Wednesday, June 20, 2012

199X Dispatch - Forever Munching Quarters

See those green blobs? That's why you're dead.
Nowadays we use the adjective "quarter-munchy" to describe any retro game that (1) allows players to continue playing so long as they keep feeding credits into the machine, and (2) is extra difficult for that reason.

But there's kind of an understanding here, between quarter-munchers and quarter-possessors: keep playing and you will see something new; play even longer, and you might even get good at this. Beat-em-Ups were, by this standard, the pinnacle of quarter-munchery. The best games in that genre made sure to do something new and nifty in every stage.

The original Gauntlet games, however, are the black-hearted demigods of the arcade. Abandon all hope ye who enter here.

When I selected Gauntlet II for this month's experimental "live challenge" I was remembering the fun times I had with the NES port as a kid. This version is somewhat fair AND it supports four players. I now realize that it was, without a doubt, the finest version of classic Gauntlet ever released in any format.

But Gauntlet II, it seems, is no Gauntlet II. It's the Anti-Fun. Here's why:

1. IT NEVER ENDS. This applies to a lot of classic arcade games, but not most quarter-munchers. And for good reason. The more money a game asks of the player, the more the game owes the player. This doesn't make much rational sense, I'll admit. But think about it. Two average players will probably spend around 3 to 5 dollars each to finish Golden Axe. This needs to be building to something or the player will feel like he bought nothing but the ability to spend more money. Gauntlet doesn't do that. It doesn't even have a boss, as far as I can tell. It's just maze after mind-numbing maze. You could play for a high score, except...

Hey GAT. Not braggable.
2. BEING GOOD JUST GETS YOU KILLED. In most versions of Gauntlet II, the amount of available food (i.e., health) decreases as your score increases. This was done to prevent people from  "marathoning" the game for hours on end off of a single quarter. But of course, Atari didn't want to punish people who were willing to pay out the nose to keep playing, so the "starvation" effect slows down incrementally the more coins you put in. In this game, money can only help. It never hurts. You can pretty much buy a high score. Although losing all your health will reset your score to zero, the number of coins you put in at the beginning of a life apparently has no effect on the accumulation of points.

3. YOU CAN'T REALLY PRACTICE. Not only are there over a hundred different stages, but these stages are randomized starting with Level 6. And just in case you're able to remember a handful of them, the game can turn them upside-down, too. Or make the walls invisible. In a way, this adds value through variety. In another way, it makes me want to knock the machine over and set it on fire. It's almost impossible to share your experiences and trade tips with others. And it kneecaps one of the game's coolest features -- the secret walls -- by making them more or less random events, rather than secrets to be discovered and remembered for future use. The point of hiding things in an arcade game is to reward repeat players with some kind of advantage.

4. THIS WIZARD IS A SUCK-WIZARD. The game might as well have only three playable characters, because the wizard is bad at everything. Yes, his potions will destroy monster generators. Fabulous. But he gets the least food and takes the heaviest damage. His shots are slow and not all that powerful. And he walks slower than anyone else. The unwritten rule of video game wizards is that they take more damage, but have more damage to dish out. Without that extra firepower (which I believe he had in the first Gauntlet), this Merlin's not really a wizard at all. Just a sad old man who goes into a cave to die.

What kind of wizard says "ouch"?
5. FRIENDS ARE YOUR ENEMY. More players means less food per character (even if starvation kicks in slower). It also means that you can barely understand what's happening on the screen. So most of that food ends up getting shot and destroyed before anyone can grab it. And worst of all, it becomes VERY difficult to coordinate your movements. This sandbags one of the only useful strategies this game has -- the ability to thin out monster herds while the generators are off-screen (and therefore not pumping out more monsters). If the point of a multi-player quarter-muncher is to suck as many people into the game as possible, it should get exponentially EASIER with more players, not the other way around.

Now, all this said, the original Gauntlet is a very good game and an amazing accomplishment. It's probably the single best thing the great Ed Logg (of Asteroids, Centipede, and Millipede fame) ever worked on. Four-player co-op and digitized speech were impressive at the time for obvious reasons. The game was also the first major American coin-op to abandon the recessed monitor, allowing extra players to see things at an angle. And if it's not the very first quarter-muncher ever (someone tell me what was, because I don't know), it was certainly a driving force behind this new design philosophy. Arcade games became more accessible, more profitable, and in my opinion, more interesting as a result. (Check out this episode of Wired's Game Life podcast for a detailed explanation of Ed Logg's unique genius.)

