Gauntlet Series Retrospective Part 1: Gauntlet

Gauntlet Series Retrospective Part 1: Gauntlet
Gauntlet Series Retrospective Part 1: Gauntlet

Insert Disk collects Gauntlet for the Spectrum, NES and Sega Master System.

Today’s retro game review is Gauntlet for the Spectrum, NES and Sega Master System. This retro gaming classic is the focus of part 1 of the 10 part Insert-Disk Gauntlet Mini Series Where we will take a look back at Gauntlet, Gauntlet The Deeper Dungeons, Gauntlet 2, Gauntlet: The Third Encounter, Gauntlet 3, Gauntlet 4, Gauntlet Legends, Gauntlet: Dark Legacy, Gauntlet: Seven Sorrows, Gauntlet: Slayer Edition as well as a bonus look at the Gauntlet origin story in Dandy and Dark Chambers.

Greetings collectors and welcome to today’s retro game review. Often when I’m talking with retro game collectors and browsing the forums one series above all keeps on returning as a series that defined their early gaming years. That series is Gauntlet. The problem is that Gauntlet is not just a game series, it’s a whole history of gaming. A single episode just wouldn’t do its legacy justice. So, I thought we would go big with this one with an ambitious 7 part mini series.

Welcome to the Gauntlet!

Just to head off any disappointment I won’t be reviewing every version of every edition of Gauntlet, there’s just simply not enough time for that and to be honest that makes for quite a different show. Instead I’ll be focusing on the main editions of the game for each major iteration of the series.  So yes, you can get Gauntlet on pretty much every 1980’s microcomputer but I’ll condense the series to one of the major releases but will go outside the boundaries where necessary to give you a decent feel for each era.

Loosely speaking there are 9 distinct major game releases in the Gauntlet series to date. However, there are several variants, expansion packs and notable differences between titles of the same name and differences between the arcade and home editions. For the purposes of this series I’ve grouped some titles together and also assigned them in to three distinct eras of the franchises timeline The Classic Era, The Legacy Era and the Modern Era. These aren’t strictly an official categorisation but do help make sense of how and why the game changed over the years. Where possible each major release of the game will get its own episode. With that said, welcome Green Elf and Wizard don’t shoot the food! Because we have a long journey ahead of us. Whether you’re a seasoned veteran of the series or completely new to the franchise I hope there’s something for everyone on our quest to revisit this classic.

So, what makes a Gauntlet game?

Personally I feel that there are 10 key elements that make a traditional gauntlet game. You needn’t have them all in every game but at least a good dose of them to generate a true Gauntlet experience.

  1. Hack and slash: Whether is the first or the last game in the series expect to be slashing your way to victory. The controls of Gauntlet are usually rather simple. For most of the 2D editions there’s a 1 button fire mechanic to launch your projectile. Should you come face to face with the enemy you’ll also automatically fight hand to hand by pushing in to them.
  2. Insurmountable Odds: It doesn’t matter which game it is, you have to be outnumbered by hordes of enemies in the Gauntlet for it to count. It’s sometimes intimidating and certainly a spectacle but it’s 100% fun.
  3. The Heroes: Over the years the formula hasn’t been changed too much but expect the 4 main classes of Elf, Wizard, Valkyrie and Warrior to choose from. Certain game swill let you customise their colour but whichever you choose, choose wisely as they will each have their own class dependant stats. More on this later.
  4. Multiplayer: So you have your heroes, now find 3 friends. Without doubt Gauntlet is best played as a group experience. Whether you’re co-operating or trying to do each other over, a shared adventure is what Gauntlet is all about. More players, more fun and a key component of the Gauntlet scenario.
  5. Dungeons: You simply can’t have a Gauntlet game without the dungeons. Often classed as a hack and slash dungeon crawler it’s the nature of running Gauntlets dungeons that makes the games tick. Expect a wide variety of styles and even bonus treasure rooms.
  6. The Villains and Spawn points: Expect bad guys to slay, lots of them and the will keep coming. One key element of the game structure are the summoning bases. These will summon more enemies until they are destroyed. You can run past them quite freely but beware that they will keep spawning.
  7. Keys, Potions and Pickups: The classic formula sees you navigating the Gauntlet and occasionally requiring a key to unlock an area. Store keys and use them wisely. Potions can restore health but watch out for those poisoned potions that will damage your health. Additionally pick up a destructive magic potion to clear areas of monster at a time. Certain games will also include a variety of pickups such as reflective shot or the “You are it” curse to keep the game fresh.
  8. The announcer: All good Gauntlet games feature the announcer. Most often telling you that you are about to die. At the time this was a revelation and is clear to put you in mind that your game is being overseen by an omnipotent Dungeon Master.
  9. Death: He’s coming for you and he’s coming now so run. One of the starring characters in Gauntlet is Death. One of the harder monsters to defeat he ironically has a lot of life himself but has the ability to drain your like no other. You have been warned.
  10. Shooting Food: A staple throughout the series has been the notion of shooting food. Food it valuable in the Gauntlet for much needed health. Shoot is and you are bound to regret it. Since your characters life bar is always depleting and acting as a natural timer to the end of your credit food is amongst the most sought after resources in the Gauntlet.

