Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Gauntlet Series - A Maze That Eventually Had to End
Why we loved immersing ourselves in Rendar's vast world of labyrinths and never wanted to leave.

As I stressed months ago in my opening mission statement, I always regarded video games as functioning beings whose web of wonder extended well beyond the tangible images they were capable of projecting onto my small television screen or computer monitor; that is, as a kid growing up in the distraction-free 80s, there was a greater depth of substance to my relationship with a medium the enveloped several different parts of my life. To me, video games were about their imagination-overloading buildup periods and the excruciatingly long waiting times preceding their releases. They were about the stories behind our zealous and sometimes-desperate means of procuring them. And, most resonantly, they were about the relationships that were influenced by and continued blossoming around them. 

Shared favorites like The Legend of Zelda, Mega Man 2, Metroid and Rygar certainly played a strong hand in shaping our culture, but it was moreover the much-adored multiplayer games like Contra, Altered Beast, Golden Axe, Bad Dudes, and Double Dragon II: The Revenge that had the knack for bringing us together and etching in our young minds the cherished memories we'd so come to agonize over. Among their group stood the Gauntlet series, which managed to check many such boxes--each mark deeply bolded and its impression so forceful that the ink bled over several pages.

Gauntlet was another one of those influential arcade games that I had little interest in sampling at the time, which was too often the case with a young, bullheaded me. It was instead my more-adventurous brother who became a fan of Gauntlet and would often play it with his friends; when they weren't around, though, he'd attempt to coax me into dropping in a quarter and joining him for some maze-rushing action, but my focus was usually aimed elsewhere; I only obliged his offer once or twice, largely uninterested, and didn't even pay enough attention to grasp what was happening on the monitor's rather-crowded display.

I knew what I liked--what I was invariably drawn to--and it was currently the likes of action titles like Rolling Thunder, Rampage and Double Dragon. I'm not even sure that a top-down dungeon-crawler would have been on my radar had I already exhausted interest in all of the aforementioned. No--it was simply the wrong time in life, and meaningful interaction with Gauntlet would have to wait until certain transcendent titles were ready to come along and work to wedge open invadable crevices in my tightly sealed mind.

Considering my brother's affinity for the arcade game, I wasn't surprised when Gauntlet one day appeared in our collection after yet another of his game-buying binges, which during this period were netting large swaths of games. There was a reason behind his repeated jackpot-level harvests: You see--we grew up in Brooklyn, a city unlike any you've ever visited; it was a borough whose neighborhoods were so tightly knit that it was likely you went to school with a bunch of people who would never move away and always remain in proximity, raising their families alongside yours practically within range of the same four or five blocks where everyone grew up.

Mainly, my brother went through both grammar school and high school with a lot of friends who went on to run local businesses like comic book shops, game stores, and other dedicated retail outlets; a few others became clerks or managers of such establishments. Inevitably, big chains like Blockbuster Video and FuncoLand would move in and put them out of business. So anytime one of his friends was about to have a clearance sale, he or she would send advanced word to my brother and award him precedence (a few times to reciprocate for the financial assistance or advice they got from my father, who helped some of them get their businesses started); he'd walk into a store with a $20 bill and come out with somewhere between 20 and 30 games at a time. This was how the bulk of our NES collection formed.

This particular version of Gauntlet was one from a handful of those unlicensed Tengen games--a crop that included other newly owned titles like Road Runner and Vindicators--but I didn't suspect as much, nor was I equipped with enough knowledge to understand the full implication of the term "unlicensed." I actually found it kind of crazy how their cartridge-shapes differed from the norm (the rare deviation usually limited to shade of color, like the gold-painted Legend of Zelda game pak), which I hadn't seen since the 2600 days; compared to the latter, there was something about the standard NES cartridge design that seemed staunchly unalterable, as if changing it were akin to heresy. Yet these games stood to defy what I imagined Nintendo had deemed immutable.

I didn't know how to take it: I wanted to assume that their nonconforming shape signaled that they'd be bad games, but I didn't want to go all-in on that notion; so I treated them more as an "unknown quantity," and I was strangely interested in finding out what they had in store for me (though, I'll discuss those other titles at a later date).

I knew what Gauntlet was going to be about, but I couldn't guess as to how this strange black-cartridged version's content would be presented. It started out great, as I instantly loved its title-screen depiction with all of those demons and ghouls peeking out from behind the roughly hewn stone labyrinth walls that trailed only into the unwelcoming black voids seen yonder. It wasn't a common thing for a single static title-screen image to set that level of immersing atmosphere for me, but this rendering, alone, stood as an amazing hook that immediately granted me willing transport into the world of Gauntlet; if this was how its world looked from a first-person perspective, then it was a place I surely longed to visit.

But the title screen still wasn't done making its unforgettable first impression on me. The music it sent reverberating through my room was just as important: There were times when I'd play a new game and become engrossed by radically composed music that sounded nothing like any I've heard before it, and Gauntlet's title-screen theme was one of those that delivered me into a spellbindingly contemplative state; it was worth putting down the controller and just listening for a few minutes as I took in the image and my mind filled in the empty spaces. When I talk about music augmenting the accompanying visuals, this otherworldly title theme is a prime example of how music can give character to every object on screen, whether it's a ghost or a simple flipped-open treasure chest.

