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System linking is the lost art of connecting two or more consoles for the purpose of multiplayer gaming, be it cooperative or competitive play. Both Microsoft and Sony have ditched system link on the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 in favor of online services, which is a sad yet predictable move.
The good news is that there’s never been a better time to grab a few Xbox 360s, invite your friends over, and marathon every Halo game you own. You could also do it with the PlayStation 3 of course, but today we’ll be looking at Microsoft’s console.
What Is System Link?
System link is the practice of connecting two or more consoles together directly using either a network cable, ad-hoc network, or hardware like a router or switch. It’s the console equivalent of hosting a LAN party, with many of the same benefits. Each player has their own console (though split-screen play also works) and own display. This allows you to play multiplayer and cooperative campaigns virtually lag-free.
It’s a form of multiplayer gaming that doesn’t rely on an internet connection, unless your party intends on playing online of course. For Xbox 360 owners, it also means you can play together locally without the need for an Xbox Live subscription.
Aside from the speed advantages of a local network, one of the main arguments in favor of networking your console is performance. It’s a means of getting the single-player experience in terms of graphical fidelity, while removing the need to sacrifice half of your screen. Alternatively, games like Halo allow you to network consoles and share screens.
But the Xbox 360 Is Old!
Last generation’s consoles and games are also dirt cheap. This is especially true of the Xbox 360, since Microsoft shifted more hardware than Sony. Two major hardware revisions for the 360 came about: the Xbox 360 S and the Xbox One-inspired 360 E. That means you can pick up brand new E bundles for $150, Microsoft-refurbished S models for about $120, and second-hand models from as little as $30 from second-hand sellers.
Xbox 360 games are also a dime a dozen, with retailers slashing prices as the current PS4-era hardware enters its sunset years. Head to eBay, thrift stores, and Facebook Marketplace and you’ll pay even less. Unfortunately, many of Microsoft’s digital prices are holding steady. This is likely a result of growing Xbox One backwards-compatibility, so grab physical discs if you can.
If you were a keen 360 gamer, then you’ll likely already have spare controllers hanging around. But even these have come down in price significantly. You also have a range of bargain-bin third-party controllers to choose from, though these are inferior to the ones that Microsoft makes.
The leap from last generation’s Xbox 360 and the current-generation Xbox One was substantial, but not huge. Xbox 360 games aren’t that old, and many have aged surprisingly well. What’s more, many of these titles are just old enough to get their nostalgic hooks into you. Others are still worth playing if you missed them first time round.
It’s sad that Sony and Microsoft have ditched LAN multiplayer before our internet connections are fast enough to render the technology obsolete. But on the bright side, Nintendo is embracing similar wireless local multiplayer technology in the Switch, which can support up to eight connected consoles at a time.
How to System Link
Got two or more consoles and fancy giving it a go? You can connect two consoles directly with a single cable, two or more consoles using network hardware like a router or switch, or go fully wireless.
1. Connecting Two Consoles Directly
What You’ll Need
- Two Xbox 360 consoles, each with a display and controller.
- A CAT5e crossover network cable, like this one (make sure it’s long enough).
- Some games.
What to Do
This couldn’t get any simpler. On the back of your Xbox 360, regardless of revision, you will find an Ethernet port. Simply connect the two consoles together using a single crossover cable and turn them on. Connect each system to a display. Insert the game you want to play into each console, and launch them.
Your consoles should automatically detect each other for multiplayer purposes, though you may need to change the network type to local or system link first. The biggest issue you’ll likely run into is using the wrong type of cable.
2. Connecting Two or More Consoles Over LAN
What You’ll Need
- Two or more Xbox 360 consoles, each with a display and controller.
- A (spare) router, hub, or network switch.
- CAT5e crossover network cables for each console — you can even make your own.
- Some games.
What to Do
It’s good to use a spare router or switch if you have one, especially if you’re going to play away from where your primary network equipment lives. Simply connect an Ethernet cable to each console, and plug the other end of these cables into the network hardware. Obviously, connect every Xbox to a display, then launch the game and your consoles should be able to see each other.
