These days, playing with and against dozens of other people from all around the world is a standard expected video game feature. But back in the day, multiplayer was limited only to whoever was standing next to you at the arcade cabinet or sitting next to you on the floor (couch was too far away). Friendships and rivalries were forged in the heat of battle, and lifetimes of memories were made.
For better or worse, the first two generations of multiplayer video games set the tones and standards that were followed for decades. They taught us how to lob grenades, fly ostriches strategically, survive a croc attack with the help of a less fortunate friend, cooperate with others to achieve what we couldn’t on our own, and then stab them in the back for personal gain.
As the first gaming generation, we lusted after delicious flies, pulled hair, laid cities to waste before eating each other, or sometimes just passed a deadly ball around. We were heroes. We were villains. We were gamers. These are our old-timey multiplayer war stories.
1986 brought us arcade shoot-em-up multiplayer greatness that stood out by using an innovative joystick with a rotating top that allowed you to move and shoot in different directions simultaneously. At the time, this was mind-blowing. It also pioneered the still-basic shooter mechanic of having one button to shoot your guns, and another to lob grenades.
Ikari Warriors was an amazing game to play with a friend. Two soldiers battling side by side in bullet hell; at the time it was the definition of awesome. You could even climb into tanks and helicopters. The NES version suffered from lack of rotary control, but partially made up for it with a glitch where if both players entered a vehicle at the exact same time, it split into two vehicles. After a game or two, it became customary to count to three together every time you found a tank or copter. That’s cooperative play, baby!
Combat was a launch title for the Atari 2600 system and very possibly my first-ever multiplayer experience. It’s actually kind of mind-boggling the number of game types it had for such an early title. Twenty-seven games within the game. In 1977. Eat it, Titanfall.
You could play many variations of game utilizing dogfighting planes -complete with strategic cloud cover- and tanks battling in mazes using various abilities including invisibility and ricocheting projectiles. You had to work out ways to outsmart and outmaneuver your opponent. There was no spawn-camping, no power weapon-whoring, no sniping, no corner trapping; none of the things that often make modern competitive multiplayer a pain in the ass. Just two players entering on even terms and one player leaving. Perfect.
Cooperative fantasy dungeon-crawling gameplay officially arrived in 1986 with Gauntlet. This game about blew my mind when I discovered it in arcades. Four selectable characters, all with completely different capabilities able to work together to fight their way through a hell maze of respawning enemies (with destroyable spawn points) was an incredible concept at the time.
The depth of co-op gameplay here was unheard of because of the diversity of available characters. There was also a game narrator that really added to the atmosphere of the game and kept you updated on the status of your companions. Everybody had their favorite role to play. Were you a Valkyrie, Wizard, Elf, or Barbarian?
This game kind of blew my mind the first time I played it in 1987. This was the birth of the multiplayer beat-em-up genre, and arguably still stands as its greatest example. From the first time I grabbed a dude by his hair and slammed my knee into his head repeatedly, I was in love. This game was the shit.
With a friend, this game was king of the arcade. Not only was there a plethora of moves to be discovered from pressing different buttons together (which I believe was a first) but you could tag-team opponents with one player grabbing a baddie from behind and holding him helpless while the other player pummeled him. How did gaming get this awesome this fast? And after you beat the final boss, your last challenge was a battle to the death with your partner. The drama! Somehow the NES version managed to do away with the co-op gameplay entirely in what I think will forever remain the single stupidest thing the company has ever done.
If there’s one thing in entertainment I love more than anything else it’s monsters. There’s your vampires and your wolfmen, which are great, but kaiju were always my stock and trade as a kid. So imagine my delight when I walked into the arcade in ’86 and saw this bad boy. Three player madness as a giant reptile, ape, or wolfman smashing the shit out of major U.S. cities and each other. Shut up and take my quarters. ALL OF THEM.
The classiest of multiplayer moves was to wait until a fellow player was on top of a skyscraper with low health and then knock them off. Odds are good that they wouldn’t survive the fall and would return to their human forms and begin to sidle off of the screen while covering their shameful nakedness. At this point, the other two players could race to devour their vulnerable partner for a health boost while the victim fumbled for a quarter to continue and/or left in a rage. Good, good times.
Frogs and Flies
Back to the 2600 and a game that delivered EXACTLY what the title promised. Nothing more. Nothing less. 1982 brought us a game of flies and frogs named Frogs and Flies in which you were the titular frogs and the object was to devour the eponymous flies. The player frogs could jump and use their tongue for extra reach to get as many flies as possible as the day quickly passed.
In single player, the game was a decent distraction with simple gameplay, but with the added spice of competitive multiplayer, you had one of the first bonafide party game on your hands. Anybody could just pick up and play and the challenge was sufficient to make everybody want another turn. It was perfect in its simplicity.
Harm could very well come to me in the comments section if I neglected this one. In 1987 Konami dropped a true NES classic on us, complete with a legendary cheat code that burned itself into the public’s collective consciousness through sheer repetitive use. You are thinking it to yourself right now.
Contra was Nintendo’s killer multiplayer app. Two players with a crazy arsenal of guns blowing the shit out of everything unfortunate enough to share the screen with themis pretty much the definitive gaming experience and it’s seldom been done better.
Another 1982 Atari classic with serious legs. Joust was a rare 2600 title that was popular for long enough to be ported to the NES some seven years later. The premise was that you were a knight riding an ostrich that could fly by repeatedly pushing the button (back then we only had one). The goal was to get the drop on the vulture-riding enemies by literally dropping on their heads. The levels had plenty of platforms where you could land and dash for extra speed so there was room for tactics.
Throw in a second player and Joust was an instant classic. Players could either work together to smash the opposition or compete for points and take each other out. Usually it was a combination of the two. The game’s flying mechanic became a gaming mainstay that has survived to this day, most recently utilized in Flappy Bird.
This one is more of a personal favorite than anything else, but we’ve all got to indulge ourselves once in a while, right? 1988’s Toobin’ was a unique arcade title where you play as cool dudes in inner tubes braving the various dangers of the river, from pointy sticks to full-on dinosaurs. The creative controls involved four buttons for movement -one for each hand, forward and back- that you’d use to paddle to the left or right or in circles if you liked. A fifth button allowed you to throw soda cans as an attack.
This game was crazy fun. Even if you were playing solo, the system gave you a bot to compete with because the competitive-cooperative dynamic was vital to the game. For instance, every so often a crocodile would swoop in from behind and he wasn’t leaving until he got one of you or someone managed to hit him with a can (easier said than done, believe me). Whenever the croc came out, the game literally became the embodiment of the “I don’t need to outrun him; I only need to outrun you” joke, and that is totally tubular.
When played with four players on your Atari 2600, 1981’s Warlords was, simply put, one of the most frantic and insanely fun things you could do with your time. It was the kind of ultimate party game that even the mighty Wii never managed. It’s the ultimate vindication of the concept of “less is more”.
Basically, the game was like an Arkanoid battle royale. Each player had a base in a corner of the screen that was surrounded by walls and a shield that could be moved around your walls with the classic paddle wheel controller. A ball was then released and players had to defend their base by deflecting the ball at their opponents’ bases using the shield, breaking down their walls until they could get the ball in there and destroy the base. It was a simple but extremely effective evolution from the Pong concept and I’ve little doubt that if you could get four people in a room to play it today, Warlords would still rock the party.