Editorial | 1/6/2010 at 9:33 AM

Coin-Op Co-Op: A Brief History and a Bright Future

While we usually look towards developments in the digital games sector as coming from the console scene – we have to be watchful of a poorly reported, but highly influential aspect of the digital entertainment scene that also has its part to play. The instigator of much of the game genres we know and love, the video amusement and arcade scene is far from a nostalgic dinosaur but is still a vibrant and innovative industry, still with some surprises up its sleeve!


This feature focuses on the video amusement and gaming scene, but it has to be remembered that the amusement (coin-operated) sector had existed from the 1800's, quite profitably, though the bagatelle, electromechanical and pinball revolutions – a number of those early electromechanical games flirted with the concept of co-operative play, but implementation was limited.

Following the phenomenal popularity of ‘PONG’, by North America’s Atari, and the successful application of video amusement, momentum grew to encourage more of the hungry masses crowding around the cabinets into the game (and so get hold of their coins!) Striking gold again, Atari released ‘PONG Doubles’ (1973) – the first 4-player video game, with two players working together to win their game – co-op arcade gaming was born!

Though competitive multi-player games proved a profitable path for the early Atari, and the immerging video amusement sector – investment into co-op game seemed more an accident. Titles like the full color ‘Tank 8’ (1976) – one of the first games with a microprocessor, offered 8-players a chance to compete in top-down tank combat. But a nuance of the game had players protecting friends and ganging up against others, taking the concept far beyond the rudimentary blaster envisaged.

Playing games differently to how they were intended has been a constant aspect of the video game scene – while developers expected games to play one way, when dropped into the field and the method of play changed – an example is the 2-player ‘Atari Football’ (1978) -- that would see crowds of supporters on each side cheering on the action and taking part in directing the plays.

But it was with Atari’s ‘Fire Truck’ (1978) – called “a completely new video concept” that the developers embraced the creation of ‘cooperative’ play; 2-players taking the controls of a hock and ladder fire engine – one seated steering the cab, while the other, standing behind, steered the trailer, avoiding twisting roads and other vehicles, while rushing to the fire. It was with this game that intentional cooperative gaming was born and grew as a genre.

It would not be until the Eighties that Atari would take another big bit out of the cooperative play genre in creating the masterpiece ‘Gauntlet(1985) the video game representation of the Dungeons & Dragons narrative; the role-playing board-game franchise comprising the fundamental element of cooperation between a team. The video offered 4-players the chance to work as a team and defend and support each other – playing as a team offered the players the best chance for survival, the sharing of health and cooperative attack marked this game as legendary – the aspects of encouraging social gaming activities an element of the play once closely studied by designers.

Sadly, Atari would not maximize on the new genre they had created – Gauntlet would not be followed by other new fully fledged co-op titles – only occasional glimpses of the past originality, with games like ‘Escape from the Planet of the Robot Monsters’ (1989). Atari was followed by other American amusement factories into co-op, such as Bally-Midway, who created their own 3-player co-op title ‘Xenophobe’ (1987) - though not a major seller. Another American developer was Coreland – who made the innovative 2-player co-op fighting vehicle game ‘CyberTank’ (1987), a game way ahead of its time.

The successful application of co-op in amusement, after the golden-age of arcades, would now be in the hands of the Japanese amusement factories.

With the Japanese amusement game explosion, the application of technology brought color and fast pace game play to the arcades. Capcom re-invented the ‘shoot-em-up’ genre with games such as ‘Side Arms’ (1986), with a simultaneous 2-player action that encouraged occasional co-op behavior. But it was with ‘Forgotten World’ (1988) that the co-op shoot-em-up hit new heights, with an amazing blaster, levels only complete-able if the players’ cooperated.

As Atari in America snoozed, Capcom in Japan grasped the co-op nettle – adding simultaneous play element to the ‘slash-em-up’ ‘Magic Sword’ (1990) – a side scrolling sword and sorcery battling game that offered "2-player interactive" – the language that the Japanese used to describe co-op; with a sequel 3-player version called ‘Knights of the Round’ (1992). And with this Capcom would go on to create a series of side-scrolling ‘interactive’ games – most notably ’Final Fight’, ‘Three Wonders’ and ‘MERCS’.

Taito is another of the Japanese factories that pushed the design envelope, creating games that re-established genres with added elements – titles such as ‘Double Dragon’ (1987) that had 2-players working as a team in this ‘beat-em-up’, cooperating to defeat hoards of opponents. The co-op element in the platform game genre was best illustrated by the title ‘Bubble Bobble’ (1986) – a game that offered both fun and unique action, with enjoyable interactive play to complete each level.

Other Japanese amusement factories that left their mark in the co-op scene includes Konami; a company that flirted with the 2-player narrative that included a co-op element, along with earlier titles, games such as ‘Devastators’ (1988) and its unusual second person on rushing combat action saw both players able to support each other – more tradition 2-player slash, shoot and beat em-up titles followed with a co-op flavor – games such as ‘Missing Action’ (1989) or ‘Super Contra’(1989) continued the interactive ‘buddie movie’ style game-play.

It was however following the success of the multiple player experience that Konami broke the mold – the 4-player side scrolling beat-em-up title ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ (1989) that created a co-op genre of its own. The fast action and cartoon representation found an audience. Konami milked the application next with ‘The Simpsons’ (1991) and its 4-player interactive, that also included the new element of combination-moves (two characters able to join together for greater effective attack). This genre was surmounted with the large cabinet ‘X-Men’ (1992), a huge dual-screen 6-player interaction game with super hero characters.

