While perhaps not as momentous as something like Live Aid, there’s another, far more mundane Saturday morning a couple of years later that’s equally imprinted on my mind, from beginning to end. Stupid Muppet Babies on TV when I got up and came downstairs before stretching out on the settee to scoff down toast that had barely touched the sides of the gas grill, as was my fancy at the time, ready for my weekly fix of something else that was even more of my fancy at the time, the lovely Sarah Greene on Saturday Superstore, the kid’s entertainment show she co-hosted that went the whole morning from October 1982 to April 1987. She was way more raunchy now than when she’d been on Blue Peter, and at fourteen and a half I was totally smitten by her… Unlike Dungeons & Dragons, which was playing in the programme’s big cartoon slot – as much as a nerd as I was by then, it quickly became obvious they were never getting back home no matter how close it seemed, and it annoyed me immensely. A bit like that buffoon Inspector Gadget! Anyway, I’d love to tell you about the rest of the show that morning but for once that was as far as I got because there was important business to be done with my brother as soon as the shops were open!
We had quite the choice of computer game shops in Bedford town centre at the start of 1987. There was the dearly departed Woolworths, with its wonderland of sweets, records and tapes, toys and video games; downstairs in WHSmith had all the big games for the latest systems, as did Boots on one side of it and Dixons on the other; those two were also great for going in and messing around on the display computers of a Saturday too – 10 PRINT “rude word” and 20 GOTO 10, of course, but I also remember spending long enough to be asked to leave playing Super Mario on both of their NES demo units around then too; only place I ever saw a NES for years! The electronics shop Tandy had a handful of games too – often budget ones you’d never heard of, but for a decent selection of those there was a big newsagent by the bus station that’s now a Martin McColl’s convenience store, and an independent cobbler in a tiny shop inside the bus station, opposite the ticket office, which had a rack full of these obscure £1.99 delights if you happened to have absolutely nothing better to spend that much on but was burning a hole in your pocket waiting for the bus home from school!
It wasn’t long before this that I was still clinging on to the last of the Commodore VIC-20 though, and there was only one place to do that. Which I can’t for the life of me remember the name of, but I can tell you that Sarah Greene’s hair was looking particularly new romantic that day! Anyway, it was an independent games store in a recently-opened, short-lived, somewhat sophisticated (for Bedford – hence short-lived!) horseshoe-shaped parade of shops called The Boulevards that I think went through what had once been the ground floor of a huge Co-Op department store, or it could have been a repurposed bit of the also defunct by then Beehive Shopping Centre it was possibly located in, but anyway, it was a bunch of small shops and apart from the games shop and a newsagent that was the first place in town you could buy Cherry Coke, I can’t remember anything else about it! I do remember still mournfully looking at the aforementioned diminishing VIC-20 area in there for some time after the fact though, increasingly taken over by the mass of Commodore 64 titles in its eternal struggle for space with the Spectrum’s. Whatever my machine now though, it was still the best place to buy games in town, or at least go in and stare longingly at them a couple of times a week after school, before bus number two (but actually the 182) took us on the last leg home.
And that’s where my brother and me headed, while my Dad kept the engine running in the car park over the road, knowing exactly where on the shelf what all our pocket money and more was about to be blown on was after a recce the night before, and with that we were fighting over a read of Gauntlet’s huge instruction “poster” all the way home! And so began the Gauntlet marathon, at least until we had to leave about an hour later to go to our Grandma’s house for lunch! And that was a minced beef casserole smothered in brown sauce (by me not her), just about marking the end of that imprinted memory! Both of my brothers and me went there every Saturday afternoon while my parents went into town for our whole childhoods, and no doubt that week we were watching the wrestling then horse racing and a Western or World War II movie before The A-Team and Jim’ll Fix It, with baked potatoes swimming in proper butter that we didn’t get at home for tea before going home and resuming our Gauntlet marathon-proper. And this time it went on for years!
