Four players are all you need
With the rise of Xbox Live, PlayStation Network and Steam, it’s easy to forget that people used to meet up and play games in the same room. I think that’s a real shame: when the threat of physical violence is real, the in-game banter tends to be a lot more pleasant.
Here are some of my favourites, a mix of both old and new, guaranteed to put a smile on your face.
Super Monkey Ball Deluxe
Two words: Monkey Target. Never before has a more noble struggle taken place in a virtual world. Countless monkeys have plunged to the bottom of the ocean in the majestic contest of flying off a ramp in a ball and landing on a bull’s eye. Titanic struggles have hinged on the collection of a single unassuming banana. Friends have become enemies, lovers have become haters, thumbs have been blistered and controllers have been smashed against walls whenever you lucked out on the roulette and the target became plastered in explosives.
There is so much raw game in Super Monkey Ball Deluxe that you’d expect the disc to be the size of a dinner plate. In addition to the five hundred or so puzzle boards that multiple players can compete on for ultimate glory, there are twelve mini-games including bowling and billiards. The most pleasant surprise is that these actually aren’t shit: this is before the Wii came out, you see, and mini-games were still a relatively novel concept. Bowling and Billiards, as well as the aforementioned Target, are better than most Xbox Live Arcade games in their own right. It’s exceptional value for money, but I don’t know where you would get a copy nowadays. You can’t have mine.
Alternative: Geometry Wars 2
Much of the appeal of Geometry Wars comes from the heated competition of leader boards. They pervade the whole game, teasing you from the top-right corner of every screen and taunting you into challenging your friends as you choose a game mode in the hope of besting their scores. What a surprise, then, that the multiplayer proves as equally compelling as single player high scoring.
Some of the six modes don’t translate that well to multiple players- Waves becomes even more of a hopeless struggle, with the average game lasting around thirty seconds. However, those that do survive the transition gain a new lease of life: in Sequence, extra lives are shared among all players. Will four players engaging in co-operative bullet-spraying mayhem be enough to overcome the lack of second chances? Probably not, but there’s a lot of fun to be had in trying.
It’s no coincidence that Pong was one of the first successful video games. Tennis is the perfect sport for a computer game: its rules are easy to learn, it’s fiercely competitive and perfectly balanced since neither player ever obtains a strategic advantage. What a shame, then, that I am absolutely hopeless at tennis: I prefer squash, because you don’t have to walk as far to retrieve the ball when you’ve missed it yet again.
In 1999, tennis games were perfected with Sega’s Virtua Tennis. Straight out of the arcades and into your home, it’s mercilessly fast and responsive with larger-than-life characters (including Tim Henman, tennis fans!), cheesy rock music and garish, chunky visuals. Anyone with two thumbs and one good eye can pick up and play it immediately. Two buttons are all you need: one for standard shots, the other for lobs to catch out opponents lurking too close to the net.
It’s a gateway drug into a world of addictive arcade classics: like all great games, complex strategies emerge from the inherent simplicity and matches are often nail-bitingly tense. It’s so compelling because every point is a fresh start, ripe for the taking, with sets becoming as fiercely-contested as entire tournaments of Street Fighter. You’ll never lose a friend playing Virtua Tennis, but you might well respect them more after a few games.
Alternative: Top Spin 3
Confession time: I haven’t played Top Spin 3, but I have spent considerable time with the original Top Spin which took over from Virtua Tennis during my university years. It’s a deeper, more nuanced game, which is a double-edged racket for newcomers but those willing to invest a little time will relish the increased control over your player. Still, unless you’re willing to buy a second-hand Dreamcast this is a great alternative.
Mario Kart Wii
First things first: take your preconceptions about the abominable lump of plastic that is the ‘Wii Wheel’ and throw them out the window, along with the aforementioned peripheral. Mario Kart Wii is a more nuanced and challenging game than its marketing campaign would suggest: the problem is that a thick topping of accessibility masks the underlying depth.
Mario Kart remains an uncompromisingly inclusive franchise that may frustrate a more skilled player: weapons are unfairly balanced (the blue homing shell has featured in many a gamer’s nightmare) and the infamous ‘rubber band’ artificial intelligence ensures you’re never far away enough from rivals to guarantee a victory, no matter how fast you race. These problems are negated when you play with friends, because its ‘no man left behind’ attitude towards weapons and handicaps keeps the races close and competitive regardless of your driving prowess.
Taken for what it is- a party game, not a driving simulator- Mario Kart is laugh-out-loud funny. Who can help smiling as you slip on a banana, munch a mushroom and grow to giant-sized proportions, or pull off a backflip while flying off the peak of a mountain? It’s vibrant, loud, inviting and almost insultingly easy to grasp, with enough variety in the characters, vehicles and tracks to keep you hooked.
Rest in peace, Bizarre Creations. There will always be a special place in my collection for the sublime Project Gotham Racing 2, but for some reason Blur never really found its niche and was released to lukewarm commercial and critical success. It’s a fun little game, mixing the weapons of Mario Kart with the street racing sensibilities of PGR for a racer that never goes completely off the rails, but is bounce drivers around within their confines. Just like Mario Kart, four players can compete on one console: a rarity in the age of online racing. It’s not as good as Mario Kart, to be honest, but it’s much cheaper and you get to enjoy the swan song of one of the greatest British game developers around.
Beat-em-ups lend themselves well to social interaction, surprisingly, and Castle Crashers is among the finest out there. Your team of four valiant knights set off to rescue your girlfriends and a glowing crystal (this is never explained, but you won’t care) by murdering hundreds of soldiers, flora and fauna. While there are nods to advances in modern games like gaining new abilities and strength as you progress, varied weapons and cute animal companions with their own abilities, it is an old school game at heart.
The gorgeous hand-painted artwork of Dan Paladin makes the game feel like a living comic book. It is packed with quirky humour, from the first boss who belches flames after drinking moonshine to the fight against a dragon and his sock puppet friend. There’s also that ending, which I’d prefer to leave as a surprise. It’s impossible to second-guess what’s in-store on your first play through Castle Crashers, and even more impossible not to laugh on your fourth or fifth play through.
Where it really succeeds over stable mates Scott Pilgrim vs the World and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is that it is fairer, with far fewer cheap deaths and irritating enemies, and generally more entertaining as a result. It successfully pinches the best ideas from classics like Golden Axe and Guardian Heroes and builds on them without outright plagiarism or laziness (something that can’t be said for Scott Pilgrim) and is truly a game that you’ll return to for years to come.
Alternative: Streets of Rage 2
If I had a fiver for every time I’d praised Streets of Rage 2, I would be writing this from my personal space station instead of a rented sofa. Maybe it is just nostalgia that keeps me coming back to it, but I doubt it. Everything about it is so solid and chunky, from the delicious health replenishing turkeys that you find in bins around the mean streets to the controls that make throwing a criminal through a table easy and satisfying.
Yuzo Koshiro’s music is probably the best thing ever wrought from the Mega Drive’s sound chips and is almost the main attraction: luckily, the face punching and knife chucking is as compelling as ever. Although it’s only a two-player game, it is well worth asking friends to leave or read a book while you dedicate time to this masterpiece with your best buddy.
First person shooters are the most popular games around, with the possible exception of massively multiplayer RPGs like World of Warcraft. It’s hard to say why they remain so popular, since to those who aren’t heavily invested in the genre each iteration of Call of Duty is indistinguishable for the next. That’s because Call of Duty games are like Michael Bay movies- bombastic and directed at simpletons- but let’s not start yet another argument on the internet.
Halo Reach is the latest in the series that single-handedly saved the Xbox. It has a plethora of multiplayer variations so comprehensive that you might never see them all. Let’s gloss over the elephant in the room that most of these involve shooting people in the face- they also involve racing vehicles with mounted rocket launchers, capturing flags, destroying bases, playing keep away with skulls, repelling a zombie infection, surviving against endless waves of bloodthirsty aliens and even playing the game’s campaign with a friend.
Halo has a propensity for random hilarity that no game can match. Its uniquely floaty physics beg for players to be catapulted off cliffs and into trees, while vehicles with freshly greased wheels mangle yet another unfortunate player. Its weapons are all delightfully over-the-top, spewing sticky grenades and volatile pink needles that resemble an explosion in a glow stick factory. Even if you get sick of playing the included content, Forge allows you to create your own levels and scenarios before reviewing your highlights in the Theatre. Halo’s enduring appeal to American homophobes is still overcome by its incredible polish and ability to thrill, which will ensure it remains a gaming staple for years to come.
Alternative: Gears of War 2
Gears of War 2 is quite a divisive multiplayer game. Many can’t stand the online play, which often turns into a merry dance of rolling around and trying to get the odd shotgun blast off before your opponent does the same. The problem is that it never matches up to the intensity or tactics of the co-operative campaign, which is a rollercoaster ride of giant worm slaying and visceral action that will deter all but the most dedicated gamer.
Horde isn’t like that. Horde is you, your buddy and countless… well, hordes of ugly mutant freaks. The main aim is to survive: this involves holing up in a corner, constructing a crude barricade, then co-operating (and often shouting) to survive. It’s probably my favourite multiplayer experience on the 360 and while inarguably better with even more friends over Xbox Live, tactics are always best discussed when your teammates have the same view as you. Besides, you can’t high five or fist pound over an internet connection.