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On Split-Screen Gaming

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This month (week) saw the release of the latest entry in the Halo franchise, Halo 5: Guardians. For the first time since Halo: Combat Evolved, I find myself with no plans to play a new Halo game in the foreseeable future (although, check back with me after Black Friday..). While I’ve always been a Nintendo and (later) a PlayStation gamer, my best friend has continuously supported the Xbox, almost entirely because of the Halo franchise, and has provided me the requisite access to devote an unhealthy amount of time to the Halo universe. In our youth, I still remember pulling all-nighters to play through Halo campaigns at release, and as we’ve gotten older (but not wiser) and moved apart, I’ve built vacations around Halo release dates. Honestly, even though we live nearly two-thousand miles apart, we were planning to play Halo 5 together and I was planning to burn a few vacation days on that trip. Those plans went up in smoke back in June when 343 Studios announced that Halo 5 would not feature any local split-screen co-op or multiplayer, favoring delivering sixty frames-per-second over one of the series’ staples. While I have not been able to play Halo 5 this month, I thought this significant change to one of my favorite franchises would serve as a great launching pad for a discussion of split-screen gaming.

When I think of the origins of multiplayer in gaming, my thoughts immediately go back to some of my earliest gaming memories -- playing games on the NES. While games like the original Mario allowed two players to partake in the experience, they were more about taking turns and not contributing towards a shared goal or progress. Mario 3, however, put both players within the context of the same journey. Although the element of taking turns was still present, players took turns to progress through the story together. If one player beat a level, that level would be cleared and the next player would have to move on to the next available level. Admittedly, at times, that game felt less about progressing towards the same goal and more about strategically dying to ensure you were the one who gained access to that next Toad House. The early Sonic games did a better job letting both players play at the same time, but with the tradeoff of an uneven experience. Player one controlled Sonic and player two controlled Tails, but the camera only really followed player one and it was easy to leave player two behind.

To get a true look at the early cooperative gaming experience you have to shift your focus to arcades and the games inspired by them. As a kid, I remember going to arcades and pouring quarters into a top-down helicopter shooter (actually, I remember the one time the machine broke and we could play for free, but the sentiment is mostly the same). However, I also remember playing arcade games on the NES like the nightmare-inducing Battletoads and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game (which was a sequel to the nightmare-inducing side-scrolling Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game -- as an aside, why are we still gamers when so many old games were nightmare inducing..?). These games allowed players to play together, fighting the same opponents, competing for the same power-ups, and striving towards the same goal. The SNES era saw games like Turtles in Time and the Gauntlet series brought the experience into 3D on the Nintendo 64, but for the most part, cooperative gaming did not drastically change over the next few years.

Of course, the other side of the coin was competitive gaming. Some of the earliest games, Pong for instance, allowed players to compete against each other. However, most early competitive games followed the same format as early co-op games -- namely that players were simultaneously playing essentially in the same location. This was best exemplified by fighting games which gave players the opportunity to directly clash against each other. Players were placed in the same arena and literally faced off against each other, most often on simple flat levels. As gaming developed, a new take on competitive gaming arose from racing games: split-screen. With split-screen, players could partake in the same competition, but while experiencing different locations, obstacles, and conditions. One player could be taking a series of tight twists and turns, struggling to avoid other cars, while another could be accelerating down a long straight-away, pulling away from the pack. During the Nintendo 64 era, first person shooters redefined both cooperative competitive gaming, and the split-screen experience they offered became the gold-standard. Goldeneye on the Nintendo 64 allowed four players to simultaneously compete against each other from the comfort of their own couch. Three years later, Rare built upon Goldeneye’s already phenomenal gameplay with Perfect Dark, a game which served as the first introduction for many into split-screen cooperative gaming. Like its side-scroller predecessors, players could work together to battle opponents and work towards objectives. However, it worked exceptionally well in shooters where players could better devise and utilize strategies together. Players could bail each other out of trouble when pinned down, flank enemies and catch them unaware, or split up to complete objectives while also combating enemy forces. Split-screen co-op was revolutionary, and as a younger brother, at the time, I thought it was one of the greatest things ever. Honestly, I am still more than a little disappointed that a two player, 3D Mario game where players can simultaneously control Mario and Luigi has never materialized.

As new generations of gaming allowed games to become larger, games like those of the Halo franchise exemplified both sides of split-screen gameplay. Personally, I consider Halo: Combat Evolved to be near the pinnacle of split-screen gaming. I still remember playing games of capture the flag with sixteen people spread across four televisions. I remember, in college, rearranging two dorm rooms to allow eight people to gather around two TVs in each (which, thinking about it now, was probably a fire hazard..) for some of the most intense gaming sessions, where a single match could run for hours. Halo: CE’s enormous levels and copious use of vehicles also offered a phenomenal cooperative gameplay experience. These features introduced in 2001 have been a staple of the Halo franchise for over a decade. While Halo 2 allowed players to play with others around the world, largely killing the massive CTF games which defined its predecessor, the game kept both the split-screen cooperative and competitive aspects. With Halo 3, Bungie expanded the cooperative experience and allowed four players to partake in the campaign together across two consoles. Since its origin, the Halo franchise has invariably delivered a social experience.

