3-player video games have always possessed a weird mystique for me. Whether it’s dictated by space, by a range of inputs, or by sheer giggles, there are times when a video game just seems oddly suited to accommodate three people.
There seems to be a certain synergy that these 3-player video games offer and you can still see that magic number cropping up today with one of the most notable examples coming from Destiny and its cooperative 3-man fireteams. Destiny arguably has a wider scope to be considered one of the “proper” 3-player video games though and it’s those rare outliers that I always used to look out for when I was a collector.
The list that follows then contains ten noteworthy 3-player video games that I’ve come across over the years. In terms of survey rules, each video game appearing here features a mode or gameplay experience specifically tailored for three people. So I haven’t included a bunch of 4-player video games that technically support three people just fine! It’s all about discovering what makes that 3-player cap so interesting and different from the norm.
The other important rule was that I needed first-hand experience with the 3-player video games in question; no playing one of them solo and calling it a day! This also meant looking up some brand new titles in the names of research and overall I’m quite pleased to have a place to finally share these various oddities.
On with the show!
Affordable Space Adventures
Principal Platforms: Wii U | Developer: KnapNok Games, Nifflas’ Games | Publisher: KnapNok Games, Nifflas’ Games | Genre: Adventure, Puzzle | Year: 2014
I covered this unique little game in one of my recent Wii U journal entries and one of the things I made clear then was how genuinely rare 3-player video games tend to be, let alone ones made exclusively for the Nintendo Wii U!
As the game that inspired this post to begin with, Affordable Space Adventures keeps very small company and part of that indeed comes from its local cooperative mode that is specially optimized for a group of three people.
All players captain the same miniature spacecraft and together they must guide it through the various dangers and fiendish puzzles of Planet Spectaculon. The operation of the ship is directly determined by the players as each crew member takes on a role and handles a different input device in order to gain control of a key system.
The Engineer uses the Wii U Gamepad’s touch controls to monitor the ship’s power output whilst the Science Officer uses a Wii Remote in order to scan hidden mechanisms and various threats. You might think that the Pilot has the toughest job because of all the flying they need to do, but that’s not always the case as everyone’s complete attention is usually demanded at once.
Good communication is essential if players want to reach their destination safely as many of the hardest puzzles (of which there are many) involve tweaking the ship’s systems at just the right moment to avoid it being blown up, frozen, or otherwise frazzled by another deadly trap. Like all good cooperative endeavours, it’s this frantic communication element that leads to many of the game’s loudest triumphs and hilarious failures!
Affordable Space Adventures may be too difficult and too low on raw thrills to recommend it to just anyone, but in terms of well-realised 3-player video games, this is one of the best that money can buy. Here’s hoping that a Nintendo Switch version is in the works so that more groups of three can try out this asymmetric gem.
Principal Platforms: PC, PlayStation 3, Wii U, Xbox 360, | Developer: Double Fine Productions | Publisher: Sega | Genre: Platform, Puzzle | Year: 2013
The Cave may be your typical puzzle-platformer hybrid, but there’s nothing typical about the way it’s presented. Double Fine has produced a dependably charming and amusingly written adventure here where the titular “Cave” itself is more than just a setting. Cave is actually a sentient being who is all too happy to narrate the journey that 1-3 players take within his danger-filled depths.
Indeed, the game has plenty of charm and humour to see most players through, but sadly it’s not a great ambassador for 3-player video games in general. The problem here is that there’s no split-screen functionality for when players get too far apart. Once everyone has selected a character, the camera begins to focus on the player who most recently switched control with someone else. If an adventurer gets too far away and disappears off screen then they’ll lose the ability to control their character until the camera returns to them.
Because the solution to many puzzles involves characters being in several different places at once it means there will be long stretches where players will be standing around watching someone else play. This gets especially bad when entering one of the themed environments designed around one character’s special ability as only they will be able to make significant progress through the opening sections and thus leave the rest of the party feeling a bit useless.
Double Fine supposedly trialled a split-screen mode and found that testers were prone to running around and doing their own thing instead of actually cooperating. This makes sense from a design perspective and is a very good argument for how The Cave’s current “hotseat” style of multiplayer works, but the setup sadly benefits a lone player much better than it does a full party for the purposes of enjoyment.
You’re better off just watching someone else play The Cave than joining in and unfortunately that makes it one of the more disappointing 3-player video games I’ve played recently.