As much as I can distinctly remember the act of buying the game, and counting down the days beforehand, I have absolutely no recollection of why! My middle brother and me must have seen the arcade machine somewhere, even though I’m sure at the time we’d never played it, and then we’d seen previews in Computer & Video Games magazine or Crash or Your Sinclair or somewhere for something that looked like a very special conversion, and then we’d just hyped ourselves up into it being completely essential at the earliest possible moment after release! I’m not sure, but that’s how it worked for Enduro Racer, Renegade, Operation Wolf and Out Run later that year, so a good chance it was the same for Gauntlet! All of them turned out to be very special too, with the Spectrum version of Renegade sitting at number four in my top ten games of all time and Gauntlet here at number nine; and I’m talking the Spectrum version exclusively too for both of those, not arcade, and definitely that for Renegade where you have the rare case of a port improving on the original! Operation Wolf is still probably the most impressive conversion on the system for me too, even if not my favourite, and yes, I hear the modern-day sniggering at the back about Spectrum Out Run, but as I always say, just go back and read the reviews from the time if you don’t believe me! That said, it is exclusively the arcade version of Out Run that sits just outside my top ten!
Atari’s Gauntlet first hit the arcades in 1985 and would go on to be a big one for them, shifting almost eight-thousand units globally. Its hack and slash high fantasy stuff, set in top-down mazes with a bit of a 3D perspective, and is probably the first multiplayer arcade dungeon crawler, although I’m struggling to think of many other big hitters in that particular niche! Anyway, it allowed for a whopping four players to play at once, although Atari did release a two-player version in 1986 for anyone without the cash or the space for the full-fat one. What Gauntlet isn’t is the first dungeon crawler, as evidenced by the lawsuit threatened by Dandy designer John Palevich after he claimed the concept for Gauntlet was lifted straight out of his 1983 game, originally for Atari 8-bits then ported to Spectrum, C64 and CPC in 1986, although it still got lumped into the mass of “Gauntlet clones” that appeared a bit later, then went on to be re-worked as 1988’s Dark Chambers for the Atari 7800, and I think there’s a late Atari 2600 version too that I really should have a go at! Anyway, it was all settled out of court, apparently with Palevich being placated by a Gauntlet cabinet of his very own, which was probably a decent result for Atari as Gauntlet’s designer Ed Logg seems to have been fairly open about Dungeons, as it was originally conceived, indeed being inspired by both his time playing Dandy as well as his son’s interest in Dungeons & Dragons, to come back to that again, albeit not the crappy cartoon this time! I’ve always thought it was more like my old VIC-20 favourite Tutankham – also an excellent conversion of a 1982 arcade game – but anyway, it was by no means the only dispute about Gauntlet’s heritage or legacy.
I think we can refer to that lavish Spectrum instruction sheet we bumped into earlier for the next bit… “The object of the game is to survive the monster’s attacks for as long as possible while competing for food, treasure and magic potions. You must also search the maze to find the exit to the next level.” The number of levels in the game isn’t spelled out quite so succinctly though, and is still the subject of debate, though mainly because the NES version seems to stop at level 100 but the arcade version (as well as its sequel) just keeps going, flipping, mirroring and recycling forever as far as I can tell. As for the Spectrum version, I honestly don’t know. Never got to an end if there is one! On a related subject though, and while we’re looking at the Spectrum instructions, there is a very detailed section on level design if you’d care to enter your own for the chance to have it included in original home version developer U.S. Gold’s Gauntlet – The Deeper Dungeons expansion cassette, coming in early 1987! You need to draw a 32×32 grid, of which 16 blocks wide and 10 blocks high are visible at any one time. You need one start block and one exit, but the only other rule is the top row has to be fully occupied, and every other block can be any of: floor, wall, destructible wall, trap wall, door, start, exist, treasure, destructible, non-destructible and poisonous food, destructible and non-destructible potions, invisibility, key, trap, transporter, ghost, grunt, demon, lobber, sorcerer, death or generator! That’s the enemies covered then, but in addition you can enable friendly fire as well as restrictions on exit placement and a horizontal and vertical scroll lock that effectively stops the dungeon trying to wraparound and letting players see what’s on the opposite side. And then there’s an example map and the key to the dozens of symbols to be used in your entry. Once you’re done, send it off to U.S. Gold in Birmingham and, as well as having your level included in the 512 on the expansion, you could win a Gauntlet t-shirt and a free copy! Alternatively, if you want a t-shirt you can cut out the form on the inlay card and send a cheque or postal order for £6.95 to the same address!
