Joe Köller asks you to bring ice, and a gamepad.
Local multiplayer is going through a bit of a renaissance right now, with dozens of interesting titles eager to transport us back to a time when games were less about wading through the many slurs of online multiplayer, and more about being elbowed in the ribs whenever you score a point. This is spectacular news for any adolescents who happen to be tuned in to the indie scene, and get to play these when they have friends over after school, but if you’re part of videogames’ slowly aging demographic, it’s a tough task indeed to get schedules and friends lined up in front of a screen.
The rarity of these occasions makes it all the more important to pick the right game for savoring them: while there are a lot of fantastic games available, not all of them are ideal for every situation, or for every player. Here are a couple of recommendations that, rather than critiquing these titles on their weaknesses, speak to their specific strengths, and how to get the most joy out of them. It is by no means a complete list – Other suggestions include Super Pole Riders, TowerFall Ascension, Hidden in Plain Sight, and Screencheat. I wish I had the time to try more of these! – but it should give you some ideas for starting to plan your own shindig.
These nine games are presented in no particular order.
Starwhal – The Merry Novice
Content warning: discussion of rape
The elephant in the room when it comes to Starwhal is its questionable choice in subtitle: Just The Tip. It’s a phrase commonly associated with sexual bargaining or coercion by men who think that reluctant or non-consensual penetration becomes less objectionable if it isn’t fully executed. While many would no doubt argue that the use of the phrase is a harmless bit of fun, the truth of the matter is that this bit of paratext frames the game in a very uncomfortable way, especially considering that Starwhal is almost entirely devoid of other exposition.
What could have been about the joust of murderous, but less than graceful creatures becomes a game of protecting your vulnerable parts from attack. Looking past this is no small task, and it’s entirely possible that Starwhal is not the right game for you if its inconsiderate sense of humor makes you uncomfortable. If you can ignore the gross implications of its chosen caption however, it can be jolly good fun to engage in some entirely consensual penetration with your friends.
In particular, Starwhal is the ideal game for players too inexperienced or too drunk for more precise and hectic competition. It’s reminiscent of Bennett Foddy’s work in the focus on simple, but needlessly cumbersome and awkward interaction. You play as one of four space-faring Narwhal out to stab your friends in the chest with your horn while trying to keep your own chest away from theirs. You can turn your Starwhal around, and you can make it go forward. That’s it.
However, while you are ostensibly fighting your friends, your real enemy in this game is your own avatar. The challenge of Starwhal lies in executing your deceptively simple goals: the wobbly physique of these creatures and the hyperresponsive controls make it hard enough to move in a straight line, let alone hit a moving target. If any balletic rolls, dashes and parries do happen, they are likely to be followed by spinning out of control, or running headlong into a wall. More often than not, all contestants will be flopping and flailing around on top of each other, which is the kind of thing that becomes endlessly funny after your second beer.
It also helps you feel better about your own temporarily impaired hand-eye coordination.
Gang Beasts – The Confrontational Drunk
This is a terrible, terrible, terrible game. I played it at A MAZE and lost constantly.
In all honesty, this bare-bones brawler is an example of a simple game made interesting by adding one complex element: physics, in this case. While your input is limited to moving, punching, and grabbing, the intricate simulation of Gang Beasts’ Play-Doh gladiators makes it very hard to control which part of your enemy you hit or latch onto. The result is a form of combat about as confused as Starwhal’s, if significantly less agile.
The game expects you to get a bit more creative than merely throwing punches around though: any blows you land on your opponents merely soften them up for dragging them towards some manner of environmental death trap. Unfortunately, this means the quality of the fights is tied strongly to Gang Beasts’ erratic level design: while some venues, like on top of driving trucks, are almost guaranteed a couple of quick deaths and quick laughs, more spacious arenas often seem to lead to tedious tussles, especially among inexperienced players.
In general, the interaction between individual pugilists feels second to their interaction with, and the whims of the environment. This might not be much of a problem for experienced groups, but the ups and downs of the game’s level rotation certainly leave the entertainment value of any first impression up to chance. Personally, I’d sooner not risk freezing a party with a drawn-out punch-up.
