One console, one screen, and a few extra friends is the best way to play a game
Mario Kart 8 has been released; critically praised, boosting Wii U sales by an ungodly amount, and even starting a prospective meme. But most importantly, despite possessing a robust suite of online options, it also comes with something much more exciting – local split-screen multiplayer.
The feature has always been Mario Kart’s forte and it clearly still has the power to shift copies – it’s doubtful that over a million gamers are are buying the game for the single-player cups alone. Yet, local multiplayer is not something many current big-budget games choose to focus on, with the upcoming fourth Super Smash Bros. game being the only exception that comes to mind.
With bigger TVs boasting higher definitions than ever before, we as gamers have never been better set up for console split-screen. No longer having to squint at the lower-left corner of a fuzzy 14-inch portable CRT, it is a shame that only the smaller, often simpler games have been picking up the local-multiplayer slack. Castle Crashers, Samurai Gunn, Broforce, Nidhogg; often oddly enough on the PC, traditionally the least local-multiplayer friendly platform.
No amount of online voice-chat can emulate the camaraderie and teamwork as having your friends in the room with you. Split-screen, done well, offers a freedom and unbridled joy in a way that online multiplayer simply can’t.
Online play offers its own kind of freedoms. The freedom to play with friends without needing them to physically be present, your own full screen, and the ability to play multiplayer without any friends at all.
But the freedoms of split-screen are that of being masters of your own domain. You are free from the shrill abuse of foul-mouthed nine year-olds and racial slurs flung over text-chat. Good-natured abuse between friends is still an essential part of the multiplayer experience of course, and when you’re all in the same room you’re able to reach over and slap the twat playing as Oddjob/Monkey/that game’s equivalent, which is much more gratifying, effective and fun than whining fruitlessly at the perpetrator through the ether(net cable).
As Lords and/or Ladies of your own domain, you also have complete control over your game modes. Want to have slappers only on GoldenEye using the bunker helipad as a boxing ring, or a throwing-knife showdown in the tight corridors of Archives? Go for it. Want one-hit-kill bricks only TimeSplitters on Chinese with fat characters whose heads are constantly rotating? Then shine on you crazy, chubby diamonds! In fact singleplayer arcade league mode went out of its way to show you the fun you could have in TimeSplitters with custom weapon sets and unusual rules and game modes.
You can even – and this is the craziest – turn the items off in one of the later Mario Karts and play it purely as a game of skill. Try it, it’s a strange experience – recognisable but not quite right, like a bird with arms.
These are just some of the more wacky examples, the freedom of choice benefits a ‘normal’ match just as much. Choose weapons that don’t appear by default, play on game modes and maps the multiplayer servers might not favour, and even tweak little things like whether the radar or turrets are on. The possibilities are endless and yours to explore.
The final freedom of split-screen is freedom from progression (or the freedom to piss around without consequences). I recently rediscovered this on the online multiplayer game Fistful of Frags, a game that doesn’t even record the most basic stats like wins and losses. This means if you want to mess around with the derringers all match, try to learn a new weapon, only use your fists, or to try to Sparta-kick someone off a rooftop because it’ll be funny, then there’s no reason not to. It is extremely liberating, not having to worry about xp, k/d and the optimum setup. Mario Kart 8 understands this, the items always balance (or unbalance) the game, meaning if you want to play as Donkey Kong riding a giant teddy-bear with tiny wheels you can do so and still stand a fair chance of winning.
Good multiplayer needn’t exclude good singleplayer either. Both GoldenEye and the latter two TimeSplitters’ had strong single-player modes even though versus mode stole the limelight.
There are of course disadvantages to split-screen: reduced screen size, (sometimes) suffering frame-rate and the notorious crime of screen-watching. Equally, there’s a host of advantages to online progression-based multiplayer, namely greater longevity, higher stakes, the feeling of having something to aim for and the sense of achievement when you reach it.
The screen-sharing landscape is not completely barren. Portal 2’s co-op is best experienced for the first time with a friend, and like all co-op it benefits from your partner being present, able to point and communicate immediately. Though not it’s biggest selling point, the Halo series’ split-screen is also a lot of fun, if not as light-hearted as shooters of yore, with frantic 2v2 Griffball being especially suited four people in the same room yelling at each other.
Gaming is changing, and quickly, and this makes it a very exciting medium. As technology improves and gaming matures, perhaps the industry just started serving an older audience. Maybe we just grew up and started going round to each other’s houses less often. As players grew up, Naughty Dog moved from Crash Bandicoot to The Last of Us, and multiplayer changed from split-screen to online. Is it any wonder that Nintendo – beloved by many but always child-friendly – is the last big company flying the flag of split-screen? If split-screen games are a thing of the past, then I never want to grow up.