Running the Gauntlet
espite somewhat questionable origins – more of which later – it delivered a multiplayer gaming experience that few other games of the time could match, and, over the years, has continued to evolve while always staying true to its core roots.
With a new handheld adventure heading to the DS courtesy of Eidos and developer Backbone Entertainment, there’s never been a better time to look back at Atari’s classic franchise. So as Julie Andrews once sang: “Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.” When Gauntlet first appeared in the arcades in 1985 there was nothing else quite like it. Sure many games existed for multiple players, but none of them ignited the passions in those playing like Gauntlet. Set in an absolute behemoth of an arcade cabinet and powered by 68010 and M6502 processors, arguments could typically break out before the game had even started, simply due to players fighting over which character they’d get to control.
Four heroic adventurers were available: Thor the Warrior, Questor the Elf, Merlin the Wizard and Thyra the Valkyrie, and each came with their own skills. Thor was insanely strong at hand-to-hand combat, the fleet-footed Questor could run rings around other characters, Thyra had strong armour and is wrongly considered to be the most powerful character in the game (it’s actually Questor), while the yellow-robed Merlin had access to the strongest magic.
Once play started it was just a case of trying to get as far into the dungeon as possible and clearing out Gauntlet’s numerous foes. While teamwork always offered the best way to proceed, it was constantly put to the test due to the sheer amount of food, treasure and other goodies that were scattered liberally throughout each stage. One moment players were standing firm against a barrage of energydepleting ghosts, the next they were screaming at colleagues for stealing treasure or precious food while everyone else was doing all the hard work. Of course, gameplay mechanics such as this are two-a-penny nowadays, but back then they felt refreshingly new. Unless of course you happened to be John Palevich or one of the many Atari 8-bit owners who had played his game Dandy…
First available in 1983, a good two years before Gauntlet’s arcade debut, Dandy utilised the same 2D top-down viewpoint, allowed for four players to play at once and featured potions, food and monster-spawning generators, all of which, later appeared in Ed Logg’s classic arcade game. Originally called Thesis Of Terror it started off as Palevich’s MIT bachelor’s thesis, before becoming Dandy while Palevich was working at Atari. Dandy was eventually released on Atari’s Program Exchange division (which distributed software via a quarterly mail-order catalogue), where it became a huge success. Geared towards teamwork, it even boasted an excellent level editor that allowed would-be Dungeon Masters to create their own tombs of terror for friends to explore.
Upon seeing a final version of Gauntlet, Palevich immediately contacted Atari – he was no longer at the company at that point – and began taking steps to ensure that he retained rights to Dandy and that he received a credit as the original game designer. While the latter didn’t happen, Palevich was supplied with an original arcade machine and eventually sold the rights to Dandy on to Electronic Dreams Software, who was, ironically, later sued by Atari when it based its own 8-bit versions of Dandy on Gauntlet and not Palevich’s original game. Logg may not have created the original concept, but there’s no denying the influence his title has had on a generation of gamers.
Of course, when you consider the period that the classic dungeon delver was released, it should come as no surprise that it ended up being so popular – mainly because fantasy and sweaty barbarians appeared to be everywhere. Dungeons & Dragons was at the height of its popularity (back then it was even possible to buy the game in your local Tescos), sword and sorcery films – Conan The Barbarian, The Sword And The Sorcerer, The Beastmaster – appeared to be getting released on a weekly basis, while JRR Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings trilogy remained as popular as ever.
So when Gauntlet appeared, two years after Dandy’s inception, and allowed arcade-goers to take on the role of a mighty warrior, speedy elf, tough Valkyrie and powerful wizard, gamers happily lapped up the on-screen action and Gauntlet’s 23-year legacy began.