Particle Mace – The Whirling Dancer
Particle Mace is an arcade game reminiscent of Asteroids, except instead of firing at rocks and alien ships, you defend yourself by swinging around a set of oversized particles tethered to your ship. By flying around in bigger or smaller circles, you influence their speed and direction, but the double bind of trying to keep them on course while avoiding asteroids in your own path makes this quite challenging.
Though I initially picked up the game because it billed itself as a local multiplayer title, it has proven more enjoyable on my own. Particle Mace exists at the odd intersection of being sedately hectic, and adding more people to it pushes it in the direction of being plain hectic, as well as very visually busy. This is not an irredeemable flaw of course, and the perpetual wind-up of swinging maces in each other’s general direction does make for rather interesting, indirect combat.
On a basic level, your tactical options in Particle Mace are to either whirl around wildly and keep people at a distance, or to slip past their particle perimeter and hit them at close range before they can pull their mace from its centrifugal course. The slightly erratic nature of these weapons makes either a feat of both luck and skill, which allows players to present their performance either way depending on how the round is going. Whoops, got a bit lucky there. Totally meant to do that though.
Groups which are invested in the idea of competition with clear rankings and reproducible results might find this form of combat annoying, especially since the game currently allows for some cheese moves through rule loopholes. For instance, the fact that you aren’t punished in any way for running into asteroids or the borders of the arena means you can keep your enemies from scoring points if they corner you. However, if you are less interested in bragging rights than the rotatational aesthetics and arcade sensibilities of the game, it’s a nice way to challenge your friends to something that involves less shouting than usual.
Rockets Rockets Rockets – The Flashy Jouster
Part missile joust and part neon Spirograph, Rockets Rockets Rockets is an air combat game for two players in which you play a rocket firing missiles at another rocket. Also bombs and mines.
There’s a recurring theme in this list in the shape of games that would be rather simple affairs if not for X, and in this case X is the ludicrous speed of your heavily-armed vessel. Trying to keep it under control and turned towards an equally meteoric target leads to a somewhat awkward dance of shooting past each other while shooting past each other.
I’ve yet to actually play this with another person, partly because the player limit is always a bit awkward, but mainly because I found its loud colors and many flashes exhausting and disorienting even in the short test run I gave it. Its speed and rapidly changing zoom levels certainly do it no favors in that regard either.
Perhaps this becomes less of a problem when you’re forced to take turns because of its player limit, but something that demands this much focus, while being this visually active, feels a little too draining for weekend decompression to me. If the rest of this list feels annoyingly sluggish to you though, Rockets Rockets Rockets might be for you.
Crawl – The Scheming Diplomat
Some multiplayer games look like absolutely nothing at first glance, but offer endless joy once you add a couple of friends into the mix. Others sound incredible at first, but fall apart if their players are not entirely committed to the idea. Starwhal belongs in the former category, Crawl in the latter. The idea of a dungeon crawler in which one player takes the part of the hero while the others control monsters and traps is very intriguing to me, but its novelty also makes it fairly unintuitive, and it comes with a steep learning curve.
At this point in development, the game provides a few slides on how to play the hero at the beginning of a match, but offers no introduction for their opponents. Even once you come to terms with basic concepts – slay the hero to take their place, upgrade monsters in between levels, exchange the hero blood you spilled for gold and buy equipment – there’s a lot more to wrap your head around if you don’t want to feel left out and confused. Which objects can you possess and which are just background decoration? What special abilities does each of these monsters have? Which upgrades are worth picking up?
Unlike other candidates on this list, Crawl isn’t the kind of game you can bust out for instant fun, for the same reason that you can’t spontaneously decide to play a quick round of Netrunner with somebody. Everybody involved needs to already know what they’re doing, or the experience just isn’t going to work out. Because of this, these games rely on you to learn about them on your own, and then seek out other people for the specific purpose of playing them, quite unlike the party games that spice up unrelated social gatherings.
