Apologies for the long hiatus, been trying to beat back the dreaded monster that haunts many an RPG gamer — the backlog. The good news is that I’m slowly getting through it, but there were also times when I wanted to just jump into a fast distraction from heavy servings of dialogue and statistics. And Gauntlet, back in the 80s, could fit the bill.
It came out to arcades in October of 1985 from Atari and seemed like another original from the company that gave the world the Atari VCS (later called the 2600) along with other arcade hits. But what people didn’t know at the time was the the game was actually inspired by an earlier title on the Atari 8-bit computers, like the Atari 800, called Dandy which came out in 1983.
Dandy’s author, John Palevich, wrote out his bachelor’s thesis, Thesis of Terror, in the fall of 1982 which formed the foundation of what would become as Dandy. All the familiar elements that would become present in Gauntlet were there — four players and a fifth, the computer, acting as the dungeon master. Although he wasn’t able to implement the dungeon master portion of the program, Palevich was able to create the rest of the game which would be called Dandy, a play on D&D from which he drew inspiration from.
Although he didn’t play Dungeons & Dragons, he had players in his dorm that did making plenty of source material in the form of handbooks and campaign ideas readily available. In a way, Palevich followed the same kind of path that others from Richard Garriott to Sir-tech did in their quest to find a way in taking D&D from the tabletop and placing it into the hands of PCs as dungeon masters.
He later went on to work at Atari where he polished his idea into what would become known as Dandy. Ed Logg, who also worked at Atari and had helped to design games such as Asteroids and Centipede, cites Dandy as the inspiration for the game he would design for the arcade: Gauntlet.
Logg had the same inspiration that Palevich had in trying to solve the conundrum of how to bring a bit of D&D to the masses with a game that could be easily learned and enjoyed. Along with his own interest in Dandy, his son was a fan of D&D’s tabletop dungeons which, incidentally, was what Logg’s original name for Gauntlet was…Dungeons.
But the road to Gauntlet was fraught with a number of obstacles according to an article still hosted over at G4TV by Dennis Scimeca. The year 1983, when the project began development, was also during the “Great Video Game Crash” in the West that devastated the Atari consumer empire at home along with everyone else including the ColecoVision and the Intellivision. Layoffs contributed to the game’s tough development schedule and Logg’s co-worker on the project, Robin Ziegler, was one of the casualties.
Logg himself was taken off Gauntlet (still called Dungeons) and assigned to work on a laserdisc version of a Road Runner game (which apparently, according to Logg from his 2012 GDC presentation, does exist as extremely rare prototype copies unlike Firefox which had a commercial release and largely remains Atari’s only laserdisc arcade game to make it there) until he was finally put back on Gauntlet in 1985 when “an engineer, a second programmer to complement Logg, four artists, a technician and three audio engineers” became the new team on what was becoming a big bet for the beleaguered company’s coin-op division.
On a technical level, Gauntlet was a cutting edge beast for Atari. It would have a voice synthesizer chip and advanced graphical horsepower beneath the hood. There were debates on choosing the right kind of monitor for the game, whether the graphics should be interlaced or not, and other considerations that were also weighed against the final cost of the machine for arcade owners.
And then there was the idea of how much it would potentially make. According to Logg and recounted in Scimeca’s article, arcade machines’ ultimate test came down to how much they made in focus locations. If it didn’t make enough after a certain period, the game was dead. Logg worked on far more games than Centipede and Asteroids, but those two tested well by making money where others…didn’t. It was the harsh truth of the games industry that still echoes on down to today.
Logg’s game, however, was very different from Atari’s previous efforts. For one, it featured four players like Dandy did. That alone had the potential to bring in more quarters, especially since the game was very different from others. Players could jump in and out of an active game without waiting for their turn, for example, and the more quarters they fed the machine, the more health their characters had to survive the dangers of the dungeons ahead. It was a win-win solution for everyone around.
One interesting twist to all of that testing is that according to Scimeca’s article above, he notes that Logg had to “pull one test unit from the field when he caught engineers from Sega taking pictures of the test unit!”. In 1986, roughly a year after Gauntlet came out, Sega’s four-player, side-scrolling shooter Quartet hit the scene. Whether or not the two might be connected is anyone’s guess.
Finally, the name Dungeons had to be dropped by 1985 when it became “unavailable” and so the name Gauntlet was picked. In a GDC 2012 postmortem that Ed Logg gave, more details also came out about the game such turning away from “Robotron” controls referring to Williams Electronics’ Robotron 2083 twin-stick action game from 1982. Early focus testing proved to be wildly successful and the concern of whether four strangers would actually play together on one machine proved to be nothing to worry about. People loved the game. And when it finally rolled out officially to arcades, it became a huge hit.
