Red Elf shot the food! And a huge punch up ensued between my younger brother and me. It was 1987, I was 12, he was ten, and he wasn’t happy as that proclamation had been preceded by Blue Warrior needs food…badly!* Playing Gauntlet was fun, and it was also fun to frustrate and thwart the person you were playing with, especially if he was two years younger and had a temper like a grizzly with toothache.
In case you’ve never come across Gauntlet in any of it’s incarnations, it’s a top down scrolling dungeon exploring game. You get to choose one of four characters- Elf, Valkyrie, Wizard or Warrior- each of whom has different attributes in terms of strength, range/close up attack and ability to take damage, and you have to explore a series of dungeons killing monsters, collecting treasure, food and keys. Although I think the game has an end, we certainly never found it as kids but had endless fun trying.
Although I’m for the most part trying to avoid arcade conversions as we play through the gaming archaeology of my youth, I can’t really miss Gauntlet on the Atari ST as it was one of the great multi player games.
My brother and I were thwarted on the Spectrum when it came to multi player games by only having one joystick but the era of the Atari ST and the two ports (since I had an STFM they were not so conveniently situated right under the front right corner of the machine) that allowed you to have a mouse/joystick or joystick/joystick combination.
There were plenty of games where we could compete against each other but I think that Gauntlet was perhaps the first that we played (a lot) where we sort of had to work together. It often ended in actual violence, and I remember being chased from the room and locking myself in the bathroom to avoid bloody retribution on more than one occasion. What can I say, I was a complete wind up merchant, even as a child. And it was easy as my brother was always quick to anger.
One of the things I remember loving about Gauntlet was the colour. Even on the C64, never mind the Spectrum, a lot of games had very sparse backgrounds. A lot were plain black, some had a few pixels for a star field but nothing I remember playing had the sort of tiled background that Gauntlet had. It also had an enormous number of sprites on screen too. I remember it being great and I’m hoping that Sam will enjoy it too.
As we’re using STEEM since my ST is buggered, we have access to multiple joysticks and a bit of multi-player fun seemed like the exact antidote to the undoubtedly great but slow burning Populous that we played last week. I’m beginning to learn that Sam likes immediacy in pretty much everything- a slow burning film that bothers with character development or even something as rudimentary as a bit of dialogue before the action kicks off is apparently boring. Well, there’s none of that with Gauntlet, so we should be fine. Lets see how this goes.
Me: Right Sam, it’s Gauntlet today and joy of joys, we get to play together in a team!
Me: Yes, it should remove any of those potential in your face moments you seem to like.
Oh how wrong can a man be?
The loading screen appears and Sam is immediately fascinated.
Sam: Oooh, that man has one of those spikey balls on a chain. And the lady seems to have funny metal boobies.
Me: That’s called a ball and chain flail or just a flail. I always used to think it was called a morningstar but apparently I’m wrong. As for the armour, I’m not going there, it’s just a picture and it’s wrong.
Sam: Do we get to use the weapons when we play?
Me: Not really but I thought you could do with the history lesson.
Sam: Do we have to learn stuff? We’re supposed to be playing games!
And so we go on. Although the arcade was 4 player, the ST version can only manage 2 player. I have read some speculation that there was an adapter for the Atari ST’s famed MIDI port that allowed you to add a couple of extra players but I can’t find any concrete information on this. Suffice to say, given the screen that we were playing on back in 1987, and the fact we hadn’t progressed from an RF connector to SCART at this point, four player would have probably been 1) a bit of a strain on the eyes and 2) meant we’d have had to have gained some friends with joysticks.
Me: So you’ve picked the Valkyrie then Sam? Any reason you’ve picked the only female character?
Sam: She’s blonde like me. And she’s got metal boobies. She’s probably a cyborg.
Lord help me when he discovers girls properly. He still turns away from the telly when there’s kissing and once complained that a perfectly good fight sequence had been ruined by the smooching afterwards.
