Same room multi-player gaming is the original, and for me still, ultimate way to play video games. The first games that are recognisable as such were two player. Tennis for Two, Space War and Pong are designed for 2 players. Ralph Baer in an interview in his later years expressed disappointment at how video games had turned out – the single player experience and the remote multi-player experience dominate gaming today and it isn’t what he had envisaged when he put together the first game console for the home; he had thought about families and friends playing together instead.
I am very much of the same opinion. Single player and online games can be great but the single player campaign, the online FPS and the massively multiplayer online genre have pushed out the local multi-player experience – in my opinion to gaming’s detriment; resulting in looser game design, lack of variety in mainstream releases, and enforcing the lone nerd image and general unwholesome air that gaming is incorrectly blighted with by the popular press.
There is nothing quite like beating an opponent who is sitting beside you on the sofa/couch, and it’s even better if a crowd is gathered to witness it. So this article is part of an occasional series that will highlight local multiplayer games that are available for different consoles. I’m starting in this article the Sega Saturn – a much maligned console whose library has aged rather well yet has been overlooked in the recent spate of consoles re-released in their “mini” format.
Some of these games are exclusive to Saturn. Some are best represented, or at least well implemented on the Saturn and I am also only picking games that have aged well. Others I choose might be a bit easier to experience on Saturn as they may appear on other platforms but are hard to obtain or to pay for; however I make no apologies for including some import games as that is where the Saturn library is very strong.
I will also attempt to cover as many genres as possible so that as many tastes as possible are covered but I would encourage the reader to try all of these as they are all extremely approachable and accessible.
Athlete Kings and Winter Heat – Sega, 1996, 1997
Sports games are an obvious choice for multiplayer gaming but modern games seem to have lost their way a bit. It seems to have become a bit po-faced and pretty joyless, but there have been a few modern gems such as Wii Sports Resort which is a riot in multiplayer. Saturn has the usual selection of team sports games but it’s within the regime of athletics games that I’m going to concentrate.
Athlete Kings (aka Decathlete) serves up the 10 different track and field events that make up the Olympic Decathlon. Gameplay is similar to the usual button bashing format that was introduced by Konami’s Track and Field but with some refinements. This game supports 2 players and depending on the events these can be turn-based (e.g. Long jump or javelin) or simultaneous (e.g. 400m or 110m hurdles). Records of best performances are kept and there are two modes. The arcade mode is the classic “meet the qualifying time or distance to qualify for the next event” style of game, but the decathlon mode is a bit more tactical. In this mode there is no qualifying performance to aim for – you simply move onto the next event if you fail to score, and so it changes how to approach the field events in particular. There is enough variety in the control schemes in the different events to keep this interesting and the different characters available have different abilities. It adds up to a very competitive game and the graphics look pretty solid and still stand up pretty well; and is overall a better game than the Dreamcast update. It is also considered better than the PS2 remake.
Winter Heat was the followup game and it covers events from the Winter Olympics. There is a very wide range of events again with the mix of turn-based and simultaneous implementation. This time up to 4 players can take part and the simultaneous events really benefit from this. The winter theme means the graphics don’t look quite as interesting but it still looks pretty good and delivers the same solid experience as Athlete Kings. These two games together deliver loads of multi-player fun both from the general gameplay but also from the record-keeping that is inherent in sports. These got multi-region releases and are not too difficult to find and pay for.
Fighters Megamix – Sega, 1996
Xmen vs Streetfighter – Capcom , 1997
Versus fighters are another obvious choice for multi-player; indeed these games are designed for 2 players. The single player experience in these games isn’t the main mode and it’s when 2 are gathered (or more for tournament style play) that these games shine. The genre isn’t for everyone however and it has become somewhat elite and hardcore after many years of refinement. Beginners can be a bit overawed and resort to button mashing which quickly results in people getting bored due to no sense of control, but there are some games that are more knockabout in nature and therefore more approachable.
Fighters Megamix is a 3D polygon fighter and is actually a hybrid of two other more serious 3D fighters – Virtua Fighter and Fighting Vipers. Because the two games are merged and because there are loads of different characters, including ones from other video game series (including a racing car from Daytona USA!) certain compromises are made with the pure fighting gameplay and consequently it has a sense of fun. Aside from the straight up 2 player versus mode there is a versus team battle mode in which players pick 6 characters per side. This is intended as a 2 player game but it could be used to facilitate more players.
The graphics look a bit rough around the edges nowadays but the variety and atmosphere makes up for it. This is a game unique to the Saturn and will be easy to pick up as it was one of Sega’s “big releases”.
