Friday, June 30, 2006

Gauntlet!

Remember Gauntlet? I sure do. There used to be a Gauntlet machine at the local Howard Johnson's (as well as Double Dragon, Galaga, and other classics), and I devoted a lot of time and money to it as a child. For those of you not familiar with it (for shame!), Gauntlet was a top-down dungeon crawl that played almost like a top-down shooter (maneuverable projectile-firing avatars collecting power-ups and facing a horde of enemies), where you and up to three other people with quarters to spare could assume the identity of four legendary heroes (Thor the Warrior, Thyra the Valkyrie, Merlin the Wizard, and Questor the Elf) and brave the Gauntlet, an endless (it began looping after level 100) succession of monster-filled corridors. Why? Umm, because it was full of treasure, I guess? It didn't really matter that there was no plot and no ending, because Gauntlet represented a revolution in arcade gaming that simply demanded your attention... and your quarters.

Although it may not look like much today, Gauntlet was revolutionary for its time, representing a number of firsts. It was the first top-down dungeon crawl to grace arcades, and, as such, was the inspiration for many games after it, arguably influencing the design of games as recent as Diablo. It was also the first four-player co-operative arcade game (fun fact: most later four-player co-op arcade games were actually converted Gauntlet cabinets), and, as any experienced co-op gamer will tell you, co-operative play increases the fun factor ten-fold for many games. In fact, Gauntlet almost wasn't worth playing by yourself, but you played anyway in hopes that someone else would wander by and join in, and, given its popularity, you'd often have a party of four before you knew it. This ability to join in or leave on the fly was another first, sometimes resulting in dozens of people playing over the length of a single play session (possibly without any of the initial players remaining), and Atari even went so far as to patent it. Another unique aspect of Gauntlet's four-player system was that each of the four game characters was linked exclusively to a physical colour-coded 1/4-slice of the machine face, and a corresponding change slot, as seen in the pictures below. So, while someone starting up a solo game would have their choice of character, a late-comer might be forced to play the Warrior if the left-most slot was the only one available, and if they put their change in the wrong slot, they'd give one of the other players extra life points instead of starting their own play session (spectators were occasionally known to do this intentionally).



Finally, I believe that Gauntlet was the first arcade game to feature robust use of voice, although I'm not certain of that. It was the first one I'm aware of, at any rate, and I'm certain that none before had used it to better effect. You see, Gauntlet had its own voice-- a disembodied narrator of sorts that dispensed advice and commented on in-game events. He became so involved that he almost seemed like a fifth player at times. He was there every step of the way, encouraging good play and even mocking bad play. If the Warrior ran head-first down a ghost-filled hallway, the narrator might exclaim "I've never seen such bravery!". And if that same charge left the Warrior in dire straights, he might then go on to gravely state "Warrior is about to die." The narrator was often of particular value in assigning blame, and his accusation (tinged with disbelief) of "Elf shot the food!" would quickly prompt the other three players to throw angry glances at the person playing the Elf, although he might instead simply advise players to "EAT your food, don't SHOOT it!" However, the narrator is perhaps best known for the phrase that he uttered whenever a character's life points began to dwindle, and even today you'll occasionally see or hear someone quip a variation on the phrase "Wizard needs food badly."

So, Gauntlet was revolutionary, but was it fun? You're damn right it was. Gauntlet was an incredibly fun game to play, and that's because its gameplay was simple and addictive at first, and then revealed itself to be deeper and more nuanced as you played. The basics were easy to grasp: shoot monsters for points, destroy monster generators to stop more monsters from spawning, eat food to gain life points, collect treasure for score multipliers, use keys to open doors, and walk onto exits to progress to the next level. That was all you needed to know, and a person could easily play Gauntlet for quite some time and never suspect that there was anything more to it, but there was much more depth to be had if one only cared to look.

The first thing that a good Gauntlet player clued into fairly quickly was that each of the enemies that you faced were quite different. They each moved differently, had different forms of attack, caused varying amounts of damage, and had to be dealt with in different ways. Grunts simply moved forward slowly in a line, waiting to be chopped down. Ghosts quickly attacked en masse, and the moment that a player came into contact with them, they'd disappear and deal serious damage. Demons shot fireballs from a distance, but charged at players when near. Sorcerers blinked in and out of sight, and could only be damaged when visible. Thieves moved very fast and attacked from behind, stealing points or items and then running away faster than players could follow. Finally, Death (don't be fooled by the singular capitalized name-- there were lots of them) quickly ran at the nearest player, draining life points very quickly upon contact, and could not be damaged by conventional means, disappearing only after dealing a fixed amount of damage, or when attacked with a magic potion.

