If it isn't clear, Magic: The Gathering and Wizards of the Coast in general have had a huge impact on how we think about games. Their focus on listening to the customer, communicating with them via social media, and constantly trying to improve their craft are great examples of practices any gaming company should strive to achieve.
One of the things that they have done, which I believe is equally inspiring, is to try and never lose sight of their roots... of the original goals that the team sought out. To help accomplish this, they have kept uncut sheets of Beta up in their office (essentially the first set of cards they ever released), so that employees can look at and draw creativity and insight from it.
With that in mind, I have sought out to do a little experiment... I and my friend Jake (you might have met him at some of the conventions, helping us to demo L90) have begun going through every single cooperative game released on old school platforms, beginning with the original Nintendo Entertainment System. The hope is that by going back to arguably the beginning of the Co-Op experience (a key differentiating factor being Co-Op vs. just multiplayer), we might be able to learn a thing or two about creating modern Co-Op games.
8 Eyes borrows very liberally from the original Castlevania, which came out a few years earlier. You play as Orin the Falconer and his pet Cutrus to try and defeat eight Dukes and gain the eight gems, which are sources of power created in the eyes of eight different nuclear explosions. The player must pick one of eight levels, ala Mega Man, but going to the right level first will allow the player to obtain a sword that is more powerful against one of the enemy bosses.
As a quick review, the game, by modern standards, is not very fun. To defeat enemies, you must walk forward, step back as they swing into the air, then walk forward again and swing. Repeat this method ad nauseam. Oh, and you can try to use the falcon sort of on one player, or let player two struggle to control it. If you'd like to actually see the game in action, I've included a Let's Play at the bottom by ArekTheAbsolute
1. Agency, or Being a side kick is lame.
If you've every played Sonic 2, you might remember that player 2 was able to play Tails. The frustrating thing about being Tails, however, was that the camera didn't follow you, so if Sonic went flying away, you were lost in the dust and had to wait for your character to randomly show back up. That problem can be traced back to this game as well. Playing as Cutrus means that you are simply following and supporting Orin. While your older brother definitely appreciates having you there to help him out, there's a reason he always made you play the Bird instead of the Hero.
2. Don't hide/balance your power by being objectively less fun.
In Sonic 2, Tails was invincible. He could jump into death infinite times and keep going. This incentivized players to want (and if you weren't great, need) a Tails, but didn't provide the incentive to actually want to play as him (see lesson 1). 8 Eyes does something similar, where Cutrus' ability to fly through walls and dive bomb certain enemies that are in frustrating places comes in very, very handy, and if you are less than awesome at the game, you need someone to help fly that bird around... but the controls and lack of agency keep you from wanting to be him yourself.
3. Don't be too clever with the controls/interface
Our final lesson has less to do with Co-Op design, and more with general game design. Playing as Cutrus, as I alluded to above, is very difficult, due to the controls. The bird actually oscillates up and down as you try to fly, and this makes moving on a vertical plane less predictable. It is as cute as it is frustrating. Tack on to that the A and B button don't actually do anything, unless you are also pushing Up (to leave Orin's shoulder) or down (to dive bomb someone). Again, it is cute, but simply having one button do both actions, regardless of direction, would have been more simple and intuitive.
Thanks for reading, and let us know if there are any classic gems you think we should check out... purely for education, of course.
As promised, here is the Let's Play. You can check out more of Arek's page over here