Publishers and developers know that breadth of content can distract players from a game’s failure to address human experience or its inability, in terms of sheer pleasure, to stand alongside classics such as Space Invaders. All the downloadable content, customizable characters, and other tacked-on features in the world shouldn’t be confused with context. Some will criticize Gauntlet for being lean, for lacking the “bang for your buck” padding that companies have conditioned us to expect. Yes, it may be a minor achievement, but its philosophy of concept over content shouldn’t be taken for granted. Old-schoolers may also wonder if this new incarnation of the game reflects their memories. Well, Arrowhead Game Studios has the wit to acknowledge the shift toward obvious in-game hints with the loading screen message “Did you know tips are shown during the loading screen?” (Another message recalls a different kind of advice that appeared in some older games: “Tip: Don’t drink and drive.”) Lost in isomorphic game design, sarcasm, or nostalgia, most action games don’t demonstrate a keen understanding of history like Gauntlet.
If nothing else, the game is faithful to the tradition of focused design. The reason Gauntlet doesn’t have as much equipment and loot as the X-Men Legends wannabe Diablo III is simple: It emphasizes the satisfaction of properly timed action, not random stat boosts and cosmetics. Whereas Diablo III is a name-brand game with name-brand items, Gauntlet shows sophistication in building on the strengths and weaknesses of the rules and action of the original. In 1985, the protagonists were little shooters, but this remake gives the original four—Warrior, Valkyrie, Elf, and Wizard—more individualized styles of play. With the melee attacks of the Warrior and Valkyrie (the latter also has a Captain America projectile shield), Gauntlet demands constant reconsideration of fight or flight, while accessing the appropriate spell from the Wizard via different successive button presses becomes a memory game within the battle. The Elf is a ranged attacker like the Wizard, though more straightforward, with no memorization of spells required. These small but significant distinctions resist skill-tree and item-drop trends.
Admittedly, Gauntlet’s challenges are almost stupid in their predictability. The levels have a three-part pattern: a classic fight through a maze, a run plagued by a special hindrance (Death, darkness, or hellfire), and an arena battle. Getting lost isn’t an issue. The game feels like walking a trail, albeit a deadly one where the sources of enemies, not just the enemies themselves, must be vanquished. Besides your character’s easily depleted life bar, the most important thing to consider is gold, which allows you to buy relics, and potions, which allow you to use one of your relics. Relics have temporary effects such as making your character move so quickly that he or she leaves a trail of fire that can stymy enemies. Again, concept over content shines: You have to learn how to use your character’s moves and relic powers intelligently and efficiently, as the more enemies you kill, the more a bar fills up and grants you an extra opportunity to revive yourself after death. The game also gives you bonuses after you do certain things, such as destroying food rather than eating it for health, hundreds or thousands of times.
The Valkyrie’s concluding line, “If I could, I would drag you back from the dead and kill you again, but I have more important things to do,” roars with hilarity and truth. You can fight through Gauntlet as many times as you want, but killing everything once is probably enough. A pandering content smorgasbord would never admit that.
Gauntlet is now available on Steam from Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment.