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Analysis: The Buddy System - Co-Op Play In 2D Platformers
Analysis: The Buddy System - Co-Op Play In 2D Platformers
December 3, 2010 | By Jeffrey Matulef

December 3, 2010 | By Jeffrey Matulef
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[Gamasutra contributor Jeffrey Matulef explores the evolution of cooperative play in 2D platformers, a design idea he reckons can, when approached with the right mindset, create co-op experiences "every bit as compelling as their single-player counterparts".]

Over 20 years ago when Mario first changed his career from carpenter to plumber, he starred in a two player cooperative arcade game with his brother, Luigi. Curiously, all of Mario's adventures since then were solitary affairs.

It wasn't until recently with New Super Mario Bros Wii (NSMBWii) in 2009 that co-op was reintroduced, its arrival endemic of a larger trend in the industry. Co-op is all the rage these days and as much as I'd like to examine how its evolved across all genres, for the purposes of this piece I'll narrow it down to 2D platformers.

Butting Heads

One of the greatest challenge in crafting a co-op experience on a 2D plane is ensuring the players don't get bogged down with too much moving on screen at once. While most 2D platformers have allowed players to pass through each other like ghosts, NSMBWii has instead chosen for players to occupy the same space.

This can lead to lots of frustration as two or more players attempt to land on a tiny platform. I can't count the number of times I bopped into my partner mid jump, resulting in us both falling to our doom. Instead of trying to make co-op easier, Nintendo knew that co-op was inherently more unpredictable and decided to make it easier for players to inadvertently sabotage each other.

The scrambling mayhem of playing NSMBWii co-op is what I always imagined being on a the sinking Titanic would be like. Destined to ruin friendships, relationships and lives, I can't say I liked it, but it succeeds at creating a unique experience that harmoniously blends cooperation with competition.

Getting Benched

There is one design choice in NSMBWii that does make the co-op experience more user friendly. If facing a particularly grueling bit of precision platforming, players can opt out by placing themselves in a bubble out of harms way.

This essentially turns it into a single-player experience with a couple important twists. Players can opt back in at any time, which is far less cumbersome than having to exit a level, go to a menu, reconnect a controller, etc. Furthermore, if multiple players are in a bubble, they may be safe, but their lives are still in play. So if three players decide to opt out and nominate one champion to lead them all to glory, that person has not just their head on their hands, but that of the whole party's if they fail. No pressure!

The recent Donkey Kong Country Returns (DKCR) utilizes a similar concept, where Diddy Kong can ride on Donkey Kong's back, leaving all the responsibility on the big ape's (literal) shoulders.

Riding mine carts, rhinos, and exploding barrels allows either player to assume full control over the party, so it's best to let one person control the action when this happens. Much like NSMBWii, failing in DKCR when only one person is controlling the action still results in a loss of lives for both players. It's a delicate trade-off as not all sections lend themselves well to co-op play, but I like the idea of temporarily transforming the game into a single-player experience for parts that require it.

Like a Tree in a Forest...

While keeping track of what's happening on screen is a problem, it's not half as bad as keeping track of what's happening off screen. Games like Contra failed miserably at this since lagging behind the camera resulted in a loss of life in its vertical levels.

Bionic Commando Rearmed attempted to get around this by utilizing a splitscreen (horizontally or vertically, depending on the level's orientation) if players got too far apart. It was a good idea in theory, but still lead to problems as your field of view would constantly shrink and grow based on your proximity to your partner.

DKCR gets around this admirably by transporting players left off screen for more than five seconds to their partner's location. Not having to worry about leaving someone behind during such intensely scripted sequences is a godsend.

There's No I in Team...

While sharing screen real estate can be an issue, it doesn't alter the game design drastically as it does in Trine. When played solo, the player can switch at will between three distinct characters: a knight who can bash enemies with a sword or defend with a shield but can't jump, a rogue with a grappling hook and bow, and a wizard who can summon boxes and planks at will and move them around. You'll frequently have to switch between all three characters, making the best of each's abilities.

In co-op, no two players can occupy the same character at once. If you want to play as a wizard, but someone else is already assuming that role, they'll have to switch to one of the other characters first. Playing with two players this isn't much of a problem since you can essentially play musical chairs, swapping out roles as needed.

Playing with three characters, however, is a whole 'nother story. With no room to switch roles, all three players will have to work together to get everyone across. For example, the rogue can grapple ahead with her hook, then push a box back towards her two companions.

The wizard can summon a box for the knight to stand on, then move it with the knight on it (which is easier said than done. Physics matter a lot and balancing the knight on an object requires concentration from both the knight and the wizard). Finally, the wizard can forge a path of his own by summoning boxes and crates to jury rig a bridge of sorts.

Co-op turns the game on its head. By allowing more players with fewer abilities each, it encourages cooperation, teamwork, and often different solutions than its single-player counterpart.

While I'm still a pretty selfish player most of the time, over the last couple years I've started to appreciate the challenge of playing with another human being with their own thought processes that can't be calculated through trial and error.

It can be limiting at times, and has no doubt turned me into a pedantic w*nker on more than one occasion, but lately my oldest and dearest genre has won over my selfish tendencies to create co-op experiences that are every bit as compelling as their single-player counterparts.

[Jeffrey Matulef is a freelance writer whose work can be found at G4TV.com, Eurogamer, and Joystiq among other places. He's also a regular on the Big Red Potion podcast. You can contact him at jmatulef at gmail dot com.]


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