Although Logg reused many of the gameplay mechanics from Dandy, his decision to have the player constantly lose health (roughly one point for every second of real-time) was either a stroke of genius or simply a cynical attempt to part you from your money as quickly as possible. Nevertheless it instantly set you up against the clock, created a sense of impending doom and gave you an important reason for finding as many people to play with as you could, as the more people in your group, the greater progress you could potentially make. A constantly depleting health bar wasn’t the only mechanic that set Gauntlet apart from its elder peer, as Logg’s dungeons often gave you a fair amount of choice and lacked the linearity of the earlier Dandy, as the opening stage gave you multiple exits to choose from – allowing you to skip earlier ones in favour of those with a higher difficulty level (and potential greater rewards). Another addition was the inclusion of various potions that granted you everything from stronger armour to better shot power whenever they were consumed and the ability to use teleporters. By far the biggest inclusion, however, was the huge amount of digitised speech Gauntlet boasted. A booming voice (an unseen Dungeon Master perhaps?) would recount what was happening on screen and his advice or taunts would continually spur you and the other players on, sometimes as a team, sometimes to punish another player. No one wanted to hear “Elf has shot the food” when they were controlling Questor and had a group of angry players gunning after them because they’d already shot a potion; while the immortal words “Yellow Wizard is about to die” could strike terror into even the hardest gamer’s heart.
Ultimately though, for all its clever tricks and borrowed gameplay it was the sheer joy of exploring the unknown that continued to send gamers into Gauntlet’s dark depths, and with later stages featuring randomly chosen stages there was always a huge desire to see what lay behind that next exit. A huge success in the arcade, Gauntlet went on to share a similar notoriety on a variety of home systems and was ported to many, many machines. The 8-bit computers all received highly polished conversions (see Retro Gamer issue 23 for an in-depth look at how these conversions were created), while more powerful machines like the Atari ST added a large amount of the digitised speech for even greater authenticity. Even new systems like Xbox Live Arcade and the Game Boy Advance received their own ports, with Digital Eclipse’s excellent Live Arcade version boasting online play, which added greatly to its otherwise limited appeal (the GBA version on the other hand is so poor we won’t waste any more ti…). Home computer owners even went so far as to receive a brand new expansion pack entitled Gauntlet: The Deeper Dungeons in 1987, which featured 512 new levels, many of which had been designed by gamers as part of a competition run by US Gold earlier that same year.
Before we move onto Atari’s excellent sequel, let’s take a breather and look back at Tengen’s NES effort, which was a totally different beast to its arcade parent, but just as much fun to play through. While the cynical draining of cash/sorry… energy was still evident in the NES exclusive, there was now an actual story attached to all the hacking and slashing, with Thor and the rest of the crew having to retrieve a sacred orb that was safely tucked away on the game’s 100th level. While all the original enemies returned, notable additions to the core gameplay included the ability to carry special potion effects to new levels and a very handy password system (handy as it took an age to battle through). The fact that only two players can play at one time is a disappointment and it can be a real chore to collect all the pieces of the password that are needed to actually obtain the coveted artefact, but it proved that Gauntlet did have potential away from the arcades and it arguably started the evolution that the series would eventually take.
So with Gauntlet becoming massively popular around the world it wasn’t long before the coffers at Atari needed refilling, so Ed Logg was once again called on to work his Midas touch. Released a year after Gauntlet, Gauntlet II employed the same basic gameplay as its predecessor but added several gameplay mechanics to the mix. The biggest addition to the sequel was that everyone could now choose the same character, meaning it was now possible for a blue, green, red and yellow warrior to take on the awaiting enemy hordes. Other cool additions included the ability to ricochet shots off walls – handy when you were low on health and wanted to So with Gauntlet becoming massively popular around the world it wasn’t long before the coffers at Atari needed refilling, so Ed Logg was once again called on to work his Midas touch. Released a year after Gauntlet, Gauntlet II employed the same basic gameplay as its predecessor but added several gameplay mechanics to the mix. The biggest addition to the sequel was that everyone could now choose the same character, meaning it was now possible for a blue, green, red and yellow warrior to take on the awaiting enemy hordes. Other cool additions included the ability to ricochet shots off walls – handy when you were low on health and wanted to.
Indeed, get touched by this creature and it would draw every single on-screen enemy towards you and away from the other players. Considering that taking on the entire horde by yourself was effectively suicide, your only option was to try to tag a friend and make them ‘it’ instead. It’s a great mechanic that appears all too rarely in the game and, along with the addition of shots that could hurt other players, proved Logg was keen to move away from the ‘teamwork’ approach that had worked so well in the original game. After all, there’s a big difference between snaffling the odd treasure chest ahead of your mates and leaving them on their own to deal with a colossal, fire-spewing lizard. Cooperative play was still essential for making any real progress in Gauntlet II’s dangerous dungeons, but there was now a mischievous bent to the on-screen action that seemed to bring the worst out in players.