You may need to change the network type to local or system link first, depending on what you’re playing.
3. Connecting Two or More Consoles Wirelessly
What You’ll Need
- Two or more Xbox 360 consoles, each with built-in Wi-Fi or a wireless Xbox 360 adapter, or a bridged wireless connection with your Windows PC.
- Some games.
What to Do
While this method doesn’t necessarily require any extra cables or network hardware, it’s also the slowest in terms of performance. It’s always better to use cables for networking when possible, particularly considering how slow the wireless hardware in some of the older 360 consoles is.
To do this, designate one console (preferably the newest model) as the host. On this console head to Settings > System > Network Settings > Available Networks > Advanced Settings. Next choose Create Ad-Hoc Network and give your network a name. Now, on the subsequent consoles head to Settings > System > Network Settings > Available Networks and connect to the host network.
Launch the game on each console and make sure you’ve selected local or system link where prompted.
Now you’ve networked your old consoles together, you’ll need something to play. Remember, each console needs a copy of the game you’re playing. Fortunately the games are so cheap that buying them a second time is likely to only cost you a couple of dollars — your friends may also have old copies.
Note: You may need a free Xbox Live account to access the multiplayer menu.
The Halo series brought first-person shooters to the console masses, and we’re pleased to announce that all Xbox 360-compatible versions feature system link functionality. That includes Halo and Halo 2 for the original Xbox, as well as Halo 3, ODST, Reach, Halo 4, and the anniversary remaster of Combat Evolved.
Call of Duty
All Call of Duty titles contain some form of system link gameplay. You can battle in multiplayer for CoD 2 through Modern Warfare, or band together for co-op fun in Modern Warfare 2, Black Ops II, and Advanced Warfare.
Gears of War
Microsoft’s other big shooter is another shining example of system link done right. Gears 1, 2, 3, and Judgement all include multiplayer deathmatch, AI bots, full campaign co-op (limited to two players in the first game, but four for the rest) and the various Survival and Horde modes.
Left 4 Dead 1 and 2
One of the best multiplayer games ever made, you can play both Left 4 Dead and its sequel with four other consoles, with up to two players per console for eight-player versus mode.
Gearbox’s original action RPG, its sequel, and The Pre-Sequel (our review) are all system link friendly. The first game is limited to one player per console (but you can play in split-screen for up to four players total in the rest). Like Halo, Borderlands really benefits from the full-screen experience.
You should probably give the original Saints Row a miss — it’s not aged well and the co-op is broken. Saints Row 2, The Third, and IV all support proper co-op via system link, though you do need the online pass to activate this portion of the game in the latter two.
Arguably one of the Xbox 360’s best exclusives, Crackdown lets you grab a buddy and work your way through the hectic dystopian open world of Pacific City. The game was free with Games for Gold on Xbox Live, but even if you missed out, this will likely only cost you a few dollars these days.
It’s like Mario Kart except the karts are switched with licensed cars, and you race around real-world locations rather than the Mushroom Kingdom. Blur supports up to 12 players, though bots are available if you can’t convince 11 of your friends to join you.
There’s a makeshift Wikipedia entry documenting all Xbox 360 titles that support system link play, including both co-op game modes and true multiplayer experiences. Titles like Dead Island might be worth a look (four player co-op, anyone?), though there are some real stinkers on there too (who’s up for some Soltrio Solitaire?).
Come for Halo, Stay for the Rest
I decided to dig my old, loud, rattling, black Elite Xbox 360 out of the cupboard and invade my living room with a few extra cables just to play through Halo 3 with my partner. It’s been about two months now, and with the use of a lightweight and easy to store monitor we’ve had hours of co-op fun. And all I needed to buy was a cable and few cheap second-hand games.
Have you ever enjoyed games through system linking? What’s your favorite Xbox 360 system link title? Which PlayStation 3 system link games would you recommend? Tell us in the comments!