Capcom supported the Saturn very well with a series of 2D sprite based fighting games. It was during the Saturn era that they licensed Marvel characters and when they pushed these together with their own they created a riotous series of games that can be enjoyed by players with a wide range of skills. The controls are loose enough to allow players relatively easy access to the different special moves and the sight and sounds and general manic feel of the games are glorious. These games also introduced the idea of tag team fighting where each player picks two fighters which really mixes things up. These games do require the 4MB expansion cartridge but it means that the games are brilliantly implemented and trounce their Playstation 1 counterparts which are crippled, pale imitations.
These have to be imported from Japan but aren’t too difficult to source, present no language barrier, and they are reasonably priced with or without the RAM cartridge in case you already have one or the Action Replay cartridge. I’m picking out Xmen vs Streetfighter for this article but there is also the excellent followup called Marvel Super Heroes vs Streetfighter which has a wider roster of characters but might be a bit more expensive to pick up. These games haven’t really been improved upon on more modern platforms though so if you consider them in the context of modern game prices they aren’t expensive.
Baku Baku – Sega, 1996
Shanghai Triple Threat – Activision, 1995
When Tetris came along it was essentially a solo experience. But the Gameboy version showed how multiplayer puzzle gaming could work. You required 2 Gameboys, 2 cartridges and the linkup cable but it transformed Tetris into something new. Most puzzle games that have Tetris as their predecessor now have a multiplayer mode and the better ones are those that are designed in such a way as to allow the balance of the game to swing back and forth between players.
Baku Baku from Sega is good example of such a game. The setup is the classic puzzle versus game. Each player has their own half of the screen which is split vertically down the middle into which items drop that must be arranged in a certain way to avoid the screen filling up. Players form attacks by grouping food icons together and then remove them in one move by dropping the appropriate symbol onto them – in this case the matching animal (monkey eats banana, dog eats bones etc). Skillful players can arrange food and animal symbols to achieve chain reactions to create large scale attacks and the design of them seem to allow room for the attacked player to stage a comeback.
The game has charming presentation – the animal theme is implemented as a mix of 2D sprites and polygons and while the intros and video sequences look rough now, the graphics of the game itself have aged very gracefully. In addition to the normal 2 player versus mode, Baku Baku has a 5 player league mode. You can register 5 players and the results of 2 player versus matches are recorded and kept in a league table. League results are stored in the Saturn backup memory so players can return to continue the league at a later date. The league mode is hidden in the English versions of this game (press B A C U B A C U before the main title screen), and its menu is untranslated from the original Japanese, but it is easy to figure out how to use it and players can enter their names either in Japanese or English). The league mode also tracks win/loss records for each pair of players in the league which adds to the competitiveness.
This game got a relatively limited release in the home and it’s only available on Saturn and the Game Gear, but it was releases in all regions on the Saturn.
Baku Baku has a similar style of gameplay to Super Puzzle Fighter 2 Turbo which also got a great version released on the Saturn and I’d recommend that game too but there is a modern HD remake of that game on the 360 and PS3 available at a fairly cheap price so it doesn’t really meet the criteria I have set for this article.
Shanghai Triple Threat is a tile matching game. This is the type of game that started on old Windows PCs and has been around for a long time. It is usually a one player game and the aim is to clear a complex layout of tiles by finding matching pairs and removing them following a few simple rules. This game on the Saturn offers that type of experience but has several different ways of playing the basic game and offers two player simultaneous options too. However there is one mode that is built only for two players called “Golden Tile” and it’s the reason why I am recommending this game.
Golden Tile features two smaller tile layouts sitting side by side – one for each player. Within each layout is a single golden coloured tile and the first player to remove this from their layout is the winner. The simple layouts make for faster play and it proves to be a very competitive mode that I have found to be pretty popular with members of my family including my wife.
This is a slightly unusual game to play on a console, so many may not have tried it but it really is worth a look. The presentation isn’t flashy but it’s solid – graphics are clear enough but you might have sit a little bit closer to the screen to make out the intricate symbols (though you can swap these for simpler ones in the options if you are having trouble with that). It got a US and Japan release so PAL gamers will have to import this but the US version will play on a PAL console without any modification.
Oshaberi “Chatting” Parodius – Konami, 1996
2D shooting games aka STGs aka shmups are a genre that have recently enjoyed a bit of a comeback on modern consoles. The charge was largely led by Cave who supported the XBox 360 with a series of excellent, well crafted games but the problem with modern shmups is that they are intimidating and even though they usually support 2 players and some of them are in fact pretty accessible (Mushihimesma Futari has a novice mode for example) they still don’t really come across as a game to be played for fun in a multi-player situation.
