Gauntlet – Arcade, NES, GBA, Sega Genesis

As none of my screenshots from the Sega version seemed to take, you get this title screen.

As none of my screenshots from the Sega version seemed to take, you get this title screen.

The more astute readers may have noticed already that the title of this week’s game doesn’t precisely match up with the list of consoles. Technically, I suppose, each of the installments merits their own entry, but even my power has limits; how much can I really write about a dungeon crawler with virtually no story involving extremely simple quests and objectives–namely, “get to the exit!” Because there you have it: my summary of the story. You choose your character at the beginning of the game; Thor the Barbarian, Merlin the Wizard, uh…er…Brunhilda (?) the Valkyrie or…let me look this up…really?…”Questor” the elf. Yep. They named the elf after his primary function in the game. Whatever…once the game begins, you make a mad dash for the exit of a small but labyrinthine map, after which the game whisks you away to the next bit o’ labyrinth. Oh, and on your way, monsters beat down on you from all sides as you gently push your way through them like rush hour in the Tokyo subway. Or you can shoot them, which I guess makes it more like the New York subway. And you keep this up for…good god, 108 levels?

I swear I went through this level about twenty times, each with a slightly different variation on the maze.

I swear I went through this level about twenty times, each with a slightly different variation on the maze.

Gauntlet, I’ll say, truly deserves its title. The game never relents in its struggle to violently dismantle both character and player; I could appropriately use the terms “rent” and “asunder”. And, full disclosure, I didn’t finish. Even after two and a half hours and an endless supply of credits, I got to level 52 and promptly celebrated by going to sleep. But even though I didn’t plow through another two hours straight of the crawliest dungeon of all, I came away from the experience with a deeper understanding of myself and the world around me. No really. You can learn some pretty profound truths playing Gauntlet. For example, gold really doesn’t have any value, even though you know you want as much of it as you can gather. Furthermore, your health ticks downward like a clock. Just like life. Also, as a single coin won’t get you to your second birthday party, Gauntlet reminds us that life favors the rich. Even without taking damage from a single enemy, you’ll gasp your last poorly-synthesized breath long before seeing the later levels of the dungeon, unless you keep feeding quarters into the machine like it’s that plant from Little Shop of Horrors; poverty-stricken valkyries can’t buy anything except the farm.

Also–true story–people with friends live longer. Gauntlet becomes exponentially easier with each player joining in, while reminding us why we hated group projects in school. Many of the corridors can only fit one at a time, so one player ends up doing all the work while the others kick up their heels and coast by without damage. Plus, each character has different stats, so while Speedy Gonzales the elf might lock on to the exit like a baby xenomorph going for a guy’s face, he’ll have to stand there and wait–his own health ticking downward, while his cousin, Slowpoke Rodriguez the Barbarian, catches up. Death appears as an enemy in the game, as much a bitch as in real life. Other enemies will vanish forever if you touch them (also like real life). Not death, though. You can shield yourself from him-hide behind a wall or something-but you can’t win and he won’t leave until he takes what he wants from you.

Note that a lot of these screenshots look alike. Gauntlet doesn't exactly offer much in the way of scenery.

Note that a lot of these screenshots look alike. Gauntlet doesn’t exactly offer much in the way of scenery.

But other than those random observations, the game offers as much variety as grocery store muzak, thus limiting anything really worth saying about it. Even magical, fantasy-themed maze solving starts to feel as exciting as fishing in an empty pond after the first few hours. Fortunately, the arcade version spawned a series not just of sequels, but different versions of the original–with each one even more original than the last!

