Tom: One of the things I miss most about living on a college campus is the feeling that somewhere nearby, at any given moment, something fun is happening or about to happen. It’s inevitable; the shared experience of living in close proximity to so many like-minded peers causes wonderful things to occur. The chorus of four closed doors blasting off their hinges every time someone booted up Super Smash Bros. Melee and the ensuing mad scramble for Wavebirds is something I find constantly lacking from my adult life. (We only had two of the wireless beauties — latecomers risked being subjected to “the fun controller.”) Between all of the stupid pranks, secret pizza parties and late-night bullshit sessions, there is a secret adage most wouldn’t admit: college is 10% hard work and 90% farting around.
While living in a shared environment like college, you grow accustomed (for better or worse) to the idea of always having a potential audience for what were once private activities. For video games, there is an inherent attraction for community participation no matter how minor. It’s an observable effect: plant someone on a couch playing any Zelda game and watch the room slowly fill up with people. Some remember it fondly and want to see their favorite parts again, some want to offer tips or challenge the player with critique and others are just plain curious about why the man in green tights is shoving cartoon bombs down that poor lizard’s throat. Gamers and non-gamers alike were participating in the idea of video games as a performance long before the Wii was ever conceptualized.
Even with the migration of video games from a shared physical living space to a virtual one, the popularity of “Let’s Play!” videos on YouTube is a testament to the attraction of observing others interact with our favorite medium. With the performance label in place, the player is imbued with an unspoken responsibility to put on a good show. Sure, using the same punch-punch-uppercut combo is really effective at taking out most baddies, but wouldn’t your viewing audience rather see you try something flashier? The entire idea behind the appeal of the ridiculous super combo or over-the-top fatality is more geared towards a potential viewing audience than the player.
Not all games are meant to be experienced this way, but many fit the bill – ones that you had more fun backseat driving than playing, couldn’t have completed without an audience cheering you on or were best played by passing the controller back and forth. The best ‘secret co-op’ games are games that, once played as a shared experience, could never be played any other way.
Justin: Adventure games have always had a certain co-op allure since it’s always great to have a few fresh pairs of eyes on a puzzle. This was especially apparent when Zack and Wiki came out for the Wii in 2007. You might not have expected a game starring a cartoony pirate and his cute monkey sidekick to be unflinchingly tough, but Capcom stuffed that disc full of epic melon scratchers. Some of Zack and Wiki‘s later stages could take hours to complete. But the one thing that made the game just a bit more manageable was its seldom-used teleprompter mode. Here, three other buddies could plug in Wii remotes and direct the lead adventurer to find certain clues or items lying around. Presentation-wise, it was basically the video game equivalent of a football commentator drawing Xs and Os on your television screen. Maybe this pick is a bit of a cheat since the functionality is technically programmed into the game, but I’m not one to split hairs. The game came out while I was teaching in China, and this little bonus helped forge a bond between my fellow teachers and I, so it will always have that going for it. Ditto for the first Professor Layton game. I fondly remember passing my DS around in the morning as our school’s creaky jalopy carried us to a countryside school.
I would also like to give a brief nod to podcast favorite Eternal Darkness. My own initial run through the game was a solo effort — I sided with the red crab monster-god, for the record — but I had the pleasure of watching a bunch of my junior year suitemates stumble through it later on when we were all at Case. It was a tremendous amount of fun simply watching an entire room of guys (and respective ladyfriends) get spooked by the same stuff that spooked me years prior. I’m guessing horror movie fans can relate, but what made this particularly fun was that there was the element of randomness at play, too, as I could never be too sure when the person with the controller would trigger a new insanity effect or check out that infamous bloody bathtub. The game might not have been quite as scary with a big group, but it managed to breathe a lot more life on a game that I had long since shelved — so long as you could keep your mouth shut when the fake blue screen of death threw everyone else off.
Lastly, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the best secret co -op experience I’ve had specifically with the Pack, House of the Dead Overkill. None of us were expecting much out of this Wii oddball. It was just a cheap way to pass the time in our hotel room when we were up in Boston for the first PAX East. Little did we know that the game would be an incredibly over-the-top send-up of 70s blaxploitation flicks that nearly demands an MST3K treatment. It has the most absurdly profane script I’ve heard since Deadwood left the air, and the guffaws from your friends generated by the game will be the fuel you need to see it to the end. I mean, sure, you can play the game with multiple controllers and players helping out each other on screen, but the game itself is a bit of a snooze. Instead, Overkill becomes a meta-game in which the object is to rip on the (admittedly self-aware) wackiness on screen. Or in our case, it became a contest to come up with some of the dumbest blaxploitation ripoffs ever conceived. (For instance, the Black Three Stooges, comprised of Blarry, Blumpy and Bloe.) Definitely a “you had to be there” experience, but apparently everyone’s going to get a second chance on the PS3.
My pick for the worst secret co-op? Check out the otherwise wonderful Donkey Kong Jungle Beat, specifically the GameCube version with bongo support. So much random clapping over the years, and the culprits always claim that they were trying to “help” me. You owe me at least a few gold medals, jerks.