On the other hand, I’m not sure how much fun a group of equally proficient players would really have with Crawl in the long run, since the game is currently balanced in such a way as to strongly favor the monsters’ side. Assuming any kind of competence and coordination among players, its final boss is nigh unbeatable to the one person challenging the other three. Consequently, matches often end in the less than enjoyable stalemate of no one player being able to secure victory before the three bossfight attempts per run are exhausted.
Though I have so far had more fun playing Crawl on my own than in a group, I can’t help but recommend it, not only on the strength of its premise, but also on the strength of its visual design and the charming quality of the entire production. Just listen to voice-over on this trailer, will you? However, you will probably need to find three equally devoted fans to really make the most of this game.
Spelunky – The Chaotic Professor
The happy marriage of random generation and deterministic mechanics, Spelunky is a game that’s very dear to my heart. By which I mean its single-player mode, and particularly the daily challenges that have become a favorite of many critics and streamers. But beyond the lonesome cave exploration, this game also contains cooperative and competitive multiplayer. The former feels more fit for couple’s counseling than celebration, perfect for testing your group’s communication skills under duress. The latter makes for a halfway decent party game.
The curious thing about Spelunky’s deathmatch mode is how fundamentally it changes both the game and your approach to playing it. The main game shines in the complex interactions of its many interlocked systems, but single-screen arenas simply leave no room for more than one type of trap or enemy without feeling cramped, so there’s hardly any potential for surprising chain reactions. Spelunky the roguelike punishes failure with a complete reset of your progress, but Spelunky the gladiatorial combat game establishes your avatar as disposable and fosters a more reckless attitude.
Consequently, the restraint Spelunky once taught you will not serve you well here. While bombs are a precious resource in the main game, most deathmatch rounds begin with players throwing their entire arsenal in all directions and hoping for the best. You can skip the fireworks by starting players without bombs, as indeed most of the game’s rules can be customized, but in that case you run into the problem of there being no other easy way to damage your opponents. Your main attack merely stuns them, so without explosives to follow up, you’re reduced to either throwing rocks at each other, or waiting for a randomly spawning crate to bestow superior firepower on one player. Consequently, matches tend to oscillate between the three extremes of short, confusing bursts, battles of attrition, and heavily slanted showdowns.
Despite how different multiplayer Spelunky is from singleplayer Spelunky, it still banks on your proficiency in movement, attacking and item acquisition, plus familiarity with its content, so you know which items are worth picking up, and which you are better off without – like that pointless web gun thing. Since both parts are based on the same immaculate framework of precise interaction and responsive controls, there’s potential in this to become an enjoyable part of your party routine, if your friends are willing to put in the time to learn about the game independent of its main campaign. The more likely audience for it, of course, consists of enthusiastic spelunkers who want to blow off steam after one too many failed run. I can confirm that it’s quite cathartic in that way.
The Yawhg – The Respectable Raconteur
The Yawgh is a short piece of interactive fiction in which up to four players spend six turns preparing for a looming catastrophe by choosing from various locations and activities, and responding to random events. After a final choice on how you’d like to help or sabotage the rebuilding effort, The Yawhg tallies up your stats – though it wisely never reveals exactly how the math works – and presents you with a vignette on how the rest of your character’s life played out.
Party games are essentially a social performance in which we risk ridicule in a safe environment for a chance to earn the admiration of our friends. When you get on stage in a Karaoke bar, you either earn yourself teasing comments, or cheers, depending on the quality of your act. Either option is fine: the jibes aren’t intended to malign, merely to recognize your willingness to embarrass yourself in front of the group. The Yawhg isn’t a typical party game, simply because you risk a different kind of embarrassment than usual.
The worst that can happen to you in a round of Samurai Gunn or Spelunky is that you do badly, which is easy enough to shrug off for most people. Being bad at games can even be re-evaluated as a positive quality: you are focusing on more important things in life and have no time left in your day to become good at these distractions. Enthusiasm and skill are perfectly acceptable of course, but nothing spoils the fun like overly competitive types. Our social script suggests that you have to keep your commitment plausibly deniable.
