In many modern video games, there is an option to design the main character from the ground up using a robust creation system. For some players, this is an excuse to create the most ridiculous hero ever (eight feet tall and purple hair, yes please), but more often than not, people want to put themselves into the action. It makes sense: video games provide experiences that are wholly unlike real life, so of course you would want an avatar of yourself performing these amazing feats. But the option to create a virtual self is not always available, particularly in the co-op multiplayer games of old.
Back in the saccharine days of the 1990s, when the video arcade was still alive and kicking, huge cabinets provided four players the opportunity to punch and kick their way across cartoon landscapes. Animated shows like The Simpsons and X-Men were riding high, and their arcade counterparts were the featured titles at every gaming establishment across the United States. And at the top of every kid’s playlist sat Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Arcade Game. This show (and its respective games) had it all: ninjas, martial arts, skateboarding, and of course, pizza. There was just one problem when it came to actually playing the game with four people: deciding which turtle to play as.
Oh sure, it may seem like an easy decision (Leonardo, duh), but what happens when you have four kids and all of them identify with a katana-wielding do-gooder? You can’t all be the leader – that just wouldn’t make sense. As with so many other co-op arcade games, hard introspection and tough decisions about one’s character had to be made. Several of my trips to Chuck E. Cheese would progress as follows:
“Okay guys, which turtle are you? I am really nerdy and I like to build with Legos, so I should be Donatello.”
“Wait a minute, I like those things too, and I am wearing a purple shirt, so I should be Don!”
“Fine, fine, fine. Well, Cory should be Leonardo, since it’s his birthday.”
“But I don’t wanna be Leo, I like Michelangelo! He has numb-chucks.”
“It’s nun-chucks, stupid! Fine, then I will be Leonardo, Cory can be Michelangelo, Jeremy can be Donatello, and Corey, you’ll be Raphael.”
“Nuh-uh! I am not gonna be Raph, he sucks!”
“Well someone has to be Raph!”
This would go on for some time, until one of us would just break the argument and pick our favorite character before anyone else had the chance. It seemed like every co-op arcade experience went like this until each of us had settled into our roles. For me, I became the grappler/support of the team. My roster was made up of characters like Haggar, Lisa, Nightcrawler, and Ryan, while my brother would take the leading roles of Cody, Bart, Cyclops, and Alex. We had learned which characters best suited our play styles, but more importantly, we identified with these heroes and our time spent gaming became even more special.
Even though arcades have mostly vanished from the world, the experience of molding yourself to a character is far from extinct. There are several modern co-op games that do not allow players to create an avatar from scratch. When playing Left 4 Dead or Scott Pilgrim Versus the World, my friends and I still have to figure out which character is the best representation of our personalities. Most first-person shooters limit the visual customization options to basic colors and body armor, so players must determine their role in the group using the weapons and tools available. Maybe you are the sniper who stays back and picks off enemies for the team, or perhaps the job of a medic might be a better fit. The choice is yours.
While the arguments and debates over character selection were mostly superficial among my friends, there was a deeper reason for all of it. When you get to the nitty-gritty of co-op gaming, there needs to be less focus on your individual progress and more care put into how you can best help the team. After all, if some jack-ass is stealing all of the pizzas when his/her turtle doesn’t even need health, the rest of the team will suffer. Just like Master Splinter said, “Together, there is nothing your four minds cannot accomplish. Help each other, draw upon one another, and always remember the power that binds you.”