Greetings, Glancers! Yikes, it has been a while since my last retro gaming post, so why not take this opportunity to go a hells of a long way back and revisit the first entry in a longstanding and beloved series.
Gauntlet began its life in 1985 as a hit Arcade machine. Created by Atari, and inspired by Dungeons & Dragons, this version was quickly ported to home computers, saw an expanded version with over 500 additional levels (!), and has since been re-released as recently as 2014 on Windows. The game is a top-down dungeon crawler pitting you and up to three mates against hundreds of thousands of bad guys. It mixes action, shooting, puzzle, RPG, and even a bit of survival horror, has a great soundtrack with iconic music and effects, and is played at a frantic pace. Many, if not most games from that era have dated, but while the graphics are exactly what you would expect the gameplay is still fantastic – that timeless blend of running and shooting has rarely been so perfect.
These hack’n’slash games were a dime a dozen (or ‘five lighters for a pound’ if you’re from Northern Ireland) at the time, and I had a bunch of clones and imitators at the time which ranged wildly in quality. Gauntlet had everything I needed in a game at that age – from the difficulty to the gameplay, the fact that I could play it alone or with my brother, and the fact that once you got past a certain level things began generating randomly. As a kid I loved mazes, exploration, and the idea of roaming around dungeons, fighting for you life and finding precious treasure. Movies like The Goonies, The Indiana Jones series, all those Harryhausen movies, and all the Greek and Roman myths and legends books I read all helped, but actually having control over a hero and getting thrown into the action yourself was something entirely different. Naturally, me and my school mates would spend many a lost afternoon and evening roaming the streets and fields pretending we were explorers and warriors.
My experience of multi-player gaming was limited at the time – games were either challenge based where you took turns to get the highest score, or played in direct competition with each other. This, I think, was my first experience of working as part of a team towards a common goal. Naturally this common goal business was rarely mutually agreed, which led to fights between my brother and I almost every time we played, with someone accidentally picking up the wrong item or getting stranded behind a wall of sixty ghosts. Several times there was a last ditch communication breakdown as we frantically tried to escape with our lives, only for one of us to enter an exit without waiting for the other, or we both entered different exits (I think). Game Over. Shouts and fights. These multiplayer missions lasted for hours, and in those days there was no simple save or pause option – when you played, you played knowing that as soon as dinner or bed time came it was Game Over. We never did manage to complete it.
You see, there was one level. One level which I’ve tried to find online in Youtube videos and by googling, but one level which we could never get past. This level was basically a series of steps – imagine viewing a long standard staircase from the side – filled with the standard series of enemies, and a few of those morph exit dealies which transferred you from one part of the level to the next. Whenever you entered one of those though, you simply got taken to another staircase and your health continued its unceasing march towards zero. We could just never work out what needed to be done, even though we could actually see the exit – there was no way to break through the wall to reach the section that the exit was on, and none of the morph transporters ever took us to that area. Still, it was great fun to play, and hope that one day that level would be skipped or we’d somehow work it out. (Note – I have since learned that there was a cheat which allowed you to walk through walls, one that was even published in Issues of Your Sinclair. So… so many hours in the bin).
But lets take a step back. When you start Gauntlet, you are hit with a character select screen, and a choice of four heroes; Thor, a Warrior – armed with sword and muscles – he is the strongest character; Questor, an Elf seemingly destined to spend his life in dungeons with a name like that – armed with a bow and arrow – the fastest character, who also looks like a cowboy; a Valkyrie whose name we could never quite work out due to pixels – she had the best defence; and Merlin – a tramp (Wizard). He was good at chucking magic. In two player we were almost always Thor and Questor, not that that helped us when it came to the stair level.
From there, you go through the usual control scheme screen and into the first 8 levels. I still have every inch of those opening levels burned into my brain due to playing them so many times. As mentioned, I loved the fact that the levels were not all linear, and even in these opening stages there were multiple exits – some which took you to the next level, some which skipped you forward a few. Level 1 introduced you to ghost enemies and the little (what I always thought of as) fireplaces which they sprouted from. Actually no, the fireplaces were treasure chests, the bad guys came out of a bunch of bones. The enemies would keep coming unless you destroyed that source, although they only popped out at a rate of 1 every couple of seconds so it wasn’t a big deal once you had cleared the majority away. The main problem was of course that the majority was often around a hundred – even in the first level you are hit with seemingly overwhelming odds – it was like Zulu without the patriotism (racism?). Luckily you soon realise that most enemies can be defeated with a single hit or shot, and that clearing a path and then running was often a better tactic than simply blowing them all away. The enemy AI was basic, but perfect – if they saw you they would attack with no thought of their own mortality, going straight for your nuts without asking or waiting for consent.
