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Split-Screen Gaming Was the Epitome of Togetherness

For gamers in 1997, the debut of the Nintendo 64 brought a new opportunity: Four people playing together, on the same console. Now, split-screen multiplayer is a dying art — and we’re losing something tangible with it

2022 marks the 25th anniversary of the year that everything happened — 1997. It was an ear-biting, Pierce Brosnan-loving, comet-obsessed world, and we’re here to relive every minute of it. Twice a week over the next 12 months, we will take you back to the winter of sheep cloning and the summer of Con Air. Come for the Chumbawamba, and stay for the return of the Mack. See all of the stories here.

The year 1997 didn’t mark the first time in my young life that I played a video game console — but it was surely the most formative, forever coloring my impression of gaming and teaching me the magnetic potential of a single screen. 

The Nintendo 64 console had arrived the summer prior, but my parents didn’t have the budget to drop $200 on a Christmas gift, and I didn’t put up much of a fight. Instead, I turned to my friend Oliver, who lived a few blocks away and had scored an N64 for his birthday. 

The machine was a marvel to both of us: The slim charcoal-gray machine didn’t look much more sophisticated than 1991’s Super Nintendo, but the cutting-edge (at the time) 3D game designs and character models it pumped out on-screen felt entirely foreign. It was an enigma to our seven-year-old minds, especially because it came with a feature that no other console had: Four controller ports, making it dead simple to play games with four people on a single TV.

Not even Sony’s 1995 PlayStation, the direct competitor of the N64, had four ports. The only time I had even witnessed side-by-side competitive gameplay was at the arcade. Now, the arcade was in my best friend’s living room — and we played endlessly, rotating in Oliver’s little brother, other friends from the neighborhood and the occasional curious parent. The game of choice was Star Fox 64, featuring all manner of aircraft and pilots to use in thrilling dogfights. We sunk hours on the weekend chasing each other in the vacuum of virtual space, seemingly enthralled by what is, looking back, some incredibly easy gameplay. 

Star Fox 64 was just the first taste of more split-screen games to come in 1997. The legendary James Bond shooter Goldeneye 007 dropped next, which taught me how to move and aim with a gun for the first time in a 3D first-person environment. It’s also where I first learned to troll in a split-screen multiplayer game, screen-peeking my opponents and chasing after them despite their squealing protestations (and cackling myself, because I was often playing as the heinously overpowered henchman Oddjob, long considered a “cheat” because he’s near impossible to shoot.) 

Ask any 1990s-era gamer about split-screen multiplayer, and it’s likely their love affair with collaborative game sessions originated with Goldeneye. Its multiple maps, guns and characters made replay and experimentation a virtue, not a necessity. Meanwhile, the technology that made it possible for four people, not just a pair, to play together felt like a true revolution. (It’s crazy to think that such an influential game mode was, in development, practically an afterthought. “The multiplayer mode, which is now seen as critical for its big success, was for a long time just a wish-list thing, not a thing that we were definitely going to have. The N64 had four controller ports, so it invited the idea that you’d have a four-player split screen, but we were only going to program a multiplayer mode if we had time,” developer David Doak told MEL for an oral history of the game’s creation.)

Arguably, 1997 directly inspired the development of some of the greatest “couch multiplayer” games to ever exist — and what’s tragic is that 25 years later, the act of gathering around a single screen to play a game together is a dying relic in mainstream gaming. 

As I matured into adolescence, I expanded my gaming horizons, securing a gleaming PlayStation 2 in 2001 and falling hard for online PC shooters like Counter-Strike through the early aughts. Despite such a swell of supreme gaming excellence, I always gravitated most to the thrill of IRL multiplayer competition. At school, that meant covert four-person Super Smash Bros. battles away from the eyes of prying teachers (there was always one kid who brought his own TV and console for this purpose). And on the weekend, it meant going over to various friends’ homes to camp out on the couch with six other people, racking up 12-hour days filled with sick kills and giddy gamer shit-talk as I waited for my turn to draw blood in Halo: Combat Evolved for the Xbox.

In so many ways, much of my early teen years boiled down to fever-dream sessions of laughing, raging and taunting in multiplayer games, learning to love my friends and accept our competitive differences through the bonding act of squinting at a quarter of a shitty CRT screen. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t the best at, say, Halo; most of the battle was making sure I didn’t finish in last place. And even if that happened, it just meant giving up the controller and cooling off for 15 minutes. 

But then, maybe starting a decade ago, it became clear that game developers no longer saw “couch multiplayer” as a priority, especially with the rising dominance of online multiplayer. Nothing felt more like the canary in the proverbial gaming coal mine quite like the release of Halo 5 in 2015, which killed split-screen multiplayer for the very first time in the franchise’s history.

This shift has certainly been noticed by the broader gamer zeitgeist. It’s easy to find the lamentations on social media and Reddit, in which people often reflect on the simpler joys of playing with friends in the same room. “I love gaming, especially ones with good stories, but nothing tops the experience of gaming with split-screens with friends or siblings,” wrote one redditor in 2021. “I used to play all the time with my brother and [that] was the only time we really connected. Even when friends [come] over, you just plug in some controllers and everyone’s laughing and joking about the game. Just the physical memory of everyone sitting around and playing the game, getting intrigued with the story…” 

Perhaps the collective pain over the creeping, inevitable loss of split-screen multiplayer is more a sign of a generational gap for millennial gamers than anything else. As I’ve grown older, it’s become more obvious that I will likely never regain the pure sensation of camaraderie I felt losing track of time while gaming in-person. Or perhaps I’m just over-romanticizing an era in which crappy graphics looked even crappier on a tiny TV split into four. But even accounting for my nostalgia, there was something truly special about how couch multiplayer was able to draw all kinds of people into gaming, merely by being a physical nexus of energy and joy. 

No wonder people remain upset that what was once an essential feature of games is now neglected by developers: “Just about every time I look for a game to play, especially with my partner and I being gamers, it’s very difficult to find anything to play together without having to be online or linked together on different machines,” one person wrote on Reddit this month. 

“I am a fairly avid gamer but almost all of my friends are very casual gamers. This makes it almost impossible for me to play games with my friends when they come over. The reason being is that almost all new games that came out DO NOT HAVE SPLIT SCREEN COUCH CO-OP ???,” reads another post from 2021.

Why is this happening? 

The most cynical take is that it’s all about the bottom line for developers and, more importantly, publishers — excluding split-screen gameplay means that more people have to buy the game in order to play with their friends. But it’s a cultural shift, too: Digital spaces are increasingly equivalent to “real life” physical environments, especially for young people who are able to nurture rich relationships in virtual worlds. 

Nonetheless, it’s sad to herald the slow end to split-screen gaming and the memories it left for so many people. In the same way that even the most sophisticated video chat cannot capture the energy of a person who is physically next to you, there is so much fidelity lost when we move gaming from the living room to an online matchmaking lobby. 

Coincidentally, the one company that has fought to encourage people to play on the same console together is the one that birthed a multiplayer revolution: Nintendo, which offers a number of cooperative and split-screen titles for its modern-day Switch platform. It’s a wonderful thing for that legacy to continue in some form 25 years later — even as we grow more and more accustomed to playing together while physically alone.