Gauntlet Series Retrospective Part 5: Gauntlet 4

Gauntlet Series Retrospective Part 5: Gauntlet 4
Gauntlet Series Retrospective Part 5: Gauntlet 4

Insert Disk collects Gauntlet 4 for the Sega Mega Drive / Genesis.

Today’s retro game review is Gauntlet 4 for the Sega Mega Drive / Genesis. This retro gaming classic is the focus of part 5 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 5 of 10.

Greetings collectors and welcome to today’s retro game review. It’s part 5 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, Gauntlet 2 for the Commodore Amiga and a look at Gauntlet the Third Encounter for the Atari Lynx and Gauntlet 3 for the Commodore Amiga. We left our quest last time with the isometric disappointment that was Gauntlet 3. The formula had been played around with a bit too much for must fans liking creating somewhat of an unloved entry in the series, not appealing to the existing Gauntlet fan base or the able to win over newcomers. Throw in to this the horrific loading times and it seemed that the Gauntlet series had well and truly stalled.

Without going too far afield of the Gauntlet story it is important at this point to understand a little more context around the video games market and Atari at this time. An on-going legal battle between had been bubbling away in the background since 1989 between the Atari Corporation and Nintendo. At its heart between Atari was suing Nintendo for $250 million, alleging it had an illegal monopoly in the industry. Effectively Nintendo’s licencing model shut out unwanted third parties from publishing games for NES. It was a case of pay a licence of sit out. As we know Atari were defiant with the creation of their Tengen series and published compatible games anyway, souring relations even further between Atari and Nintendo. Atari eventually lost the monopoly case when it was rejected by a US district court in 1992. Just one year after the less than well received Gauntlet 3 in 1991 and the financial failure of the Atari Lynx which was effectively dead in the water by 1993.

1993 continued on a downward spiral for Atari as it positioned its new Jaguar console as the only 64-bit interactive media entertainment system available, but it sold poorly. Billed as the first 64-bit machine it had great potential. Strictly speaking the Jaguar was more akin to two 32-bit machines. Nevertheless, it was a good idea. However, third party support never gained any traction and some of the in-house Atari games by this point were released in a broken state. Several developers even walking out of projects altogether. By mid-1993 Atari as a company were really on the ropes. This once dominant force in gaming now reduced to begging for scraps at the table. Their Atari Lynx was now well outsold by the Nintendo Gameboy, their Atari ST seen off by Commodore’s Amiga series and its landmark 64-bit Jaguar failing to ever establish itself due to its cost and lack of a decent software library. To boot the real next gen contenders of the Sony PlayStation, Sega Saturn and Nintendo 64 were on their way.
By 1993 things were looking pretty bleak for Atari indeed. By 1996 Atari had merged with JTS Inc. and was effectively reduced to simply holding game licences and leveraging the Atari brand name. In March of 1998 JTS in turn sold the Atari brand name to Hasbro Interactive for $5 million and by 2000 the Atari brand name had been sold again to Infogrames. Although still around many gamers look to the 1996 acquisition by JTS as the end of what we knew as Atari as a company in its own right. Certainly when I trade “Atari” games, I’m certainly not thinking of Unreal Tournament or any of the other newer games the logo has been slapped on. Atari for myself and those that lived through the 80’s will always think of games like Q*Bert, Frogger and Gauntlet.

Anyway, back to 1993. Atari finds itself without a decent current generation software library, hardware, the brand equity slowly diminishing and the last Gauntlet game a dismal seller. What is a company to do?
Whilst Atari may not be my favourite gaming company of all time I think we can all look back and admire how they went out. They swallowed their pride, got on the phone to Sega and floated an idea. Tengen still had the licence from Atari to use the Gauntlet brand and the Sega Genesis and Mega Drive were looking for an exclusive game for their consoles. Sega would do what Nintendidn’t and would do what Atari did but hadn’t done better than Sega had so far. In short Atari, Tengen, Sega and the Gauntlet Series would all team up for the Gauntlet to end all Gauntlets. The last classic era Gauntlet, ever. And it was perfect.

It simply hit everything that a fan of the series could want. A return to the top down perspective, larger dungeons, the announcer, reworked graphics, all the mechanics we loved in Gauntlet 2 and of course the hordes of enemies. Throw in several modes including a quest mode and Gauntlet 4 simply shone as the last great Atari game. It had been a long time coming for fans but the Atari, Tengen, Sega, Gauntlet alliance delivered. Add in to this the Sega 4 way multi-tap and things really had never seemed better.
The legacy of Gauntlet 4 though was further reaching than just a swan song for Atari though. What we actually got was one game with 2 names. In the West “Gauntlet 4”, in Japan simply “Gauntlet”.

You see one of Atari’s shortcomings was to never really break the Japanese market in the early years. Competing against the likes of Sega, Nintendo and the MSX it was always going to be a challenge. As such Atari’s go to markets were mainly North America and Western Europe. With the West hooked on formats such as Commodore 64s, Atari STs, Commodore Amiga’s these just weren’t the consoles that penetrated Japan at the time. Add in to this that the hack and slash genre was not really a big deal in Japan Gauntlet was a game that literally divided the gaming world. However, Japan was playing with the Sega Mega Drive in 1993 and Sega had no reason not to test out Gauntlet. Of course most of the Japanese audience this game was the first mass released in the series available and was simply known as Gauntlet. Whereas in the West the title was known as Gauntlet 4. And yes, just to really mess with everyone the Tengen Gauntlet 1 artwork was used in all regions. Interestingly if you fire up the Japanese edition of the game you can still see the left overs of the 4 numerals which is a dead giveaway that the Japanese game was the localised version. So often I praise Japan for all it gives the gaming world but it’s always reassuring that the West also gave Japan the gift of Gauntlet. Also worth noting is that if you fire up the Western versions of the game you can change the language settings in to Japanese in the menu. It’s not often you see this on Sega Mega Drive games as cartridges are usually localised after the primary edition of the game is created. In this case it looks very much that both regional versions are contained on the same cartridge.

