The Smallest Co-op Feature
There aren’t a lot of co-op RPGs out there. I’m not talking about hack-and-slash RPGs or (God forbid) MMOs. I’m talking about games like the old Final Fantasy series—character-driven, turn-based JRPG-style games. But there are two games that will forever spring to mind for me when the subject of co-op RPGs is brought up.
Eternal Sonata and Final Fantasy IX.
You’ve likely heard of the latter, but Eternal Sonata flew under the radar. Probably for good reason. I mean, the whole thing took place in Chopin’s anime Lolita fantasy fever dream. Yes, that Chopin. And no, I’m not kidding.
For what it was worth, the battle system was intriguing. It was still turn-based, but during the player’s turn, they could control a character and run around the battlefield freely, attacking and casting spells in live action—for a couple seconds, and then it would be the enemy’s turn to run around and attack.
At first glance, Eternal Sonata and Final Fantasy IX might look very different (you know, other than the big heads and insane character designs). But there was one tiny feature that connected them.
The ability to choose a controller for each character.
That one feature turned these typically single-player games into incredible co-op RPG experiences—at least for my friends and me.
You could have a separate controller for each of a battle’s three player characters in Eternal Sonata. Yes, you’d still have one player controlling all the running around the world and buying items, but there was enough battle to make everyone sitting down for the whole game worthwhile. And given how batshit loco Eternal Sonata was, you pretty much have to be pulling a Mystery Science Theater on the cutscenes to be able to stomach it. And the best way to do that is through co-op play, so every player is invested in the characters they control.
I didn’t discover that Final Fantasy IX shared the same feature until later. I already loved the game. But one summer, my roommate and I popped the FFIX PS1 disc into my backwards-compatible PS3. We split the characters between the two of us, and had an absolute blast playing through it.
RPGs are usually a solitary experience. You absorb the story, fall in love with the characters, and feel a personal connection to the game world. They’re more like books than movies. But playing through Eternal Sonata and FFIX co-op, even if it was just the battles, was a gaming experience I’ll never forget.
And it all had to do with one simple feature: allowing you to switch controller inputs for different characters.
Sure, if you wanted, you could pass the controller around. But it’s not the same, is it? It’s not co-op—it’s taking turns in the driver’s seat.
Turn-based RPGs make the feature easy to implement. After all, you’re not actively controlling multiple characters at a time. There is little difference to the game system to have the controller inputs switch for different characters. Especially when you can only control one character at a time anyway.
Indie developers and JRPG remaster…ers take note: adding that tiny feature to turn a single-player RPG into a co-op one makes a big difference to anyone who still enjoys a good couch co-op experience.