It's a good time to have a PC in your living room—maybe the best time, with games like Towerfall and Nidhogg and more ushering in a new era of local multiplayer games in the past two years. At the Indie MIX party at GDC 2016, we ganged up to play a surprising number of great (or, at least, creative) local-multi games that make us want to throw more PC gaming parties and invite all of our friends.
Most of these games support online play, too, and online is great, but sometimes you just need to sit around together, eat bad junk food, at yell at Tom for beating you at everything. Here's what we played, and what we thought. Also check out our list of the best couch games, which we'll be updating as we continue to check out games like these.
Chris Livingston: My favorite local multiplayer game at the Indie Mix was top-down brawler Arena Gods (pre-alpha footage below), which is being developed by two-man team Supertype. Four players appear in four corners of an arena and must dash around gathering the weapons that periodically spawn on pedestals, then try to stab and bash each other to death with them. There are also shields and helmets, but you’re not restricted to just wearing them: like weapons, they can also be carried around and flung at your friends. It’s both minimalist and brutal: though the characters are simply drawn, single-color figures, the carnage is still splashy enough to make you groan or yell when you get bloodily slaughtered, or even when you see someone else get horribly eviscerated.
The arenas also have what I’ll call Pac-Man tunnels: run through the gap on the left side of the screen and you come out on the right. With spears and swords being flung around the screen every few seconds, you can easily catch one in the back if you’re not careful. Speaking of catching, if you’re quick enough you can snatch a thrown weapon out of the air, and if you’re feeling greedy you can pick up a weapon in each hand. If you weren’t fast enough to snag a spear or sabre, you can also just straight-up punch someone into a bloody smear. The rounds are quick and brutal with no respawning, and it reminded me a bit of Knight Squad though it felt more contained: you’re almost always in killing range of another player. After being smashed into red paste a few times, my tactic was to hide halfway inside on the the Pac-Man tunnels until everyone else was dead, but Tom gave me away. Thanks, Tom.
Wes Fenlon: Inversus is one of those games you play for less than 30 seconds before you’re totally sold and mumble something like “oh shit, that’s cool” and feel slightly ashamed about your own contributions to the world. Take the core concept of Go or Ikaruga—white versus black—and turn it into a competitive game, and you’re most of the way to understanding what this is. One player is stuck on black squares, another on white, and each shot you fire converts a line of squares to your color. Landing a hit on another player knocks them out, but you’ll spend more time carving a path for yourself around the map so you have room to maneuver.
There’s a bit more depth to the combat—holding down the attack button shoots out three lines instead of one, and you only have five shots before waiting to recharge. That’s honestly enough to keep the game engaging, but different map layouts completely change how you move around the arena. One of them really threw my brain for a loop: Its sides wrapped around, Pac-Man style (a trend, apparently), which wasn’t hard to adapt to by itself. But when I approached the edges, my ship appeared on both sides of the map. And when I approached the corner, I was showing up in all four corners simultaneously. At that point my brain pretty much gave up.
Developer Ryan Juckett told me he wants each map to mess with your brain and change up the basics like that. I was just playing 1v1; I can’t even imagine how hard it is to follow in 2v2. Inversus should be out this spring, and it’ll have online mutiplayer, too.
Tom Marks: Wes immediately recognized this game as the exciting (if belated) arrival of a Power Stone-style fighting game on PC, but I was unfamiliar with the arcade-turned-Dreamcast game that inspired Combat Core’s development. It’s a 3D brawler where you pick a colorful character to punch, jump, and super move your way to victory by killing your opponents. There are also barrels and items scattered around the battlefield that can be tossed or swung, but none of them seemed quite as strong as a good old powerblast to the face.
Combat core was originally backed on Kickstarter back in June of last year. In the build we played, a lot of the animations felt a bit clunky, and the levels are very bland compared to those of Power Stone. I was also able to win our second match by hopping around the arena, only stopping occasionally to pelt Chris and James with shurikens like some sort of neon, ninja rabbit, but that sort of thing could be exaggerated by only having a chance to play the game twice.
It’s still early days for Combat Core, but it's definitely a unique sort of fighting game on the PC. Honestly, a fighting game with full 3D movement is atypical nowadays on any platform, and I’m not sure I can point to another fighting game like it on Steam. I hope the rough edges are smoothed over when it reaches its full release, because it’s a neat callback to arcade fighters that I wish we’d see more often.
Tooth and Tail
James Davenport: I’m a sucker for anything vaguely reminiscent of Redwall (medieval rodents with swords), which is why self-proclaimed 'arcade RTS' Tooth and Tail captured my eye from across a crowded demo room. But Tooth and Tail takes a trip to a different dark age and filters its furry characters through the aesthetic lens of the Russian Revolution. In a world where everyone eats meat, animal factions battle one another to avoid becoming dinner themselves. Cute!
Pocketwatch Games’ founder Andy Schatz hopes Tooth and Tail does for RTS games what Hearthstone did for card games. Like the minimalist co-op heists Monaco, their previous title, Tooth and Tail is an attempt to distill the RTS genre into its most important parts without losing any of the strategic depth they’re known for. We may have only had a short time with the game, but Schatz and co. are certainly on the right track.