I didn't remember any of this from the arcade game, but my sense was that maybe I should have paid closer attention.

The NES version's general look and gameplay were converted well enough, but I played my first few minutes more entranced by its mesmerizing music, whose tone changed from urgent to worrying to deceptively upbeat but always felt cohesive in how it captured the spirit of a pack of adventurers being lost in unimaginably enormous series of labyrinths whose every branch and corner held potential danger. I thought the extended version of the title-screen theme, which acted as recurring stage theme, was incredible; the way it betrayed its expected elapsing by suddenly, explosively, bridging into a complex, highly energetic multi-stringed melody lifted the entire piece to the next level, giving me chills and from that moment grabbing me, guarenteeing my continued interest in this intriguingly presented version of the game. 

I was a bit lost in terms of its stage progression and the use of items, but I was excited at the thought of discovering the answers to my many questions: How much different was the rest of the game? How did the new map-based system function? Who was that evil wizard that kept taunting me and going on and on about "passwords"? It was an instance where not having a manual added to the mystery of it all.

However, I didn't make it too far into Gauntlet because it was considerably tough and kind of intimidating. My character's life was always running out too quickly, and it didn't seem as though the game was created with single-player action in mind. So I recruited my friends into the effort, and we had a pretty enjoyable experience until we reached the third world; that's where we learned all about the game's cruel nature: Map progression wasn't simply a matter of finding an exit and moving on to the next square. No--there came a point where you had to satisfy very specific conditions while additionally needing to find a proper, usually hidden exit if you hoped to advance, lest a set of four stages would loop forever and potentially drive you mad.

We gave up on Gauntlet right about this point and never looked back--as a group, at least. Still intrigued by its subject-matter and wanting to discover its secrets, I attempted a few singles runs in the following weeks and made it a bit farther but only with painstakingly effort. 

This game, man. Let me tell you about this game: People tend to throw around the word "impossible" to describe insanely tough 8-bit games, but Gauntlet might be one from a tiny minority of those that can legitimately lay claim to that monicker. There was no way I was ever going to be capable of finishing it, I decided, even if I could convince friends to continue playing alongside me.

And that was it; I never figured out what the red-cloaked demon wanted from me, and I never came close to reaching the final world. Some things just weren't worth it. I've only returned to Gauntlet recently in preparation for this blog entry, and having played it to completion, I can safely say that this game wouldn't have obtained license even if Tengen had gone through the proper channels (and I have no clue how it ever got an official release). I knew something must have gone horribly wrong when not even the Video Game Museum had images for its ending. We're talking about a game so evil that a few exits in its end-world stages are programmed to send you not back to the first world but to the game's title screen, where you even have to repeat the process of selecting the number of players and your hero of choice. I honestly thought I'd encountered a bug, but I read minutes after that this was entirely intentional. What kind of sadistic freaks were involved in the decision-making back then?

While things had unfortunately gone south, we weren't done with Gauntlet just yet. It just so happens that another of my brother's game-buying binges occurred right around the time we abandoned Gauntlet for good; this latest blitz produced a stack of titles that included Gauntlet II, whose cartridge surprisingly ditched the black-colored, slope-top look for the traditional gray, brick-like design. It seemed like a regression, as if the game had forfeited its mystique in favor of conformity (still unaware of that whole licensing debacle, I figured that Tengen must have caved when consumers "rejected its games in light of the game paks' unorthodox design").

My friend Dominick was over my house that day, and though we had many new games from which to chose, we spent most of our time with Gauntlet II. My first impression of it was mixed: I didn't feel that its rendition of Gauntlet's title-screen theme measured up to the original (and it didn't have and extended version!), nor was I thrilled with its complete lack of stage music, but I was very impressed with its better-than-usual voice samples; I didn't think that an NES game was capable of producing voice samples on that level and in that great a number, but Gauntlet II had many surprises for me. Mostly, Dominick and I got a kick out of the narrator's frequent announcements of character arrivals, changes in status, warnings of impending death, and how we indeed, for the thousandth time, "shot the food." 

Most of the narrator's famous declarations were mock-worthy: I always thought it was hilarious how exasperated he sounded whenever we'd accidentally shoot a potion ("Green elf just shot the potion!"), his announcement of the fact delivered as if he were personally offended by our idiocy. We always had fun trying to break the narrator's spirit (or in this case his programming) by rapidly trading "It" status and laughing at his efforts to keep up with the exchanges. We also enjoyed replicating the characters' wailing utterances even if weren't keen on hearing the in-game versions of them; the heroes in Gauntlet made limp little grunts and odd nourishing expressions that were rather amusing, but Gauntlet II's heroes annoyingly cried in pain ("OHRHRH!") as if they were belatedly understanding a joke's punchline while gargling battery acid.

