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?
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.