Wait, what magic potions? I haven't mentioned those yet, have I? You see, there were big blue vials randomly found on each level that, when used, caused damage to all monsters and monster generators on the screen. They were essential for clearing out Gauntlet's enemy hordes, and yet many players had no idea how to use them. This, despite the fact that there were only two buttons, one of which had "MAGIC" written over it in big bold capital letters. Fortunately, in any given group of four players, usually at least one person knew how to read, and quickly educated his companions on the finer points of magic potion use (more on that later).

However, magic potions weren't the only gameplay-enhancing goodies that could be found lying around within the Gauntlet. Randomly, and rarely, a player would find a vial that gave them a permanent (well, until they died, at any rate) ability boost. There were several different kinds of these valuable power-up potions, and they granted various bonuses to power and speed, from stronger attacks and stronger magic to faster attacks and faster movement. Once a player collected a full set of these potions, they became an almost unstoppable force, and would thus become understandably distraught once they finally did lose their life.

Rarer still, although found in fixed locations, were another very different kind of power-up: invisibility talismans. They would grant whoever collected them temporary functional invisibility. What I mean by functional is that players didn't actually disappear from the display (which would have made navigation difficult), or even become transparent (as might be expected nowadays), but rather simply could not be seen by the enemies. This meant that, although players could still be hurt if they were foolish enough to stumble into the line of fire, monsters would not seek them out or actively attack them.

But surely the Gauntlet held greater secrets than a few generic power ups? Indeed it did, although many were not known to the majority of players. After the first several levels, paths to the exit began to become much less straight-forward and take on a more maze-like quality, and, after players became accustomed to that, the game began throwing levels at the player that seemed as if they could not be beaten at all. These levels stopped many a party of adventurers in their tracks, but clever or experienced players could find their way through with some work. First, there were the teleporters, that took players to another location when they were stepped on. This location was pseudo-random, but after some trial and error players would realize that each teleporter had a small set of possible target points, and that the choice of target point could be influenced by the screen's position (controlled by pushing against the edges) and the position of the other players. Also, players could move the target around slightly by pushing the joystick in the desired direction. Particularly skilled players could even use these techniques to teleport on top of an enemy, which killed it instantly (a particularly efficient way of defeating Death). However, while teleporters had their eccentricities, they were still pulsing red and of obvious function, which made them stand out a bit more than some of the other secrets.

Somewhat less obvious were the floor switches. Certain squares would pulse with a slight discoloration, and keen-eyed players who spotted them had a decision to make. You see, floor switches weren't very predictable in function. They could do everything from opening doors to moving walls to changing teleporter target points, and the only way to find out was to step on them. So, while one switch might open a path to the exit (in an obvious or not-so-obvious way), another switch might just as easily open a door to a room full of Death. Or, as was often the case, a switch might very well do both, requiring you to trip it in order to progress, but rewarding you with a newly-released horde of enemies for your trouble. If you didn't know what a switch did, the best strategy was generally to avoid hitting it until you could no longer find a way to progress. Also, a useful rule of thumb in deciding whether a switch was likely to help or harm you was to examine its positioning-- if it was difficult to reach, it was likely a switch you wanted to hit, while if you had to go out of your way to avoid it, it was likely a switch that you wanted to avoid.

So, teleporters and floor switches allowed Gauntlets levels to become pretty complicated, even if they were fairly small in size. However, there were still some levels that could not be completed using both in conjunction, and that's when players had to start looking for breakable walls. Easily missed by many, some walls were slightly discoloured, which indicated that a couple of shots would break them. Sometimes long lines of these breakable sections of wall were strung together to create entire breakable corridors that might lead to a new section of the maze. Like the switches and teleporters, however, there were some walls that were better left unbroken.

So, with all of this craziness involving changing structure and teleportation, it might occur to some of you that players could get separated (perhaps divided by a wall that had changed or an irreversible series of teleports) in such a way that the level could not be completed. Well, it was unfortunate, and not overly common, provided that everyone knew what they were doing, but it happened. However, if you were fortunate enough to have a very experienced player on hand, then all was not lost. You see, Gauntlet had a couple of well-hidden failsafes that guaranteed that any level could be beaten. If you were out of keys and needed through a door, or if the character with the key couldn't get to the door, then all of the players could simply stand perfectly still for 30 seconds, at which points all of the doors on the level would be opened.

