The demise of couch co-op13 minute read

A look back at nostalgic moments that defined couch co-op and an entire era of gaming

It was the early Winter of 1998 when I used to rush home from school to get my paper round completed. My sister had always spent time, often with my mum, putting all the random leaflets inside the newspapers (The Herald & Post) so that I could just grab them and run. Winters back in the late 90’s always felt more brisk than they do now. I remember the chill in my fingers as I would struggle with letterboxes up and down the road, avoiding dogs, and people, where possible. Sometimes the intense shoulder pain from the paper bags, which I carried two of, was so severe that arriving back home was utterly bliss. Warming my hands on the radiator in the hallway was amazing, even though my mum told me I would get chillblaines.

After warming up and having dinner, it was time for me to load up my PlayStation. I can still hear the start-up sequence now like it was yesterday, with the white screen emblazoned with the orange Sony logo before revealing the PlayStation logo in dramatic fashion. Then I would load up a game. Perhaps Final Fantasy VII, Command & Conquer: Red Alert, Grand Theft Auto (yes I know it was an 18 rated game) or even Tomb Raider. The possibilities, and memories, were endless.

But better than this was when my sister, who was eleven years my senior, or a friend were available to play couch cop-op with me. This was when true memories were made.

The early years

The years of couch co-op for me predates the Sony PlayStation. Co-operative play goes as far back as 1991 for me when I first got my hands on a Sega Master System. In June of that year my father had just left the house with his tail between his legs and a family friend lent us the console to cheer me up. I had never witnessed such a magical device. Alex Kidd in Miracle World, Sonic the Hedgehog, Shinobi and more games were all in my living room. This was the first time I had witnessed the ability to move pictures on a screen with a controller. if I am completely honest I probably had no real clue what I was doing at the start, but soon the addiction grew.

Because the premise of such an invention was new to the household it instantly became a family activity. One person would play, while player two would look on, eagerly awaiting their turn upon the loss of a life. Often my mum would also watch and try to point out items or locations we may be missing – the living room was full with fun, laughter and often confusion.

Unfortunately a little way down the line of playing this console our dog at the time (an Irish Setter named Biddy) ran past the console, ripping the AV lead out and it never turned on again. My sister had to return the console in an embarrassing fashion and I should it would be the end of video games for me.

Flash forward to September of 1991 when I won a competition for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film. The prize, revealed in the local newspaper, a Nintendo Entertainment System with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game. I was back in business, and thanks to my mum who entered me into the prize draw when I was too embarrassed to do so myself!

A goofy me (second left) receiving the Nintendo Entertainment System

Gaming had come back to the household once more. I had one game, albeit one of the hardest games of the time, and life was amazing. Because of the utterly ridiculous difficulty of this title I would often play the game with my sister. We would take it in turns, help each other out on levels and work as a team to try to beat the game. I personally never beat this game, but my sister did…once. It may not have been 1991 – I highly doubt it, but more than likely in the years to follow.

A new family buzz

Couch co-op was now turning into a thing in the household. We had friends who owned the same platform and were able to borrow games, such as Ivan ‘Ironman’ Stewart’s Super Off Road, Bubble Bobble and of course Super Mario Bros. Ivan ‘Ironman’ Stewart’s Super Off Road was fantastic as it was possibly one of the first two-player games I played with both people on the screen at the same time. I remember back to both me and my sister struggling with the controls as they were backwards. But were they? It might have been the direction of the car that made me think that, so I may have to dig that title out again to confirm this to myself. Bubble Bobble was a treat. 200 levels or pure multiplayer fun and mayhem. Collecting mirrors and keys were the trick to unlocking the later levels, and this was the first time we used a “cheat book” from the newsagent to find out how to find some of these items. My mum would even get involved with this game, although often I would die on the boss fight and have to leave her to it – much to her dislike.

Then there was Super Mario Bros. What could anyone say about this game that was not already said somewhere else? I probably lost hundreds, if not thousands of hours of my life to this game and the amazing memories that it created for me.

The Sega returns

Christmas of 1991 arrived and of course along with it came games for my current platform. Snake Rattle ‘n’ Roll was one such title and it also gave way for new couch co-op experiences and fun. But this Christmas was to give me a major surprise. My family were never rich – far from it, so any present that I received would have been greatly appreciated with all my heart. From an early age I understood the importance of money and I also understood what my family had to go through to make sure that there was enough. When I unwrapped my Sega Master System II I was overwhelmed. The NES I had won – by pure luck, especially as I was entered into the draw past the draw end-date, but this was bought for me with love. I found out later that it had been purchased for me before I had won the NES from the Luton ABC Cinema. I was now a child with both current platforms in the same year.

With the console I had Alex Kidd pre-installed, as well as the Sega variant of Taito’s classic Bubble Bobble. Sonic the Hedgehog and Psycho Fox were also in my present pile and I was literally over the moon.

