Multiplayer in retro games

Old NES games typically supported two-player mode, but the designers' approach towards multiplayer was often surprising, especially with cooperative titles. Some of modern game design principles simply didn't exist at the time, which led to curious situation that we learned to take for granted.

Let's look at some examples:

Super Mario Bros.

The platformer classic had no actual multiplayer. The "two player mode" was actually just two games player in parallel: the players controlling Mario and Luigi played their own independent sessions with zero interaction. When one of the players lost a life, the other got a chance to play. If losing didn't happen often, the passive player might have nothing to do besides watching for 10 minutes or more.

It was even worse if there was a skill gap: the player who lost more often could enjoy much less play time.

I'm not clear why anyone at Nintendo thought it was a good idea at the time, but fortunately, it's easily fixable. Next time you'd like to play Super Mario together, try this approach:

  • enable one-player mode (everyone controls Mario - sorry, Luigi!)
  • whenever someone finishes a level or loses a life, the controller goes to the next person

This magically unbreaks the experience: the play time evens out between players and the game starts to feel like a cooperative experience. Now everyone works towards the same goal! Getting bonus lives helps everyone equally.

Mario's approach to multiplayer was ubiquitous in NES games and it does make some sense in competition-focused games (compare: pinball, bowling), but I don't know anyone who would play Mario to compete for best score.

Battle City

The tanks game was a hit in Poland, maybe even bigger than Mario. All due to its cooperative multiplayer: Each of the two players controlled a tank and they had to cooperate towards the same objective: protect the eagle from incoming waves of enemies.

The game was immediately enjoyable because of reasonable level of difficulty and destroyable terrain, but the cooperation aspect was very unique. You could divide responsibilities in various ways: one player attacks and the other defends? One player covers west area and the other defends east?

A strange thing happens, however, when one player runs out of lives. The other player is supposed to play alone until they run out of lives too. The game instantly degrades to single-player just because one of the players wasn't doing well enough.

I'm very puzzled about this design decision, even though it is pretty standard for many games, including more modern titles. It should have been just as simple (and more logical) to have a shared lives counter between the two players. Which leads to...


Another co-op classic, this time a platformer. I remember Contra as a very difficult game (nowadays it still feels challenging). It was somehow more enjoyable on bootleg hacked cartridges (all we had in Poland in the 90s) that offered infinite lives.

Still, the game did something very interesting: when one player ran out of lives, they could still re-enter the game by "borrowing" one of the other player's spares. This approach has all the advantages of a shared life counter between players. It shows that the game designers wanted both players to have as much fun together as possible.

Modern titles

Nowadays it's more common knowledge that local-multiplayer games shouldn't discriminate against players who aren't doing well, and that a lot of player downtime is a bad idea and also a lousy way to punish a player for losing. Much often, for co-op games, we see systems where either all players win or all players lose.

For instance, I really like the approach taken by Jamestown: In single-player you get a few lives (rather easy to lose), but in multi-player this mechanic is completely gone. Instead, when a player is hit, they don't re-appear immediately, but the other player quickly gets a chance to bring them back. The game only ends when all players are gone at the same time. This downgrades losing to just a setback - meaningful, but not in a way that takes much away from the fun.


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