So, is it any good? In short this is the definitive version of Gauntlet on any system at any time and to my mind has never been topped. Buy yourself a Sega Mega Drive and multi-tap because this is perhaps the best multiplayer game ever made for the Sega 16 bit consoles. It’s right up there with Micro Machines 2 and NBA JAM Tournament edition in terms of multiplayer fun. Gauntlet 4 has a wizard though so wins by default. Technically Gauntlet 4 is a somewhat of a remake of the original Gauntlet. This time around though we have the benefit of 16-bit graphics, clearer audio and a lot more space on the cartridge to play with. The game consists of 4 main modes. Arcade, Quest, Battle and Record mode. Arcade mode is very much a classic adaptation of the original Gauntlet. You’ll be fighting your way through the levels, finding keys, food, taking short cuts and generally running the Gauntlet old school style. For fans of purest Gauntlet this is the go to game mode. What can you say but arcade perfection. But the story doesn’t end there. Quest mode looks to create somewhat of a multi-dimensional approach to the gameplay. Your quest is to enter the tower and find your way through all of the floors. Yes, its not exactly a world away from every other Gauntlet scenario you know and love but it does feel more like a quest. You’ll enter a lobby and be able to select from Fire, Earth, Wind or Water tower. The idea being to defeat each tower to kill the dragons, to obtain the orbs to unlock the castle. Back in the lobby you can buy certain power ups from the helpful elves. I came to really enjoy this mode. Traditional Gauntlet is very much about kill the enemy and find the exit. Quest mode is a real quest, you’ll be back tracking through the tower, unlocking new areas and generally have to adventure around a lot more to complete the tower. It’s reminiscent of the earlier Zelda games if they had been made as true dungeon crawlers rather than the emphasis being on puzzles. Overall, Quest mode really ups the game for Gauntlet fans. Battle mode is a bit of a fun party game. With up to 4 players your task is to either kill your friends or get to the exit first. It’s an alright addition as a bonus mode but not a mode that you’ll want to revisit too often. The final mode is Record mode. Now this is something that the hard-core Gauntlet fans will be interested in. It’s essentially the core arcade experience but contains a ranking depending on speed, kills and treasure.
It’s the perfect way to settle those arguments over who is the better player.

The menu system also doesn’t let you down and contains some excellent customisation. You can set the level of credits, difficultly level, health per coin and even enable a mania mode. For the interested there’s also a menu to test out the input from the joypads and multi-tap so you can test if everything is set up correctly. It’s a feature not often seen in consumer facing editions of games and usually more of a back end developer feature. Of course you also get the sound test. The game now features some really great chip tunes to add ambience and excitement to the game. There are also over 200 sound effects and voices to listen too. It’s the perfect bonus for those looking for some retro sound effects.

In terms of the physical packaging fans have a lot to enjoy as well. The black plastic cases of the Sega 16-bit systems have lasted very well over the years and I’ve made sure to keep mine in immaculate condition. As usual for the time you’ll get the case, manual and cartridge with some very decent presentation. Of course that presentation may be very familiar to you by now. The artwork has been reused from the Atari Lynx The First Encounter game and the original Tengen NES release. This sometimes creates confusion as the 3rd chronological game in the series “The Third Encounter” has the same artwork as Gauntlet 4 (known as Gauntlet in Japan). Whilst Gauntlet 3 is technically the fourth game. Well, that’s gaming for you though. It’s likely that the artwork was reused due to budget constraints but was it also a nod to the fact that you could take out the disastrous Gauntlet 3 and replace it with The Third Encounter? We’ll never know for sure.

Sadly, this was the last in the Gauntlet series, at least for the classic era and many consider it the last true Gauntlet game. At least a last true Gauntlet game that classic Atari oversaw. For what its worth Atari did well to manage this series in the way that they did. The classic era may have taken a miss-step with Gauntlet 3 but ask yourself the question. If Gauntlet 4 and its back to basics approach had directly followed Gauntlet The Third encounter or Gauntlet 2 would we have savoured it so much?
Personally I feel that the failure of Gauntlet 3 made the comeback of Gauntlet 4 all the more meaningful for fans. We knew that Atari had it in them to deliver a definitive top down Gauntlet and this was that special moment when it all came together.

Mired in long-running legal battles, financial issues and multiple failed consoles Atari held true to the vision of delivering a Gauntlet for the fans in the bleakest years of their existence. In this classic era Atari had proven that top down 2D hack and slash dungeon crawlers could not only dominate the arcade but transfer to tape, disk and cartridge based home consoles. Somewhat of a rarity at the time. As previously mentioned By 1996 Atari had merged with JTS Inc. and by 1998 JTS had in turn sold the Atari brand name to Hasbro. 1993 was effectively the death of classic Gauntlet. The downward spiral of Atari’s fortunes saw the company all but disbanded and its teams scattered to the wind. The classic era was over and it wouldn’t be until 1998 that Gauntlet was resurrected on home consoles.

The classic era was dead, long the legend era. Join me in the next episode as Gauntlet gets its first reboot on the next gen consoles and that new technology of polygons.

The quest continues…

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