So, now you know what makes a Gauntlet game it’s time to open the gates and step in to the classic era of Gauntlet.

The Classic Era

In this episode I would like to start with the first commercially available Gauntlet games. The classic era began back in the arcade in 1985. Developed and published by Atari Gauntlet became a multiplayer cult classic. It was great action for the casual gamer and a revelation in multiplayer excitement. Simply choose your favourite character and take on the quest with up to three friends. Gauntlet proved to be a well-executed concept in the arcade for several reasons. Firstly, the ability to have friends join you at any time during your game, this is sometimes known as rolling play. Rather than 1 quarter per play in to the machine why not open up the opportunity to have 4? A clear step up from a traditional 1 player experience. This ability to drop in to the game at any time to join a friend also made for a more flexible experience. The 4 classes also allowed for instant variety and favourite characters to be chosen. This was a winning formula. It wasn’t long until the home versions of Gauntlet arrived. And that’s where I would like to start today with the release of the original Gauntlet.

Gauntlet

So, as mentioned Gauntlet was released on just about every microcomputer of the day. The NES and even the Sega Master System had editions. It’s fair to say that pretty much all of the editions were well received. Gauntlet in it’s raw state was never about fancy graphics. It was about the hack and slash dungeon crawling. Choosing your class has an impact on the way you play the game. Merlin the Wizard has low armour but powerful magic, Thor the Warrior is low on magic but has powerful damage and armour, Questor the Elf is fast but has low armour and Thyra the Valkyrie is a little more balanced all round having strong armour but average shot power and speed. Most manuals will give you some decent details on the characters, their starting stats and a basic strategy. This class system made for a variety in game play but no need to re-learn how to play. The e basics were the same yet nuanced by the class variation. It’s something that most Dungeons and Dragons players will be more than familiar with. It’s a testament to great game mechanics.

There is in fact a back story to Gauntlet Morak the Evil One has created a terrible gauntlet in which he has imprisoned a Sacred Orb in the lowest level. Without this orb mortals that inhabit the land of Randar would be helpless against his evil magic. Enter our 4 heroes and some serious pixel kicking is going to go down in an attempt to retrieve it. It’s perhaps not going to win any prizes for best story but really it’s the action we came for. The general aim of game is to simply traverse the floors of the Gauntlet to get to the last level by destroying anything that moves.

As you can see from the footage here the game play is very much rinse and repeat but with a decent variety of level designs thrown in. Typically you will need to destroy the monster spawning bases to stop the spread of monsters, find any available keys to unlock your path and find that iconic black exit tile. Gauntlet’s simplicity had a great impact on the way that it would be rocketed to its iconic status early on in its life cycle. It was an instant hit. Even in the arcade the graphics were simple because that’s all they needed to be, the gameplay was the real star of the show. This had the fortunate quirk that it would be easy to replicate on the home consoles.

So, what exactly did we receive in the home market. Obviously the arcade was king but the home editions were a success in their own right.

The Home Editions

Here I have three of the more mainstream releases. Gauntlet for the Commodore 64 microcomputer. Gauntlet for the Nintendo Entertainment System. And Gauntlet for the Sega Master System. Now, what is likely to strike you here is the difference in presentation style. The Commodore 64 edition leans heavily on the original arcade artwork both on the front cover and the internal manuals. The internal manual is actually more of a sheet so that it could fit in to the original cassette case. Collectors will really appreciate the original Atari artwork here and the presentation feels very faithful to the original arcade release. The explanation of the hero classes is very well defined and matched the original release. Al the pickups and monsters are also very well defined. Interestingly Death will take up to 200 points before dying himself and the only way to kill him is with magic. Although still published by Atari games the task fell to US Gold  to create the conversion and considering the limitations of the hardware the game still holds a lot of the charm of the original source material. The visuals are basic but overall quite pleasing. The C64 SID chip puts out some decent bleeps and bloops too. Overall a decent conversion in my opinion.