After my last attempt to cycle through the same levels, plow through the same enemies, unlocking the same doors, and glancing over to check the same clock, a thought struck me; didn’t I buy a Game Boy Advance port of this game years ago? Might that have refined this system into something I could pause and come back to later without sacrificing all those hours of my life? After about twenty minutes of rifling through my Nintendo DS cases wishing I had periodically alphabetized the GBA cartridges stored there, I found it, plugged it in, and immediately shut it off. Here’s some advice to any developer/publisher interested in porting an arcade game–remember to let the players insert coins! This port didn’t change much from the original, but they bundled it with “Rampart” and stripped away any function that arcade cabinets could do that the GBA couldn’t. So don’t bother looking for coins. They give you one credit. Granted, they don’t skimp on the health, but I wouldn’t call them “generous.” Your health insurance can’t pay 100,000 for a pediatric checkup at birth and then call it good for life. Also, on this lifetime limit of health, you have to get through all 108 levels alone. The GBA doesn’t have a second-player controller, so the port doesn’t offer more than one player. I want to issue a challenge: anyone who can beat the Game Boy Advance port of Gauntlet, take a picture or video of the end–with the GBA or NDS visible in the frame–and I will immortalize your name alongside Odysseus, Aeneas, Beowulf and Arthur by writing–and posting–an epic poem about your victory.

However, while immortal fame remains inaccessible to me in handheld dungeons, the Sega Genesis port (released as Gauntlet IV) solves the issues from the GBA port. Amazing foresight, I’d say, considering it predated the Game Boy Advance version by over a decade. Gauntlet IV introduced different modes to the game. Arcade mode simulates the original hardware, allowing players who apparently never have more than $2.25 to their name, to “insert coins” for more health. You don’t get much health per credit, so this doesn’t immediately make the game playable, but you can fiddle with difficulty settings and maximum credits (as previously mentioned, up to a total of 9). Record mode helps a little; players can’t die and can use passwords to continue, but they have extra loading screens to breakdown their progress and weigh out their score based on health, enemies killed, and gold collected. I do take some issue with the game, as they felt the need to completely redesign most of the levels. It still feels like the arcade game, but all the cash you dropped into the machine as a kid won’t prepare you for the Sega release.

While pillaging and murdering your way through the dungeon, don't forget to stop and loot once in a while.

While pillaging and murdering your way through the dungeon, don’t forget to stop and loot once in a while.

Fortunately, quest mode rocks. Gauntlet IV introduced the concept of 4 towers to complete to gain access to a castle. Each tower consists of the same small-ish labyrinths, but they differ from all previous installments by giving the players the ability to freely move up and down levels, adding a vertical component to labyrinth-solving. The player has to locate specialized “trap” tiles that remove walls from key pathways, enabling them to get to the top. (Or the bottom. Apparently they felt that some towers needed inverting.) At the final floor of each tower, you fight a dragon. You can fight towers in any order, but difficulty increases (along with gold and exp received) each time you kill a dragon. Each tower has a specialized tile that impairs the player while standing on it. Unlike other installments, you can level up and purchase equipment, but enemies level up along with you, making the game as effective as using an exercise bike as your main mode of transportation; even if you get better at it, it doesn’t move any faster. Even so, I beat this version. Let me shout that from the mountain tops: I actually finished one installment of Gauntlet!

But I still have to navigate your stupid dungeons? Fuck you!

But I still have to navigate your stupid dungeons? Fuck you!

Even so, I don’t think I enjoy Gauntlet IV quite as much as the NES “port.” I say “port” lightly, since it features different graphics (downgraded for 8-bit), completely new levels, and six world maps with labyrinthine routes dependent on which exits you take in each level. Gold has a purpose; collect enough and your maximum health increases. Periodic treasure rooms (a staple of the series, previously as useful as Mega Man’s score system) now refill health if you find the exit in time. Best of all, you can pick up your progress using a password system (provided your hardware doesn’t fail when you try to start the game after you die….). The game does have one obnoxious drawback, though, in that along the way you have to collect parts of a password to get you into the final level. You can only find these in select rooms along the way, and you usually can’t access these rooms unless you find the secret exit in a previous level that takes you there. And if you miss the password, the game keeps going, but you can’t finish. Yay.

This exciting screen. Every. Bleeping. Level. It adds about an hour on to your play time.

This exciting screen. Every. Bleeping. Level. It adds about an hour on to your play time.

But for all the obnoxious tedium of these early Gauntlet games, I should clarify that, while I enjoy finishing games, I can enjoy a game without finishing it. While the term “dungeon crawler” usually sends me screaming for higher ground, I actually rather enjoy this, and I can probably recommend any of these games–well, maybe not the GBA port–as long as you don’t expect to see the end. And if you do see the end…let me know.

 

Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker – Arcade

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Around my twelfth or thirteenth birthday, the local ice rink where my father taught at a summer hockey camp had a few arcade cabinets in rotation.  Considering how athletic, extroverted and interested in following in my dad’s footsteps I was, I had absolutely no interest in sports, but I did have about two bucks in quarters.  I resolved that one evening, I was going to take my hard-scrounged change on a quest to beat one of the games.  As soon as I got to the rink, I laid out seven quarters on the dashboard and dropped the last one in the slot.

Time passed and some of the other kids noticed.  I had progressed fairly strongly, and after a stage or two, some of them joined in.  Pretty soon they were coming in and out of the game, depending on availability of their own change, my trusty-yet-expendable wingmen, the Biggses and Wedges to my Luke Skywalker.

A dollar-twenty-five into the game, I’m almost at the end, and another kid asks if he can “borrow” a quarter from me.  In a mix of cockiness and generosity, I tell him to go ahead.  He whips a quarter from the dash and drops it in, only to die off immediately.  Shortly thereafter, I reach the boss of the game and begin to struggle.  I deal a fair amount of damage, but just before delivering the coup-de-grace, I run out of health.  Hyped up on near-victory, I reach for another quarter, only to discover that I’ve run out. While I still encourage generosity and try to practice it when I can, I still blame it for the reason I didn’t finish Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker that day.

Moonwalker falls into the realm of arcade Beat-Em-Up, a classification that puts the “generic” in “genre.” Ninja Turtles, X-Men, Sailor Moon, the Simpsons–these games and others like them came to life with only a little more effort than slapping new artwork on each cabinet as it rolled off the assembly.  Each one consisted of characters progressing through a stage, the game periodically forcing them to a stop and assailing them with dozens of goons who may have seen what you did to the hundreds before them, but still feel they have a shot of taking you down. When you dash their hopes–and organs–the stage begins to move again. Murder, rinse, repeat.  One button performs a standard attack.  The other offers a limited special attack. One the surface, Moonwalker doesn’t bring anything to the table except an angled top-down perspective instead of the usual limited-3D side-scrolling.  However, some interesting quirks and some unintentionally hilarious details make the game stand out from the rest.

Video game music hadn’t garnered much respect at that point, but I supposed it really hadn’t earned any yet. Moonwalker, on the other hand, boasted a soundtrack entirely composed by Michael Jackson himself, including hits such as “Bad,” “Billie Jean,” “Smooth Criminal,” and of course the most obviously fitting song to underscore a graveyard stage, “Another Part of Me.”   Now watch me turn my praise into a big ball of wibbly-wobbly uncertainty as I point out that if you decide to play a game because you want to hear synth-instrumental midi versions of Michael Jackson, you probably need to reevaluate your priorities.  However, it stands that when facing down an army of clone games, any unusual feature might sway you to play that one against all the rest, putting aside that playing Jackson’s CDs might be the way to go.

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The game follows the plot of part of the Moonwalker film, where Michael sets off to rescue a bunch of children from a drug dealer. Comic-book-style panels flash before each stage, each time showing the villain struggling to restrain a kid, shaking his fist in unintentional mockery of every cartoon bad guy ever created.  Michael responds with his characteristic scream, “Ow!” Then after a brief moment of WTF and a snort of laughter, you begin!

ImageAttacks come in a form of dance moves and sparkles that could flay the hide off Edward Cullen.  The special move puts the spotlight on Michael–literally–and alternates through three or four different moves, which involve the enemies dancing to death, bursting apart in pyrotechnics, or getting hit by meteors.
As you go through the stage, the goal is to collect–er, rescue the children, who will periodically refill your health or amount of special attacks.  Near the end, Bubbles the Chimp will dash out and turn you into Robo-Michael, allowing you to finish off the boss in a spray of lasers.

