Saturday 13 July 2019

Gauntlet II for the Nintendo Entertainment System

How do you replicate the table top role playing game experience on computers, game consoles, and arcade machines? In the early 1980s this was a question many a game designer, programmer, studio and software house grappled with. Some went about it with the semi-faithful rendering of RPG mechanics, involving character generation, levelling and experience, and random monster battles part-based on numeric attributes. Others decided to dispense with this completely. One stand out title in the latter genre, and a precursor of the loot 'em ups that came later was Atari's Gauntlet and its sequels.

The principle of Gauntlet and the imaginatively-titled Gauntlet II, which is our concern for this evening, is simple. You or a bunch of mates pick one character class - a warrior, a valkyrie, a wizard, or an elf - which have their own unique abilities, just like the player character system from jolly old Dungeons & Dragons. The warrior is hard and one-shots everything, the valkyrie has the best armour and soaks up damage, the wizard has the best magic (who'd have thunk it?), and the elf zips along and a nifty pace. And what do you then do with these abilities? You're dropped into a dungeon packed with ghosties, ghoulies, and other unsavoury denizens of the dank and the dark and, well, you kill them. Each level is premised on finding the exit but between it and you are potentially hundreds of enemies. Each monster type have spawning locations that vomit forth the nasties until the player destroys them. Failure to do so can easily result in your being swamped by dozens of enemies at a time. Of course, some are more dangerous than others. The most annoying are the grim reaper-types who can only be offed by magic potion. If you haven't got one, they'll latch on and drain away your energy. Not helpful. As a nod to its D&D inspiration, this is represented by a number instead of a bar. Nevertheless, each level has its attractions too. Some are straight forward, some involve a bit of exploration and nous to work out how to proceed to the exit. Even better, there's plenty of loot to be had along the way. I don't know what it is, seeing as you don't get rewards or extra energy for racking up the points, but once you're in the game and a treasure chest is there you feel compelled to pick it up. But also there are potions, food, special abilities, and keys that open up new areas of the map. It gets to the point that it almost feels like cheating if you head to the exit without taking a proper look around the level.

That's Gauntlet pretty much. The original coin-op was followed in 1986 by its sequel, which made it to the mighty NES in 1990, four years after its release. And as renditions go, the publishers, Mindscape, made a good effort. The title screen looks bland, but all told the essentials are there. The new power ups the sequel added, the bits and pieces of speech, the multiplayer facility and, crucially, the gameplay is here. But it is not perfect by any means. There is something slightly off about the player character hit box which occasionally makes it very difficult for you to go through a narrow gap in a wall. Not handy when your life is always counting down and a few nasties are on your tail. And unlike the arcade and other 8-bit versions, the NES is unable to pull off swarming properly - it slows right down, it flickers, it positively groans if too much is happening. It means you never really get the fear of being overwhelmed making it, to be honest, fairly easy. This is aided and abetted by a couple of cheats - if you stand still and don't do anything for a while, all the hidden entrances open up, and wait that bit longer all the walls turn into exits. Still, on the plus side there are 100 levels to get through, but with a twist. There are actually 130 levels in the NES version, but each time you play it selects a different hundred for that particular session. Plenty for Gauntlet fans to get into then.

What else can be said about Gauntlet II? Each level may differ and some are tricky to get through, but this is hardly cerebral-tickling stuff like its RPG forebears. Which is fine, but the action is not of the compulsive kind. There might be some completionist satisfaction to be had in playing until all 130 levels have had a visit, but to be honest we're not talking massive variety here and all too often they're fairly forgettable. Which is the problem when, truth be told. The action is this simple. Nevertheless, it still obeys the logics of neoliberal subjectivation we see in other video game RPGs. The whole loot thing is truly accumulation for accumulation's sake. Running round looking for food and potions, which boost the shrinking stamina point meter, is more accumulation with a purpose. But the constant ticking down of the meter is the in-game rendering of the old time-is-money adage. You're forced into constant cost/benefit decisions. Should you explore the level a little more to try and grab the food or the energy potion, or will you expend more stamina points doing so than you can possibly gain?

Also interesting is how the best character, by far, is the meaty, muscle-bound warrior dude. In the original D&D, the four human character classes truly balanced out strengths and weaknesses. Warriors were good in a fight, Magic Users had magic, Thieves were handy for lock picking, trap avoidance, and sneak attacks, and Clerics were a good mix of fighting ability and magic. In Gauntlet II however, the system breaks down. To get through the level and keep the monsters well away you need to be able to kill them and their spawning locations quickly. The problem is the non-warrior classes take multiple shots to off monsters, which makes you more vulnerable to attack. Moving quickly, being able to soak up more damage, having better magic, this is hardly compensation for a dungeon crawler based more on brute strength than the old noggin.

Is Gauntlet II worth a go today? Certainly. As a slice of history and precursor to today's dungeon crawlers, it shows where many contemporary game mechanics first had a proper airing. The game is very pick up and play friendly too, and can be a good laugh with other players (it supports up to four), but do not expect to find a gem that will hook you in and let you go. At its release it didn't offer a deep experience, and even less so today.

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