Digital nostalgia: Gauntlet

I am not a gamer, certainly not in the modern sense of the word, but I have played plenty of tabletop RPGs and have spent a not insignificant percentage of the 1980s in various amusement arcades. Consequently, a recent article in The Register looking back at Gauntlet had my nostalgia circuits all fired up before I’d even reached the end of the headline.

Gauntlet was a massive game, one that allowed up to four adventurers (a warrior, a valkyrie, a wizard and an elf) to explore a never-ending dungeon, kill monsters and collect treasure. The game had several nice touches, one of which was that people could join in at any time. So one person could start playing and others could join in, play until they had fed the machine enough coins and then drop out in favour of the next player.

It was also the case that each of the four characters had different strengths and weaknesses. The wizard was physically weak (and easily hurt) but very effective with the potions that he picked up, the elf was nimble and annoying and the valkyrie was a good all-rounder. My preferred character, however, was the warrior who was tough enough to trudge through level after level, blasting everything in his path.

Indeed, I became good enough with this character that I could play the game endlessly. I would literally walk into an arcade in the early afternoon and keep going – on the strength of a single coin – until the management turned off the machines.

That’s not to say that Gauntlet was easy – it wasn’t. But it was one of the very few games that hit the sweet spot of being challenging enough for me to want to keep going without becoming frustratingly impossible.

Part of this, I think, is one of the elements that The Register touched on – namely the non-linear game play. You entered a dungeon level and had to keep going until you reached the exit to the next dungeon but, within those constraints, you were pretty much free to go where you wanted. The problem-solving part of the game, therefore, really was a case of figuring out how to get stay alive long enough to find the exit, which was a refreshing change from the usual challenge of figuring out
what sequence of steps the game designer wanted you to follow.

Gauntlet was a fun and well designed arcade game and a fixture of many of my teenage years. Apparently, a PC version is slated for release later this year, but it won’t be the same.