Although a single screenshot from the arcade version can pretty much sum up everything I love about Gauntlet, I really want to hang around the Spectrum version now because that’s the one I put hundreds of hours into. We’ll come back to the other versions again later though because I have got a bit of form with those too, especially the original in its various incarnations over the years, as well as most of the sequels. I might even mention a couple of the clones (or not-clones) as well but definitely won’t be going nuts – way too many for that! And with that, let’s head back to that giant set of instructions again. While the original game originally had a choice of up to four characters at once, on the Spectrum it’s a maximum of two. If you’re both there at the start, you can both select the one you want, but if someone’s joining mid-game then the computer will make a random selection from whatever is left from the following… Thor the Warrior is the first of our heroes. He doesn’t need armour because his skin absorbs 20% of any damage taken, he’s crap at magic but his battle axe does double normal damage when thrown and is excellent hand-to-hand too; this just involves walking into an enemy, by the way, which will never feel comfortable, but does score you more points! Thyra the Valkyrie can take 30% of damage with her shield but has rubbish shot power, better hand-to-hand but poor magic powers. Merlin the Wizard is a weakling who you want to keep at a distance from the action ideally, though easier said than done, but can destroy pretty much everything with his magic. Finally, Questor the Elf can suck up 10% of damage with his leather armour, is no Legolas when it comes to shooting, is moderate hand-to-hand but is very good with magic.
How long any of these last in the dungeons is dependent on your health, which keeps ticking down with time before you even think about tangling with a monster. It can be replenished by food, but as was just hinted by that Deeper Dungeons chatter just now, some of it can be shot if you’re a bit too trigger-happy in the heat of battle, and some is poisonous. We also touched on the cast of villains there too, which literally pour out of the generators placed throughout the dungeons, and each creates a specific type of monster. There are three levels of generator, with the strongest creating the toughest monsters, also taking three shots to kill. It goes without saying that to make any progress, you want to take the generators down as soon as possible to stem the onslaught, and how you do that is again dependent on your character. For example, Thor can destroy one with a shot or even his bare hands, where Merlin can take any of them out with his magic but won’t even scratch the surface hand-to-hand. However, I have to say that these insane, often corridor-filling but sometimes even screen-filling parades of monsters emerging from these things is spectacular, and without doubt one of my favourite sights anywhere in gaming, so don’t always be too quick to take them down before you’ve had a chance to admire the view!
Let’s have a quick run-through of the roster of monsters now… Ghosts are a total nightmare and you just want to steer clear and shoot at them however good at fighting you are! They’ll hit you once then disappear, but that hit is going to do way more damage than their mass appearance in the early levels might suggest. Grunts are a bit less sinister, and a lot less sophisticated – they’ll run up to you and whack you with their clubs. Repeatedly. You want to either just steer into them with your joystick (because keyboard controls will suck here) and fight hand-to-hand, or better still just shoot them. Next up are Demons, and they’re going to either throw fireballs at you from a distance or get up close and bite you; the instructions helpfully tell us that fireballs hurt more than biting though, so keep that in mind, and on that basis, while shots work you might want to get up close and shut these down quickly hand-to-hand if you can instead. Now we’re onto Lobbers, and Lobbers will try to lob rocks over the maze walls at you then run off, so with these guys you want a shot if there’s not something in the way, or just charge them down and corner them. Sorcerers are another pain in the backside, moving about then disappearing just as you’ve got a shot away and reappearing somewhere else, but manage to pin them down and they’re not too much of a problem. Unlike our last villain, Death, who definitely is too much of a problem! You can’t fight Death with shots or hand-to-hand combat; he’ll either just drain you of 200 points (about 10% of your starting health, which will be long since depleted when you first come across him) and then disappear, or if you’ve got a decent magic ability a potion will take him down too.