Next up is the NES version of Gauntlet and a change of pace in presentation. In 1984 the Atari had been broken up in to two distinct division The Atari Games division and the Atari Corporation. The Atari Games division originated from Atari’s arcade division, and had the rights to use the Atari name on arcade releases but not on console or computer games. As you can imagine this led to several platform restrictions.  The Atari Corporation division held the remit for publishing on computer and console games and hardware which owned the rights to the Atari brand for these platforms. For this reason when the Atari Games division wanted to enter the console-game market, they needed to create a new label that did not use the Atari name. This new subsidiary became known as Tengen. What I have here is the US NTSC first pressing of Gauntlet by Tengen for the NES. Notice in the bottom right corner it lacks the Nintendo Seal Of Quality that was found on most games of the day. This is because Tengen and Atari had a rather long running dispute over game licencing for the system. Atari wanted to release games but at the time failed to secure the appropriate deal with Nintendo. As a result there are Tengen games out there that are fully compatible with the NES but not endorsed or licensed by Nintendo. On most games you would expect to see the licencing message from Nintendo. Curiously never were awarded to several Tengen releases. There is a long and interesting history of licencing issues between Atari, Tengen and Nintendo and worth an episode in its own right. It’s worth including this hint of a crack in Atari early on though as it does give some context as to Atari’s troubles in later years. Either way, Tengen did a reasonable job of converting Gauntlet to the NES in my opinion. The game retains all of the hallmarks of the arcade original and does feel like a Gauntlet title.

The colour pallet may be a little uninspired but you can definitely still get some fun out of this one when you sit down with it even today. It gets the job done but in retrospect the conversion could have been a little more faithful to the original and the graphics improved a little. Now I’m actually really fond of this title as it’s not easy to come by here in the UK. As such this is one game that needs to be housed in a game protector due to its age and great condition. I dare say that over the years near mint conditions are now only in the hands of the more serious Gauntlet collector. In terms of the physical presentation the artwork is really decent here, it just looks epic and has that quintessential 1980’s dungeons and dragons feel to it. Even the gold trim makes it look like part a Dungeons and Dragons universe. Take a mental note of this artwork as it has a part to play in our story later on. Inside expect to find a decent clean cartridge of the same design along with manual. The cartridge is a nice black variant used by Tengen and actually feels very robust. I’m a fan of the black Sega Mega Drive cartridges and seeing a NES game in a similar black is surprisingly rewarding. The manual is also really decent. You’ll get the back story. Game setup details. Character stats. Explanation of the abilities. The map system. Overview of the monsters and items. Interestingly here is the description of Death. In this variant of the game, your shots have no effect on Death.

So, a great package so far.

The star of the show though for me is the original poster. There are becoming exceptionally rare to find these days and I don’t mind sharing that I bought this complete set just for this episode. The iconic artwork of the Wizard, Warrior, Valkyrie and Elf is just stunning. For Gauntlet collectors this is a true collectable and you’ll see later why the artwork has a larger piece to play in the saga. Overall the NES version of Gauntlet really sets the standard in terms of physical presentation. Now, back in to you protective sleeve and temperature controlled vault never to be seen again.

Lastly it’s worth taking a look at the Sega Master System Edition of Gauntlet also converted by US Gold as the C64 version had been. The cover art, well I kind of like it. US Gold could have used the original Atari artwork but decided to go their own way with is one. The characters lack the more detailed finish of the Tengen release however they do have more of a comic book charm and the distinct yellow, red, blue and green distinction of the heroes is definitely more pronounced. Inside the manual is decent yet nothing to shout about. What should be shouted about though is the gameplay and presentation of the game itself. Remember the NES edition, it was ok and captured the essence of the original. The NES’s big rival here in the Europe, The Sega Master System, what could it deliver though?