Here is a brief rundown of the enemies. The most common are ghosts – just like real life. They flap around, move slowly, and don’t do a lot of damage, and are only problem due to their sheer numbers. Next up are the grunts – muscular purple freaks with no joints who strut around trying to fist you (matron), and these are followed by pigbats, or batpigs. I’m sure there is an actual name for them, but mine is better. These things are like something from Doom and then spit fire or acid or some unholy combination of both in your general direction. These bastards are annoying because they have a great aim, know how to ‘corner shoot’ (if you aim through the corner of a wall your weapon can fire through the wall) so even when you’re running away or on another screen you’re never safe.
There are purple bearded wizard types, I was never really sure what they did aside from corner you and try to walk through you, there are cute little green children who each have one engorged arm, and who lob snot bubbles at you accompanied by a cute noise – I love those guys. One enemy I do not love, in fact one I absolutely hate is the appropriately named Death. These hooded, transparent, Terminator fuckers will wipe you out in a matter of seconds even if you have 2000 health, and if you get a couple of them chasing you you’ll barely have time to crap your pants before they use your soul as a dildo. They charge you down, hand outstretched, and they move faster than any other enemy, reacting instantaneously to your ever move. Oh, and you can’t kill them! At least not with your standard weapon. Yes, the only way to kill these screeching harpies is to use one of your precious room clearing potions, and even then it’s touch and go.
That takes us nicely on to the additional items you can use. The aforementioned potions come in a variety of colours and flavours – some which rid the screen entirely of enemies, others which give you a boost of strength or health, and some which poison you. You see, your health is on a counter, always counting down, so you need regular health fixes to stop you from hitting the dirt and becoming entombed with a bunch of overly familiar demons. The best way to get a big boost of health is from the giant slabs of cartoon ham strewn carelessly throughout each stage, though you can also get a small upgrade by chomping on one of the bottles of moonshine you’ll find – beware, some of these are poison. It was difficult to tell back in the day as we’re not talking even 8bit quality games here and certainly not HD TVs – if it said OXO it was good, if it said XXX it was deadly (and of course we called the deadly one ‘AIDS’). The best item though either made you invincible or invisible for a while, I can’t remember which, but it was ultra rare and looked like a flaccid yellow penis host to a bewildered face.
The final item to mention is a holdover from the Arcade days – treasure! Getting treasure racks up points, killing and blowing shit up racks up points, walking racks up points. POINTS! I never cared about points, or beating my best score etc in games, which is why stuff like achievements nowadays just pisses me off. I want to play for fun, to complete the game, to finish the story, or to get out of the world and my head for a few hours. i don’t care about points. The game featured randomly generated (I think) treasure rooms where you could romp around and collect as much treasure as you wanted – pointless for me, but still a fun and brief distraction from the carnage of every other level. For the Spectrum version, I recall the treasure rooms were the only levels to actually feature music, a bleepy bloppy tune which sped up as your time ran out (the main gauntlet theme played briefly between levels). These levels were basic mazes with multiple exits so you could leave straight away without picking up any loot. In fact, the level design throughout the game is impressive – some are truly puzzling, with locked doors and red herrings, multiple keys unlocking multiple routes – in fact I think some levels were entirely made up of exits – surely a ‘lets see if we can get away with this shit’ by the Devs. It’s just one of the charming and quirky things which made the title work so well and carve a niche in my memory.
You know, I never played any of the sequels to Gauntlet, and I’m not sure why. Obviously we never bought them, but none of my mates had them either. I never loved another dungeon crawler as much as this until the DOS Hero Quest came along, a game I’ll probably cover here one day too. As always, let me know in the comments if you ever played Gauntlet in any of its forms, or any of the sequels. And of course, be sure to check the links below for more information on the game, including how to download for yourself. It’s great.