Regular readers will know that I find video games’ ability to pull people together to be one of the most interesting things about them. I have a weakness for stories about outsiders finding each other, and games make that happen with charming regularity. I once wrote about a long-distance couple who stayed connected by playing Dark Souls, wrestling with that game’s opaque online matchmaking to ensure that they could always find each others’ summon signs, hidden in a nook behind a wall or under a distinctive vase. And I’m fascinated by how Eve Online has attracted a particular flavour of person – usually science-fiction-obsessed, very often in some position of power in real life – to create an intergalactic community that mimics the economics and power structures of our own, but with extra skullduggery.
Online gaming has brought us so much in this regard: people have formed lifelong friendships through all kinds of video games, from World of Warcraft to No Man’s Sky. Twitch is part of this continuum, too – streamers don’t just play games for an audience, they create communities, where relationships can then form.
I experience the social aspect of games on a smaller, more intimate scale. Aside from a brief Guild Wars obsession as a teen, I’ve never been into online multiplayer. For whatever reason, I don’t connect with people in those worlds, behind screen-names – but I have spent most of my life playing games with people in real life in front of the same screen. The re-emergence of GoldenEye 007 this month has reminded me just how vital that kind of multiplayer has been in my personal gaming history.
When I was little, I played video games with my brother on the family SNES and N64. In the tiny under-stair room our parents let us plaster with adverts and posters torn out of video game magazines, we would diligently enter a co-op cheat code so that we could play Diddy Kong Racing together, one of us waiting near the finish line to sabotage our competitors with rockets while the other flew past in first place. We played Smash Bros and Mario Party together – and developed a quite nasty rivalry in Mario Tennis.
When I was a teenager I’d rope in my friends, hauling TVs around the house to facilitate 16-player Halo LAN parties when I got my hands on an Xbox. On one glorious evening in 2004, I managed to get enough people, Game Boys and link cables in the same room to play four-player Zelda on the Gamecube, and it was an absolute riot. At university, Guitar Hero always came out at parties (and Rock Band, and DJ Hero, and whatever other music game enjoyed a brief flush of popularity as Activision milked the genre dry).
Back in 2013, I was running Kotaku UK, the anarchic games site I edited before I came to the Guardian. The brilliant times I’d had with local multiplayer games growing up inspired me to start up Kotaku game nights, where we’d bag up PlayStations and controllers and drag ’em all down to the pub, throwing events with a local fighting game community. Total strangers would bond over pints and left-field multiplayer classics such as Nidhogg, or Sportsfriends, or that reliable old standby, Mario Kart 8; downstairs people would compete in Smash, Street Fighter and Tekken tournaments. (In 2015 we brought Kotaku game nights to Glastonbury, in a gaming tent in Shangri-La; unfortunately this did not go quite as expected, as we became the de facto creche for free-roaming gangs of performers’ children. But still, it was a moment.)
I loved watching how people interacted over those games in the real world. Anyone who still thinks that gaming is an antisocial pastime should step into one of the many gaming bars and cafes that exist these days and see how they bring people to tears of communal laughter.
Now, my kids and I play Switch games together; I’ve managed to get my six-year-old into Kirby’s Forgotten Land, and I get to be his guide and helper, sitting right beside him. When my teenage stepson was the same age, I introduced him to Minecraft, and all he wanted to do for a few months was play it together. I well remember the pang of sadness I felt when he started preferring to play it online with his friends instead.
No doubt this is an age thing; today’s teens memories of playing Fortnite or Minecraft with their friends online as children will presumably be just as redolent for them as my memories of split-screen multiplayer. Because games are still a relatively young medium – it’s been 50 years since Pong – and online gaming is even younger, we’re only just starting to see the generational differences in how we connect through them. But at the risk of sounding like my mother worrying that text messaging was going to stop us all from being able to hold real conversations with each other: I really hope we never lose split-screen multiplayer, and the in-person connection that it fosters.
What to play
Sticking with the nostalgic theme of this week’s issue, Nintendo announced a remaster of the peerlessly atmospheric Metroid Prime last week – and then released it immediately online. Hurray! This is one of the greatest works of sci-fi in this medium, no joke. Stripped of her powers, you guide bounty hunter Samus Aran through forsaken space-places but despite what it looks like, it isn’t actually a first-person shooter. It’s an adventure; you’re an archaeologist, a puzzle-solver, a documenter. I’d forgotten just how good Metroid Prime was in the decades since I first played it, and I’m delighted to report that the overhaul of the visuals and controls makes it even better. It’s pricey for a rerelease at £34.99, but great.
Available on: Nintendo Switch
Approximate playtime: 15 hours
What to read
Axios reports that the people who worked on the original Metroid Prime, released in 2002, aren’t properly credited in the rerelease, and have been expressing their frustrations about it.
Double Fine has put out a massive 22-hour-long documentary series on the making of its superb Psychonauts 2, based on six years’ worth of footage. Watch the trailer: the entire series is a huge time commitment, but this is the kind of end-to-end insight into game development that we just simply never get.
I’m not quite sure how to put this, but the developers of The Witcher 3 appear to have accidentally incorporated a fan-made mod giving its female characters realistic genitalia and pubic hair into December’s PS5/Xbox Series X version of the game. And the creator of that mod is mad because he claims they didn’t ask permission. Just a normal day in game development …
A book recommendation from our well-read games correspondent Keith Stuart: Player vs Monster – The Making and Breaking of Video Game Monstrosity by Jaroslav Švelch. MIT Press publishes lots of fascinating books on video game theory and this is the latest – a thorough study of monsters in video games, looking at their historic sources, design conventions and the fears they exploit. Intellectual but accessible, and filled with examples from Golden Axe to Shadow of the Colossus.
As well as announcing and releasing a remaster of Metroid Prime, Nintendo showed off new footage from Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom and Pikmin 4 in last week’s Nintendo Direct, and also announced that Game Boy and GBA games are now playable on Switch, among rather a lot else (here’s the rundown). Tears of the Kingdom showed Link riding around on a cobbled-together wagon thing that strongly recalls niche vehicle experimentation game Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts, which is not something I had on my 2023 bingo card.
What to click
TechScape: How Nintendo’s stayed the most innovative tech company of our time
A beautifully preserved slice of video game history – Toaplan Arcade Shoot ’Em Up Collection Vol 1 review
The Last of Us recap episode five – all hell breaks loose
Can The Super Mario Bros Movie end 30 years of terrible video-game films?
Microsoft’s Activision Blizzard purchase will harm UK gamers, says watchdog
Writing this week’s newsletter has made me realise that my knowledge of multiplayer bangers is stuck in about 2015, so this time around, I have a question for you, readers: what are your favourite split-screen or party games? What are the proven favourites, and which new ones are making a mark?
I’ll start with my own out-of-date recommendations from my days running pub game nights: dicey competitive fencing in Nidhogg and its sequel; flipping narwhals around in Starwhal; offbeat riffs on various sports in Sportsfriends; Lethal League, an indie baseball fighting game; jelly-baby wrestling in Gang Beasts; cute pixel battles with archery and magic in Towerfall: Ascension; and the all-time greatness of Rocket League (above), football with RC cars. Oh, and Nintendo Land. Mario Chase is an underrated work of genius.
Send your picks to [email protected].