Gauntlet: A History of the Classic Dungeon Crawler

Gauntlet is one of the most influential franchises in dungeon crawling history. Here's a look back at the games that started it all!

Arrowhead Games’ Gauntlet remake arrives today, just shy of three decades after the release of the 1985 arcade classic. We didn’t know it at the time, but the franchise’s early years can be given a lot of credit for the success of today’s many popular action RPGs. Gauntlet, first in the arcade, and then at home on the Nintendo Entertainment System, was one of the first multi-player dungeon crawlers, or at least the first to see widespread success.

It will be interesting to see how the game fares in 2014, returning amidst a landscape in which its genre is dominated by titles like Diablo and Torchlight. This year’s Gauntlet will probably pull in some sales for nostalgia’s sake, but will it be good enough to return the franchise to its former glory? To do so, Arrowhead’s Gauntlet will most likely have to grab the attention of plenty of gamers who have no memory of 1985.

To that end, we here at Den of Geek thought it would be fun to take a look at Gauntlet‘s impressive history. So queue up some Blondie and Duran Duran on your Walkman and head out with us to the arcade at the local mall. Pro tip: You’re going to need to a lot of quarters.

A Controversial Beginning

Gauntlet is often credited as the father of the modern dungeon crawler, but the game itself was the subject of a controversy regarding its own influences.

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Atari originally credited arcade designer Ed Logg with the title, both for the 1985 arcade game and the later release on the Nintendo Entertainment System. Logg is well-known for other popular titles from the era like Super Breakout, Asteroids, and Centipede. Having his name on the game was likely a factor in its early success.

But Atari was threatened with a lawsuit in the late 1980s, after the arcade game was ported to the NES, from developer John Palevich. Palevich created a game called Dandy in 1983, for the Atari 8-bit computer, two years before Gauntlet‘s release. Dandy was also a multiplayer game that featured top-down 2D mazes. No lawsuit was ever filed but later releases of Gauntlet on the NES after 1987 removed Logg’s credit from the game. Logg himself has claimed no credit for the NES version and even said in a speech at GDC in 2012 that Dandy did serve as inspiration for the original arcade version of Gauntlet.

Regardless of its origins, it was Gauntlet, not Dandy, that would change the way people played arcade games.

Multiplayer Madness

The original arcade version of Gauntlet had many of the trappings that we know and love from action RPGs today, but were seen as new and interesting at the time of the game’s release.

The game followed typical fantasy archetypes. Players were able to play as either the Warrior, Wizard, Valkyrie, or Elf. Atari attempted to balance each class against each other — one of the first examples of strength and weakness stats in the genre.

Gameplay featured a top down camera. To complete a level, players had to find a hidden exit by uncovering the map, one area at a time. If you’ve ever died in Diablo 3 while frantically trying to locate the door to the next level, all while kiting a small army of demons behind you, you can thank Atari and Gauntlet for your repair bill.

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But what was really unique about Gauntlet for the time was the set up of its arcade cabinet. To accommodate four players, the cabinet’s panel was wider than the typical arcade cabinet back then. Each player was given their own joystick and two buttons, one to shoot enemies and one to cast magic.

The original game was arguably tougher than the game releasing this year. Players’s lives were slowly drained even if they weren’t being attacked. That is, of course, where Gauntlet‘s infamous food items came in. You either needed a constant influx of food or a huge roll of quarters to keep yourself progressing. If that wasn’t bad enough, the food could be destroyed by one of your teammates if it was shot with their weapon. And so every game was a crazy mix of players having to work together to kill monsters, while at the same time stabbing each other in the back by shooting food, just because they could. How’s that for PvP?

One interesting fact about the original game is that each of the game’s four classes was locked in to a certain set of controls. The player on the leftmost controls would always be the warrior, the next player over was always the valkyrie, and so on. So while Gauntlet is known for players intentionally harming each other by sniping food, there was also often a battle before any quarters were inserted over who got to play as which character.

The chaos of Gauntlet‘s multiplayer caught on quickly. A lightbulb also went off at many gaming companies once they realized they could get four players to dump quarters into a cabinet all at once. The unique, wider cabinets with multiple joysticks would soon become an industry standard for many other games. In fact, when the original Gauntlet ended its run, many arcades simply reused the same cabinet, rebranded for a different title.

Warrior Needs Food, Badly!

Internet memes were obviously not a thing in the 1980s, but if they were, there is one phrase that would have no doubt taken over forums everywhere. Call it the “but then I took an arrow to the knee” of 1985.

As players progressed through the action, they would hear a narrator calling out instructions or warnings to them. The most popular shout out occurred every time a player hit low health, which, with the constantly depleting health bars, could be quite often. “Warrior needs food badly!” would be heard and this would of course be the perfect time for one of that player’s jerk teammates to take out any nearby food, likely causing the player to die. A second favorite voice prompt was often “Remember, don’t shoot food!” Yeah, because telling gamers they shouldn’t do something is going to go well.