Despite its popularity it would be 13 years before a new Gauntlet appeared in arcades and the focus of the franchise instead moved to the living rooms of computer and console owners. While Ed Logg did initially pitch a 3D version of Gauntlet for the arcade, Atari wasn’t having any of it, so Logg’s initial idea morphed into 1987’s excellent but underrated Xybots instead.
Although no Gauntlet games appeared in the arcades until the company had been sold to, and the franchise resurrected by, Midway, Atari still realised the franchise’s popularity and produced two games during 1990 and 1991 that were allegedly the third part of Gauntlet’s canon. The first, Gauntlet: The Third Encounter was released exclusively on Atari’s Lynx, while Tengen created Gauntlet III: The Final Quest a year later for the Amiga, Atari ST, Amstrad, Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum.
Originally created by Epyx, Gauntlet: The Third Encounter actually started off life as a Lynx game called Time Chests And Treasure Quests and featured a motley assortment of characters that ranged from a pirate (complete with obligatory parrot on shoulder that he would fire towards enemies) to a nerd that looked suspiciously like Chip’s Challenge’s unlikely hero. One quick name change later and Atari has a new Gauntlet game to sell on its powerful new handheld. Sadly, no doubt due to it originally being a clone, this Lynx effort doesn’t really deserve its Gauntlet title as it’s a fairly mundane trudge through 40 tiny levels in search of a mysterious Star Gem that’s crash-landed on your home world. There are a few nice touches sprinkled throughout the adventure – a small portion of the screen is dedicated to a first-person view of an approaching creature/ item – and the visuals are rather humorous and easy to make out on the Lynx’s small screen, but it’s just far too easy to present any real challenge.
It’s fortunate then that Gauntlet III: The Final Quest (yeah, right) turned out to be a far better game, receiving mainly positive reviews in the gaming press at its 1991 release. Now set in the mythical land of Capra, like The Third Encounter it also includes a larger playing roster, with the four heroes of the original arcade games being joined by a lizard man, an ice man, a rock man and a Merman. Again a story takes centre stage, but unlike previous games in the series, you’re now required to complete specific tasks in order to progress. While many of the missions are relatively simple to complete, it at least breaks up the monotony that could often claim players of the original titles (particularly if they didn’t have anyone else to adventure with). Still, for all its new gameplay additions it was Gauntlet III’s new graphical facelift that had most gamers talking. Presented in a brand new isometric viewpoint, The Final Quest looks truly stunning in places, with fantastically detailed sprites, gorgeous looking locations and some brilliant (if repetitive) music by Tim Follin, the impeccably detailed visuals do create one slight drawback. Due to the intricacy of the on-screen visuals, you’re never overwhelmed by monsters like you were in Gauntlet I and II, meaning that you never feel in any immediate danger (something Logg’s games were able to achieve so well).
Eager to cash in on the success of Sega’s Mega Drive, Tengen’s next effort, Gauntlet IV (or just Gauntlet as it was known in Japan) was a system exclusive that not only faithfully emulated the original arcade game, thanks to its use of the Mega Drive’s multitap, but also included a variety of new game modes. Created by M2 and published by Tengen, Gauntlet IV is actually a highly polished addition to the series that is well worth hunting down if you’re a fan of the original arcade hits. While the Battle mode (players fight against each other) and Record mode (a long-winded score attack offering) are mostly throw away, it’s the excellent Quest mode that you’ll be spending most of your time on.
Completing levels (you now ascend one of four elemental towers instead of moving deeper into the ground) awards used RPG-style to buy new weapons and other items, while the return of wave after wave of enemies meant that this was to all intents and purposes still the same Gauntlet of old. Other new additions to the franchise included extra floor tiles that instead of simply stunning the player could stop them from using magic or weapons, while certain treasure chests would even move away from greedy players. All in all Gauntlet IV seemed to have found the perfect balance between the hectic gameplay of old, but with just enough variety to keep more casual gamers hooked.
