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Designed by Ed Logg
Gauntlet did as much to further the design of arcade games as Space Invaders did long before. While not as popular as the marching aliens were in the day, it was a huge hit relative to the competition. Believe it or not, was the first game to give us drop-in-anytime style multiplayer in the arcades, one of those innovations that seemed so useful afterwards that the great majority of arcade multiplayer games since have nicked that feature for themselves.
The play is fairly simple, even if given the veneer of a Dungeons & Dragons theme. Players pick one of four characters, with differing strengths, to roam around 8-way scrolling dungeon levels, looking for the exit.
Instead of lives they have a numerical health total, that depletes over time at about one hit point per second, and more quickly when taking hits from the enemy. Putting in more coins adds additional health, and the vanity board is average score per coin instead of overall.
Around each level are many enemy generators, out of which pour a flood of monsters. The players can both shoot (with a fire button) or just run into enemies to damage and kill them, but at best this merely holds back the flood. To survive, they must get to the source and destroy it, which requires finding ways around, or through, the enemies in order to get their shots to the target.
A small variety of opponents infests the levels, with a good mix of abilities: some shoot, some are difficult hand-to-hand, and some can throw rocks over walls. Each level provides monsters in different proportions, and the game is basically an endless assortment of such situations. Doing well involves responding to each efficiently, and dealing with each with a minimum of health loss.
And that's roughly it; there's no storyline at all. There's a bit of strategy involved in getting food, collecting permanent ability potions, and defeating the Thief (a special enemy that follows the players' exact steps through the level until he reaches them), but the main play really doesn't change much as the game goes on.
According to GameFAQs, there are 100 boards in Gauntlet's cycle. The first seven are always the same every game and serve as an introduction. After that, the player begins getting levels in what I'll call the loop, a long cycle consisting of the bulk of the game's maps.
The loop is sequential, but when level 7 is completed the player could end up anywhere along it. When a game ends, the machine remembers the loop level it ended on, and that board becomes level 8 in the new game, which re-enters the loop at that point.
The loop has an interesting character to it. There are both easy and hard levels in Gauntlet, and there are runs that provide several easy ones in a row as well as challenging ones. If a new game enters the loop at the right place, players could collect a windfall of food and manage to play for some time. If the loop is entered at the wrong place, it could be tough going for a while.
In any case, what's important to remember that it is truly a loop -- an endless cycle. There is no ending to either Gauntlet or Gauntlet II. You could loop many times and it won't end. Word is that someone has looped the game three times on one credit, just to be sure. Gauntlet II scrambles the levels in various ways as it goes, but there's still just 100 of them.
The fact that there's no ending, however, points out a very important difference between Atari's view on video games and the current perception. Atari saw Gauntlet as a process, a game that was played for its own sake and not to reach completion. The adventurers continue forever until their life drains out, their quest ultimately hopeless.
Gauntlet was a huge hit for Atari at the time of its release, but this endless play concept doesn't appear to have aged well. I find it interesting, in games of Gauntlet I've had with other people in the past few years, that their interest tends to survive only until the point where they learn there is no ending. Times have certainly changed.