Tom: There’s an inherent necessity of at least one viewer other than yourself when playing a particularly challenging game or level. It’s someone to hurl obscenities at when a medusa head knocks you into a bottomless pit mid-jump on your last life in Castlevania. It’s the joy of a voice screaming and laughing in unison as Donkey Kong’s fat ass blows you completely off the track on Rainbow Road. It provides someone to cling to the edge of your seat with you as you desperately mash to deplete the last one-pixel nub of a bosses health bar before your own is extinguished. It’s the slightly awkward, self-aware high five that’s waiting for you when you finally see the end credits roll. It’s someone sharing your grandest virtual accomplishments and most crushing defeats and always urging you, whether they actually say so or not, to complete some of the most heinous acts of masochism ever conceived in the name of fun. After all, what are friends for?
In case the last sentence up there didn’t give it away, my favorite secret co-op game is God Hand. For those unfamiliar with this title, there’s no way I can do it justice here after reading Tim Roger’s review. I urge you to look it up as it is the best explanation of the game’s unique élan vital one could give. To borrow a line from him: “God Hand is a glimpse into the lifestyle of a mythical class of human whose diet consists entirely of disused vintage electric guitars.”
For a period of about three weeks, I had the pleasure of a good buddy sharing my struggle through this notoriously hard game. To properly play this game in “secret co-op,” you will need a brave soul to man the controller and a braver soul to provide unwavering moral support in the face of certain digital destruction. As our shallow ass grooves in the couch grew into chasms, we shared the highs and lows of battling lucha libre gorillas, stomping little people dressed like Power Rangers, and punching endless thugs into the sun. All set to an eclectic surf/rock/funk soundtrack. God damn. God Hand. Clover Studio’s finest work.
I’m not a particularly aggressive gamer. Never has a controller of mine been hurled in anger or smashed in despair. Despite this, I fear that without my stalwart companion by my side to help me deal with the more soul-crushing moments in God Hand a certain Case dorm would still be riddled with fist-sized holes in every conceivable surface. Every gamer has been there before: you’re meticulously playing to conserve as much health as possible, then right before a check point a single careless hit from an enemy drains your entire lifebar prompting you to rage, “COME ON! DO YOU SEE THIS SHIT?!” I can’t explain it, but there’s a great catharsis in the realization that “Yes. Someone did see that shit.” It doesn’t change the fact you have to play the entire level again, but a little bit of companionship and a shoulder to alternately pummel and cry on go a long way.
Alternately, there’s the type of “secret co-op” that completely and utterly changes how a game is played and perceived. When I, and I suspect many others, first played through Heavy Rain my instinct was to try and do all the “right” things. Through the course of my solo journey I saved Shaun, foiled the Origami Killer, kicked Detective Jayden’s crippling online gambling addiction, and of course got the girl. The narrative of Heavy Rain largely relies on the player feeling compelled to do these things — there is an unspoken social contract to this and similar games. All of this changed when I invited an interested buddy over to start his own playthrough.
Before my very eyes, a completely different story began to precipitate. When the social contract of Heavy Rain is broken, the resulting game becomes hilariously unhinged. I watched in delight as my friend became a twisted director of the game’s action: failing every quick time event possible, flat out ignoring important characters and plot points, and half-completing all of the context sensitive actions. There’s an incredible cognitive dissonance to watching these events as the game still attempts to portray them in the most cinematic way possible. You might be familiar with the boredom that soon sets in when attempting similar actions in another game (say, punching random NPCs in Grand Theft Auto or tossing around a peasant’s humble belongings in Oblivion) but in Heavy Rain your actions, no matter how inane, are being framed as if they were purposely taking place in a carefully crafted feature film.
Even a simple description of a character’s early game actions reads like a psychological assessment of the world’s most mentally unstable person:
Ethan Mars is a man on the edge. Due to numerous crippling phobias, he spends most of his waking hours wandering from place to place and staring nervously out windows with his mouth hanging open. Activities that require careful or dexterous movements of the hands are out of the question, he bungles most simple interactions with his impatience and lack of detail. He urinates frequently, never bothering to flush or wash his hands. Ethan always seems to have somewhere else he wants to go or something else he needs to be doing, but seems incapable of following through once he is there.
Observing him in the back yard with his children, he hoists one up on his shoulders and joyously carouses through the grass. When the other requests a similar ride, Ethan just stares at him with cold, dead eyes for what feels like ages. He slowly reaches forward to pick him up, then freezes motionless and retracts his hands inch by inch. He then promptly runs to the fridge and beings to guzzle orange juice so quickly he begins to choke. The rest of Ethan’s day is spent methodically sitting in every chair in his house. God help these children.
My pal hasn’t yet completed the game and honestly I have no idea how it’s going to play out. He hasn’t found any clues or succeeded in a single goal the game has dictated, but the story somehow lurches forward. A few others have begun to gather nightly to watch how this tragic story will unfold, couch co-pilots like myself hungry to see what I assume will be a train wreck of a conclusion.
Kaz: I have several fond memories of finding secret co-op modes in game, even as recently as trading off fights in the most recent Mortal Kombat to alleviate the brutal sting of totally unfair 2-on-1 fights. Even though it makes the single player mode take much longer than it normally would have since each player gets better at the game slower, it makes the whole experience better since someone can watch how hard you slam the controller on the table. Somehow having them witness the rage with which I slowly destroy my original Sixaxis makes it seem more worthwhile. In fact, I’d argue that there was a secret co-op mode to Initial D and whatever King of Fighters game Nick used to play in which the co-op partners hide in another room while he simultaneously destroys his Nyko PC gamepad and computer desk to repeated shouts of “Oh, COME ON!”