#2. Return Fire
There was a period in the mid-'90s where gamers were all about "roster games." I'm not entirely sure what their official name is, but you've probably played one: The basic conceit is that each side has a list of characters/units/vehicles/horse carts, and the two sides send one out to fight the other until a player's roster is completely destroyed. The roster games spanned lot of different genres -- from strategy to fighting -- but my personal favorites will always be Star Control 2 and Return Fire. But while Star Control was an arguably excellent series, presenting an in-depth single-player mode as well as a carefully balanced, exhaustive list of unique ships for the multiplayer, Return Fire did it better.
By doing none of those things.
It was a multiplayer only (you could fight an AI opponent, but this was back in the day, remember; fighting '90s AI was like whipping dodge balls at a special needs class) capture the flag game, and each player had the same four units: a helicopter, a tank, an APC and a jeep. You could not pick your own units, and each unit was pretty much only suited to fight one other unit. He brings out his helicopter? You bring out your tank. He brings out his APC? You bring out your tank. He brings out his tank? Tank. Tank? Tank.
Source."HELLO, COPTER! Shit, are we doing a different thing now?"
And so it went, all the way up until the end, when you were both locked into another choice: helicopter/jeep. The jeep was the weakest unit, and the only one capable of capturing the flag, and the helicopter was the only one that could catch the jeep. So the game gave you the illusion of a choice, but it always came down to who ran out of tanks first, and then ended with that guy in a tiny jeep leaving a dappled trail of fear urine as he got mowed down by the trail of rapidly approaching explosions emanating from the helicopter behind him.
It was pure chicanery on the part of the developers. It was precisely the kind of thing we gamers hate. It was artificially inflated difficulty, not true skill, and blah, blah, blah. You already know that it was friggin' brilliant: Every match ended with the ultimate underdog going up against the very flapping embodiment of death. Return Fire knew that the key to a good gaming experience is the same as in stand-up comedy and my sex life: Always go out on a laugh. The game had no basic balancing, no variety, and transparently manipulative rules, but every single time you brought out your jeep, "Flight of the Bumblebee" started playing, and you could guarantee that the next five minutes would be spent laughing, swearing and white-knuckling the controller until your mom came in to see if you were overdosing on whippits again.
#1. NFL Blitz 2000
I don't sports.
I don't play, watch, care about or understand sports. At all. I do not sports.
But the single most fun I've ever had with any game, in the history of ever, was playing 2 vs. 2 on NFL Blitz 2000 for the Nintendo 64. And that's saying a lot, because the N64 was nothing but a multiplayer monster. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that true, old school, in-person multiplayer gaming died with the N64. That's not even meant to bash modern systems, it's just that the bastard had GoldenEye, Wrestlemania, Mario Kart -- what can you do about that? The N64 brought a nuclear bomb to a slap fight. And NFL Blitz 2000 was the switchblade that nuclear bomb pulled on you, just to see the shock on your face, right before it exploded. That system and game combination were specially engineered to accomplish a single, noble goal: to put one console and four controllers in every frat house on earth.
And they did it. It wasn't just a marketing feat; it was a social revolution. The ubiquitousness of Blitz finally gave hardline, non-sports nerds like myself something in common with frat-joining, beer-bonging, football-understanding jocks. And that's all, because it failed completely as a sports game. NFL Blitz had as much to do with football as pachinko -- there's a little round thing that bounces around inside of both, and if you're drunk enough, you can bet on it.
Source."WHAT? Did you see that bounce? That was bullshit!"
Thanks to the most malevolent rogue AI since Shodan, Blitz wasn't even a game so much as a roulette table that let you reach in and slap the wheel once in a while. The computer in Blitz turned on you more often than a Game of Thrones character, and it did it all in a misguided effort to keep things "balanced." But it did not result in balance: It resulted in every fourth quarter being absolutely littered with inexplicable fumbles, miracle interceptions and whole teams dive-tackling straight through wide receivers like they were the ghosts of greased pigs.
Source.Seriously. It's like Jerry Rice crashed his car into a KY factory. (Thanks for the football guy name, Wikipedia!)
The blatant, obvious fuckery on the part of the computer gave every player a collective villain to rally against. That, combined with the team-based nature of the game, made for the most instant, die-hard camaraderie this side of a foxhole. I've got a joke for you: What did the skinhead say to the Jew after their team lost at NFL Blitz?
"You did your best, man; there was just too much bullshit. Rematch!"
Because that's what everybody says. You want world peace? Easy. We could settle every dispute in history by putting two guys on one side of a Blitz game. That loss bonds for life.
Well, I imagine, anyway. I never actually lost a game of Blitz, I've just watched others lose to me so often that I've managed to observe a pattern through the profanity and broken sobbing. (It's called Hurricane, bitches; I multipass that shit like Leeloo Dallas).
So what, am I totally off base here? What are your best moments in multiplayer games? When you relay those anecdotes to other gamers, are they all about finely tuned, well-balanced and expertly executed big name properties? Because I think a great multiplayer game is like a childhood fistfight: The good ones always involve insane shenanigans, rock-stupid mistakes and the occasional bloody nose.
Get the first episode of Robert's Sci-fi Serial Novel, Rx: A Tale of Electronegativity, right here, or buy Robert's other book, Everything Is Going to Kill Everybody: The Terrifyingly Real Ways the World Wants You Dead. Follow him on Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook.
For more from Brockway, check out 5 Real Skills Video Games Have Secretly Been Teaching Us and The Most Efficient Way to Do ... Everything.