Quite apart from the huge number of great games coming to the system every week, one result of Switch’s success that we’ve really enjoyed is how it has brought back a focus on local multiplayer gaming not seen since the N64 days. Online is still king, of course, but we’d argue there’s nothing quite like the rush of adrenaline you get from being in the same room as your rivals. Friendly rivalries balloon into personal vendettas, whether your mate stole victory from you with an unsportsmanlike Blue Shell last round, or perhaps somebody hasn’t done the washing up like they said they would and it’s time to unleash your fury.
The ability to snap off (read: carefully detach) the Joy-Con and enjoy some Mario Kart or Smash Bros. wherever you happen to be reminds us of a time long ago when we would coordinate multiplayer meetups that required a little more forethought than our impromptu rooftop parties these days. Indeed, it would often involve planning out months in advance the games and hardware you and your friends would buy to ensure multiplayer was even possible.
We’re talking, of course, about Nintendo’s first portable multiplayer-enabled system, the Game Boy. If Switch’s facility with local multiplayer hadn’t made us nostalgic enough, the recent 30th anniversary of the Game Boy (not to mention the 21st anniversary of the Game Boy Color) really got us pining for the times when head-to-head multiplayer was a much more literal affair. It may have primarily been a console for the solitary gamer, but those lovely link cables transformed it into a networking device that offered many lucky schoolboys and girls their first taste of multi-screen multiplayer gaming. Assuming you had the requisite gear, that is.
The most common form of Game Boy multiplayer was obviously a one-on-one bout using a standard Game Link Cable, but if you were fortunate enough to own (or have a mate who owned) the Four Player Adapter there were a choice handful of games that you could play with three friends on your own separate screens long before we’d ever heard the wondrous words ‘LAN party’.
Huddled in a group in the middle of the school field while footballs and other projectiles shot past our heads, the few four-way multiplayer sessions we remember having with Game Boy are special, probably made more so by the fact that finding four people with a Game Boy, the multiple copies of whatever game and the cables to link them all together was something of a rarity. Sure, it was distinctly lo-fi and anything except direct sunlight on a clear day made seeing the screen something of a challenge, but the magic of rigging this local multiplayer miracle together and actually playing against three mates made it well worth the rigmarole.
The Four Player Adapter worked most famously with F-1 Race, although Rareware’s Super RC Pro-AM also put it to use. Of course, there were perils to being in such close proximity when the contest got heated. The chances of four kids containing themselves enough in victory or defeat and not accidentally (or purposefully) yanking out their link cable was admittedly slim. Rage-quitting is nothing new, but kids these days with their fancy-pants Joy-Con and WiFi will never know the delicate negotiation, consideration and composure it took to set up and maintain a little local multiplayer back in the day.
Two-player games using the regular old Game Link Cable with just one other person were a much more common occurrence. Many readers no doubt have memories of two-player Tetris, but for this writer, the ubiquitous Russian puzzler was more of a solitary palette-cleanser. In fact, the Game Boy version of Tennis was more often the two-player game of choice. The console’s green screen gave the grass courts a more authentic hue, and something about the controls always kept us coming back for another game-set-match against siblings. Underrated little game, that.
If you somehow never got around to picking up a link cable, or didn’t have friends with Game Boys, the arrival of Pokémon Red and Blue made the Game Link Cable utterly essential. Finding (or making) friends with Game Boys became an urgent priority, and we’re sure many an unlikely friendship was forged out of necessity. "Hmm, I’ve never even spoken to that kid in Science class before – he’s always seemed a bit weird. BUT! He’s got Pokémon Red and this could be my only chance to get a Magmar…" And that was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
If we’re honest, we were always more into trading than battling. The grind to level up a watertight, competitive team of fighters never seemed worth the trouble, so we’d do our trading and then plug in whatever other multiplayer games we happened to both own. Invariably it was Tetris or Tennis. Why did nobody else have Wave Race!?
Compared to the multiplayer classics that would come on home consoles, the Game Boy’s 2-4 player offerings were rudimentary, but they had benefits which you didn’t get on the telly. There was no way to ‘cheat’ by looking at other players’ screens, for example, at least not without the risk of dislodging the link cable and causing an argument. Things got much simpler on Nintendo DS when wires were no-longer required (or with the GBA Wireless Adapter, if you had one of those).
By combining the strengths of portable and home console gaming into the mighty ‘homeheld’ Switch, Nintendo has brought local multiplayer back onto the stage where online gaming has arguably dominated for a decade and a half. Don’t get us wrong, online is fantastic, but there’s something about the communal connection of the local experience that makes every victory that bit sweeter.
Sliding off Joy-Con in tabletop mode forces players physically closer to each other and the energy is higher. No, you might not have a 65” screen all to yourself, but Game Boy proved long ago that a thrilling multiplayer experience needn’t involve bleeding-edge tech or acres of arm room. The same spirit which would go on to fuel epic four-player sessions of Bomberman and GoldenEye 007 is a part of Switch's DNA, and the local multiplayer meetups we host today (on rooftops or otherwise) can trace their origins back to the middle of that school field with four kids blinking at tiny green screens.