By contrast, there’s no real way to win or lose The Yawgh, it requires more reading than your guests might have patience for, and, worst of all, it asks you to make some rather revealing character choices. I suppose this issue could be side-stepped by chalking all decisions up to roleplaying, but I’ve also found that, like most interactive fiction, The Yawgh is most effective when you’re willing to put some amount of yourself in it, which might make it a bit awkward when the game asks you whether you’d like smooch Dryads or if you’re still bitter about your ex.
However, if you do have a couple of friends you’re close enough with to openly talk, and joke, about matters of politics and sex with, The Yawhg could be interesting material for a more sedate get-together, assuming the group can make merry despite the game’s frequently rather somber prompts and events. On the upside, the game requires no more gaming literacy than the ability to press up and down on a keyboard, so relative intimacy is the only limit to your invitations.
Nidhogg – The Dashing Duelist
A competitive fencing game for two players, Nidhogg is a bit of an odd choice if you plan on inviting more than one guest, though if you plan on inviting more than three, its tournament mode helps settle the question of who gets to go next. It’s also the ideal arena for settling scores in head-to-head combat. Have at thee, fiend!
Nidhogg is both about swordfighting and not about swordfighting. While standing en garde, it’s a meticulous dance of steps and backsteps, raising and lowering your sword to find an opening in your opponent’s defense, trying to get close enough to make use of it. However, you can also throw caution to the wind at any point and try to roll under or jump over your foe, since the game is ultimately not decided by shedding the most blood, but by covering the most ground in its tug-of-war.
Nidhogg won an IGF award back in 2011, and has been a fixture of events and festivals since then, but the long silence following its initial praise made people doubt that there would ever be a commercial release of the game, until Mark Essen dropped the game in our collective laps in January. As it turns out, while the game had been playable for a while, he was preoccupied with fine-tuning it to make it a viable environment for high-level competitive play.
The necessary tweaks are probably beyond my appreciation, all I can say is that – without the bane of latency haunting online play – it’s a devilishly fast and fluid game in which matches frequently turn on a dime, to the great exhilaration of players and spectators. Nidhogg’s minimalist systems and powerful, satisfying movement options allow for relatively intuitive play compared to traditional fighting games, but the focus on direct competition can still make it feel very punishing for the untrained. It’s probably best left to those in the know, and for times when tensions are too high for anything less than blood sport.
Samurai Gunn – The Fierce Warrior
A sword-fighting game for four players, Samurai Gunn shares Nidhogg’s focus on precision, but adds complexity through the number of players and different arenas, rather than mechanical intricacies. The sword-fighting itself is limited to a single button for attacking, paired with your directional input, which translates into a system in which well-timed, well-placed swings earn you victory. As the title suggests, each player also gets a gun, with limited ammunition, and the ability to deflect bullets with your sword adds another layer of complexity to duels, since moving towards your opponent often means being unable to respond to their shot in time.
Samurai Gunn is a game about predicting your enemies movement in order to work out if you can intercept them with a bullet or get in range for a swift slicing. Samurai Gunn’s controls are fine tuned towards those goals, but its quick pace, its many stray bullets, and its slow-motion death cams, can still make it challenging to stay on top of things. In particular, it can be hard to figure out where your little samurai re-entered the arena before they are slain by somebody less disoriented. Once you’re on a roll, you’re on a roll.
However, the higher number of players compared to Nidhogg makes it less likely for any one competitor to be completely shut out of the action, since sneak attacks on distracted enemies or temporary alliances can help balance an uneven distribution of button-pressing aptitude. At the same time, the agility and speed of your avatar leave a lot of room for skillful play, so it is entirely possible for one person to dominate a fight. Since these are won not by making it past your opponent, as in Nidhogg, but by destroying them, this can be a quite infuriating experience.
Despite the mitigation of getting to share defeat, Samurai Gunn is one of the more openly competitive games on this list, best played with the same steely composure that befits these warriors.
Joe Köller is the current Editor-in-Chief of Haywire Magazine, German correspondent for Critical Distance, and irregular contributor to German sites such as Video Game Tourism, Superlevel, and WASD. You can follow him on Twitter, and support him on Patreon.