Me: Still not going there. Now it’s pretty easy to play, you move with your joystick and to fire-hey! Stop shooting me!
Sam: It’s easy, lets play through granddad.
For my sins, I’ve selected Merlin, the wizard. He lobs fireballs from a distance and has a shock of white hair. I assume that’s why he’s calling me granddad. Why, in my day we treated people with a little bit of respect. I oughta….
Me: Cheek. And less shooting me too please. The wizard doesn’t have very good armour.
Sam: In your face! Hahahahaha.
The first couple of levels are fairly short and easy, involving nothing more than a few ghosts. Since the Valkyrie shoots really quickly (although not as quickly as the Elf, we despatch them in short order. The first level gives you the chance to exit to level 2, level 4 or level 8 if you’re willing to despatch a lot of ghosts.
Me: The best approach is to shoot the piles of bones, they’re the generators that make the ghosts.
Sam: Die, things that are already dead! Muhahaha! Let’s go to level 4, I’ve lost too much life already.
Me: You get 2,000 health points, and you’ve still got 1,600. Oh.
Sam has dived through the exit to level 4 anyway.
Sam: Oh, what are they?
Me: They’re club wielding thugs. Their generators are a bit different and they hurt you more but they’re slower than the ghosts. Lets slaughter them. Every single damn one of them.
I appear to be encouraging a 9 year old towards genocide. Still, it’s all good clean fun. The death count is already higher than every Grand Theft Auto added together but it’s somehow more age appropriate killing.
Me: Look! An exit to level 8, it’s like they want us to go there. I’m going there!
Sam: Nooooo! I want a roast dinner.
Health points are boosted by eating a roast dinner or drinking a bottle of ale. Dangerous link to childhood obesity? Tenuous.
Me: Too late. Ha ha!
Sam: I like the way the character spins and gets littler as he goes through the exit. Why don’t the baddies follow us?
Me: Because it’s an incredibly shallow arcade machine. Ooh, look, demons!
There are fireball breathing demons now and Sam is getting as far away from them as possible as he’s utterly obsessed with preserving his health.
Me: Come on, give me a hand, if we wade in and kill them quickly, you’ll lose less health in the long run.
Sam: Who’s throwing stuff at us? Grrr, it’s those little men- get them!
Level 8 gives us pretty much all the baddies, from the demons, the brutes, through to the lobbers (the little people throwing stuff at us) and the wizards, who unlike me, have the irritating tendency to disappear. As we get a bit further through, and hit the teleporters, we also spot Death!
Me: Treasure room time! Grab as much treasure in 20 seconds as possible Sam!
Sam: It’s gone a bit funny?
Me: Ouch yes you’re right. The ST was never famed for it’s horizontal scrolling but this is a bit manky.
A pause and a quick google shows this might be down to the emulator and the same issue might not be seen on original hardware.
Me: oh well, our 20 seconds are up anyway, let’s do some more killing…
We make it to level 18 in about half an hours play, which given we jumped to level 8 fairly early on isn’t exactly a glowing endorsement of our skills I blame Mr Safety First myself and his dislike of losing even one health point.
Me: So what do you think Sam?
Sam: I like it. It’s fast but easy to control, which is good and there are lots of baddies to shoot. It moves a bit jerky at times but I like my character.
Me: I like it too. I think we should probably try the arcade machine at some point to see if it’s better but for now I’m happy. Thanks Sam.
Sam: Thanks daddy, it was fun.
And there you have it, Gauntlet. As much fun as I remembered, if not quite as smooth as I remembered it. And yes, I still love it. It’s interesting that the game, like so many, effectively plays in a window, with an oversized information panel to the right. As most games did this, to reduce the processing ompf needed to push stuff around I suppose, I didn’t really notice it at the time but now we’re playing through stuff again, it’s sort of glaringly obvious. It doesn’t detract though, and I’m strangely in love with the font…