For that you really do need to wind back the clock a bit and the Parodius series is in my opinion a very good way to introduce people to the genre. Parodius games have the advantage of the solid gameplay of the series on which they are based (they are a parody of seminal Gradius series) but they have a whimsical look. They also have the dynamic difficulty feature of Gradius which means they only start to get harder when you get better. This is a feature that modern shmups also have – now called rank – which is a mechanic shmup experts manipulate to advantage.
Oshaberi Parodius is the best of the series for multi-player for a number of reasons. Firstly it supports 2 players simultaneously and has the largest selection of characters in the series allowing for great variety in gameplay. Then there is the difficulty level. Like most shmups this can actually be adjusted in the options but this game also has what is called a “Duet” setting that lets you adjust the proportion of enemy bullets fired at each player, allowing co-operative play where an expert player can help a beginner by taking most of the flack (at a 80/20 setting say). By default it is set to 50/50 and at that point it can be played as a competitive shmup if you want to compare scores.
There are save slots to save your progress through the game that can accessed at any time which is an unusual feature for a shmup and it adds to its accessibility. A side quest in which you locate hidden fairies in the levels, and an arrange mode that changes the enemy formations, rounds off a package that will entertain two players for a long time.
Twinkle Star Sprites – SNK, 1997
This is a quite unusual game. It is a shooting game but it is played in a split screen setup quite like versus puzzle games. Each player has their own sets of enemies to shoot at but they can be sent over to the opponent’s side of the screen if they are shot quickly in groups , called combos. Enemies can be passed back and forth up to three times in total and they become more powerful each time. There are bosses to fight and power ups to catch and use. Overall it is a pretty unique and manic game.
It has that cute look that may put some off but this game was designed to be played by 2 players and is very engaging and competitive once you give it a try. This isn’t a Saturn exclusive and it is a Japan only game. It can be played on the expensive NeoGeo system and there is also a bare bones port on the Dreamcast. The Saturn version has some minor gameplay tweaks and the original NeoGeo game’s slowdown as an option (unlocked once you complete the game on 1 player mode) and comes with a fan art disc and is considered the best version to get.
Bubble Symphony – Ving, 1997
Bubble Bobble is an excellent 2 player simultaneous platform game that has been around for a long time and was a big hit in the arcades. Players control cute dinosaur characters to move around 2D maze like platform levels and fire bubbles to entrap enemies. When the bubbles are burst they turn into bonus items to pick up. The game has that great mechanic where players are forced to team up to deal with the enemies and then race against each other to pick up the bonuses. Bubble Bobble is available on Saturn with Rainbow Islands on the same disc but unfortunately it doesn’t save high scores or even level progress which hurts the game’s replayability. It is still a great game and is recommended but there is a better alternative.
Bubble Symphony is the sequel to this title and it has the same two player action but the game has received a major graphical overhaul, has selectable characters with different strengths and some levels feature doors that offer alternative routes through the game. It has that same excellent blend of versus and co-op action and this time high scores are saved so if you can get your hands on this one which was only released in Japan and probably costs a bit more than the original game which was released in all regions, then it is well worth it. There isn’t much text in the game so there isn’t much of a language barrier but there is a secret menu unlocked by a button sequence that enables you to activate the US mode which is in English.
Saturn Bomberman – Hudson, 1996-97
Bomberman is contender for the title of best same room multiplayer game, and Saturn Bomberman is very much a strong candidate for greatest version of Bomberman you can get today. Most readers will probably have heard of this game and its legendary 10 player mode that requires 2 multi-taps but that isn’t the only reason for playing this.
The 10 player mode can only be played on one special level and the small graphics will require a big screen or projector, but the game supports 8 players on the normal levels with normal sized graphics. There are enough modes and options to keep players entertained for years. Individual or team play is supported and you can create series of up to 100 games that are saved to backup memory so that ongoing campaigns can be returned to another day. The winner of the battle mode is whoever amasses the most wins in a series (or achieves the target number of wins first) but awards are also given to the player with the most kills and there is also a Mad Bomber award. Records are also kept of who killed who for bragging rights and for fuelling revenge. This sort of thing always adds spice to a same room multiplayer setup. The battle mode is supported by a main game that supports two players in co-op mode as well. It looks and sounds great , is exclusive to the Saturn, and was released in all territories – although the PAL version has shockingly large borders. If importing it might be best to get the US version if you can’t read Japanese as there are a lot of options and menus for setting a game up with.
This article is finishing with this great game because when it comes to multi-player Saturn Bomberman is a pretty tough act to follow. I hope that readers get a chance to try all 10 of these great games and they show that the Sega Saturn can entertain a room full of game players and if they are all prepared to try something different I am sure they will find something new to enhance the enjoyment of spending time with family and friends which is what multiplayer video gaming is all about. I like to think that Mr Baer would approve.
A retro gamer and occassional writer..