Potions are one of many items you’ll find littered around the dungeons, and while some can be shot, their effect is way less powerful than if you collect and use them; some of them will also give you special powers, such as increased armour, magic power, shot speed or power, fighting power or increased carrying ability. Then there’s food and cider to replenish health (but watch out for poison), and keys to open locked doors, treasure chests and amulets that can give you temporary invisibility. Sometimes you’ll see a glowing pattern on the floor which will make some walls disappear if you step on it, and there’s also glowing red discs that will transport you to the nearest visible transporter, though you can influence their direction if you try! Finally, and most importantly, are the exits, which are labelled holes down to the next level, or sometimes the one specified (e.g. Level 8). Treasure rooms appear randomly between levels, and you’ve got a fixed time to grab as much as you can then get out or you’ll come away with nothing, and these are particularly fun when you’re trying to coordinate all of that with a player two! In general, you’re immune to a second player’s shots but there are some levels where that’s not the case, and there’s a couple of other oddities to mention, also rather handily described in the instructions – stay out of trouble for about 30 seconds and any locked doors are opened, also meaning anything behind them is free to go through them, but if you’re stuck for keys then so can you now! And if you still avoid combat for about the same again, eventually all the walls turn into exits and you’ll get a free pass out. But you will miss out on any goodies you’ve left behind, and actually, once all the doors are open, finding a quiet place to hide out in to trigger the exits is easier said than done.
You really couldn’t ask a great deal more of an arcade conversion on the Spectrum than Gauntlet. I’d never even considered the need to have any more than two players at once in our bedroom, at that stage at least, so this one major limitation was an irrelevance. Multi-load was normal and barely even considered an inconvenience for something of this scale, and you’re getting up to eight levels at a time anyway. I guess it was missing the relentless digitised speech of the original too, as were all those first home ports as far as I’m aware, which again wouldn’t have ever been expected on a 48K Spectrum anyway. And obviously, it had to interpret colours into something it could handle without insane colour clash, but it did that brilliantly, and it also performed brilliantly, scrolling way faster than the other versions. But most of all it felt like Gauntlet back then and still feels like Gauntlet today, although my lack of any player two nowadays does certainly provide a different experience – with the best will in the world you can’t replicate the strategy or the irresistible selfishness that was so much a part of the game’s allure, and that was the same whether you had two, three or four players on the go at once.
In the world of 1985, I guess we can say that the original Gauntlet arcade machine was never a real looker – it held its own against the likes of Commando or Ghosts ‘n Goblins, also out that year, but it was no Space Harrier or Gradius. In its defence it was chucking masses of little enemy sprites around at any given moment though, and each of them were full of character if you looked closely (like the Grunts’ little sharp teeth) and you’d have up to eight colours per character from a total of thirty-two to add a bit more life to them; there’s a really cool effect where stronger ghosts, for example, get less bright as you hit them too. The dungeons they inhabited were fairly simple mazes, but they had visual variety and detail, from the cracks in the stone floor tiles to the various monster generators that, again, looking closely at will reward you with lifelike little toppers indicating what they’re spawning. It’s not an exotic 3D space battle though, so what it does fits perfectly. And that’s the context we need to apply to the Spectrum version, which in turn is obviously no Exolon or Trap Door or Merlin, but most definitely is Gauntlet!
The four character sprites are now a single colour but a bit less top-down to allow for a bit of individuality; in fact, the whole thing is a bit less “top-down” and slighty more side-on than the original, but that’s not something you’d ever notice in play. The enemies, generators, treasure and so on all have their own colours too, which is single in the main, although some of the generators have red highlighting on grey, teleporters red on yellow and Death is made up of a sinister thick green hooded outline over black. I think the shadowed-yellow little jars of drink are my favourites though, with “XXX” on the front marking it safe to consume, but anything else beware! While the flooring is now totally black, what the Spectrum version more than makes up for that with is some occasionally exquisite patterning on the maze walls, as well as a few wild colours, and get the right combination and you could even argue it’s more visually impactful than the arcade version! Less so any of the sound effects though – we already mentioned the inevitable lack of speech, but there’s an equally inevitable barebones sound palette once you’re past the opening theme tune, which is brief but actually not a bad effort at all, and you do get to hear a snatch of it again at the start of each level. The rest is brief silence interrupted by varying tones of white noise and beeps, but none of it’s offensive and it’s adequate at the very least.