The magic formulae appeared to have been found, but Atari was not content to rest on its laurels. With 3D graphics now commonplace within the arcades, Atari looked at resurrecting its popular franchise with the power of polygons. The end result: Gauntlet Legends.
While it kept the same core group of adventurers that had appeared in the original Gauntlet, Legends’ big draw was that each character could now be levelled up (up to level 99) and that it was possible to greatly expand their four attributes – Strength, Speed, Armour and Magic – as you acquired more experience. New items like shields and breath attacks greatly increased a hero’s power, while huge, powerful bosses now await the adventurers at the end of each level. Interestingly, it also featured a password system so you could save your characters and continue the challenge at a later date. You were also required to find a set of mythic Runestones that had been scattered across Legends’ four game worlds. Once collected, it was simply a case of entering the final level and taking on the demon Skorne. Swiftly ported to the home consoles of the time – N64, PlayStation and Dreamcast – Gauntlet Legends received mainly mixed reviews (strange as we were big fans of the N64 port) with many criticising its ugly visuals and limited gameplay.
Unperturbed by its lacklustre reception Atari Games (now operating under the name Midway Games West) quickly set to work on a new expansion/sequel that would hopefully fix many of the issues gamers had had with Legends. It didn’t disappoint either, as for us, Dark Legacy was a massive evolvement that improved on Legends in a variety of ways (although once again we appear to be the only people who really appeared to love it).
Upping both the choice of characters to eight (with many more secret ones to be unlocked) and the amount of levels to battle through, Dark Legacy retains the muddy, murky visuals of its predecessor (both games, even after a few short years have not aged gracefully), but adds plenty of useful game mechanics that greatly spice up the gameplay. The most obvious is that each character now has both a slow and fast attack, which can be combined to create a variety of combos. Other handy combat additions include the ability to strafe, charge opponents and block (which greatly reduced the amount of damage you took) and a greatly enhanced turbo gauge (which first made its appearance in Legends).
Another nice touch is that you no longer have to use items as soon as you find them and can instead turn them off for use at a later time, which greatly improved the otherwise limited strategy to be found within the game. Not so good, however, was the limited availability of gold, as it was now used to buy items at Dark Legacy’s store. Granted, puzzles were extremely limited whenever they appeared, but the action itself was fast and furious and, most importantly, retained the spirit of the original arcade game. It still wasn’t enough for critics, however, with many stating that it was far too simple for its own good and that it offered little extra over the original game (which begs the question did they even play Legends, or the original Gauntlet for that matter).
With the series now held in apathy, it would be another five years before Gauntlet would appear again, although this time it bypassed the arcades completely and headed straight to the Xbox and PS2. Spearheaded by the legendary John Romero and ex-Black Isle Studios staffer Josh Sawyer, who had worked on both Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance I and II (which blended the action and RPG genres far better than previous Gauntlet games had managed), great things were expected from Gauntlet: Seven Sorrows, even after both men left the project. Sadly, it wasn’t to be, despite some decent ideas (see our review in issue 22) and the addition of online play (a first for the series), Seven Sorrows just wasn’t able to capture the magic of previous games in the series. Indeed, compared to the excellent Dark Legacy, online play aside, it could actually be seen as a huge step back for the series and left many gamers with a sour taste in their mouths.
And so, finally, we come to the incoming DS release, and luckily our tale has a happy conclusion as Backbone Entertainment (previously Digital Eclipse) has done the franchise proud with a solid update that retains the pioneering spirit of the arcade original. While it would have been nice to see arcade ports of the first two games, this is nevertheless a great update that will really please fans of Atari’s long-running series. The DS’s dual screens work surprisingly well, making it extremely easy to pinpoint generators and avoid more powerful enemies. Combat abilities like Dark Legacy’s strafing make a welcome return, while there are a variety of different items to collect and use throughout the huge quest. The assorted bestiary you fight against has been greatly updated; you’ve access to some limited, but extremely devastating attacks that grow in strength as you become more powerful and there are plenty of huge bosses to put into the ground. Best of all though is the excellent Wi-Fimode that allows you to experience all the competitive gameplay of old without ever having to leave the comfort of your own home. It might lack the solid RPG elements that began to appear in the likes of Legends and Dark Legacy, but after 23 long years the Gauntlet franchise is once again on fine form. Who knows where it will be in another two decades…