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Sadly, I’m not sure whether Jackson thought these ideas would portray him as a Superman figure or if he just took all this from his day-to-day life.  While allegations of child molesting might make the developers at Sega look back and cringe about the giant red flag they put into the world, I have no doubt that this is how Jackson viewed himself, or at the very least how he wanted people to see him.  Anecdotally, a friend of mine (who now works as a game developer. You should check out his game here; to support him. told me in high school that Jackson enjoyed Ready-To-Rumble Boxing so much, he called the developers and asked to be put in the sequel, requesting that they “Make [his] character really cool so the children will want to play with [him].”

Pause to let that sink in.

While I can’t confirm most of that story, I do know that shortly thereafter they released Ready-to-Rumble boxing with a special character.

The game takes its super-hero message seriously, which I, for one, find amusing.  However, while collecting children and grabbing the monkey provide a good laugh, the main drawback of the game centers on the genre.  Combat in Beat-Em-Ups is nothing if not repetitive, and it makes me vaguely conscious that Sega programmed the game at an optimal length to pry as many quarters as possibly from pre-adolescent fingers.

I did, however, finally finish it.
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Bubble Bobble Sequels – Initial Reactions

Yesterday’s review on Bubble Bobble piqued my curiosity to look into the series, so I read up on the sequel games and played a bit of Bubble Bobble 2. Image

Image I’ll include a formal review later, but I felt inclined to share my thoughts. See, I usually laud the video game industry as the one area of storytelling that understands how to improve on the original instalment of a series.  If Hollywood had produced the first Mega Man game, one look at the promotional art would have sent him to rust on the scrap heap. Don’t believe me? Just look at what they did to the Star Wars prequels, the Jaws movies, and thank the higher deity of your choice they never made any sequels to The Matrix (No they didn’t! Shut up!) Meanwhile, Final Fantasy, the Legend of Zelda, Metroid, Resident Evil, and a plethora of other games all succeeded right from the beginning, but it’s hard to argue that their sequels didn’t show them up at every chance.

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Bubble Bobble, however, missed the boat entirely, and only survived onto sequels because the shark from the Jaws sequels was too stupid to eat it. The games all have very nice graphics, some even updating to 16-big home systems such as the Sega Genesis, and have much smoother mechanics and presentation, but as the whole philosophy of my blog states, better technology does not automatically ensure a better game!

Bubble Bobble 2–officially titled “The Story of Bubble Bobble 2” features a similar gameplay to the first. As sequels go, it’s not as bad as the rest. You’re still playing as Bub and Bob, the Bubble Dragons from the first game. Rather than 100 stages played through in order, the game grants you some degree of control over which path you take. The game even introduces boss fights, where you drink a potion that allows you to spit rainbow bubbles, and pop them to cause damage. Image

I’m glad to see Bub and Bob came out of the closet on that one. To add further innuendo, one of the bosses appears to be a female tanuki (sorry…you’ll have to find your own image there). Don’t even ask me how that one works.

Unfortunately, the two player mode, one of the better aspects of the first game, goes so far as to damage the mechanics of the sequel. Play is parallel, like the original Mario Bros, and it doesn’t run cooperatively, like Mario 3, where players clear levels to help the other advance. In fact, while on single player mode, you can resume play mid-stage when you get hit, but two-player mode ends the turn to alternate to the next player.

My initial reaction is that the game is worth playing, but not for more than one player.  And since the multiplayer option gives most of the value to the first game, that adds up to a big strike against Bubble Bobble 2. The following sequels don’t even sound interesting, as they’ve turned the loveable cartoonish bubble dragons into … wait for it … regular people. I’m sorry, Taito. You’ve lost me.

Yet, as I mentioned earlier, I write this after a ten-minute session of playing the game and a late-night boredom-induced scouring of the internet for images of bubble dragons. When I get a chance, I’ll focus on writing a more formal review.

Coming up soon: Radiant Historia for the NDS. I’m working my way through Twilight Princess since I felt the beating I gave it in my Oracle of Ages/Seasons review may have been done with a outdated stick, so don’t pick up the crap raining from the fairy pinata just yet. Anne wants to watch that one, though, so it may be a few weeks before I get that one posted.

