Multiplayer gaming wouldn’t be what it is today without the Nintendo 64.

It’s strange to say in hindsight, considering the console’s antisocial streak. In 1996, it was the first system to make four-player gaming a default option, paving the way for couch-filling classics like Super Smash Bros. and Mario Kart 64. But typically, when the screen broke into fourths, the N64 made a party foul.

Before laggy internet games and Red Rings of Death, the common geek’s plight was the frame rate -how smoothly a game ran. And as one of the earliest 3-D consoles, the N64 often buckled under a quadrupled workload. Star Wars podracing was more like plodracing when friends joined in. Even legendary spy shooter GoldenEye 007 could look like a flipbook with four players sharing the screen.

Why, then, do fans still clamor for GoldenEye‘s re-release on modern consoles? The rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia are clearly at work here – and modern game makers may have forced us to put them on.

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In spite of über-powerful game systems, local multiplayer is falling by the wayside. It’s not dead – how’s that Wii, Grandma and Grandpa? – but these days, too many top-tier games are scrapping options for extra buddies to play in the same room, on the same couch, like we did for marathon sessions of GoldenEye. As we transition into massive, online-only team games, our second, third and fourth controllers are collecting dust.

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Stunt-racing masterpiece Burnout Paradise gets all the little things right. With fewer loading pauses, the game doesn’t halt between races. Frame rates are smooth. Paradise‘s developers have even given away bunches of free, downloadable bonuses.

These details are what we gamers beg for from so many developers, but I still have a bone to pick with Paradise. In its multiplayer cooperative mode, players drive together through the game’s sprawling city with a variety of tasks: rip donuts in a particular parking lot, then set up a super-stunt where everyone crashes into each other in mid-air, etc. Wild stuff. Trouble is, you can’t roll co-op with friends on the same screen. Everybody needs a copy of the game, a console, a TV and an internet connection.

Stubbornly, I begged a buddy to get the game so we could enjoy these modes together – they seemed fun in early tests. Not so much. When he got confused, I couldn’t point at the screen and gesture. My taunts were relegated to fuzzy shouts over a cheap headset. Worse, when we drove from task to task, often for up to two miles of virtual distance, it felt hollow and boring – why couldn’t we spend this downtime riffing on the same couch? Adding more players to round out our co-op team didn’t help; rather, we were auto-grouped with rude, disagreeable or silent guests.

It’s neither the first nor the last game to leave couches cold in the latest gaming generation. Shooters like Gears of War 2 and Resistance 2 top out at two players on a single console. Sony’s latest mega-shooter, Killzone 2, won’t make room for more than one player per PS3, in spite of its battle modes focusing specifically on four-player “squad” groups. Even the most cooperative of all co-op games in recent history, Left 4 Dead, requires you to play online to max out your four-player squad.

There are myriad reasons for this shift – shrunken development times, hardware limitations – but we can dismiss them all by looking at other top-tier games. Boom Blox, LittleBigPlanet, most EA Sports team games and more than a few first-party Wii games carry the four-player torch with little issue (as does Rock Band, though, to be fair, its price premium puts it on a different level). Halo 3, Mario Kart Wii and Call of Duty 4 go a step beyond, proving that modern consoles can run high-octane four-player action via split screen and not slow to a crawl.

But after taking one step forward, Call of Duty 4 took two – or perhaps four – steps back. CoD4 is renowned for its dangling-carrot reward system: Play more online games, get more weapons and items. Unfortunately, only one player at a time can play online, and with maps clearly designed for 16 players, four-player deathmatches feel rather empty. These kinds of design decision encourage groups of friends to play separately from home rather than in each other’s company.

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Originally, getting two players into a videogame, let alone four, wasn’t a fundamental goal of the medium. That seems illogical – uh, Pong? – but the earliest arcade developers usually favored impossible, quarter-munching challenges for one. Home consoles and computers were the proving grounds for early multiplayer gaming: The short bursts of two-player action in Atari’s Combat were too simplistic for the flashy arcades, while thoughtful strategy games like M.U.L.E. would have been difficult to price on a per-quarter basis.

