PSN as an HD remake!
4. Spy vs. Spy (NES, 1988)
All signs point to this game sucking major sphincters: one-dimensional game mechanics, bland graphics, endlessly repeated levels, overly-simple GUI, tinny music that just loops and loops and loops. But you know what? It’s a freaking blast! Made by Jaleco in the same year that Super Mario Bros. 2 came out, this game used the Spy vs. Spy license from Mad Magazine to produce a cop-out game that would barely qualify as a casual game by modern standards.
The objective is to go around the level stabbing objects like bookshelves, desks, dressers, and paintings trying to find five hidden objects before the time runs out. That’s it. The next level will be the exact same, except with a slightly altered background palette (emphasis on slightly).
The catch is that there’s another rival spy looking for the same objects, and he also has an arsenal of deadly booby traps to hide behind objects that you’ll soon to be searching under. See where this is going? It’s the ultimate game of dickish sabotage. Nothing is more frustrating than dying ten times in a row while looking for that one object you have left. There’s also probably little more rewarding than being the person on the other end who laid all the traps.
Stripped of most design frills, the game you’re left with is a defining meta-competition experience. It’s “guess which hand?”, but with lots more hands and sometimes a nasty shock on the other end. It may get tiresome after a while, but this game will unquestionably elicit good times when brought out once in a blue moon.
5. Mario Tennis (N64, 2000)
A Mario game might seem like a poor candidate for “underappreciated,” but this game was unusual in that it was not actually made by Nintendo, but a second-party developer named Camelot. The combination of this with the fact that tennis is a not-so popular sport in the US made the game seem risky to me as a young consumer. Even now, despite strong initial US sales, I hardly ever encounter people who know of this game, let alone own it. But once I got my hands on it, I understood that this might be one of the deepest offline multiplayer experience ever!
The controls couldn’t be simpler. A or B both hit the ball, but with different spins (topspin and slice, respectively). Pressing a button once starts a charge move, and if you press it again as the ball hits the racket, you get a power shot. You could also alternate A or B to do a high lob shot or an extremely low drop shot. It’s a bit awkward at first, but once you figure out how to return the ball – and how the damn scoring in tennis works – you begin to have some fun.
That’s also when you start getting wise. You realize different shots require different returns, and that holding up or down on the control stick subtly influences the spin. You get strategic, placing slices in the corner of the court or maybe playing far back on the baseline and trying to hammer a shot so fast that your opponent won’t have a prayer of returning it. You can also sneak up to the net and play aggressively, dominating with extremely fast overhand swings. In this situation, though, your opponent could always send a lob flying over your head and good luck chasing that sucker down.
All these options create some tense back and forth; having a game point go between deuces for what seems like twenty solid minutes is never uncommon. It usually boils down to a tense final set, and clenched jaws and sweat stains when the matchpoint is on the line.
My favorite thing about the game is that – unlike fighting, shooting, or racing games – in tennis the parameters are reset with every point won or lost. It’s like if in Modern Warfare everyone had to go back into the open once somebody died. This means that someone always has a fair chance of climbing their way back into a match rather than being hopelessly out-positioned by a dirty camper.
The balanced game mechanics’ shallow learning curve into nearly infinite depth speaks wonders of the Camelot development team. After all, it’s not often a company like Nintendo entrusts the reputation of their flagship mascot to just anyone. Many sequels have been released over the years (including one on the 3DS last year), but the N64 version’s spot-on physics still make it my favorite.
So there you have it! This isn’t an exhaustive list by any means, and I know I’ve left out a few obvious candidates (*cough* RIVER CITY RANSOM *cough*), but I think this covers some bases for those of us who tire of messing with server logins and want a good-old-fashioned face-to-face virtual beatdown without hearing a prepubescent imp screeching into your headset.
Let me know if I left out your obscure favorite down in the comments below!