I gravitated toward the Elf, like I always did, because I believed speed to be preferable to strength in a game where you were under a severe time constraint; also, I could relate to a speedy nutball who wanted to be in twenty places at one time (in fact, I'm doing the Ed Grimley dance to the Diddy Kong Racing character-select music while typing this. Please send help). Gauntlet II remedied the original's blunt finality by allowing infinite continues (assuming all players didn't die at the same time), which didn't necessarily serve to make the game "easy," since it was all about enduring an endless campaign and making it as far as you could. We never advanced farther than the early 50s, but that wasn't really important--we sapped a great amount of visceral entertainment out of every session and enjoyed the camaraderie that bloomed out of playing Gauntlet II together.

It's those little moments that still make me laugh whenever I recall our experiences with Gauntlet II: There was our hopeless use of transporters, which we believed we could manipulate even though they were probably sending us wherever the hell they wanted ("Will you get over here already?" one of us would bark, as if flaunting mastery over the transporting process). Freaking out at the sight of a pack of Deaths and trying to frantically escape, instead getting pinned against a wall and inadvertently pushing the other into the life-sucking grasp of a entire group of them. 

There was those times one of us would accidentally shoot the food in which the other was desperately in need and actively dashing toward ("Woops!" the food assassin would say, which was no consolation to his compadre--the slightly pissed and soon-dead adventurer) and then compulsively steal the keys from the corpse. And I can't forget to mention our first encounter with a dragon, which we excitedly accosted and slayed en route to earning the narrator's oft-mimicked praise "I've not seen such bravery!" You know--right before we shot the reward and walked into the residual flames, earning, also, a decisive Game Over.

That was Gauntlet II to us: A game where things always seemed to take the turn for the disastrous even when we were intending to work together, and yet we still found great amusement in the hectic, counterproductive nature of its cooperative play. Like the previously chronicled Double Dragon II: The Revenge, we regarded Gauntlet II as another highly realized sequel that was worthy of constant revisits. It became the answer to our fits of boredom. Got an hour to kill before heading to the theater to see the latest Schwarzenegger flick? Gauntlet II. Too rainy to head to down to Dyker Park today? Gauntlet II. It's another of those long summer nights where the TV schedule is vacant and there's nothing else to hold our attention? Well, let's drain away the hours scurrying about Gauntlet II's perplexing, deviously designed mazes until we come to the point where our sense are too dulled to continue on.

Then we'd try again the next day, not daunted by our suspicion that we'd probably never advance farther than we did in any of our previous ventures. That was the measure of its value to us. Gauntlet II remained one of our favorites for the following half-decade, right up until the point when it was time for everyone to go their separate ways. If only it could have lasted a bit longer.

About a year after Gauntlet II arrived in my home, I finally saw the actual coin-op machine in one of the local arcades; I was surprised to learn that the NES version was largely faithful to this, its source material, which wasn't the case with its aggressively dissident predecessor. I didn't put much time into it beyond an abbreviated sampling, but I'd gotten enough of the genuine Gauntlet arcade experience to deeply regret my error in never standing beside my brother in the liveliest of environments and enthusiastically helping him to fight through swarms of foes in pursuit of treasure and eventual escape--this back during that small window of time when we actually visited arcades together. I'd missed the opportunity, I'd realized, and never again would there be another like it.

Even when played in short bursts, the Gauntlet titles encapsulated those feelings of excitement and joy that only the most lovingly crafted multiplayer games could exhibit. They were games you didn't have to beat, or come close to which, to have a ton of fun, and the great number of our frantically paced, narrator-mocking attempts proved as much. 

Appropriately, and quite memorably, the Gauntlet titles ran us through a gamut of emotions: Becoming increasingly annoyed at the other's propensity for wanting to scroll the screen in different direction, which often resulted in one of us becoming trapped in a corner while the hordes of enemies pounded away. Desperation as we tried pushing past the other to reach an exit when the near-invulnerable Death was hot on our trail ("Ahhhhhhhh--GO! JUST GO!"). Feelings of anxiety as our health-totals slowly ticked down and we'd seemingly exhausted every option for finding the elusive exit. Getting pissed at each other, as mentioned, for accidentally shooting the food when one or both of us were low on health. And happiness any time we'd put together a good run and advance father into the game than we felt we were meant to.

To slot the series now would be to place Gauntlet and Gauntlet II on the long list of games that I haven't played much of since those early years. Any attempt to get back into them is immediately dampened by the clear absence of a necessary party; that is, playing alone feels so very sedated and emotionally vacant, like going on a separate honeymoon and having access to only GameSpot podcasts. I can only last for a few stages before my thoughts confirm that the old magic has since faded. Though, I still find it worth my time to load up the original Gauntlet if only to take in the vibe from that unforgettable title screen, whose evocative, imagination-stirring depiction and amazing musical theme will always be the best accompaniment to my reminiscing about the fun times we had.

If the Gauntlet titles are functioning organisms, then its in their natural programming to communicate to me why things can never be as they were and why I'll never have friends like those from my formative years. Still, it's also in their nature to remind me of the best parts of my childhood and why it's all worth remembering. Their legacy will continue on, if not on my TV or computer monitor then in my heart.

That's what video games mean to me.

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