Saturday, October 1, 2011

Gauntlet II (NES)

Coolest. Manowar album art. Ever.

I recently received Gauntlet II as a gift from a friend of mine. He was going out of town and since he was going to be game hunting anyway, he asked if I had a list of games that he should be on the lookout for. Surprisingly, none of the game stores he went to had any spare copies of Little Samson, Flintstones: Surprise at Dinosaur Peak, or Custer's Revenge anywhere! What a drag. Luckily he was able to pick up a copy of Gauntlet II and all is right with the world.

Before diving into Atari's 1986 classic Gauntlet II, I have had some previous experience with the Gauntlet series but the games never really caught my attention. Gauntlet Legends was entertaining enough on the N64, but I really considered it a "rental only" and not something I absolutely needed to shell 50 bucks out for. As a kid I rented the original Tengen Gauntlet from the local video-store and found myself frustrated and easily distracted. However, this time around I finally get what all the fuss about. Gauntlet II is a terrific game - if you play it the right way. But more on that in a minute.

Just started and already my health is going FAST!

For those who are possibly too young to remember - the Gauntlet series started out in the arcades. They are 4-player dungeon crawlers where your team fights through mountains of monsters and tries to fight starvation & the clock in order to get as many points as possible. In my local arcade, Gauntlet Legends was insanely popular and there were always groups of people lined up around the machine - spitting quarter after quarter into it, trying to stay alive as long as they could afford to. To me, that was the drag about the arcade version - you could only play for a short while before your character's life bar ran out and you had to dump another 50 cents in.

The basics of Gauntlet II are simple to grasp - you play as one of 4 characters (Thor, Thyra, Questor, and Merlin) as you fight through over 100 stages (Yeah - if you're really, really good) and try not to let your health meter reach 0. I would elaborate on the plot - but like so many of these hack 'n' slash arcade style dungeon crawlers, there isn't much of a plot to speak of. And in reality - do you really need one? You're playing as a warrior, elf, wizard or valkyrie and you're running through mazes killing bad guys. What more do you need to know? If you want to know more about the deep emotional impact these mazes have on Questor's feelings, perhaps this isn't the best game for that.

Like most other dungeon crawlers - you are on the lookout for food, keys, potions, and treasure chests in your quest to reach the end. There are monsters at almost every corner and you will frequently run into spawning squares that need to be destroyed, lest you want a continuous flow of ghosts and demons comin' atcha! One of the most diabolical enemies in the game (outside of the clock) is the death character. If you get hit by one of these reapers it will chew through up to 200 points of your health. Blast 'em with magic or run like heck and let your friends be death-fodder.

Death is one mean mamma jamma!

The controls are simple to grasp and fairly responsive. The view is top-down and your character can move in any direction and can shoot or use magic. There are very few times when you'll get stuck; however, some of those small hallways in the mazes can be tricky to maneuver. Some levels are laid out with a fairly linear path to the exit, others have multiple exits, and still others will give you a bit of freedom to follow your instincts on your quest toward the goal. Hit detection is pretty solid, though sometimes it actually glitches in your favor. There are times where I swear I should have been hit by enemies bumping me or security lasers and breezed right by without a scratch. In a game where your health is constantly ticking down, I don't consider hit detection this forgiving to be a bad thing.

In reality, the best way to play Gauntlet II is with one or more people accompanying you on your quest. Sure - you can make it pretty far on your own if you know what you're doing, but it's not nearly as fun. There's just something exciting about the teamwork aspect of telling your buddy to go down and destroy the enemy generator while you blast ghosts to get the only key in the stage. However, having a buddy or two can also be a detriment. You will invariably always have one cat on your team who thinks that brown twisted pixel smudge is supposed to be a stationary demon rather than the only food available in the level! (Ok, full disclosure: I'm that guy.) It's rare to find games that have more than 2-players and this is the kind of game that almost requires more than one person in order to make it as exciting as it ought to be.

The graphics definitely leave something to be desired. It looks as though they weren't tuned up a bit since its original 1986 release. The sprites are very reminiscent of early pc games during the dawn of graphic adventure games. While it's relatively easy to discern what most things are - sometimes it's a guessing game if that thing you're shooting at is something that will help or hurt you. You can destroy some essential things such as food and that's a real bummer - especially when playing with multiple people, because there's always someone on your team who has had their legs chewed off by death creatures all throughout the maze and are in desperate need of a health boost. Players do have the ability to jump back into the game; however, all points and inventory get lost so it's crucial that your players don't destroy food thinking it's a demon or pass up keys and potions thinking they are ghosts.

The music & sound effects are also fairly dated, though there is something oddly appealing about their old-school charm. For starters, music only exists at the beginning of the game and in between levels. It almost makes the mazes creepier with the complete lack of background music. This might have been a purposeful design choice in order for players to be able to make out what the digitized voices are saying throughout the level. Yes, not unlike the title screens of Skate or Die 2, Ghostbusters, and Blades of Steel - this game has digitized voice work and though grainy - it works surprisingly well. While certainly showing the limitations of the NES, the voice work is actually much clearer than most NES games I have played. The announcer is often shouting "Red Warrior shot the food!" or "Blue Wizard is it!" The sound effects usually sound like a St. Bernard caught in a garbage disposal, but there's even something mildly charming about those squeeky-squaky-burpy sounds too.

The sound those forcefield beams make is worse than a dentist's drill

Make no mistake, this game is hard. Even with buddies at your side, you have over 100 mazes to contend with and to try and last through so you can have the King Kong sized mega score at the end for bragging rights. However, some of the most fun aspects of this game revolve around the challenge level. Quite a few of the stages start with special instructions that indicate a challenge in the room (ie: the exit moves on its own.) There are enemies that will tag one of your characters and make them "it." This means that all of the enemies you guys pass will be gunning for you until the next stage or if you tag one of your buddies. The constant ticking of your health meter is an inspiration to keep moving and challenging you constantly as well as acting as a real irritant.

Yes, but where?!

I've hyped the multiplayer aspect of Gauntlet II, but is it a fun game on your own? Yes! If you dig dungeon crawlers and like a good challenge this game will be a great time no matter if you have a few friends over or if you're just playing by yourself. The levels randomize so it's doubtful you'll wind up playing the exact same game twice, so it has a decent replay value and the high challenge level means you're likely not to beat it in an afternoon. It's a game that takes skill and practice, but those who came to throw down will have an awesome time playing this classic game. At the time of this article, Lukie Games has it for really cheap! If you're looking for a challenge or just want a reason to bust out your Four Score or Satellite (both available as well from Lukie games!) then DO NOT hesitate and buy this game NOW!