Gauntlet Series Retrospective Part 3: Gauntlet The Third Encounter

Gauntlet Series Retrospective Part 3: Gauntlet The Third Encounter
Gauntlet Series Retrospective Part 3: Gauntlet The Third Encounter

Insert Disk collects Gauntlet The Third Encounter for the Atari Lynx.

Today’s retro game review is Gauntlet The Third Encounter for the Atari Lynx. This retro gaming classic is the focus of part 3 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.

Welcome to the Gauntlet retrospective part 3 of 10.

Greetings collectors and welcome to today’s retro game review. It’s part 3 of this Gauntlet Mini series. Welcome to the Gauntlet! So far we’ve been traversing the classic era of Gauntlet games having looked at the original Gauntlet for the 8-bit generation and Gauntlet 2 for the Commodore Amiga. If you missed parts 1 and 2 I highly recommend watching those first before continuing on the quest today.

On with the quest and Gauntlet: The Third Encounter. With the first and second instalments resulting in ground-breaking smash hits for Atari it was only natural that they wanted to leverage Gauntlet’s popularity and draw attention to their own hardware. Roll on 1990 and enter the Atari Lynx. Now this handheld was meant to compete primarily with the Sega Game Gear with its full colour graphics. The Third Encounter came on a small cartridge and slots nicely in to the system. Being a bit of an Atari addict I am a proud owner of a Lynx, a much under-rated handheld console in my opinion. It had few games and a short life-cycle but it did have its moments. Now more of a curiosity piece than anything else they are definitely worth a second look for the curious hardware collector. Here are a few specs for you.

CPU: Dual 16-bit custom CMOS (16MHZ / custom CPU on its own is 8-bit)
RAM: 64KB DRAM
Colours: 4096 (16 simultaneous per scan line)
Resolution: 160×102 pixels
Screen: LCD 82.55mm x 47.75mm (88.9mm/3.5″” diagonal)
Sound: 8-bit 4 channel (mono for Lynx, stereo for Lynx II)
Game Media: 2MB (16Mbit) cartridge
Power: 4 hours for Lynx/5 hours for Lynx II (6 AA batteries)

I remember some years ago thinking that a game like Gauntlet just wouldn’t work. Small sprites on a small handheld, it doesn’t naturally seem logical. Arcade experience to handheld, 4 player to one, if there was ever a mismatch in goals this was it. However, I was wrong. Not completely wrong but I wasn’t completely disappointed by this title. The Third encounter is actually a solid entry in the series for what it tries to be but you will have to imagine that parts 1 and 2 never happened. With graphics only on a par with the 8-bit originals this third instalment delivers some traditional Gauntlet fun but at a horrible cost presentation. Even though it really doesn’t need it there is a back story to return a Star Gem. That’s really about as far as the developers could muster in terms of a plot because quite frankly its Gauntlet and we already know the score here.
So, let’s boot this one up. Hmm… well I think technology has beaten us today.

So first off a real upset is the hero line up. This time around there’s an Android, Valkyrie, Gunfighter, Nerd, Pirate, Punkrocker, Samurai and Wizard. So, wow, what’s going on here? This is now a universe where wizards happily sit alongside cowboys and Nerds. Who incidentally is most definitely Chip from Chips Challenge. We see what you did there Atari.
For the purist Gauntlet fan this may be a bit at odds with the traditional formula but I’ll let it slide. Because Pirates are cool. As with previous entries in the series each hero class has various stat points of Speed, Strength and also missiles this time around. Interestingly I’ve seen several Internet conspiracy theories that the Android here is actually the basis for the Android platform logo. I see where they’re coming from but personally I just don’t buy it. There’s only so many ways you can draw a mechanical bin with legs and arms.

So, how does it play? Now, I know you’re looking at this one on modern HD screens. Remember the original Lynx was only 160 x 102 pixel resolution. I’ll simulate this on a full 1920 pixel display here. So, yeah. 1990’s hardware we love you but things have changed. In terms of animation there’s not a lot going on here. The cowboys walking for example only has 2 frames of animation. Something beaten by the 1985 software releases. The goals remain very similar to traditional Gauntlet. Collect keys, treasure and health.