The best part of all of this is that the original narrator’s voice was produced by a Texas Instruments speech chip. Yes, the same chips that were in that Speak & Spell you had as a kid could also tell you that “Your life force is running out!”

Additional Influences on Modern Day

While the original arcade cabinet could be tuned to a difficulty level that would eat up quite a few quarters, it was also possible for a highly skilled single player to make it through the game on just a coin. Basically, you just had to be good at picking your battles while always keeping an eye on your next piece of food for the health boost. If you’ve ever played Diablo 3 on hardcore or any other game that challenges you to make it all the way through with just one life, you likely owe at least some gratitude to the original masters of Gauntlet. Some players were in fact so good at the game that Atari later updated the cabinets to remove some of the food items so they could make more money.

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In 1987, Gauntlet was ported to the NES, but in some ways it was a brand new game. It featured 100 new levels and added a storyline featuring a quest for the Sacred Orb. This orb could only be obtained on level 100 by collecting a password which was split up across multiple rooms in the dungeons. Anyone who’s ever scrounged through multiple locations for rare items in order to create something like the Staff of Herding in Diablo can probably relate.

The NES version of the original Gauntlet would go on to become one of the most popular versions of the game, even with sequels hitting the arcade. Being able to troll your best friend on the couch was even more fun than doing it to a stranger in the arcade.

When Gauntlet II released in 1986, it finally allowed players to be any class they wanted from any place on the arcade cabinet, and players were differentiated by color. The game was also widely ported to consoles and was one of the first times anyone could game in their living room with up to 4 players.

Gauntlet II had one additional unique quirk that was just as loved and hated as “shooting food.” In Gauntlet II, it was possible for a player to become “It.” This would cause all enemies to attack that character and the only way to get rid of the debuff was to tag another player or find the exit. This caused some players to intentionally try to kill their friends in a frantic game of It Tag.

Fair warning: In the upcoming Gauntlet remake, it is possible to use friendly fire with which you can accidentally or intentionally cause damage to your friends with certain spells gained from items called Relics. So that’s going to be fun. Or not.

Later Years

1991 saw the release of Gauntlet III: The Final Quest. This was the first Gauntlet to feature an isometric view as opposed to just top down. It also featured several new characters, such as Petras, a rock man, Blizzard, an ice man, Neptune, a merman, and Dracolis, a lizard man.

Gauntlet Legends released in 1998 for arcade, N64, PlayStation, and SEGA Dreamcast, and it was the last Gauntlet game made by Atari. Legends is considered to be the true sequel to the arcade versions of Gauntlet I and II since Gauntlet III: The Final Quest was released direct to computers and 8-bit consoles.

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In Legends, players could level up their characters, which was a departure from past games. You could argue that Legends was influenced in some ways by the original Diablo, which had released two years prior. 

Also of note is Legends‘ use of 3D polygonal characters, which were a staple of the 64-bit age of consoles. 

Things kind of get depressing after that. Gauntlet Dark Legacy released to arcades in 2000 and Gauntlet: Seven Sorrows released direct to consoles in 2005. While not developed by Atari, instead made by Midway Games, both games were supposedly a continuation of the storyline from Legends. Neither game was particularly well received.

Gauntlet 2014

And so we arrive in 2014, which takes us back to 1985 all over again. Arrowhead Games has stated that its Gauntlet is built to capture the spirit of the original arcade game but that it is of course updated with more modern sensibilities. There are obviously far more than just two buttons to push for each class, and while the heart and soul of the Warrior, Valkyrie, Wizard, and Elf remain the same, some of their class mechanics have changed. For example, the warrior is now a melee class more akin to a Barbarian from Diablo 3, complete with a whirlwind attack and other upgrades.

Your health bar will no longer automatically deplete, but don’t worry adventurers, there is still plenty of food to be had and it is still very easy to destroy. You just might have to swipe at it with your axe instead of shooting at it from across the map. You’ll also be able to fight for the gold scattered across every level, which is used as a currency for multiple things in game, perhaps most importantly, buying yourself another life when you fall. This is Arrowhead’s way of paying homage to the art of pumping quarters into the arcade cabinet. Finally, former hardcore players will be happy to know that the game will not allow you brute force your way through it by leveling up. Your success at this version of Gauntlet will depend solely on your personal level of skill and the level of cooperation you get from your fellow players. So play nice, kids.

We hope you enjoyed this look back at one of the most influential arcade games of all-time. Stay tuned for our official review of the series’ newest outing later this week!

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What are your favorite Gauntlet moments? Tell us in the comments!

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