Couch cooperative play is an experience that is locked in time, a concept known to all who grew up playing video games in the 80's and 90's. Before there was broadband or dial-up, multiplayer gaming was relegated to sitting on the couch or floor, connected to the same TV, next to your player 2.
For me, most of the co-op games that are burned into my memory are on the NES. These are in my opinion the best examples of co-op play on the system. If you are of a younger age, and missed these games in their day, I recommend you seek them out, grab two controllers, sit in front of the same tv, and experience them the way people did before the internet.
Was there any way this was going to be left off the list? Gauntlet is remembered most for its narrator announcing who needs food badly. If you play straight up, the difficulty will mow you down. You will need the assistance of turbo fire, and maybe some Game Genie codes to take the edge off, and then you will be able to relax and have some fun. Arguing about who gets which food item, who should use the key, and which path to take is part of the fun.
The Original Mario Bros.
This is not Mario's first outing, but it is Luigi's. Mario has taken on the occupation of plumber in this arcade port that holds up pretty well. The task is simple enough: rid the sewers of turtles, giant moths, and other oddities that lurk underground. Before Mario could stomp on enemies, he had to pop them onto their backs by hitting the ground underneath them, and then run up and kick them. After playing a few stages it becomes clear that communication and coordination are the only way to prevent you and your brother from accidentally sabotaging each other. Its fairly easy to un-stun an enemy that your brother has stunned, and thus let it loose right as your brother is upon it. Sometime the spirit of cooperative play gets tested, and what started as teamwork becomes something...else.
As one of the earliest infiltration games that I can recall, Rush'n Attack is about taking on the entire Soviet army with only a knife. Luckily, only about one in five enemy soldiers bothers to shoot at you, even if they are all wielding rifles. Occasionally you can kill a soldier inconspicuously uniformed in a yellow jumpsuit who will drop a limited power up to help even the odds if only for a short while. Having a partner join in on the action is a blessing and curse, as one of your will eventually leave the other behind at the end of the screen, resulting in getting killed by oncoming enemies off screen. Oddly enough, that kind of rubber banding in the co-op gameplay adds to the charm. The controls are a little wonky, with jumps assigned to the up direction instead of the A button. As far a the title, is the cold-war play on words 80's enough for you?
This is an overhead run'n gun game, where you invade some terrorist's hideout and blow away waves of soldiers. The title of the game is based on a super weapon that you can assemble if you collect all the parts for it. Certain defeated enemies drop keys that you can use to unlock crates that contain power ups or pieces of the "Heavy Barrel", which is s ridiculously overpowered weapon, with a time limit. I have never obtained all of the pieces myself, but supposedly that's what you get. Either way, it is a great two-player romp through a jungle, with decent pacing and a moderate difficulty curve.
|It is way too easy to shoot these POWs by accident
Taking jungle warfare to the next level, Guerrilla War plays a lot like Heavy Barrel, but a lot faster. It is a rare instance of an NES game having rapid fire as the default firing speed, which alleviates the need for a turbo controller. Ironically, you will need to learn some restraint while firing as part of your objective is to rescue hostages that more often than not, parked right in front of enemy placements. The game allows you to drive tanks and unleash some serious offensive power, much like its predecessor, Ikari Warriors. As Iconic as Ikari Warriors is, its slow gameplay hindered it from being fun. SNK learned from that, and this is the result. A fantastic two-player game that no one talks about.
|DD2 has some rad facial expressions
Double Dragon II
Believe it or not, but there aren't a whole lot of two-player beat'em ups on the NES. For whatever reason; maybe the complexity of sprite animations combined with lots of enemies reduced the amount of sprites that could be onscreen. Games like shoot'em ups and run n' guns don't often have main character animations, but in beat'em ups the sprites have many movement animations to show punches, kicks, head-butts, and so on. The first Double Dragon was a great game but it was also disappointing in that co-op was not included. The sequel fixes this, and includes some new moves and animations as well. There may be some additional sprite flicker as the NES attempts to keep up with the action, but it is worth it. The buttons have been configured differently; instead of punch and kick they are now left attack and right attack, which allows for better defense in a crowd.
Perhaps known best for its infectiously catchy music, Bubble Bobble is a unique platformer/puzzle game. You play as a bubble blowing dinosaur(s), trying to make it to the end in order to be turned back into a boy. In order to advance past each stage, you need to defeat all of the enemies but trapping them in bubbles, and popping the bubbles. It is fairly simple at first, becoming fairly challenging as you progress. The biggest obstacles are the stage designs themselves. You may think that enemies are impossible to reach, until you learn to hold the jump button, which allows you to bounce on bubbles to reach higher platforms. With all of the bubbles, enemies, and other objects on screen the action gets fairly frantic. There is one music track on a loop, and while this would incite a murderous rage in lesser games, this track never seems to offend - it will be burned into your memory however.
|Gaze into my eye...
Often thought of as a sequel to Gradius, Life Force is technically a spin off. It was known as Salamander elsewhere, which is why there is an intergalactic snake (?) on the cover. Originally Salamander eschewed the power up capsule meter for a simpler power up pick up system. When this was localized for North America, the capsule system was reinstated, making seem like the direct sequel to Gradius. The gameplay is nearly identical, so it may as well be a sequel. It turns out that adding two-player co-op adds tremendously to the gameplay experience. Gradius was tough-as-nails hard, and this is no deviation. It does accept the Konami code at the title screen, so you can experience the carnage of death upon death as you brute force your way through the game. Just like in Gradius, if you are powered up you can plow through the game, but if you die, you are reduced to a pea shooter and the default speed may as well be a crawl. Lets be honest, you play through most of the game this way, as the cascade of death started in stage two. As with other games on this list, its more fun to die together than to die alone.
Jackal is a game that is remarkably underrated when it comes to classic NES action games. Maybe its because it is not quite a run'n gun game, nor shoot' em up; it falls in between the cracks when genre lists get hashed out. You drive a jeep, armed with a forward-firing machine gun, and multidirectional grenades. As you progress, you rescue POWs and carry them to a helipad where they are extracted. If you rescue a general, your grenade gets upgraded to missiles, and eventually missiles get upgraded in range and power. Its hilarious to watch all of these POWs exit the jeep; it reminds me of a clown car. The game tremendously more fun with a player two.
|No one is getting that spread from there unless they die
How could it be anything else? I include both games here, as they play nearly identically. What makes many "hardest NES games" lists is baffling to me. Then again, I played these games ALL THE TIME, so I memorized every enemy placement and pattern. That's a testament to how good these games are; even though they start out as merciless, eventually you learn the tricks and progress further. Essential is the Konami code to see the stages beyond the waterfall, especially in two-player. The leading cause of death on that stage is an impetuous partner constantly jumping and leaving your ass to die at the bottom of the screen. I always thought that the screen should only advance as far as the player at the bottom stood, and the player near the top should be restricted from jumping...but that would not be as much fun. Did you ever steal the spread power up even though you already have it? What about ducking under a bullet so that it hits player 2? This game teaches a lot of lessons, like whether or not you should trust your partner, and you can past Val Kilmer's face on Arnold's body and nobody will notice. In my opinion, its the best two-player game on the NES.