Switch Your Partner, Do Si Do!
You like multiple playable characters in games, right? Especially when those characters each have their own unique abilities? Of course you do, multiple playable characters make games more diverse, fun, interesting and replayable. Except when they don’t.
Have you ever played a game where certain areas or items can only be collected or accessed by specific characters and the character required was inexplicably inaccessible, suspended in the game’s ether? Perhaps the character you need is sitting back at the start screen or at a checkpoint or perhaps somewhere in the game world where you last left him/her. This idea of having to swap characters either by restarting the game/level or backtracking to a checkpoint or where you last had the character is annoying and can discourage exploration or random item collecting. It forces unnecessary backtracking and repetition.
Sadly, many great games have been hampered by this rigid character swapping and forced backtracking. Adventure games like Maniac Mansion (which by its very nature comes pre-built with all the backtracking you could want) have a selection of unique characters that each have a specific talent or skill they can use to solve very specific puzzles. The thing is, you can only control one character at a time, so if you found yourself in the dark room as Dave you would have to switch to Michael (assuming you had selected him at the start) and bring him to the dark room and hope that you didn’t leave the film in Bernard’s pockets since there was no shared inventory. (a topic for another day)
Donkey Kong 64 was another notorious offender in the character-swapping, backtracking tradition. However DK64 took things a step further by not only giving each character unique abilities for specific areas but also scattering random, color-coded collectibles around the environments that could only be picked up by specific characters for no other reason than the developers said so. In fact, since you could only change characters at specific “buddy barrels” you had to constantly backtrack and swap characters, often multiple times per level or even area.
While I fully support multiple characters and unique abilities, I think the best way to utilize this mechanic is to allow character “hot-swapping,” let the player switch characters on the fly without having to retrace their steps or restart a level because a certain area or item requires a specific ability or character. Because everyone hates backtracking. Right? Riiiiiight???