There really are no sacrifices when it comes to the thick of the action though – it’s as fast paced as it is claustrophobic and hopeless, just like the original, and there’s a rhythm to be found that’s going to keep you alive once you find it, although there’s no way of sticking another 10p in the slot for a health boost when things get mortally dicey (although the arcade version is way more stingy with its starting health)! Even in single player though, you can feasibly keep your health topped up enough to see you through a good fifteen or so levels, if not more, though when you are at those heady heights beyond level eight I think it’s a bit more programmed than it is a bit more random in the original, with level mirroring and reversal and rotation already at play through necessity, but even so I doubt anyone ever noticed – too busy admiring the ever-expanding horde of ghosts behind that tiny door you need to get through! As much as I love Gauntlet, I’ve never really played much of the other 8-bit versions, but it was a real essential when I moved on to the Atari ST! That version is a bit of a halfway house between the arcade and the Spectrum, with about half of the original’s colour added back in, making for enough detail that at first glance you might think it’s virtually arcade perfect, and the same with the stack of sounds sampled from the original. Unfortunately it’s nowhere near as quick or as smooth in motion as even the Spectrum version was, with some trademark jerky scrolling not quite ruining the party like it does in something like Saint Dragon, for example, but certainly putting a dampener on it. Blew my tiny mind at the time all the same and we had such a great time with that version as well, though probably not a great deal more to add over there. And nothing really to add on any of the other home ports either, although we will pick up the Sega Mega Drive version when we have a quick look at the sequels in a second…
We really should touch on the arcade version again to complete the picture on the original first, although I think it’s been pretty well serviced as we’ve gone along, so maybe just a recap of experiences on a few different versions… We did eventually get our hands on the arcade machine, in either Torquay or Newquay but I can’t remember which, and neither whether it was the two of us on a two- or four-player cabinet. Our very young at the time younger brother was probably pretending to play on a third stick if it was the latter! I do remember it was magical though, albeit one and done until late in the original PlayStation’s life, probably in 1999, and Arcade’s Greatest Hits: The Atari Collection 2, which featured Gauntlet plus Paperboy, Marble Madness, RoadBlasters, Millipede and Crystal Castles… Arcade originals at home!!! Midway Arcade Treasures on PS2 ramped up the action with not only way more games than I’m going to mention here, but four-player Gauntlet too, if you had a multitap accessory! Unfortunately it didn’t control great and the aspect ratio wasn’t quite right (although far less of a problem than it was for most of the games on there, and that from a philistine in such matters!) so it’s not really a version I go too anymore, especially with Midway Arcade Origins, which I’ve had on PS3 for yonks and more recently via backwards compatibility on Xbox Series X after it was given away on Games With Gold not that long ago as I write. Possibly the most elegant way to play today, although if you’re after something a bit more unorthodox, you could try out the Midway Arcade Pack for Lego Dimensions, which I’ve got on PS4, where you can not only play the original arcade game in-game, but it’s even got its own level in the game proper!
We talked about The Deeper Dungeons 512-level expansion pack a while back, and as well as being on the Spectrum it came out on all the 8- and 16-bit computers too, but meanwhile Gauntlet II was already making its arcade debut in 1986. It was a glorified expansion, with players all able to play the same class with different characters if they wished, plus new level designs, new enemies, new hazards and new level elements, like invisible walls and fake exits. The ports followed from 1988, and eventually the arcade version appeared in either the aforementioned compilations or their sequels, but my story with this game actually begins (and mostly ends) with the Game Boy version from 1991! This thing was one of the great arcade conversions on there, with fantastic 8-way scrolling, cool sound effects and a generally spot-on monochrome take on the graphics. Gauntlet III: The Final Quest went all isometric on the 8- and 16-bit computers the same year, and while it’s a decent game it’s not Gauntlet. However, that’s not the case with Gauntlet: The Third Encounter, the vibrant 1990 Atari Lynx exclusive with eight character classes and an unusual vertical orientation which I’m now really tempted to cover here in its own right sometime! My own story picks up again with Gauntlet IV on the Mega Drive, which had a main quest mode combining the original arcade game with new RPG mechanics, but also a fantastic port of the original (which started life as a homebrew X68000 port coded by a group of friends later to become M2), a deathmatch mode and a special single-player only mode. As good as all of this is to play though, the soundtrack has to be heard to be believed – the very pinnacle of Mega Drive music in my opinion, and in particular the track Transparent Obstacle is in my top ten gaming anthems of all time! Gauntlet Legends brought the series back to the arcades in 1998, followed by Nintendo 64, Dreamcast and PlayStation ports, and it’s a third-person kind of top-down hack and slash that’s a lot of fun but is it Gauntlet? It got two of its own sequels regardless, Gauntlet Dark Legacy in 1999 (also ported to PS2, Xbox, GameCube and Game Boy Advance, would you believe!) and Gauntlet: Seven Sorrows for PS2 and Xbox in 2005. Finally, there was a decidedly average reboot for PS4 and PC, simply entitled Gauntlet, in 2014; it was alright but there wasn’t a lot to it, and once again, it just wasn’t Gauntlet whatever it was calling itself!
