|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.
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!