Now came the awkwardness of swapping cables and plugs in and out of the TV and VCR to tune the Master System II in. This would also become an issue every Christmas and birthday afterwards as I usually received a game for the platform that was not set up – and back then wiring was confusing to most people!

A new challenger has entered

Bubble Bobble on the Master System brought back memories from playing it on the NES. But this time the technical limitations were apparent. Bubbles would not stay on the screen as long and the game felt a tiny bit lacking in quality over the Nintendo variant. However it was still amazing to play together. Sonic the Hedgehog wasn’t a bad game, but it was never really a franchise that clicked with me enough. The most fun I had was from Alex Kidd and Psycho Fox. The games were linear, platform games that just spoke to me. We would again take turns to play, discuss and laugh together – something couch co-op is all about.

I cannot remember when it was but soon my small library of games had new additions. Super Mario Bros. 2 and Super Mario Bros. 3 were two of those additions. Sunday tradition would dictate that we all had to get up at 7am and we would usually play Mario until 7pm. Everyone would take turns and life was utterly fantastic.

Me playing the Game Boy on a day co-op was not an option

Other games entered the array such as Metroid and Little Nemo: The Dreammaster. Again – no matter the difficulty we could still play these games for hours and work together.

More competitive play began when games such as Wrestlemania Challenge and Jimmy Connor’s Tennis came about. My sister started my gaming life out by being merciless and outright brutal when it came to competing against each other. This is something I blame now for my horrendous competitive streak. Wrestlemania Challenge was the first game that I had to use tactics to win. Back in the 1990’s we did not know that you could get any wrestler back in the ring when they had been thrown out, so it was my job to choose The Ultimate Warrior and launch my sister from the ring to win by count out. My video game career had begun.

The Amiga years

Years later the pre-mentioned PlayStation and Amiga had entered my life. And it was on the Amiga that more competitive play landed. Back then car boot sales were often full of bootleg Amiga games. £1 a disk was the going price, so a game with three disks would set you back £3. This was perfect for a child on a pocket-money-based salary. We also had a friend on the same road would would copy games for me free of charge. My library boomed, and my experience with games excelled.

My sister and I would battle it out on Micro Machines, FIFA International Soccer, Sensible Soccer and Nitro (a very underrated Amiga game). We would also team up on Alien Breed: Tower Assault, Double Dragon and The Chaos Engine. Competing against each other became brutal. My sister would often punch her legs into a bruised frenzy when I beat her, and like all siblings we would squabble appropriately.

Speedball 2: Brutal Deluxe (image credit: The Bitmap Brothers)

Speedball 2: Brutal Deluxe was another game we would play religiously, and I became rather good at it if I say so myself. My sister had now created a player that was sometimes impossible to beat.

Worms was another game that I found on the Amiga. I got given this game as a gift for either a birthday or Christmas, I cannot remember. The game mechanics blew me away. I used to play this against my sister but also friends when they came round. I truly believe that me and a school friend invented the Worms Forts game as we used to play in this manner long before it existed. We would generate a map with two large mounds of earth and we would give ourselves a set amount of moves or time to fortify that mound. Teleporting all our worms to one side or another was how we started and then we would dig, tunnel and use girders to build a base. Using dynamite to make larger cavities for a “base of command” and planting turrets outside the perimeter was all part of the fun. Then we would let loose on each others base, bombarding it with projectiles until nothing was left.

Sony enters the ring

Then we get back to the late 1990’s. I had saved up enough of my paper round money to buy a PlayStation from Beatties. I already owned games so that I could psychologically manipulate myself into buying the system to play them. At this stage in my life couch co-op began to deteriorate. My sister had new jobs in this period, and I was leading into exam years.

The Sony PlayStation (photo credit: Sony)

Not only this but I was finding myself saving and buying games such as Final Fantasy VII and VII, Command & Conquer titles and other dramatically single player-based titles that would keep me occupied for years to come.

Unfortunately sometimes life gets in the way and while I still played co-op with my sister and friends it became limited to my newer platform. This was not the era when retro gaming was looked upon with the grace that it is today. The NES and the Master System II were now unplugged and shelved. The Amiga stayed around for a while but soon Sony had taken my over the the Dark Side.

Memories are made of these

Today I still have my original consoles I have spoken of. But the world is a different place. I have met many toxic people along the way so couch co-op for me died a sudden death and disappeared for many years. Now I am blessed with the ability to rekindle that with my son as he treads his first steps into the gaming world. But I also understand that most people these days prefer online play with huge first-person shooters taking predominancy across the gaming community. Single player games are starting to take the back seat when it comes to big releases, and multiplayer is often seen as an online capability with some games not giving the option for split-screen or same-screen at all.

Whilst gaming is still a massive part of my life, nothing will ever mimic the memories that I had growing up in the era of gaming when it was all about family and making memories together.

Those days have long gone, but it will always remain a massive part of both me and my collection – with the memories of my childhood, my late sister and my mum all rolled up into a small pile of cartridges that defined an era.