Well, that's all well and good, but what if the players were separately by something a little more solid? Wait 200 seconds (a costly endeavor, as I'll detail later), and all of the walls would disappear, turning into exits to the next level. Very few players knew about this particular secret, as it required a great deal of patience (something generally lacking among the arcade-going crowd), but it was a very jarring thing to witness, and once you saw it once, you never forgot. Now, once a player did discover these secrets, obviously there was a temptation to use them when it wasn't strictly necessary, but this was generally considered to be unsporting, and cheapened the experience. Still, even some expert players couldn't resist the temptation to skip the toughest levels (Gauntlet tended to vary wildly in difficulty from one level to the next), and there were a few notoriously unfair levels that could generally be skipped without much guilt.

With all of these external tricks and secrets to worry about, many players never thought to go back and re-examine their characters. Possibly the biggest gameplay revelation to be had was that your character could attack in two different ways: the obvious ranged missile attack delivered by the shot button or a slightly less obvious up-close melee attack delivered by simply running into the enemy. The former was safer, but could potentially stun other players (a mechanic introduced after fifteen levels that often caught careless players by surprise), while the latter earned greater points, although it could not be used against ghosts. This information was actually presented in the demonstration sequence displayed whenever a Gauntlet machine wasn't actively being played, but the game was popular enough that it seldom remained idle, so some players played for quite some time before realizing that they were neglecting an entire third of their offensive repertoire. It was after a player had this revelation that the Warrior often went from their least favorite character to their favorite, because suddenly he made sense-- many a novice thought that the Warrior was simply dead weight.

You see, the four characters were different in many more ways than just appearance. What readily became apparent to novice players was that the Warrior and the Wizard were slow, and so they were often avoided. However, more experienced players knew that each character had their own unique set of characteristics that left them amazingly well balanced, and they were all perfectly viable choices, although some might better suit certain playstyles than others. The Warrior was the strongest character, with the most powerful shots and melee attacks, but he was also the slowest character, both in terms of movement and shot speed. He had above-average defense, but abysmal magic power, so his potions would only slightly damage enemies. He was also the only character whose shots would not penetrate a diagonal intersection of wall blocks, and was able to attack only enemies standing immediately on the other side of the gap. The Valkyrie had the best defense of all characters, with fairly strong shots and melee attacks, and was the second quickest, again both in terms of movement and shot speed. She had average magic power, and was able to cause moderate damage to most enemies and monster generators with her potions. The Wizard had the strongest magic, and was thus able to eliminate all monsters and generators on-screen outright with his potions, but had the lowest defense, and the second-slowest movement speed. His shots were fairly quick, and of moderate power, but he had very weak melee attacks. Finally, the Elf was by far the fastest character, with fast shots and very fast movement speed, as well as high magic power, and thus able to greatly damage or eliminate most monsters and generators with his potions. However, both his shots and melee attacks were fairly weak, and his defense was the second-lowest.

All of this went over the heads of most players, though. They just wanted to kill some monsters and have some fun while they talked with friends or ate their pizza. You have to remember, this was back before video games had the large hardcore following that they do now. It was the heyday of arcades, when the general public were getting their game on, and the most important characteristics of a successful game were simplicity and addictiveness. As I mentioned earlier, Gauntlet possessed both of the qualities, and it is because of this mass market appeal, coupled with its appeal to the hardcore gaming audience, that the game was so successful. There were two ways to play Gauntlet: a group of novice players would pick random characters and go kill some monsters (which was still pretty fun), while a group of skilled players would carefully choose their characters and play to each character's strengths, which required a coordinated team effort.

Effective Gauntlet play demanded communication among the four players. If a hallway was full of Grunts, the Warrior and the Valkyrie needed to take point. If there was a potion, it needed to be given to one of the characters with strong magic. Food had to be given to the player most in need, while power-ups had to be given to they player to whom they were best suited. Even just guiding four characters through a giant maze without getting separated or heading in four different directions required teamwork. So, Gauntlet was a very social game. Beyond just those playing, however, Gauntlet sessions would also occasionally attract crowds of over a dozen people, some content just to spectate and cheer, while others eagerly waited to pounce on one of the open slots generated when a absence of quarters or a presence of parents dragged a player away. I can't count the number of people I befriended over the Gauntlet machine, from kids my age to teenagers twice my age. But damn was it expensive-- it would have been cheaper to just pay prostitutes to be my friends.

You see, Gauntlet was all about quarters, just as all arcade games were (and still are, I would assume, although I rarely set foot into an arcade these days). Its attractive case artwork (an almost inexorable pull to a child of my age), as seen below (and above), demanded that first quarter, and its addictive gameplay kept you popping them in until you had to run to your parents for more, hoping that no one else took your place while you were gone. In the interests of speeding this process along, Atari took steps to make sure that players were constantly in need of life points (which could be purchased in increments of 700 per quarter). First, they introduced the play mechanic of hunger, which was a just a rationalization for the fact that your life points constantly drained at a fixed rate (roughly one point per second, I think), even if you were doing nothing. This lent a sense of urgency to gameplay, prompting players to speed through levels in search of food and the next exit. Second, they made each successive iteration of the game (there were several) more difficult by weakening characters, strengthening enemies, and making food rarer. The last, most well-known iteration (if you played Gauntlet, this was likely the one that you played) was fiendishly difficult to complete using a single life, although particularly enterprising (and patient) players were able to do so by periodically resetting the variable that determined food rarity (it overflowed, which, for the benefit of the non-CS people, means that the number became too big for the variable to hold).


So, the long and short of all of the above gushing is that Gauntlet was a revolutionary, expensive, but, above all, enjoyable game, and one that is very near and dear to my heart. Which is why one of the very first things that I did upon connecting my XBox 360 to XBox Live was buy it from XBox Live Arcade for the standard baseline ~$5 price (400 Microsoft points). At first, I was content to just play the single-player game, but it wasn't long before I was looking for a Live multiplayer game to join, which was actually a big step for me, since I'm still a novice when it comes to online multiplayer, my previous experience consisting only of the MUDs that I played when I was in primary school, and a smattering of Starcraft battles. So, it was with some trepidation that I took my first tentative steps into the wretch hive of scum and villainy that is online multiplayer.

The first thing that I noticed was that noone else was playing it. This is an exaggeration, but, for the second-most popular game on XBox Live Arcade, the lobby seemed to be very empty. I gather that this was not the case back when the 360 first launched, but its popularity appeared to have waned in the intervening months. So, with few choices available to me, I just took a deep breath and hopped randomly onto one of the few open games. It was like a descent into madness-- three people, of varying ages and accents, were arguing animatedly, but, upon noticing my arrival, stopped and asked, almost in unison, why I didn't have a headset plugged in. Indeed, I did not have my headset plugged in, because I was trying to take baby steps, and didn't feel up to voice communication yet. So, their inquiries were met with silence, and we went ahead and played. None of them seemed to know what they were doing, and our confused mess of a party was wiped out quickly.

My initial forays were all pretty similar to my first. Every now and then I'd find a good party, but more often than not it was a confused mess. It was a much more diverse confused mess than I had pictured, though. In one game I might find myself playing with a loud trash-talking guy from the Bronx and a middle-aged man from Louisiana, while in the next I might find myself playing with a pair of eight-year old kids from British Columbia who knew each other in real life and bickered constantly. One incredibly surreal game that I remember playing was with another fellow my age (who has since made his way onto my friends list) and a very young, very bossy child. I'm an awful judge of age, but he couldn't have been over ten years old. His spoke with incredible authority, and proceeded to authoritatively lead us to our doom, as he had no clue what he was doing. At one point during play, he shouted "Oh boy, COOKIES!" and then put down the controller for a moment to eat the cookies his mother had brought him. What was odd about it all, though, was that, the entire time, I couldn't shake the feeling that I was playing the game with myself as a child, like the movie Frequency, as he acted and sounded much like I picture myself at that age. I just kind of sat there dumbfounded, mindlessly following this young, ignorant kid who was roughly one third of my age and obeying his every shouted order.

Since then, things have gotten much better. I plugged in my headset, started to get to know some people, and slowly became more comfortable with the environment. Before I knew it, I was adding people to my friends list, having voice chats, and organizing games. I've managed to network (both figuratively and literally) with several good players, and getting a good party of four together for a game is a lot easier now. I'm already kind of an expert, as I'm the one who usually sets up the games and directs the play (I know the first 20 floors pretty well at this point), as well as teaching new players the ins and outs. I am the go-to Gauntlet guy and, as a result, everyone is throwing good reputation at me like candy, with 100% approval ratings in all categories. Or, at least, I was until a short time ago. While my 360 was getting replaced, my free XBox Live gold membership (which is required for online multiplayer gaming) expired, and I don't think it's worth the cost of renewal-- yet. It's my hope that I'll find a new game with online multiplayer that I enjoy, at which point I'll renew the account.