As the performance of arcade technology grew so did the imagination of the developers, Japanese manufacturer SEGA re-visited the slash-em-up genre with a new twist on the co-operative angle; launching the game ‘Golden Axe’ (1989), a title that included play elements that fed off the co-op element and created an enjoyable experience.

With the application of 3D (polygon) graphics and the player was treated to a new gaming environment – and with this new genre applications – so we see 2-player shooting games that allowed (if the players wanted) co-op elements, such as with ‘Virtua Cop’ (1994). Another major amusement factory, Namco, created their own shooter with a major co-op component – ‘Time Crisis 2’ (1997) including a corporative storyline and 2-player game structure.

We move towards the modern amusement scene and the current development of the video amusement in the market.



For some in the consumer game sector the ‘arcade’ is dead, and has no relevance to the modern digital gaming scene – the reality is far from this blinkered perception. The golden-age of video amusement (‘Pac-Man’, ‘Asteroids’, etc., in the 80’s) saw individual retail venues dedicated to providing video game action – this the ‘arcade’ of most Generation-X's nostalgic memories. But with the demise of the arcade universe (ushered in by the explosion in home console popularity) and some saw this as amusements demise!

But the reality is that rather than a single venue experience, the modern amusement machine dose not sit in dedicated arcades in malls, but now resides as a major revenue stream for bowling allies, sports bars, cinemas, laser-tag sites, family entertainment centers and a multitude of entertainment sites that see amusement as a vital element to attract the casual impulse player dollar.

An industry that has moved beyond simple upright cabinets – the amusement scene has matured towards dedicated specialist amusement systems; part simulator, part dedicated gaming experience. The market has seen major genres immerge as dominant to its current success including driving, shooting and even the music game narrative.

Reverting back to the days of unintentional game play created round amusement titles, the success of the Konami BeatMania series of dancing stage games (‘Dance Dance Revolution’) has seen a technique by some expert players of sharing the same single game, swapping controls during mid-play without loosing a beat – an amazing feet of skill to watch.

The simulator aspect of some modern amusement systems have seen the creation of network gaming – one of the early originators of the trend was board-game developer FASA, creating the ‘BattleTech’ network robot combat simulator. Now in Japan the concept has been taken up by Bandai Namco Games with their ‘Mobile Suit GunDam PODS’ (1997) system; teams of two groups of four players in their own individual immersive capsule cooperating to battle and defeat the opposition.

Namco has a long track record working on games that encourage intensive cooperation, rather than competition – inspired by the companies amusement venue operation business in Japan – they developed a series of games that support their ‘couples’ (boy and girl) playing experience. With games such as ‘Rapid River’ (1997); 2-players – sitting side by side – working together to control their paddle interface, navigating cartoon white water rafting courses in this experience.

Though popular in Japan – with some cabinet created for a boy and his girlfriend to both sit on while playing – the amusement scene seemed to cool to the co-op element until we saw the latest upswing in amusement development.

Sega's New Arcade in China - Courtesy of Kotaku


The new application of the evolving amusement scene has seen a mixing of technologies and applications – with this the sector has embraced the new title of ‘Digital Out-of-Home Entertainment’. Amusement and interactive large scale attractions are all now vying to apply the latest interactive gaming elements and so create unique and compelling experiences “unachievable at home”.

Launched at last years major amusement trade event, Bandai Namco Games returned too their cooperative game roots with the new title ‘Tank Tank Tank’ – this networked tank game (up to four participants) offers the usual competitive element, but mixed-in with the game-play a major co-operative component with large end-level bosses too vanquish that can only be beaten if the players work as a team.

Likewise, Namco has previewed another new release for 2010 called ‘Deadstorm Pirates’ – this 2-player "closed booth style gun game", with players blasting at ghostly pirates and monsters, also offers the element of increasing the individual players fire-power if they converge their targets and shoot together – this co-op shooting showing the roots of the ‘couples’ game elements from the companies past.

Japanese amusement factory SEGA has revived the co-op genre by applying it to the driving concept – with the new game ‘HUMMER DLX’, 2-players sit alongside in a motion cockpit representation of an off-road vehicle, both with steering wheels. Depending on the skill of the player the driving control swaps – co-op play enabling the team to complete the course and beat other racers.

Another new release from SEGA – called ‘Tetris Giant’ – the game incorporates enlarged joystick controllers to steer the Tetris pieces on screen with force-feedback. However the game adds a co-op as an option to the two player element – a unique feature to the basic Tetris game-play.

The more we see greater investment into unique interfaces and game element to these new series of amusement titles, the more we see developers revisit the cooperative game component – titles such as TrioTech Amusement’s ‘UFO Stomper’ using the latest motion recognition technology, marries this with fun mini-games, some of which including co-op elements.

2010 is expected to include more games that follow this path as amusement entertains a captive audience that is willing to participate in gaming. So making network co-op products that support this market offer a great opportunities – especially as the amusement platform can incorporate much more innovative game elements compared to the play restrictions of a console and its peripherals.

This has been a brief overview of the co-op genre as it has been defined by the amusement and arcade  sector – if I have missed out any arcade titles that readers feel should be included as contributing to co-op in amusement, I would be grateful to hear about them.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR – Feature writer Kevin Williams is founder and director of the out-of-home leisure entertainment consultancy KWP Limited (www.thestingerreport.com/kwp.htm). His extensive years in the global video amusement and high-tech attractions industry includes top management and design posts, with special focus on new technology development and applications. A well-known speaker on the industry and its technology, he pens an extensive number of articles. Founder and publisher of industry’s leading e-Newsletters’ ‘The Stinger Report’ (www.thestingerreport.com) and ‘The Redemption Report’ (www.theredemptionreport.com).