Maybe one of the most universal childhood memories for people in their twenties and early thirties is playing hours of Mario Kart 64. I played it endlessly at a neighbor’s house, and it was always at his house because his mom stocked the pantry with a seemingly unlimited supply of fruit snacks.
The Nintendo 64 wasn’t the first console to let you play with four people, but it was the first that made it easy. It also existed in the era before online gaming took off for consoles, so local multiplayer was the only option — and it was an extraordinary one. Though there are many fondly remembered games from the late ’90s, those four-player experiences on the N64 still resonate the most. I recall cramming in front of a small television with three friends, squinting at my corner of the Goldeneye screen, stuffing my face full of Fruit by the Foot.
The Xbox came along and, with Halo 2, created a new hunger of playing against anonymous opponents online. It ushered in an era of more serious, competitive console gamers, which alienated anyone who didn’t want to be called by some obscenity when playing on the internet. This was the death of local multiplayer, somewhat ironically as televisions started becoming big enough to support screens divided four ways.
A decade later though, we might be seeing a return of local multiplayer games. The trend mostly comes from popular indie games — Towerfall, Samurai Gunn, and Nidhogg all evoke a nostalgia for this experience both in format and aesthetic. But most notable is Kickstarter-funded Sportsfriends, a package of four games that celebrate the old-school thrills of gathering in front of a single TV with friends.
A couple weekends ago, me and three friends killed an afternoon playing each of its four games. Super Pole Riders involves vaulting and prodding each other with what my friend Nicole described as “fleshy, floppy” phalluses in hopes of knocking a ball into your opponents’ goal. The control scheme is deliberately unwieldy (as one might imagine holding a giant penis-like rod would be), and it’s endlessly fun watching friends run and leap uncomfortably across the screen. Johann Sebastian Joust is a game that doesn’t take place on the TV. Using the accelerometer built into each controller, Joust is a game of elimination that requires a sense of balance, both figuratively (thinking about offensive and defensive strategies) and literally (keeping your controller still while moving is a tricky thing). BaraBariBall is in some ways the most traditional of the games. Its 8-bit aesthetic evokes 8-bit-era platforming, which turns into an acrobatic dance of sorts. Hokra, the most abstract Sportsfriends game, is a blippy hybrid of king of the hill and monkey in the middle.
There are so many things to praise all four Sportsfriends games on — their intuitiveness, mechanical cleverness, sense of humor, how each game looks and feels distinct but cohesive to the collection — but the central motive of each game highlights the unique experience of playing together in person.
After we’d exhausted the four main games in Sportsfriends, we tried the two secret games, which can be accessed through variations of the Konami code. The first was a take on Pong called Flop that added a second dimension to Pong by allowing the player to bend his/her bumper, whipping the pong ball at high-velocity angles into the opponent’s goal. The second was simply called Get On Top, a sort of gangly tug-of-war where players control the arms and legs in hopes of pulling each other to the ground head first. Each match takes only a few seconds, and the physics have a hilariously warped logic to them. I watched as two friends played, laughing until they cried.
It was only after they had gotten through some 100 matches over the course of 15 minutes that we realized they had confused which character they were controlling the entire time. But it hardly mattered. Mechanically the Sportsfriends games are deep and thoughtful. But they’re fun because that doesn’t have to matter. In that moment, what was important was that we were all in the same room, drinking beer, laughing together.