Principal Platforms: Arcade, Mega Drive (2-player only) | Developer: Sega | Publisher: Sega | Genre: Action | Year: 1988
The original arcade version of Gain Ground is one of those 3-player video games that has an element of strategy about it. Players take control of tiny heroes who gradually work their way across battlefields that resemble the various periods of human civilization.
You start in a prehistoric world where you and your enemies brandish weapons such as spears and rocks. As the eras advance those same warriors join ranks of medieval samurai and their descendants who wield crossbows, boiling tar, and even missile launchers!
This isn’t a glamorous game full of high-stake thrills; it’s a methodical one that sees players crawl their way up the screen in order to assassinate enemies with great care before retreating back down to a safe distance.
The vertical screen space gives plenty of room for a team of three to move about and players can choose characters with a diverse range of skills to help compensate for the group’s deficiencies. One player might choose to provide long range support with arrows or rockets whilst the other two players engage baddies on the front lines using agile characters who sport rapid fire bombs or bullets.
Gain Ground might be one of the better 3-player video games in the arcade genre because of this. Every level encourages cooperative thinking and that variety helps it find a comfortable niche all of its own.
The Lost Vikings
Principal Platforms: Mega Drive, SNES, Amiga | Developer: Blizzard | Publisher: Interplay | Genre: Platform, Puzzle | Year: 1992
The Lost Vikings is one of the earliest puzzle-platformers I can remember playing and one of the first to count itself among the collective of 3-player video games.
Whilst not every version of the game is multiplayer compatible, the Sega Genesis version here does boast that feature if you have a multitap at your disposal. Controlling each of the three Vikings takes some getting used to at first (especially if you’re playing without a 6-button joypad), but the basic flow of the game is pretty simple to get to grips with after that.
As it happens, this old-school title’s premise is eerily similar to that of The Cave. Three adventurers seek freedom from a strange world and must band together to overcome various dangers and puzzles whilst cracking wise at the wacky NPCs and annoying enemies they run into along the way.
Also similar is how the camera focuses on one specific character with the control of any off-screen Vikings being restricted until they come back into view or the “focus” is passed to them via a joypad command. Like The Cave, this means there are times when two of the players have to sit out an encounter for a short while until another player has chance to make progress on their behalf.
However, unlike The Cave, the puzzles here are more straightforward and usually require the unique abilities of each Viking in order to solve. Whereas the characters in The Cave all handled the same (with some minor exceptions) and could be freely commandeered by any of the three players, The Lost Vikings locks players into the role of either Erik, Olaf, or Baleog.
Each Viking has his own strengths and weaknesses and abusing these unique talents is key to making progress. For instance; Olaf’s shield can protect the other Vikings from harm as well offer a platform for Erik to jump on and Baleog can take down enemies with his trusty sword or bow. As a member of the 3-player team your role as one of the Vikings will always be unique and your interaction with the other members of the party will feel more meaningful because of that fact.
It is strange how levels can become unwinnable if one of the Vikings dies though and ultimately the 3-player setup can feel a bit more hectic than you’d like for such an otherwise thoughtful game.
Nevertheless, The Lost Vikings is still a positive step forward for the genre and the characters themselves have become popular enough to return over the years too with their most recent appearance courtesy of Blizzard’s own MOBA video game called Heroes of the Storm.
Magic: The Gathering – Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012
Principal Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC | Developer: Stainless Games | Publisher: Wizards of the Coast | Genre: Card Battle | Year: 2011
And now for the typical CelJaded list entry where I break the rules that I established during the introduction. Yes, technically the Archenemy multiplayer mode here is a 3v1 affair built around four players instead of just three, though it is still perfectly playable as a 3-player cooperative scenario if an AI stands in for your opponent. It’s a thin justification I’ll admit, but the alternative game for me to talk about here is Pit Fighter and I really don’t want to talk about Pit Fighter!
Magic: The Gathering was not originally designed with multiple players in mind and out of all the variants that exist for the CCG today, Archenemy isn’t one that you’d rush to call “balanced”.
Three cooperating players pit their chosen deck against a lone Archenemy who commands a higher life total and a special deck of Scheme cards. These Schemes are not to be taken lightly either as each turn one will unleash an incredibly powerful effect that will either accelerate the Archenemy’s chosen strategy or cripple the allies’ ability to fight back. It makes for some very tense battles where the allies are constantly fighting for their lives.
Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012 is Stainless Games’ second digital adaptation of Magic: The Gathering and for the team to successfully implement Archenemy so early on is very impressive indeed. There are plenty of balance concerns, what with the semi-fixed player decks that the game contains, but it’s still an incredibly fun way to play and the accompanying Archenemy campaign mode is playable online with up to three players too. Despite its lack of custom deck-building, the official expansion set brings several new cards that work well here as well as unlocking the ability for players to become the Archenemy themselves!
It’s a real shame that this unique multiplayer mode would disappear from future instalments in the series as Duels 2013 introduced Planechase, Duels 2014 introduced Sealed, and Duels 2015 introduced microtransactions to help make its publisher richer.
Stay classy, Wizards.
Rampage World Tour
Principal Platforms: Arcade, Nintendo 64, PlayStation, Sega Saturn | Developer: Game Refuge Inc. | Publisher: GT Interactive, Midway Games | Genre: Action | Year: 1997
The arcade genre is the easiest place to find dedicated 3-player video games. From the aforementioned Gain Ground and Pit Fighter to the more outlandish Battle Toads Arcade and Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker, there are plenty of 3-player cabinets out there and if I was more of an arcade expert then this list would be a whole lot easier to write up! Occasionally though you’ll find an arcade release that was a big enough hit to get a home conversion and such is the case with Rampage.
Rampage World Tour is perhaps the most well known entry in the series that began with Rampage; a 3-player slugfest where players take control of giant monsters destroying the cities of Earth. Released a whole decade after the original, this World Tour sequel is more of a remake with modern graphics and animation albeit with the same basic gameplay of demolishing buildings and eating the civilians that pop out of their windows.
This is an ideal video game for arcades because of how accessible the action is. Players don’t do a whole lot except punch buildings and eat things, so it’s a certainly a good one for instantaneous thrills and with all three players in tow you can really power through those tasty skyscrapers and army helicopters.
At its core Rampage World Tour is a cooperative game, but what’s sneaky is how friendly fire is always enabled. Socking your fellow Kaijū in the jaw or kicking them in the nether regions isn’t just foul play; it’s expected play! The post-game scoring phase is designed to get players in the competitive mood as awards are given to the players who eat the most people, wreck the most property, and get the most cheap shots in against their buddies.
Rampage World Tour is arguably not a game that translates well outside of its arcade environment because of how ultimately repetitive and mindless the action is. In short bursts though you could do a whole lot worse and this is definitely an experience that’s best with all three characters taking part in the destruction.
Principal Platforms: Arcade, Many others… | Developer: Atari | Publisher: Atari | Genre: Strategy | Year: 1990
Although only two letters separate Rampage and Rampart, the latter arcade game is stylistically very different and yet just as obsessed with destruction. Indeed, Rampart has nothing to do with giant monsters despite it being the mutant offspring of Tetris and Missile Command, but it does possess a familiar vibe; where players spend time building something impressive only to revel in watching it all burn down!
A multiplayer game of Rampart is divided into two key phases. During the first phase players arrange walls in the shape of classic Tetris pieces in order to create castles with enough inner space to place cannons. It’s actually quite reminiscent of the board game Carcassonne as you have to be careful not to overextend your designs in case that last vital piece fails to show up in time for you to use it.
If you control at least one active castle at the end of this phase then the game continues with you setting up cannons in any free tiles (inside castles only) ready for the second phase where you’ll quickly blast the other players’ fortifications to smithereens. It’s all button bashing mayhem as players frantically try to dismantle opposing castles in a way that will make them tougher to rebuild during the next round.
Even though the building phase is quite thoughtful, Rampart is a turbulent game because of the strict time limit that ensures players never have a chance to get comfortable or overly considerate with their designs.
Rampart is especially good fun when played with three people. The viewing area feels well optimized at the full player count and there is a delicate new element of balance to be taken into account here too. Someone can be in real jeopardy if two players ever decide to form a truce and even though building up a huge network of castles is an impressive feat, it also makes you a bigger target and part of the beauty of Rampart comes from those tense player negotiations before battle commences!
Super Off Road
Principal Platforms: Arcade, Many others… | Developer: Leland Corporation | Publisher: Virgin Games | Genre: Racing | Year: 1989
In its original arcade form, Ivan “Ironman” Stewart’s Super Off Road is a racing game that’s likely capped at three players because of its cabinet size. Four pickup trucks are always present on the track at once, though making room for four miniature steering wheels on the unit itself was likely not feasible. You might argue this technicality disqualifies Super Off Road from this list, but once again; I’m not mentioning Pit Fighter!
The novelty steering wheels would surely have added a lot of charm to this game though and you can still feel a bit of that charm in the various home versions that have seen release over the years.
