All of us got our start somewhere, whether it was seeing Star Wars as a kid, listening to Radiohead as a teen, or taking a biology course in college. While I owe Zelda: Ocarina of Time the honor of solidifying my desire to work in the games industry, there were several games before that point that influenced me and what I wanted to do. One of those games was Gauntlet Legends for the N64. Released in October of 1998, I played it a few months before I ever played Ocarina of Time. I could rent Gauntlet whenever I pleased, whereas OoT was property of my older brother. Ignoring the fact that I was only 8 and playing a T-Rated game, I had a blast. I loved the hack-n-slash dungeon crawler and it opened up a new world of games to me. I later went on to play Baldur’s Gate, The Bard’s Tale (PS2 and iOS!), and several others in that same vein.
Below is a written version of the picture-iffic presentation (or pecha kucha) I gave on the original Gauntlet, the harbinger of the hack-n-slash genre. We were to tie together the game with contemporary issues (at the time) and present how it influenced arcade culture and how it was influenced by pop culture. Without further ado, check out the written form after the jump!
Let’s start with the basics: Gauntlet was an arcade release in 1985, developed and published by Atari Games. It was loosely based off a previous Atari game that went by the name of Dandy. It featured a wider than normal control area to accommodate four players. It was the first game to feature a voiced narrator, and that voice was produced with a Texas Instrument speech chip.
This here is Ed Logg, the designer behind Gauntlet. He also codeveloped Asteroids with Lyle Rains. Other game credits include Centipede, Millipede, and San Francisco Rush. He kept Atari at the forefront of arcade games for many years and, because of his multitude of accomplishments, was recently chosen to receive the AIAS Pioneer Award. That will be given to him in February of 2012.
This is the arcade cabinet. It’s wide control area allowed four players to play simultaneously and somewhat comfortably. When people played, they often crowded around and packed themselves in to get a clear view of the screen. The game emphasized multiplayer play by making it nearly essential–I’ll cover that in a second.
Pictured above is our lovely cast of characters. There were four main characters in the game that followed the series throughout the years. There’s Merlin the wizard, a master at magic and bomb potions. Thor the Warrior is the fierce fighter and the tank of the group, subject to massive power but slow speed. Thyra the Valkyrie was the most balanced character, with weak shot power and mediocre magic. Lastly is Questor, an elf with high speed that allows him to outrun most enemies.
It was the first class-based game, and was one of the first true hack-and-slash games in video game history. Players pick one of four characters, with differing strengths, to roam around the 8-way scrolling dungeon levels. The goal was to find the exit in the level. Gauntlet also introduced numerical health totals, which took the place of graphical health bars or lives. Those depleted at a rate of about one point per second. If enemies attacked, the total would diminish more rapidly.
Gauntlet gives players different levels from a pre-made set every game, and manipulates food power-ups depending on game difficulty, average score per coin, and number of players. If players were particularly skilled, they could gain a Level Warp and enter a code in order to skip to whatever level the code was applicable for. Levels featured enemy generators, which would continuously spawn enemies until destroyed.
The way Gauntlet handled level selection was extremely interesting and innovative for its time. Gauntlet cycles through its levels. There are 100 levels in Gauntlet’s cycle. The first seven are always the same in every game. The cycle is sequential. When a game session ends, the game remembers the level it ended on, and that board becomes level 8 in the new game. This meant that some runs could be way harder than others. The game constantly recycles levels—meaning there’s no true end.
This method of giving players new batches of levels every play session was very unique for the genre at the time—in fact, it was the first game to do so. Atari saw Gauntlet as a process, a game that was played for its own sake and not to reach completion. Of course, the level had objectives–to locate and touch the designated exit in every level—but overall, there was no overarching goal.
Gauntlet’s impact on the industry was significant. It raked in 900 dollars a cabinet a week in its first 18 weeks nationwide. It dominated the market with a smaller amount of arcade cabinets than previous Atari games such as Asteroids. Gauntlet was initially only available on 10 to 20,000 cabinets. It drew in both the young and the old, strangers and friends. It helped foster friendships. It did better in areas that drew younger crowds, because kids were both the primary demographic and the ones most willing to spend coins.
Gauntlet spawned several ports and remakes. It made an appearance on nearly every console and home computer within a year or two of its initial release. It was on everything from the NES to Atari Lynx to DOS to the Apple II. Later, a mobile phone version, GBA, DS, and XBOX LIVE version of the original appeared. Gauntlet also saw many multiplatform sequels take off and become successful, such as Gauntlet Legends.
Gauntlet was extremely relevant in pop and gaming culture until recently. The line “Red warrior needs food badly!” was named the third best game line ever in the January 2002 issue of EGM. A Belgian band released a song called “Wizard Needs Food,” and their album featured Gauntlet themed lyrics. In 2003, ska band Five Iron Frenzy released a song called “Wizard Needs Food, Badly,” as well, and used sound clips from the game. Gauntlet’s music has been sampled in several tracks across many genres of music. Baldur’s Gate and Nethack reference the game, as well.
Let’s go over some history. Gauntlet is based on Dungeons and Dragons and its high fantasy constructs and settings, and borrows heavily from its rulebooks. At the time Gauntlet was released, high fantasy settings, tales, and characters were at their peak of popularity. Because of this, Gauntlet was able to enjoy massive amounts of success for both its gameplay mechanics, setting, and multiplayer aspects. It made Dungeons and Dragons digitally interactive.
Here’s the setting of arcade culture: it had just bust out onto the scene in the early 1980s and was enjoying massive amounts of success, popularity, and attention. However, by the time 1985 rolled around, arcade games weren’t being released on 100,000 units the way Pac-Man was. They weren’t even releasing on 60,000 units, like Asteroids. Then Atari VP Shane Breaks said that 10,000 to 20,000 units was “owning” the market.
Here’s the political situation: Reagan is president and he had to bring America up and out of a terrible economic slump. The economy had rebounded a mere two years before from an economic recession. While the economy was still not without its major problems, it was better than it had been in previous years and most people—especially the wealthy–were feeling confident. People had coins to spend, and they did so in arcades.
Across the sea, America was involved in the Cold War. In 1985, Reagan was pushing his Reagan Doctrine, a staunch anti-communist position in which, asides from containment of communist governments, could also subvert existing ones as well. The Soviet economy took a plunge downward by the time Gorbachev became General Secretary. There were murmurs of scaling back the arms race as well.
What does all that have to do with Gauntlet? The masses were obviously influenced heavily by the political and economic situations of their time. Gauntlet provided an escapist fantasy in which the world was unconcerned with technological advancement and the primary focus was merely surviving and finding your way out. There was no arms race and no multi-sided wars—it was a group of friends against the world, a simple premise in complicated times.
Gauntlet allowed players to defeat the evil forces–this was as close as many gamers got, whether they wanted to go over seas or not. Players could fight and defeat evil in the safety of their favorite arcade. What most players at the time didn’t know was that the game was endless—therefore, players were always doomed to fail. The game emphasized the journey rather than the victory, and the players went along for the ride. Because Gauntlet emphasized teamwork and coordination, players didn’t mind that they were doomed to fail because the journey was so extremely rewarding. They were able to contribute to something meaningful and fun while building relationships with others. They were forced to pull their own weight or else everyone would die. They were allowed to let themselves become immersed in another world, and become the center of a war against evil.