At the same time, online gaming was transforming gaming from one type of social experience into another. While games like those of the Gears of War franchise and Resident Evil 5 and 6 continued to feature split-screen cooperative gaming, the majority of games began to shy away from split-screen multiplayer, instead embracing the ability of gamers to connect to others around the world through the internet for both cooperative and competitive multiplayer. Some of the early Modern Warfare games allowed local split-screen, but prevented multiple players from playing online at the same time on the same console. Initially, the central argument behind this shift was that split-screen could have an impact on players and produce competitive advantages and disadvantages. On one hand, split-screen leads to smaller screens, more noise, and issues like screen-peaking -- competitive disadvantages compared to those who were playing solo. Conversely, split-screen players could better coordinate in ways not open to players playing solo or, at best, relying on online communication tools.

More recently, the arguments against split-screen have focused on graphical and hardware restrictions. As I mentioned earlier, 343 Studios has stated that they decided to abandon all aspects of split-screen in Halo 5 to ensure they could deliver a consistent sixty frames-per-second experience. Don’t get me wrong, although I am personally disappointed by this choice, my purpose here is not to criticize 343 Studios’ decision. With the emphasis on graphics in gaming these days, I completely understand why they made this choice. I also realize that split-screen is a feature that few players will utilize, especially over the lifetime of Halo 5. In fact, I imagine that 343 looked at the numbers from Halo 4 and The Master Chief Collection before making their decision on which aspect to prioritize. However, as I said earlier, Halo has always been a social experience, more so than many other games, and losing this staple of the franchise is still a bitter pill to swallow. There are so few games now which offer games the opportunity to sit on the same couch and play together. First person shooters favor online multiplayer, and when they delve into any forms of cooperative gameplay, it takes the form of online cooperative like the version seen in Halo 5 or games like Destiny; multiplayer role playing games have been mostly supplanted by massively multiplayer online role playing games; and even sidescrolling platformers have.. Actually, those have seen a resurgence thanks to games like New Super Mario Bros.

In the end, I suppose it comes down to a question of what are we actually losing? As someone who has been playing video games for over twenty years, I remember when gaming was not really considered a social activity. But gaming is more mainstream now, and in some ways more social. So many games feature chat options and consoles even ship with mics for communication. And yet, individual gaming has become more isolated and it is strange that some of the early social aspects are disappearing. Realistically, Halo 4 was one of the last games which I played split-screen, and this change would only have affected me for a few days. However, growing up, I built friendships through games of Goldeneye and Perfect Dark. Especially in college, playing split-screen Halo was one of the pillars which my lasting friendships with my roommates was built around. I can still remember egging each other to stay up past five AM one night because we were on, what eventually became, a nineteen game winning streak. Honestly, to this day, I am a terrible Warthog gunner because I could drive, and I always knew I had someone there who excelled at the other role. The more I see gaming abandon its early social roots, the more I wonder what effect this shift has on gamers who are younger than me and who are just becoming gamers. But maybe that’s just me. Do you share these sentiments, or do you think split-screen gaming just something that gaming has grown out of as it has grown up?

All for one and one for all~


  1. Sagacyte -
    Sagacyte's Avatar
    Good post! Online multiplayer opens several doors to meeting new people and having a lot of fun, but nothing compares to the raw awesomeness that is gathering with your friends in a common spot and play together (be it cooperatively or competitively). Games like Mario Kart, Mario Party, Rocket League and Towerfall:Ascension are great reminders of this.
  2. Tyrath -
    Tyrath's Avatar
    I still remember the 16 man LAN parties we used to have with the first Halo. So sad that the new one doesn't allow that.
  3. Mythe_Seraph -
    Mythe_Seraph's Avatar
    My mom went above and beyond for my birthday parties. We would always go somewhere or do something super fun but everyone knew what was coming that night. 12 player LAN Halo party all night. She got a modem for us and everything (this is back in the day guys like 2001, this shit was not common) and ran Ethernet cables from the top story to the basement so that all 3 levels of the house had wires near the TVs. We had some of the most fun ever doing that. It was like xbox live before xbox live. Amazing memories. Doing that as a 10/11/12 year old individual was an experience that was so unique to gaming. It completely changed what I wanted out of video games though, which wasn't necessarily a bad thing.

    Good memories. Xbox Live is amazing. Online gaming is incredible, but nothing beats those LAN parties.