It wasn’t until 1983 that a little-known Atari 800 game, Dandy, teased the idea of simultaneous four-player action. Unsurprisingly, this dungeon crawler drew inspiration from the world’s first great multiplayer game, Dungeons & Dragons. (Dandy, “DandD,” get it?) Atari may have ripped off Dandy‘s creator when it introduced Gauntlet to arcades, but while the fantasy archetypes were similar, the latter’s inclusion of four joysticks in one cabinet made it distinct enough to start an arcade revolution.

As game tech advanced, the arcade remained the ideal destination for no-frills four-player action. Licensed fare from Konami dominated the four-player scene at the turn of the ’90s – Ninja Turtles most famously – and Gauntlet‘s team play set a standard, as arcade multiplayer games were typically co-op affairs. Before Street Fighter II came along, your computer opponents were the source of challenge, not your friends.

Home console games added a few more competitive options, but they didn’t matter: Most people couldn’t play them. Four-player games required adapters like the Four Score and Super Multitap, which were pricey niche add-ons. Rather than waste resources on multiplayer-focused games, designers typically took the easy route and added extra players to standard sports games or ported four-player arcade hits like NBA Jam that already had a following.

By the late ’90s, the PlayStation and N64 finally rivaled the sheer power of arcade cabinets. If an arcade game was popular, it’d get a home version within months.

Assuming at least one person in a group of friends had an N64, getting the gang to chip in for a copy of GoldenEye and extra controllers made more financial sense than living at the arcade. Even if that weren’t an issue, arcades had nothing like GoldenEye, nor a four-player brawler like Smash Bros. and not even a good battle racer like Mario Kart.

The arcade industry’s great asset had been its inherent social appeal, full of different walks of gamers facing off and placing their quarters on their favorite machines. But as multiplayer options bubbled up – the West’s rising embrace of LAN-connected deathmatches in Doom and Quake, in particular – the arcade’s only response was to sell itself as a premium gaming outlet. It didn’t work; elaborately networked rigs of Daytona USA didn’t sweep America.

So the party moved to Billy’s house.

Billy is the Xbox Live stereotype, rudely shouting via headset at anonymous foes. If we’re lucky, he has at least teamed up with a clan of like-minded gamers. But he’s not connected with friends in the same room via LAN party, nor is he sharing a couch and riffing with pals, nor is he even learning the ways of internet etiquette a la Quake and at least typing “gg” after a long session.

If you’re tempted to label me a cranky old man who wants games the old way – buddies on a couch, shouting, holding three-pronged N64 controllers – you wouldn’t be off the mark. But there’s a more troubling shift at work here. Without the public influence of an arcade crowd or a gang of friends, we game differently. More obsessively, more angrily, more willing to take bait of XP gathering – Killzone 2‘s lobbies are packed with “XP HERE!” tags, which means people are focusing on points and loot, not the giddy thrill of combat. Developers hurt their games when they lean on achievement bait, XP systems and oversized experiences that kill all hopes of local co-op, like Sony’s MAG, the 256-player battle game set for release later this year. Can a player expect to make a connection with any of his 127 teammates, even if they’re broken into more manageable mini-squads (none of which can run as a foursome on a single PS3)?

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The Nintendo 64 may have made multiplayer gaming what it is today, but if we’re not careful, the modern trend of one-player-per-screen will slowly erode those principles that made the genre fun in the first place. Designers who do not prioritize party play will curse the entertainment form back into the lonely recesses of people standing by themselves, grinding through impossible, time-munching challenges for one.

Nintendo recently promoted its latest Super Mario Bros. title with a four-player mode that runs solely on a single console. Unhappy journalists hoping for an online option were told the Wii didn’t have the power for it. But maybe there was another answer: The industry’s first four-player champions didn’t have the stomach for it.

Sam Machkovech is the games critic for Seattle weekly newspaper The Stranger.

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