Bubble Bobble – Nes, Arcade

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Having crawled out of the womb and into the era of Donkey Kong, I’ve spent my entire conscious life watching the evolution of modern gaming.  Unfortunately, as Forrest Gumpy as it feels to have witnessed something historical that I take a deep interest in, I’ve had to face the onslaught of humorless dicks who have never played a game in their life calling me an anti-social, violence-crazed, killer-in-the-works.  But while I’m tallying up the number of football injuries versus the collective maimings incurred in the last twelve months of high school football, I have to concede with these people on one point; the sheer mass of games like Halo, Call of Duty, Modern Warfare, and all the other testosterone-dripping, military propaganda scenarios being released now do kind of point to a preoccupation with violence. But hey, when the amazon reviews for Game of Thrones complain about too much sex without a word on all the appendages lost in the series, I think our societies obsession with bludgeoning one another goes a little beyond the monkey-see-monkey-do argument against video games.

What these people fail to see is the plentiful cornucopia of games that don’t wallow in their own wrath.  Yes, it’s very nice of Jenova Chen to develop a game that gets away from the shoot-kill-win mentality, but it would be nice if people could remember that games like this already do exist.  Let’s go back to, say, 1986 and examine a little gem called Bubble Bobble.
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As a reviewer, there’s really not much to describe. You play as Bub and Bob, two Bubble Dragons that resemble Godzilla chibis. Instead of shooting a gun, you breath bubbles.  Instead of killing enemies, you trap them in said bubbles, then pop the bubbles to turn them into food.  Yes, I suppose you could go all Mufasa on me and imply that that’s a metaphor for the Circle of Life, but I say, “Screw you! It’s fun!”  As always, the ultimate test of a game’s value is how much you enjoy it, and while it’s less violent than your standard cartoon, Bubble Bobble manages to radiate enough bright colors and simple-yet-addicting gameplay to have kept my interest over the last several decades.

The game has a simple learning curve.  Hit start.  Three monsters?  Try blowing a bubble.  Easy enough. Pop them and sit back for 99 more levels of this!  But Bubble Bobble manages to avoid a repetitive feel for the most part.  The shape of the levels forces the player to change tactics to solve puzzles in gameplay.  How do you pop the bubble when you can’t reach it?  How do you get to a monster trapped inside a shape?  Certain levels change game physics and make bubble float or sink differently (and in one case, much more quickly) than usual.
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I don’t mean to give the impression the game is perfect, though.  As much variety as it introduces, a hundred levels can become a little repetitive from time to time.  Furthermore, the level designs sometimes get too fun and wind up with pits or nooks that your bubble dragon can get stuck in.  When that happens, you’d better hope the monsters can still kill you (which causes you to respawn in your starting position) or that you recruited another player who’s savvy enough not to get stuck.  

Another minor point, while the large variety of fruit, veggies, snack food, and other bonus items does add to the ability to get excited over cartoonish details, it does sometimes work against the player.  With dozens of items that do no more than grant point, sometimes it’s hard to realize that some times increase your speed, let you stream bubbles faster, or even warp ahead several stages. Perhaps, though, part of the challenge is to recognize which items to prioritize before they time out and vanish.

Difficulty, as to be expected from NES-era games, resembles breaking a pine log with your fist; you know it’s impossible, but it looks like fun so you’ll gladly pulp your hand into a maraca trying to do it.  The game does offer continue options.  On the NES, restarting after a game over gives the option to begin at any stage you previously cleared since turning the machine on, while the arcade system, with a spirit of capitalism that would make games that require DLC bow down in reverence, only asks for another coin to keep Charon from ferrying you back out of the building.

Differences between the arcade and home versions don’t amount to much beyond that.  The cabinet systems allow for better detail on enemies, fruits, and the tiles that make up the levels, but the NES version includes background music.  Granted, after 99 levels of the same song, it’ll start to echo through your living room long after you’ve shut the game off, but I still say it was kind enough for the game developers to include one.  

Fun, simple, and non-time-consuming, Bubble Bobble doesn’t have much to offend anyone.  I’m sure a handful of gamers view themselves as “serious” and wouldn’t be caught dead playing anything doesn’t involve trying to imagine how fun it would be to get shot in battle, but chances are most people will find something about this game to like, no matter what their taste in games.