And speaking of “not Gauntlet,” we can’t close on Gauntlet without a quick mention of some of the clones, and while there were certainly more around that I’ve still never played, such as Firebird’s Druid or that Dark Chambers for the Ataris that we talked about earlier, I reckon I bought enough of them that we can get a decent cross-section… Let’s start with the much-maligned Dandy, “a very adequate Gauntlet substitute” according to Sinclair User in 1986, but the only thing I don’t really like about it is the flip-screening rather than scrolling because you can’t see what’s coming, and you want to see as much as possible if for no other reason than this game is beautiful to look at! I’m not going in any particular order here except the order I remembered them, so next we’ll have what is possibly my favourite of the clones, Into the Eagle’s Nest by Pandora in 1987, though my copy came on the 6-Pak compilation the following Christmas. This time you’re a bit closer to the action from above, and the fantasy setting has been replaced by a World War II German stronghold to infiltrate, which is as rich in detail as it is danger. Bit more methodical than Gauntlet, but it’s a winner all the same! Even more methodical is Avenger in 1986, where you’re now a ninja in this follow up to martial arts side-scroller Way of the Tiger, itself adapted from a tabletop RPG by Gremlin Graphics. I had the full-price release of this but it’s never really been a favourite despite looking really nice and having some incredible 128K music; more about running about than ninja-ing I guess.
From full-price to budget, and incredible 128K music to less so, but it was £1.99 from Mastertronic in 1986 so we’re going to go easy on Storm! It’s a proper Gauntlet rip-off though, albeit up a bit closer-up like Eagle’s Nest, but I always had a good time with this one. Top budget action! We’ll leave the Spectrum with another budget title, this time from Players Software in 1988, and I’ve just spent ages rummaging around cassette boxes trying to remember that it’s called Denizen! It’s a really polished-looking sci-fi take this time, and while the gameplay is a bit slow and unremarkable and probably too hard, you’ve got to admire the very striking use of colour without a hint of colour clash. We’re going to close now with one more game that was actually a pack-in with the Atari ST, hidden away on a bunch of nondescript disks together with word processors and spelling checkers and mostly boring stuff! Ranarama originally came from Hewson in 1987, with you playing a sorcerer’s apprentice-turned-frog (that looks a lot like the one in Frogger!) in a series of pretty but hardly breathtaking dungeons that reveal themselves to you a room at a time. Some cool gameplay mechanics but this one always felt a bit stuffy to me, even at the time.
To go behind the curtain, there was a bit of a gap between writing about the Spectrum version and the others, and during that time I jumped onto the Xbox Midway Arcade Origins compilation to grab a few screenshots, but ended up spending a lot more time than intended playing both the original arcade game and the sequel. And I don’t think I’m done yet either! But having spent so long playing the Spectrum version again before that, what it really brought home was what a fantastic arcade conversion it really is! Okay, it’s not the bewildering achievement of an Enduro Racer or Operation Wolf conversion, but it is a near-perfect Spectrum take on a near-perfect arcade gameplay experience. And I guess that’s why I hold it in such high regard to this day!