Super Off Road is a small scale racing game where players get a full view of the track at all times. Visually the game can look a bit static, but I for one quite like this style as it avoids that problem Micro Machines has where players can’t see where they’re going. Pretty essential for a racing game, I’d say…
The developers added plenty of obstacles to make things more interesting and it’s a rare race indeed where your tiny truck isn’t bouncing all over the track. Players will have a chance to spend their winnings on upgrades after each race and by the end of a tournament you can find yourself with a nippy little motor indeed. The ride gets even more bumpy when you add in the nitro engines whose finite boosts are the key to winning – though they’ll usually send most careless players crashing into something!
It’s essential to play Super Off Road with the maximum allowance of human players as the AI opponents can be rather obnoxious, but even after all this time it’s still an easy title to go back to… As long as you don’t count those embarrassing ‘trophy babes’ who show up on every menu screen.
Three Dirty Dwarves
Principal Platforms: Sega Saturn, PC | Developer: Appaloosa Interactive, SegaSoft | Publisher: Sega, SegaSoft | Genre: Beat ‘Em Up | Year: 1996
As far as this little survey is concerned, Three Dirty Dwarves gets bonus points for being a game that actually has the number three in its name. Always nice to see!
This is a humorous scrolling beat ’em up starring three dwarven warriors who are on a violent journey to liberate the genius children who dreamt them up. Each player controls one of the dwarves in question and using a bizarre array of sporting goods as weapons, you’ll clobber your way through many creative baddies across just as many urban themed environments.
There are some interesting flourishes here and there like how the dwarves can revive by hitting each other or how they can team up for power attacks if they keep in close quarters. The ground tends to be quite narrow though and the character sprites are so big that players will rarely have room for planning out attacks. Most fights devolve into one big melee and it’s common for players to get knocked down simply because they couldn’t tell what was going on!
I made it clear in my recent retrospective that the most disappointing aspect of Three Dirty Dwarves is how so many of its levels are only playable with one person. When talking about good 3-player video games in general, this seriously damages this game’s appeal as it’s just no fun for two of the participants to be left watching whilst Player 1 does all the work. In some instances you can choose to share the first joypad in order to counter this gripe, but it’s a real shame that the developers couldn’t find a way to make the setup more inclusive.
It gives the impression that the 3-player mode here was a gimmick to accompany the game’s title and that’s a real pity because the idea had potential for so much more.
Principal Platforms: PC, PlayStation 3, Wii U | Developer: Frozenbyte | Publisher: Nobilis | Genre: Platform, Puzzle | Year: 2009
Trine is perhaps the biggest (and most fitting) name in 3-player video games today with a franchise consisting of three (huh!) core games and the odd overhauled re-release. Essentially a puzzle-platform hybrid in a similar vein to The Lost Vikings and The Cave, Trine is a chaotic mess of ideas that never seems to coalesce into a satisfying whole.
Up to three players take control of their own different fantasy hero with each one possessing unique tools for navigating platforms and overcoming obstacles. The Thief’s grappling hook lets her fly through the air like Daredevil, the Wizard’s noisy magic conjures and manipulates objects, and the Knight… doesn’t really do much of anything.
And therein lies the biggest problem with this game; almost all of it can be completed without meaningful input from all three characters. The player in control of the Knight is in for an especially tedious game too as his simplistic sword and shield combo offers nothing particularly useful to the other characters who can fight and get around just fine without him.
The levels in Trine don’t really have puzzles as much as they do mild inconveniences such as gaps and heights which are typically solved by conjuring another crate as the Wizard and then having someone stand on top of it. There are collectibles and bonus items hidden away and whilst these do encourage a little more thought and exploration, you’ll find that most of them just get palmed off to the Wizard with the Knight getting left in the lurch again. It’s a similar situation with character upgrade system; a pointless nod to fantasy game conventions that really doesn’t add anything worthwhile to the game’s intended premise.
Monsters and deadly spike traps pose a threat to your progress, but since players are magically resurrected at checkpoints it leads to careless play where sometimes the fastest route forward is to simply kill yourself and teleport to the rest of the party who ran ahead without you. Any video game that makes it easier for players to kill themselves rather than play properly is going to be seen as dodgy and that’s exactly how Trine looks during moments like this.
Trine isn’t a particularly original or enjoyable experience with any number of players. Maybe the sequels improved on the basic formula presented here, but as far as 3-player video games go at the moment, I’d say that this first effort is severely overrated.