Gauntlet II, by comparison, is an underachieving younger brother. It smoothes a few rough edges, sharpens the rest. 

At least that's how it seems to me now. But Game Club 199X presses onward. If you're in the greater NYC area, swing by the Jersey City Barcade this Friday, June 22. You won't just get to watch us play, you'll get to take my place when I die! Respond in the thread for more details. Kurt Kalata will be raffling off a signed copy of Frank Thomas' Big Hurt Baseball to one lucky fan!


  1. I haven't yet played the NES version of Gauntlet 2, although my traditional favorite version has been the Sega Megadrive/Genesis version of the first Gauntlet (released as Gauntlet IV in the West).

    It is virtually perfect conversion of the arcade version (only minor graphical differences due to lower resolution and different colors) with full support for four players. It has additional game modes such as Quest mode (which has some minor RPG elements and which is probably better choice for single player than the Arcade mode).

    Also, unlike the arcade version, it had in-game music with this being probably my favorite:

  2. Games like these and everything done by Midway are the reason why Japanese game developers took over the arcades during the 80s and onward. Say what you will about how much of a "quarter muncher" a game like Golden Axe might be, but at least they can be completed in one-credit by a skilled enough player. In fact, anyone who spends "three or five dollars" to clear Golden Axe probably overpaid, considering most people I know get to Death Adder on their first credit, but I digress.

    I never played an American-developed arcade game from the 80s or 90s that didn't encourage credit feeding in some form.

    1. How many people have you watched play the Golden Axe coin-op, might I ask? Strange that you would have such exposure to arcades, yet not remember any of the very common American machines that didn't allow credit-feeding. Mr. Do, Star Wars, Centipede, Lady Bug, Nibbler?

  3. Really? Robotron, Joust and Q*bert all disallow credit feeding, and those are just off the top of my head. I wouldn't say the Japanese took over the arcades either unless you want to overlook Mortal Kombat and NBA Jam.

    1. Those are from the early 80s. I was talking about the mid-to-late 80s and onward, when gaming in general stopped being about getting high scores and playing through endlessly looping stages and started being more about providing the player with a cinematic experience. Games like Smash TV and N.A.R.C. (to name two popular examples) were designed to be as cheap as possible and almost impossible to clear in one credit. Western arcade game designers were often more concerned about how profitable their games were over their actual quality (not that Japanese arcade designers were completely innocent of this, but it was more prevalent among western developers).

      Mortal Kombat is an exception that proves the rule as far as fighting games are concerned. Can you name any other western-developed fighting game franchise that lasted as long as it did? Even Killer Instinct (which had a huge following in its day) ended with the second game. And let's be honest here. It's not like people play Mortal Kombat for its deep fighting mechanics.

    2. "It's not like people play Mortal Kombat for its deep fighting mechanics."

      But... but.. THE "RUN" BUTTON! A new level of depth and strategy for the fighting genre!

    3. Or Area 51, or Primal Rage, or N.A.R.C., or Revolution X ... I swear, those games were EVERYWHERE at one point. I can't say anything all that nice about 'em, except for NBA Jam. If you don't think that game is insanely fun, you must have been playing it alone.

    4. NBA Jam is fun. I'll give you that. Everything else Midway and Atari during the late 80s and 90s was unremarkable.

  4. Well, I think the "problems" in Gauntlet 2 are completely intentional (except the mage, that is plain bad game design). Gauntlet 2 is a game made for 2 or more people in which they can make their friends' lives a complete hell / mess / sadness / desperate pile pf shit. It is not multiplayer cooperation, but multiplayer troll-maker.

  5. Actually, the quest mode in Gauntlet IV is pretty long if you do it solo and has a nicely surprising ending that's exactly the same as Dungeon Explorer on the Sega CD. As for part II, I've avoided it for years after spending the better part of an evening trying to get to the "ending" only to realize that it's an endless slog that's fun until you start seeing the tricks the game throws at you.

