In the 1970s, video games were born. Or rather, video games as we know them today. Not just technical curiosities cooked up by hobbyists using vector monitors in the 1950s, but fully-featured, quarter-guzzling entertainment for the masses. From Atari to Taito, all-time classics like Pong and Asteroids emerged, encouraging players to either battle against one another or the computer. That is, until the late 1970s, when developers got the idea to group players up together.
For our multiplayer-focused Play Together week, we thought it'd be fun to track down the very first cooperative game in existence. This turned out to be a trickier exercise than I first supposed, as I had to take into account the existence of MUDs (often text-based, multi-user dungeons)—its history catalogued in Brian Dear's enlightening The Friendly Orange Glow: The Story of the PLATO System and the Dawn of Cyberculture, proto-games from the 1950s and 1960s, arcade games, early consoles that didn't even have multiple player inputs, and more. The very, very first co-op game remains dodgy, unclear. But there seems to be one Atari game most point to, at the very least, as one of the very first co-op games: a little game in a giant arcade cabinet called Fire Truck.
Atari's Fire Truck was a two-player arcade cabinet released in 1978, and it may just be the first true co-op game. (Before it, there were the likes of the musical chairs of Don Daglow's single-terminal co-op of Dungeon, and other proto-MMOs that thrived on PLATO.) Built on the shell of Atari's Super Bug, released in arcades the year prior, Fire Truck is a racing game with no antagonist speeding alongside you. Instead, two players work together to drive a fire truck—one player's seated in the front, the otherwhile another stands at the back—and try not to crash as they steer and drive together the long truck. Fire trucks are notoriously difficult to drive and manage in real life, so making a game about driving one and trying to get it not to crash is endearing, to say the least.
How it works is straightforward, considering the black and white pixelated CRT display. The seated player at the front controls the gas, brakes, and front steering of the fire truck, while the standing player at the back steers and controls the sway of the back end of the truck. The front player has a horn, while the back player has a bell, but these aren't necessary for any gameplay reason. It's just a silly way to annoy one another. The roads twist and turn, making controlling the vehicle a hassle—but that's the point!
In an interview with DigitPress, programmer Howard Delman—who worked on the likes of Snake Pit, Asteroids, and Fire Truck—says the idea for a truly cooperative project came quite naturally. "The game grew out of a brainstorming session in which someone asked 'Why are there no two-player cooperative driving games?' The reason, I guess, was that no one had been able to figure out what that would be," Delman said of Fire Truck. "But someone realized that fire trucks require two cooperating drivers, and the game was born. I can't remember how it came to be that Fire Truck was an extension of Super Bug, but since it was, I was the logical person to implement it."
There was a single-player version of Fire Truck too, called Smokey Joe. Delman described making single-player work as one of the more challenging aspects of its development, as he had to program computer intelligence that would be able to control the front or back of the truck in place of another player. "I did do it, but it took a lot of tweaking to get something that would feel okay without feeling over controlling," said Delman.
Before the likes of Fire Truck and ultra-niche RPGs, the only option players really had to play together was in a competitive way. This was an era exemplified by 1972's iconic Pong, in which players deflected a simple ball back and forth in a game of virtual tennis. Such games were tense and fun, as most competitive games are, but lacked the spirit of really bringing players together. Arcade games on the whole were often fairly solitary experiences in those days. It was Fire Truck that imagined that maybe it didn't always have to be that way.
Fire Truck's friendly use of co-op paved the way for other arcade cooperative experiences to take off, such as Midway's Wizard of Wor and Williams Electronics' Joust. Joust in particular was a watershed moment for arcade games. It wasn't leaning into science fiction, nor fantasy like most arcade games of the era. Instead, it had a humorous, medieval style, as one-to-two players controlled a knight on either a stork or ostrich while jousting with on-screen enemies.
Looking back on Fire Truck's devilishly simple conceit, it's easy to see its roots in modern co-op games today. In Overcooked, a similarly frustrating but fun co-op experience, a gaggle of players work together to cook food for customers. In StarCraft 2's Archon Mode, players work together to build up a single base. In this year's Animal Crossing: New Horizons, even, families with one Nintendo Switch can share an island, working together to share not just the goals, but an existence. And like Fire Truck, sharing the weight of achieving a goal isn't necessarily always a fun time; just like steering the backend of the truck can send the fire truck careening into a wall, as can burnt food in Overcooked, bickering over the base in StarCraft 2, or hoarding materials in New Horizons.
In the meantime, the definition of co-op has grown steadily more twisted over time. Games like Left 4 Dead and Gears of War popularized what most recognize as the modern co-op experience: a team of players facing hordes of computer-controlled foes. But there are plenty of other flavors of co-op, including MMORPGs, online survival games, and rhythm games like Rock Band. Whatever form it takes, the key to a good co-op game is teamwork; not just playing alongside someone else, but working with them.
To me, it's teamwork that really defines the medium; not just for co-op, but video games in general. It's the basis of how the idea for Fire Truck was made in the first place, and its legacy as one of the earliest co-op games lives on today in the proliferation of indie couch co-op games. At its heart, co-op in video games is all just about steering that truck with a loved one or a stranger. Or cooking that food. Or solving puzzles to evade zombies. Or overcoming that dungeon.
As we're all indoors waiting out the pandemic, we've found not just ourselves, but people around the world, leaning on video games for support. It's the corny shit, games bringing everyone together. It's impossible to deny it, though. And we have Fire Truck and all those other early light co-op experiences to thank for paving the way toward being able to spend time with distant loved ones, even if for only a little while.