Schatz stopped by The PC Gamer Show to let Tom and I pummel one another live, so watch that to get a good sense of how it plays. In short: you choose which units to include before each match out of a limited pool, and then build farms for resources, plant buildings, recruit animal soldiers, and scout the map by moving around their own rat commander. From there, it’s a battle of the wits. Players rush to increase the amount of supplies coming in, soldiers going out, and defenses going up—a complex web of rock paper scissors plays in fast-forward. Watch out for the Mole Rush.
In all three matches I played, Tom beat me every time (#BeatTom), but since they only last seven minutes or so, I was learning at a much quicker pace than a series of 40 minute Starcraft matches. I don’t think Tooth and Tail is meant to supplant the chunkier RTS games, but to offer an alternative for players that are typically worn out or intimidated by the genre. It’s hard to say how Tooth and Tail will fare as a more serious competitive game, but the grim but playful aesthetic and intense, snappy co-op play are enough to hold my attention until its release later this year.
Wes Fenlon: I still believe in Videoball. The first time I wrote about Videoball two years ago, I mentioned the recent boom of great local multiplayer games on PC: games like Nidhogg and Towerfall, which were just arriving on our favorite platform, and which we continue to point to as great examples of why PC's can go in the living room, too. Those games have long made a place for themselves, and we’re still waiting for Videoball. It’s finally coming, says creator Tim Rogers. When? Soon. May, if all goes according to plan.
I just don’t know if Videoball can succeed in a post-Rocket League world. Though one’s 2D and the other’s 3D, Rocket League has so effectively captured the art of knocking a ball into a goal in a video game, Videoball has a lot to overcome. But the game still feels impeccable, channeling its minimalist aesthetic into a single button that moves the ball in completely different ways based on how long you hold it. Quick taps nudge it along. A long charge can deliver a slam attack. A longer charge spawns a defensive block. There’s a mile of depth beneath the surface of that one button.
What’s changed in the past two years is how thoroughly Videoball has explored customization within its bold-colored aesthetic and post-match stats, which track every conceivable type of goal and play imaginable. And the customization lets you swap between colors, iconography on the ball and stage backdrop. It just seems like window dressing, but if you ask Rogers, it all has function.
I want to have Videoball parties, even though it’s launching with online support for up to 3v3 players. It’s just better in person.
Ultimate Chicken Horse
Tom Marks: I first got to play Ultimate Chicken Horse at PAX South and immediately thought it was a blast. Players are tasked with getting from point A to point B, and given obstacles after each attempt to make that task too difficult for their competition. It’s a strange mix of seeing how hard you can make a level (Chicken) while still having to complete that level yourself (Horse) wrapped up in a friendly platformer exterior. It’s the purest form of a party game: a simple concept that’s easy to pick up mixed with plenty of opportunity to screw your friends over and ruin otherwise stable relationships. What more can you ask from a couch game?
I’m a huge fan of platformers, so I was really pleased to see that the Ultimate Chicken Horse isn’t just a silly party game in a platformer shell. The controls are precise and responsive. Richard Atlas, the CEO of developer Clever Endeavor, said it was important to him that that the movement mechanics were easy to learn, but not so simple that it was simply move and jump. He said they tested this by having someone who wasn’t experienced with platformers play the game, and timing how long it took them to successfully wall jump onto a one block-wide platform and then immediately to a platform a few blocks away.
This sort of measured testing shows in what’s possible within a level. Certainly, if you have beaten Super Meat Boy with 100% completion you will be at a bit of an advantage, but the game isn’t so complex that newer players feel helpless against the more experienced ones. The more nuanced skillcap and punishing routine of everyone constantly failing a poorly made level may prevent Ultimate Chicken Horse from becoming the standard 'go to' party game—unlike something like Towerfall, which seems endlessly replayable—but it’s an option I’m excited to throw into the mix.
Evan Lahti: Imagine free-for-all dodgeball, but the ball… is you. And you can fly. I hadn’t heard of Gurgamoth Lives until the Mix event at GDC, but it released on Feburary 16. The few rounds I played were enough to notice it has plenty in common with TowerFall—its art direction, single-screen format, even the design of its character selection panels tips its hat to our favorite multiplayer game of 2014. Mechanically it’s quite different, though: Gurgamoth isn’t about platforming, but more about free-floating, air-dodging multiplayer Pong, where you’re trying to bodyslam your opponents into the walls or hazards that spawn in the otherwise empty air.
What I liked most about it was the sense of agility—everyone’s constantly moving and lunging around like pinballs, so the state of the game feels constantly in flux… until someone checks you close to the edge of the playing field, which sometimes threw Gurgamoth into dramatic slow-motion. Overall I found it charming if a bit plain—TowerFall is a great source of inspiration but it makes comparisons to it all the easier, and platforming and marksmanship is more fun and intricate to me than being a floating, dashing character-sphere.