Gauntlet (Atari, 1985)

Where you grew up as a kid probably had an effect on what system you first played a Gauntlet port on. For me, it was the eastern USA, so I played the “illegal” Tengen copy for the NES. Some in Europe played it on the Sega Master System, and some even played it on various PC ports. However, Gauntlet was originally released in 1985 as an arcade game by Atari. I envy you if that’s what you grew up with, as the arcade original really is the best one. Not even later sequels capture the fun of the digitized speech, and the whole thing is its own self-contained experience.

To describe Gauntlet in more modern terms, I’d choose to call it a multiplayer dungeon crawl. You want to get treasure, murder (and avoid being murdered by) monsters, and make it through alive. Gauntlet is a 1 or 2 player game, with 2 player mode having its ups and downs. On the one hand, you’ll be able to survive better fighting hordes of monsters, but you’re also splitting assets (or fighting over them). Each player chooses between 4 different character types: Warrior (high HP and damage), Elf (REALLY fast), Valkyrie (resilient), or Wizard (good magic). Most people end up preferring the Wizard or Elf. I’m an Elf guy myself.

That elf does not have the face of a protagonist. 

That elf does not have the face of a protagonist. 

Anything goes in Gauntlet. Some power ups grant you bouncing shots or improved damage, but most of what you’ll find in Gauntlet is potions and keys. Potions are more like bombs; they kill all enemies onscreen at the moment the potion is used. Keys, more obviously, open doors. The door/key economy goes up and down throughout the game, but they are always worth picking up. Food and booze can give back health, but a stray shot can destroy food. This can cause arguments, since food is life in Gauntlet. Not to mention how the game reminds you of your mortality by slowly ticking down your life total, even at rest.

All time not spent gathering resources is usually spent finding or making a way through multiple types of baddies. Some have ranged attacks, some do not. All seem to pour endlessly from their little source-hub things. Thankfully, these can be destroyed permanently with a few well placed shots. The same can be said for the monsters, except that there’s so many of them that sometimes you’re simply blasting through them instead of wiping them out. There’s club wielding “grunts,” demon worms, little gnomes that throw rocks at you… I mean, Gauntlet isn’t a friendly place. The game has no actual bosses, but sometimes Death shows up (sometimes in staggering duplicate) to ruin your f*cking day Himself. Only potions can kill Death, who just plods after you and drains away your life by touching you. If you have no bombs, your other option is to just let him drain you until he is sated (this may kill you anyway). If I hadn’t mentioned before, Gauntlet’s a brutal game. It is also a game without its own existential framework; very little plot or story is given. You simply exist, and you plumb the dungeon for wealth at the expense of death. Something for the philosophers out there.

Arcade ad circa 1986

Arcade ad circa 1986

For 1985, the game’s graphics are on the good side. What made Gauntlet stand out was the TMS5220C Speech Chip by Texas Instruments. The announcer’s voice was its own piece of hardware, and a very advanced one for its time. In fact, Gauntlet was Atari’s first coin-operated game to include a voice chip of any kind. That aside, the arcade version of the game doesn’t have much music (but the NES version does). The game’s programming itself is pretty elaborate, even from today’s standards. The franchise has remained strong throughout Atari’s history of ups and downs; sequels can still be found, and they are similar enough to their forebears to be recognizable.

The game was huge in the 80s. It even had t shirts!

The game was huge in the 80s. It even had t shirts!

Tune in at the end of the month for more sword-and-sorcery mayhem!