I never expected to take to an online gaming in environment in such a way, but I'm pleased that I have, as it gives me hope that I may not have to abandon the industry altogether when single-player games are no longer made, which I am convinced with be the case in a decade or two. What I find most fitting about the whole thing, though, is that the game that finally managed to bring me into the next era in gaming, after resisting for so long, was the same brilliant and revolutionary game that began my love for arcade games so many years ago-- Gauntlet.

[Note: I think that I've outdone myself with this one. I'm not going to bother checking, but I suspect that this may be my longest post ever. It's been a full month since I first started writing it-- I've spent less time on some academic papers. I should hide a prize in the middle or something to reward the one or two people who will actually read it from start to finish.]

11 Comments:

Anonymous Travis said...

Wow, that was...long.
I can see why a month was needed to complete it. I had to do it in a few sittings, between reading other things and typing some code.
I don't know if I have ever played the game. I know of the game, I have certainly seen pictures of the game, but it's hard to untangle memories of playing the game, with memories of encountering the game.

Friday, June 30, 2006 2:21:00 PM  
Anonymous mike said...

Do you own that cabinet? You should just find a cabinet and purchase it.

Thursday, July 06, 2006 10:18:00 AM  
Blogger Jordan said...

Do you own that cabinet?
I wish.

You should just find a cabinet and purchase it.
I don't really have any place to put it, even if I was inclined to scour auction sites for it (which I'm not).

Thursday, July 06, 2006 2:03:00 PM  
Anonymous Vern said...

There was no prize in the middle. Booo!

Thursday, July 06, 2006 11:06:00 PM  
Blogger Jordan said...

Sure there was. The prize was, ummmm... inside us all along?

You just must not have looked hard enough. You should re-read it in its entirety. :-)

Friday, July 07, 2006 10:07:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ah Gauntlet,... one of my favs. I remember watching the game play on lunch hours. I was excited to get it (actually bought it) for my Commodore 64. Only problem - it locked up at Level 64. (the buggers!)

I seem to recall there was also poison. That was never very nice.

"Valkrie shot the potion".
"Valkrie, your life force is running out".

There were also timed levels where you had to race around to get the treasure and find the potion before the time ran out.

I seem to also remember there being a Gauntlet II,...

Is the new version for Xbox any different from the old or is it pretty much the same?

Wednesday, July 12, 2006 1:04:00 PM  
Blogger Jordan said...

I seem to recall there was also poison.
I don't think so. At least, not in Gauntlet for the arcades. It could have been present in one of the home versions, or Gauntlet II, which I never played much.

There were also timed levels where you had to race around to get the treasure and find the potion before the time ran out.
Indeed there were. I can't believe that I wrote a post this long and still forgot something. Although they weren't so much "levels" as they were bonus areas.

I seem to also remember there being a Gauntlet II,...
*nods* It toned down the difficulty of the final version of the original Gauntlet, added some new mechanics and enemies, and, most importantly, allowed duplicate characters. So, four players could play a team of four colour-coded Warriors. Still, it doesn't hold the same fond place in my memories as the orignal Gauntlet.

Is the new version for Xbox any different from the old or is it pretty much the same?
It's identical, save for the fact that there's an "insert quarter" button that gives you an extra 700 health, but decreases your score to discourage abuse. Also, there are some new mechanics when playing multiplayer over XBox Live: the order of the levels is fixed, and "quarters" can't be inserted, but, to compensate, so long as one character makes it to the exit of a level alive, all four characters start the next level alive and with a fresh 700 health (or more if they were above that when the previous level ended).

Wednesday, July 12, 2006 2:43:00 PM  
Blogger Jordan said...

Oh, and the graphics have been improved slightly to make them a little sharper and more colourful, but you can shut this off and play with the drab and fuzzy original graphics if you want. I'm all about authenticity, but even I play with the updated graphics, since all they've really done is sort of offered a higher-resolution, higher-quality picture.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006 2:49:00 PM  
Blogger Keith said...

Sweet Looking Arcade!!!...

I've always wanted to build my own but never got around to it... I have 2 X-Arcades I could use for a Controller I'd just have to get some plans for the cabinet and a PC and Monitor...

Oh yeah and alot of spare time.. hehe

Monday, July 31, 2006 11:33:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great nostalgia from the best game of all time. Really, does it get any better than Gauntlet?

Thursday, February 01, 2007 3:57:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very nice article! It took me quite some time to read it in one piece. I think I played Gauntlet in the late 80s/early 90s. I hope some people add support for the 4-player joystick interface to the C64 version as they did it for "IK+", "Artillery Duel", "Rampage", etc. :)

Friday, February 09, 2007 10:42:00 AM  

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