    That said, I'd LOVE to see the Atari Lynx exclusive Gauntlet III: The Third Encounter get a console port just for the crazy characters you could play as (A robot, samurai, stereotypical nerd and a few others were added to the roster, and some are a hoot to use, as one or two make the Wizard look really good)...


    1. "Actually, the quest mode in Gauntlet IV is pretty long if you do it solo and has a nicely surprising ending that's exactly the same as Dungeon Explorer on the Sega CD."

      I said that the Quest mode is probably better for single player because in my opinion it felt better balanced for solo run when compared to the original arcade version (or the Arcade mode of the MD/Gen version which is more or less the same thing). Of course, the Quest mode has password feature, so the length may be even less an issue than in the case of the Arcade mode.

      "That said, I'd LOVE to see the Atari Lynx exclusive Gauntlet III: The Third Encounter get a console port just for the crazy characters you could play as (A robot, samurai, stereotypical nerd and a few others were added to the roster, and some are a hoot to use, as one or two make the Wizard look really good)..."

      Supposedly it was originally developed as a game unrelated to the Gauntlet series, which may explain some of the selectable characters. Also, I have wondered if the nerd is actually a reference to the protagonist of another Atari Lynx game, Chip's Challenge (both games were developed by Epyx).

      One good way to adapt The Third Encounter for modern platforms might be using the source code of the arcade versions as basis for the actual game engine while using the content, levels and features from the Atari Lynx game. Supposedly the arcade version of Marble Madness (released by Atari about a year before the original Gauntlet) was developed in C, so the same language may have been used also in the arcade versions of Gauntlet 1-2.

      So, if the source code of the arcade versions is still around, it could be RELATIVELY easy effort to adapt it for the modern platforms without relying on the emulation.

  6. I hate to say it, but there are several notable flaws in this discussion:

    1. Gauntlet and Gauntlet II don't give you levels in a random order. Instead there is a grand sequence. After the first few "tutorial" levels, the next level will be part of the sequence. Then you get levels in the sequence until the game ends. Once the next game starts, after the tutorial levels the next level will be the level the previous game ended on, and the sequence resumes from there.

    2. The invisible walls levels are not, to my experience, a random part of the game. Instead, certain levels tend to have invisible walls. (Later on invisible walls may be one of the random modifiers the game can add, but I'm not sure.)

    3. You actually can't buy a high score; the scoreboards are all average per coin. There are plenty of games where you can buy a high score, but Gauntlet and Gauntlet II are not among them.

    4. There are some very good Gauntlet players who can play a long time on a single, or a few, coins. I hold these people in awe; it seems impossible to me.

    5. When playing with multiple people the game puts more food into the levels.

    6. There are two kinds of shootable walls: the kind that's always shootable, and the kind that might hide something special, called "secret walls." Of the later type, there are specific spots in each level that might, or might not, be a secret wall. While they might not have a secret in every game, over many plays you can learn which ones might house secrets.

    It IS true that the game decreases the food supply as score increases, and I hold that as a flaw, as is the fact that the Wizard gets less food. But you're doing a disservice to these games. Although it should be mentioned that Gauntlet II was intended to be a more varied, and overall harder, version of the original game. I suggest, if playing it over emulation, to go into settings and making it easier, then trying to see how far you can get on a limited number of credits.

    BTW, the best home version of Gauntlet is the Genesis version, which is arcade perfect and contains a new "Quest" mode with different levels.

  7. Thanks for the additions/corrections. I didn't notice the game averaging my score by the number of coins inserted, so that's a plus. For all intents and purposes, though, I'd say the levels are in as random an order as Atari could make them.

    Now that the challenge is over and I'm allowed to look at FAQs, it seems I was way off on how food gets reduced. It may have nothing to do with the number of players. But beginning level 8 (if not earlier) the game does remove food on most difficulty settings. I "practiced" on default difficulty, because that's what Barcade's machine is set to.

    This does not change my mind about Gauntlet II, however. Look at the version history for both games. It starts out manageable, and gets progressively cheaper and less fair until, ultimately, you're at the nigh-unplayable final revision of Gauntlet II. The game was not broken, even if some maniacs out there could play it forever. And you know what they say about things that ain't broke.