Death was always inevitable in Gauntlet. It was not merely a matter of skill, but also a matter of time.
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Developer: Arrowhead Game Studios
ESRB Rating: Teen
Release Date: 2014-09-23
The original Gauntlet, as it appeared in 1985 as an arcade machine, seems to me to be pretty crucial in the history of video game. While not the first co-op based arcade game (both Joust and the original (non-super) Mario Bros. would feature single screen co-op play for two players), it certainly was the premier multiplayer experience when it arrived on the scene. Featuring four player, drop-in play on an arcade machine was unheard of and a strange social experiment, as complete strangers, much as they do now in game lobbies on the internet, would drop in on ongoing games of Gauntlet just for the sake of a multiplayer experience, regardless of whether they knew the player beside them or not.
Not only was Gauntlet a forerunner to blind co-op play, though, its design as a fast paced action-oriented dungeon hack would probably set the stage for games like Diablo, which in turn would lead to further advances in multiplayer action genres. I suspect that League of Legends would not exist without Diablo, which would not exist without Gauntlet, for example.
Oh, the other thing about Gauntlet is that I was obsessed with it during the summer of 1985. If I wasn't scrounging up quarters to play it with my brother and whoever else wanted to drop in in our game at the local arcade, then I was watching people play. “Elf shot the food,” “Warrior, your life force is running out,” and “Valkyrie is about to die” were the portentous pronouncements of a disembodied narrator that essentially was reminding you that it was time to drop another quarter in the machine if you wanted to extend your Gauntlet experience. Gauntlet was a fiendish quarter eater, which when you dropped in a quarter, would award your chosen character (the Warrior, Valkyrie, Wizard, or Elf) with 600 health, which immediately began ticking down a second at a time. Death was always inevitable in Gauntlet. It was not merely a matter of skill, but also a matter of time.
Gauntlet was remade in the 1990s as Gauntlet Legends, an arcade machine that was innovative in and of itself, as it allowed players to essentially “save” their progress through a password inputted on a machine played on a regular basis. However, gone was the top-down perspective and some degree of the chaos and difficulty of the original.
While both the original Gauntlet and Gauntlet Legends received sequels (Gauntlet II and Gauntlet: Dark Legacy respectively), as far as I know, the new 2014 PC game is the only the third “version” of the series. I came to this remake both excited (because I knew Gauntlet was returning to something like its top-down early arcade style), but I was also trepidatious that the game that inspired Diablo would now merely resemble yet another Diablo clone by following the inspiration of that which it inspired.
It does not. While certainly the 2014 Gauntlet, like any Diablo game, is a fast paced, action dungeon hack, this version hews closely to the roots of the arcade, focusing on difficulty and the inevitability of death.
Returning, of course, are the original four characters, Warrior, Valkyrie, Wizard, and Elf, though now largely playing differently as they each have unique control schemes mapped to their play. Or at least the two more difficult characters to master, the Wizard and the Elf, have unique control schemes that ask you to use either the control stick and button combinations or the right control stick on a game controller as part of your basic attacks. While their basic and special attacks vary, the Warrior's and the Valkyrie's move sets are mapped to the controller in the same way as one another, though. The overall variation in play style, though, is good because it requires a mastery of three unique ways of playing the game in a game that is indeed all about mastery.
Gauntlet is hard, quite hard, and your first time out you will probably die in one of the first few rooms, largely because your character is much more delicate than modern game characters are. A single zombie or skeleton can damage your health significantly with a single swipe, and it only takes two or three swipes from these minor monsters to kill you. And there are a lot of minor monsters, swarms of them, as there should be. After all, this is Gauntlet, which is all about swarming enemies that respawn over and over until you manage to get them under control by killing a series of monster generators.
Also, role playing elements and improving your character by degrees is pretty light. This isn't Diablo in which loot and ability points or skill trees will signal empowerment and advancement. In Gauntlet, there are a few very expensive relics that you can buy that can give you new powers when you have potions (limited to five potions at max throughout play) and some character advancement in the form of meeting some basic goals (kill X amount of monsters, eat X amount of food, die X amount of times, destroy X amount of food, etc.), but these don't cause one to “level up” often as the number of repetitions to achieve a bonus is usually pretty high.
Instead, survival is really based on mastering a character and a smart, deliberate playstyle. You will improve the old fashioned way: through practice. You will learn by repetition and you will learn through failure and death. And it is this that is the 2014 Gauntlet's greatest achievement in attempting to re-imagine the arcade classic while still remaining true to its spirit. This game feels more like an arcade experience than any game that I can think of on the market today, and it is simply because the game punishes poor play and rewards practice.
I suspect that not everyone will love Gauntlet. Those who weren't weaned on the arcade-style video game may not appreciate its difficulty and its punishing nature. It isn't like modern games that allow you to just continue all the time and “expect” you to beat them. Those who love the classic may feel that it just isn't “the same” in this or that respect. However, those same folks should recognize that the spirit of the game is intact, and frankly, that spirit should make this Gauntlet feel like about the next best thing to owning the 1985 cabinet. The game is definitely new, but the heart of it is familiar and refreshingly fun for this old school arcade jockey.