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Video games are like sex: They’re more fun with other people. Actually, sometimes I prefer just watching. And really there’s nothing like a good five-hour session by yourself on a Sunday afternoon. Let’s get away from this analogy. The point is: co-op video games are fun. But which ones are the best?
Well, in our opinion, the best co-op experiences put a premium on rewarding teamwork, and the games should be simple enough for players who don’t game regularly while having enough depth and ingenuity to stimulate experienced players. That’s certainly no easy task for game developers, but when they get it right, the gaming experience can be sublime.
So let’s shine a light on those that really nailed the fun of playing video games with friends:
1) Portal 2
Valve’s creative and highly regarded first-person puzzle game is certainly enjoyable in its solo campaign mode, but the experience reaches its true peak in the co-op multiplayer mode, which features an entirely different set of puzzles. All of those puzzles, it should be said, are clearly crafted with love from the designers because they are uniform only in greatness.
There are plenty of reasons to love Portal 2: the ingenuity of the puzzles; the sardonic comedy from GLaDOS who becomes increasingly irritated that the robots you control cannot ever die; and, because of that, the sense that you’re supposed to have fun playing this game. Players aren’t punished for goofing off or messing with each other. The fact that any untimely death leads only to an instant respawn is proof that the game is only interested in your puzzle-solving skills, and not cheaper ways of challenging you.
If you play on Steam, the game has over 60,000 additional user-generated puzzles from the Steam Workshop, so the fun can continue for as long as you’re willing to play.
2) Left 4 Dead 2
Valve clearly understands and values the co-op multiplayer experience, and thus they earn the top two spots on our list. The original Left 4 Dead was a brilliantly fun and expertly paced experience but Left 4 Dead 2 manages to improve on the original in nearly every way, particularly in the AI which makes offline play just as intense.
The game is big on cooperation within the same team to achieve victory, requiring that players are in constant communication with one another about their next move. This is even more fun in co-op versus mode where you can play as the zombies! It’s exactly the way it should be. Some of your friends are the hunters; some are infected. The ensuing match of wits will be frenetic enough to change your friendship dynamics permanently.
3) Super Mario 3D World
Nintendo has always been careful to ensure the Super Mario series remain consistent in quality, and the series reaches new heights in this Wii U platformer.
The level design remains as top-notch as always, bolstered by the addition of gameplay mechanics that bring a new level of ingenuity. Maybe that’s the Nintendo magic: Somehow they deliver something you would have never imagined you’d need, much less want, but then once you experience it firsthand you wonder how you lived without it. Such is the feeling of climbing walls with a cat-suited Luigi and hearing his off-putting sassy “meow” at the level’s completion. It feels as natural as it does, well, wrong.
Still, for a fun romp with friends, it’s great to have old reliable Mario and pals as an option.
4) Borderlands 2
Fun, funny, stylish, and perfect for co-op playing exactly how you want it — that’s what Borderlands 2 capably delivers.
You can play local split-screen while you play online with others at the same time. It’s almost frustrating that this mode isn’t standard across all games, but that just makes it that much more special that Borderlands 2 made room for it. The different options for how to play and the choices of different classes to play as make for a robust experience in any combination. Maybe you play as a medic with a long-range rifle while your friend plays as a tank with heavy guns and durable shields. You’ll both have unique skills that will benefit the other as you use teamwork all the way to victory.
It helps too that the game is bursting with fun. The comic-book-style art, complete with thick black outlines and bright colors, give the game a unique personality compared to other shooters. Combine that with the non-stop barrage of jokes and goofy writing, it’s clear why Borderlands 2 has endured in popularity since its initial release in 2012.
5) Dungeon Defenders
If you’re looking for something a bit more old-school, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better tower defense game than this crafty game from indie studio Trendy Entertainment.
Don’t let the cartoony graphics fool you: This game is addictive. Combining the classic tower defense game with RPG and first-person-shooter mechanics, Dungeon Defenders finds a middle-ground that allows players to intuitively pick up the game quickly.
You and up to three friends will choose characters from the usual classes and work together to protect Eternia Crystals from a non-stop onslaught of goblins, ogres, orcs, and wyverns. Although the game might be a tad on the repetitive side, it’s precisely that familiar rhythm that keeps players coming back, just like the goblins and ogres.
6) Gunstar Heroes
This classic run-and-gun shooter is pretty fun solo, but add a buddy and it becomes one of the most memorable jaunts of the 16-bit era. Developed by the shooter experts at Treasure for the Sega Genesis back in 1993, the game was re-released for digital platforms a few years back, including Steam. It’s absolutely worth an afternoon of play time.
7) Rayman Legends
Upon release in 2013, Rayman Legends was praised as one of the best platformers of all time. Critics found every aspect of the game to be worthy of adulation: the graphics, the control, the music, the seamlessness of it all. Playing through it yourself, you’ll be hard-pressed to disagree. It’s simple, elegant, gorgeous, and fantastic.
You and up to four friends can gather in the same room to guide your characters through beautifully realized worlds, hopping and floating across chasms and past perilous enemies. The boss fights find a level of creativity that challenge the limitations of defining “2D” and “3D” gameplay as separate entities. There aren’t many stages in Rayman Legends that don’t offer something new, interesting, and stimulating, and any fans of platformers will come away impressed.
8) Red Dead Redemption
With the sequel recently announced, perhaps now is the time to head back to the Wild West. The co-op mode isn’t as robust as the other entries on this list, but what is there is just as high-quality as the game’s main course. Where else are you going to be in a violent cowboy gang with your significant other?
That Game Company
If your friend or significant other is looking for a less traditional gaming experience, Journey’s unique multiplayer option might be the right choice. It’s a beautifully told story, wordlessly walking up a strange mountain as you pass by other travelers on their own respective expeditions. You can choose to interact with them and speak through alien symbols and sounds, or you can continue on by yourselves. Some fans of the game decry the co-op mode as less true to the game’s intended experience but I’m not sure I agree. However you experience this gem of a game, though, you won’t forget it.
Probably the ultimate co-op game, Minecraft isn’t about any specific objective other than just making stuff with your friends and hanging out in your blocky utopia. Build a giant castle in the sky, or dig into the earth and create a subterranean farm paradise, or craft weapons and battle each other. It’s all up to you and as many friends as you can wrangle to play. Careful about adjusting back to the real world’s less accommodating structures, though.
Grant Pardee is a writer and producer specializing in digital video, social media, and web culture reporting. He has produced videos for Fullscreen, SourceFed, and Funny or Die, and his work has been published by Vice, McSweeney's, and Rooster Teeth.