Couch co-op gaming has always been one of my favorite past times, namely because it was the main style of gameplay offered during the 80’s and 90’s, which is the timeframe that I first fell in love with my video game hobby. The act of settling in with neighborhood buddies or school friends to play through a new NES or SNES game was an amazing experience, and a great way to bond with people that share similar interests to yours. Unfortunately, with the advent of online gaming, many developers cast the whole couch co-op motif aside, effectively limiting the experience to only a few modern titles, and they’re almost always from the FPS genre.
With that being said a few Indie developers have brought back couch co-op, and a few AAA titles offer the mode on current-gen consoles, but for the most part, the best couch co-op experiences are rooted in past games or franchises. The list below represents the 11 best games and/or franchises to have featured couch co-op.
11) Double Dragon (NES)
The original Double Dragon for the NES is a great example of couch co-op gaming. The relatively simple gameplay, but steep challenge of the game, made it a great title to have help on. You could also beat the shit out of each other on purpose, or by accident thanks to the lack of a friendly fire mode. Sometimes the best aspect of couch co-op is messing with your partner, and Double Dragon excelled at this.
10) Left 4 Dead Franchise
Valve’s Left 4 Dead and its sequel were great examples of competitive and strategic couch co-op gaming. Teaming up to take on randomly generated hordes of zombies with multiple classes of the undead always proved to be a formidable, yet very rewarding experience. Strategy and tactics are key in these games, so having your wingman sitting right next to you created quite the advantage when it came to planning and escaping the undead horde trying to eat your guts.
9) Life Force (NES)
Like the original Contra, Konami’s Life Force for the NES is easily one of the greatest couch co-op titles to come out of that era. The fact that it employed the Konami code was a bonus, and its alternating views for levels helped to keep each new fight feeling fresh. Its gameplay is perfect for couch co-op because you were required to blast everything on the screen that was trying to kill you both, and there were plenty of enemies to keep your ships busy. Fighting over weapon pick-ups also helped to add to the game’s natural frenetic feeling.
8) Borderlands Franchise
The Borderlands franchise is one of the few remaining FPS series of games to keep couch co-op, and it excels at the mode. Each game in the series is perfectly suited to play with a pal in the same room, because while there is a main story to complete, the act of blasting random enemies for loot is a hoot with friends. The gameplay is also relatively loose, so the two of you aren’t really tied together on a particular map, unless one of you heads to an exit to piss off the other. Again, another great aspect of couch co-op is annoying each other, so there’s no better way to do so than leaving a Borderlands map for another while your partner tries to snag loot before the load screen takes over.
7) Gears of War Franchise
Like Borderlands, the Gears of War franchise opted to keep couch co-op even though online multiplayer was becoming the norm. The gameplay of the Gears franchise isn’t as comical as the Borderlands franchise, but its pop and shoot gameplay suits couch co-op well. It’s almost like playing with your platoon partner in the same room thanks to the need to call out flanking maneuvers, or cover tactics to ensure a win over the Locust horde. The relatively slowly paced shootouts also suit couch co-op well because the split screen presentation doesn’t seem so chaotic.
6) LEGO branded games
When LEGO released LEGO Star Wars the Video Game it kicked off what has now become a yearly staple of licensed couch co-op gaming experiences. LEGO games are perfect couch co-op titles thanks to their lack of difficulty and braindead gameplay. The lack of a split screen is also nice, allowing both players to see a coherent presentation of the game being played. The fact that most of these games are based on major licensed properties also helps the experience to be more fun because the two of you probably love the franchise the game is based on, making it a communal experience. Finally, these games are also great ways to get young ones into gaming, so if you’re a parent and a gamer, there’s no better way to create a new co-op pal for yourself in the family.
5) Halo 1-4
The first four Halo games all featured couch co-op, and the mode on the original is what hooked me to the franchise in the first place. There was something magical about playing through that game’s memorable campaign with another friend in the same room.
The accomplishment of completing any of these games on Legendary is also very rewarding to do with a friend locally thanks to the steep challenge. The first Halo was also one of the first FPS games to offer couch co-op on a console, so it set the precedence for the experience for many similar titles that followed it. The fact that Halo 5 didn’t ship with couch co-op and the negative reaction from the community just goes to show how many gamers identify this franchise with couch co-op, making it an easy choice for this list.
4) Rock Band Franchise
Guitar Hero kicked off the fake instrument music game craze, but the Rock Band franchise perfected it by adding in a complete set of instruments to round out your own full band. This franchise was a staple at parties, dorms, and other social gatherings, as well as for families that liked to game together, because it’s pretty damn fun to pretend to be a rockstar. I can’t remember how many fake rock concerts I threw in my 20’s while jamming to the Rock Band franchise, mainly because I was usually on the sauce to help my vocals, but also because it defined a 2-3 year period of my social gaming scene. If you love music, gaming, and hanging with friends, a Rock Band title is just what the doctor ordered when you’re finding yourself with nothing to do on a weekend night.
3) Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game
To this day this title remains one of my most favorite arcade cabinets, so when it came to the NES in the 90’s, it was a dream come true for fans like myself. The Turtles reigned supreme in those days and everyone had turtle fever, so this game allowed fans to assume the roles of their favorite Ninja Turtle to take down Shredder and Krang’s forces. The gameplay was simple, but challenging, so teamwork was key. Fighting over pizza to restore health was always a blast, and hitting the game’s destructible environments into your teammates usually caused some choice words to be exchanged. All these years later I, like many older gamers, still identify TMNT in video game form with this particular release, because it perfectly embodied everything about the franchise that made it such an iconic hit.
The original Contra is synonymous with the NES and couch co-op. It was one of the first titles on the platform to offer a co-op experience that didn’t force one player to wait on the other for their turn to start, so it screamed, “play me with a friend.” The challenge this game presented pretty much required a friend’s help, so it wasn’t odd for young gamers to hound their buddies to help them take the fight to the the combined forces of faceless bad guys, robots, and aliens trying to take over the world.
The Konami code also surfaced in this title, and entering it with a friend always meant you’d get to see the ending, which wasn’t the case when playing alone. The weapon pickups also made for some fun exchanges as you both tried to grab Spread first, with the loser usually threatening to quit, or at least sulking until the next drop. Even with these little fights, the accomplishment of beating this game with a buddy never gets old, even to this day, which says a ton about Contra’s staying power, and the fondness many people have for it thanks to their early days of couch co-oping it.
1) Pretty Much Every Super Mario Bros. Game Made
The couch co-op SMB craze started with the original, which forced players to wait on each other with its turn system, and has continued to this day. The early SMB games definitely brought gamers together in the same room, even if the second player had to wait for their turn, but even with this inconvenience, the pure joy these games brought to gamers helped to make Nintendo a household name, and set up expectations for the couch co-op gaming experience for years to come.
The new era SMB games probably do an even better job at couch co-op, at least for getting friends and family members angry at each other, thanks to the chaos that ensues when you have four players on the same screen in a platformer with limited pickups. The chaos this experience offers always keeps a SMB couch co-op session interesting, as well as reinforcing the fact that sometimes gamers are just better with friends.
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