Monday, April 7, 2014

NES Replay: Gauntlet

Developer: Tengen
Publisher: Tengen
Released: 1987
Gauntlet is frequently viewed as one of the first mainstream action RPGs. However, if you try and play it like you would play a modern action RPG, you're gonna have a bad time.

In a modern action RPG, killing enemies gives you experience points, which then increases your strength, helps you progress further, and makes you more attractive to the opposite sex. In other words, killing more enemies gives you access to better loot, which allows you to kill more enemies, which allows you access to better loot.

Gauntlet's not the same way, which is disconcerting when you first try and play it. In Gauntlet, killing enemies is a sidebar to picking up the gold bars scattered all over the levels. Picking up gold increases your power and helps you progress. Your weapons don't get better, and the only resources you have to manage are your health and your magic.
However, your health meter is where Gauntlet gets problematic. The NES port has the bloody clawprints of the arcade game all over it, since your health drops automatically as you play, and health pickups are rare. This sort of worked in the arcade, even though it was a little manipulative. When you play Gauntlet in the arcade, it's easy enough to get around this limitation by pumping quarters into the machine. On the NES, though, putting quarters into the machine just results in a strange burning smell and a small electrical fire.

What we're left with, then, is a game that's nearly impossible unless you're playing with another player who can take some of the heat off of you. That's a sign that Tengen really should have rethought Gauntlet for the NES, but maybe Tengen figured that making major changes would have caused Gauntlet to stop being, you know, Gauntlet.

With that in mind, though, Gauntlet still pulled off some amazing feats. There are times where the screen is literally filled with enemies. There are movable blocks, secret passages and all other sorts of stuff, and this was all before The Legend of Zelda was released.

So was Gauntlet a little shortsighted in parts? Yeah, a little bit. But even if Gauntlet is hard to play today, it still needs to be appreciated for what it was able to pull off on the NES, and it represented a major stepping stone for action RPGs in general.

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