But part of the appeal for Gauntlet may have also been the most simple of reasons — it distilled the relatively opaque world of dungeon delving and deep exploration into a hack ‘n slash dungeon crawl, a slice of what tabletop D&D players meticulously wagered with every crunchy statistic.
It rode the wave of fantasy films like Ridley Scott’s Legend that came out that same year which also saw the last season of the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon series. Epic adventures had been making their mark on PCs by 1985 thanks to titles like Ultima, Questron, and Wizardry, but the arcades still had the distinct advantage in terms of horsepower, the kind that attracted audiences to Gauntlet’s colorful style and amazing sounds bringing battles for loot and glory to vivid life on a big screen shared by four other players.
It also exploded with color and an impressive audio backdrop thanks to what was then Atari’s most advanced audio hardware, with voices and special effects unlike anyone had heard before. The four-way player feature was further augmented by select classes at each of the four positions on the cabinet’s counter.
The Warrior was slow but powerful. The Valkyrie was swift, did decent damage, and was well armored — she’d was the ‘balanced’ character. The Elf was fast but didn’t do a lot of damage themselves. And the Wizard had the most powerful attacks when it came to using magic potions, but slow compared to the others and not quite as well armored. All of them “shot” their attacks (the Warrior throws an axe, the Valkyrie her sword, the Elf with arrows, and the Wizard with magic) but they could also “fight” enemies by running into them and doing damage that way which was a lot riskier. It was a classic party of adventurers and players quickly found favorites, trading strategies and gravitating over to see how far the next batch of players would fare in Gauntlet’s top-down world.
And it was a world filled with fierce monsters, ghosts, traps, puzzles, and even Death himself. Players couldn’t wander off too far on their own — the screen kept everyone in the same area — and some of the levels required everyone to try and work together to find the way to the exit. The game technically didn’t end — 100 levels were made for the game and after a point, they were flipped and reversed to keep the adventure going for as long as players could either keep feeding the machine quarters or survived thanks to magic potion boosted stats that enabled particularly crafty players to survive almost indefinitely (which was apparently fixed with a ROM update).
The impact it made would inspire the inevitable copycat or two such as 1987’s Demon Stalkers by Micro Forte and published by EA for the Commodore and MS-DOS machines. But culturally, the game made waves among players who would be citing lines spoken by Gauntlet’s hardware (which captured Ernie Fosselius’ voice) berating players for shooting the food decades later.
Gauntlet’s massive success would also port it to countless platforms from MS-DOS machines, Apple II PCs, the ZX Spectrum, Sega Master System, and the NES. The NES version, released in 1987 under the Tengen banner, is notably different from the others as it featured an actual storyline and an ending to its 100 level dungeon with a boss fight. Instead of points, treasures contributed to experience earned that could improve stats after certain milestones. There were also clue rooms that provided parts of the combination needed to access the 100th level. A password system allowed players to pick up where they left off though it could also prove cumbersome to use.
Interestingly, the NES release prompted the threat of a lawsuit from John Palevich since Ed Logg was credited for the original design of Gauntlet…and not Dandy from which it drew many of the basic elements from. Apparently it was settled with Palevich apparently receiving a Gauntlet cab as part of the settlement from Tengen. Logg’s name was removed from the credits in later releases as a result.
Gauntlet II came out in 1987 with a number of improvements (such as being able to pick the same class as another player only with a different color) and features the famous “theme” song that Gauntlet is often remembered for but didn’t have. The NES version of Gauntlet, however, does feature the clip along with a full soundtrack throughout the game which the arcade versions lacked.
A number of other sequels would come out later such as Gauntlet Legends in 1998 and Gauntlet Dark Legacy in 2000. It would find a home on consoles with a number of “revival” titles such as Gauntlet: Seven Sorrows which John Romero (Doom, Wolfenstein 3D) and Josh Sawyer (Icewind Dale, Pillars of Eternity) had initially worked on until they decided to leave Midway Games before the project was finished. And in 2014, a new Gauntlet was released first on Steam for Windows PCs and then later for the PS4. As long lasting as Gauntlet’s legacy is, however, none of the other games that followed bearing its name had quite the same impact since. Still, others will likely keep trying to recapture a bit of that magic.
Gauntlet’s success was not entirely unexpected but the lasting shadow of its impact on the gaming landscape probably surprised everyone and their children. It brought strangers together under the basic banner of having fun, it made arcade owners smile at the sound of all of those quarters and tokens hitting the coin boxes, and the lines spoken by the game have become permanent additions to the gaming lexicon. You can even try it out thanks to the Internet Archive’s arcade initiative.
Today, players from around the world co-op with strangers on a daily basis in a wide variety of games over the internet. But in those heady days in the 80s when you didn’t have access to a BBS or a mainframe, or your dungeon master might be under the weather and you needed to scratch that hack ‘n slash itch and didn’t have a PC, Gauntlet was only a walk or a drive away. And it will even remind you if you need food. Badly.