There are some nice twists in here though, you can exchange gold at computer terminals for upgrades. The level design is rather competent and works well for the platform. That limitation in pixels is overcome by a radar system allowing you to see ahead of you in first person which is a really neat little feature. And you’ll need this for a very good reason.
See here, grey keys on a grey stone floor. Why oh why could we not have had gold keys like every other game in the series. A mystery to this day. You can hold down the button to scroll through your inventory to use and place items which is a new feature for Gauntlet but I found it a little distracting as I wanted to be running around killing ghosts rather than managing inventory. Oh yes, the inventory. You now have restricted inventory slots so you can pick up keys and gold but hit you limit and you can no longer pick more up meaning that you’ll often have to drop gold to pick up the keys that you will 100% need. Again, I don’t have an issue with this mechanic in gaming. However, this is Gauntlet which is supposed to be about hack and slash dungeon crawling. Imagine in the arcade if you had to manage inventory in this way, it just puts a different feel to the game.
The physical presentation of The Third Encounter is worth talking about briefly. Notice how we now have the Tengen artwork from the original Gauntlet back. As much as I really like the image why is it back?
For starters we no longer have ether Elf or Warrior class included in the game. Secondly, it makes me feel that Atari were cashing in on the series name rather that a genuine attempt to create a new experience for the fans.

Sadly its one of the entries in the series that not too many gamers have played. Unless you have an interest in handheld gaming from the early 90’s it’s a title that’s likely to have gone un-noticed.
The original Dungeons and Dragons roots seem to have been a bit abandoned here and I can’t help thinking that Atari just re-skinned a version of Chips challenge and rebranded it as a Gauntlet game. Technically speaking you can play the Third Encounter as a 4 player if you have three friends that have Lynx’s and link up cables. By to be honest if you has 3 friends like these at least one of them would be choosing the Nerd, and not in an ironic way. Now, don’t get me wrong. I was a fan of Atari back in the 80’s an 90’s but it was around this point myself and others started to feel a bit disenfranchised. This third outing of Gauntlet on Atari’s own hardware should have been a showstopper. It should have been as Mario 64 was to the N64 or Shenmue to the Dreamcast… but it wasn’t. When you look back at Shadow of the Beast on the Atari Lynx you realise how great games could look on the platform. I just wish that Atari would have held back on The Third Encounter until it was fully ready. For all it’s lack of ambition I do like the fact that Atari kept this title to themselves and made it a Lynx exclusive. It’s a game that you can really point to and say “look, Atari did try deliver decent hardware and software”. It may not have been the most talked about entry in the series but its one that I would happily recommend to retro gamers curious about Atari’s history.

As the fans know Gauntlet’s fate was undoubtedly intertwined with Atari’s own history. The Atari 2600 dominance was now long gone, the Lynx although a decent piece of hardware struggled from day one in terms of third party support and sales. Financially the future looked bleak around this time and Atari’s rivals Sega and Nintendo would go on to run rampant over them in the 16-bite era. However, Atari and Tengen weren’t dead yet though and were still regarded as a decent software house. Of course Gauntlet: The Third Encounter was only the third encounter for Atari fans. For everyone else the next entry in the series couldn’t really be marketed as Gauntlet 4 seeing as this Third Encounter was brief and elusive to say the least. Instead Atari hit the renaming button and allowed US Gold and Tengen to handle the launch of the third major released title in the series “Gauntlet 3: The Final Quest”.

So far, 3 games down. 3 different experiences. We thought we knew what was coming in Gauntlet 3, little did we know that the Gauntlet series was about to take a dark turn. A very dark and disturbing turn that would break the Gauntlet formula to pieces. As the box says in the Final Quest, The Gates OF Hell Are Open… and oh my, they weren’t kidding. Join me in the next episode as I help shed light on this most reviled game in the series. Gauntlet 3. The quest continues…

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