The Sega 8-bit edition. Wow, just incredible. For my tastes the US Gold conversion on to the Sega Master System is perhaps the best conversion I’ve played. The colour pallet is much richer than the NES, the playfield wider than the C64 and the overall speed and flow of the game replicates the arcade edition in a very pleasing way. The game also sounds great, the sound of the keys, the treasure, it’s all executed in a really comprehensive way. I dare say that the Sega Master System also ups the ante by throwing in more sprites, more complex level designs such as the teleportation death level and just performs really well with multiple sprite movements. Something which was not the consoles strong point. The bonus treasure levels are all in here so I’d happily recommend this as the edition to pick up if you’re looking for a quality release. Now, this is something that isn’t obvious to game collectors. US Gold had a reputation for being a bit his and miss for conversions back in the 80’s. What’s also surprising is that the US Gold edition is technically superior to the Tengen release on the NES.

Now we can argue up and down all day as gaming enthusiasts on whether the C64, Master System or NES was the better machine for running Gauntlet, they all have their strong points. However, in a straight NES vs. Master System duel I can only conclude that US Gold did do a better job at a conversion than Tengen. Here they are side by side and I’ll leave it to you to decide on your opinion. However, considering Tengen was a subsidiary of Atari itself you would expect that a Tengen would set the standard when it came to execution. Instead we have the curious situation where the most faithful recreation of the game sits on a Sega console with a third party publisher. A curious note in the Gauntlet series.

To this day all three formats plays very well and there’s definitely still some room for debate on which edition is most fun, faithful to the original or best executed. If I could have the NES packaging with the Master System game execution I’d be very happy as a gamer. No matter the platform of choice gamers agreed unanimously that there was demand for a follow up. Atari had already begun work on Gauntlet 2 however Atari made a clever move in announcing an expansion pack to several micro-computer versions of the game. This was to be known as “The Deeper Dungeons”.

The Deeper Dungeons

Deeper Dungeons has an unusual legacy in that fact that it was partly created by fans of the game. Atari wanted more content but didn’t want to distract themselves from the true up and coming Gauntlet 2 release but its clear that Atari wanted a lot of content to make the Deeper Dungeons worth buying. As such a competition was launched where budding level designers could submit level designs to win copies of the final game and a Gauntlet T-Shirt.

So back to our original Commodore 64 release. The eagle-eyed of you will have noticed earlier the Deeper Dungeons competition section. It was always planned that US Gold would release the Deeper Dungeons expansion pack in 1987 but needed help. Gamers were asked to design levels and send them in for a chance for their level to be in the expansion as well as winning a copy of the game and a T-Shirt. How to do that exactly? Well, it’s time to get out your squared paper. The Gauntlet universe grid is 32 by 32 blocks and the player’s window scrolls so that 16 blocks wide by 10 tall are seen at any one time. Follow the key to place walls, monsters, generators exits and pickups. What creative way for Gauntlet fans to join in the fun.

The result, a rather well received expansion to the original, by the fans, for the fans. The expansion comes on cassette and does everything right. The imagery and presentation are spot on and oh how I want to go back to 1987 to order that T-shirt. Whilst it wasn’t uncommon for gamers to make homebrew versions of games this is perhaps one of the first times that a major publisher such as Atari had open its doors welcoming a team collaboration from fans. We praised Little Big Adventure in 2008 and Super Mario Maker as recently as 2015 seeing fan made levels as innovation. The truth is Atari had already harnessed this fan resource to generate level content as far back as 1985.

With 512 new levels Atari and fans alike achieved a truly special thing in gaming. Harmony for the greater good of creating an experience for everyone to enjoy. Atari made sales, the community had fun making levels and gamers in general benefited from more game content. For me this is one of the truly important moments in gaming history, it was one of the first true Win-Win-Win situations the industry had ever experienced, certainly on this scale. Sadly this time has become a bit of a footnote in history and overshadowed by Atari’s ultimate decline in popularity. It’s worth remembering though that for some time Atari really was a very well loved and respected player in the market.

If you have the Deeper Dungeons tape you can see a list of competition winners who contributed to the game. What I have here is the ZX Spectrum expansion of the Deeper Dungeons and it does require the original cassette to load. Essentially the original tape will load the main game whilst a nifty cassette swap will then continue to load the level schematics. None of this DLC nonsense, it’s all about that cassette swap. The Deeper Dungeons was a decent distraction for micro computer owners but never made available to the console crowd.

With Gauntlet running rampant in the arcade and home systems, Gauntlet 2 needed to be a major release to keep the fans happy. With new consoles and computers on the market Atari took the chance it needed to refine the Gauntlet formula further and deliver perhaps one of the most ground-breaking game experiences of the decade.

Join me in part 2 as we unleash hell in Gauntlet 2.

The quest continues…

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