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Gauntlet (Atari 2600) artwork

Gauntlet (Atari 2600) review

"No, it's not that game..."

Gauntlet (Atari 2600) image

Oh, you whippersnappers and your cozy game distribution methods and digital marketplaces... All you need to secure a video game these days is the internet, a somewhat functional computer and your mom's credit card number. I remember the days when you had to save up your allowance, run over to the local supermarket, purchase a money order, stealthily tear a mail order page out of a magazine you didn't want to buy, and finally send your hard earned moolah to some seedy outfit like Wizard Games. You'd get a cartridge in a mail ages later, sometimes sans a proper label. Instead, an employee scribbled the game's title in black Sharpie, complete with misspellings. "Holoween? Is this the right game?"

I wish I could dig up more info on these companies, but details are scarce. One of them was Answer Software, who offered Atari 2600 titles exclusively via mail order. You cut them a helping of your paycheck or chore earnings and they ship you a foam package with a shiny new cart inside, less an instruction manual. I guess they had to make cuts somehow...

Gauntlet (Atari 2600) image

One of the games they offered was an action title called Gauntlet. No, it's not that Gauntlet. Nix all of the noise about monsters, nests, mazes, keys, pulling your hair out, wondering what kind of sadist would play this game all the way through... 2600's Gauntlet predates that classic by about two years. It stars an athletic fool out to prove his manliness by charging recklessly through a straight gauntlet full of traps and obstacles. It's just about the opposite of the more well known adventure of the same name.

Forget about labyrinths. Gauntlet is a vertical scrolling specimen featuring a procedurally generated layout. Starting a new game loads a scattered collection of trees, fallen logs, stones, flying arrows, tomahawks and various other bits of debris for you to avoid. Your objective is to run upward and avoid anything that looks dangerous whilst leaping over logs and rocks for points. The farther you advance, the faster arrows and the like fly across the screen, making scoring increasingly more difficult.

When you collide with an obstruction, a short version of Chopin's funeral march plays and you lose a few hit points. Wait, what? A life bar? In an Atari 2600 game? Yes. If I must praise Answer for one thing, it's including a concept like this ahead of its time. It's as if they realized they weren't producing a coin-op, and thus decided to infuse Gauntlet with a little fairness.

Operant word: "little."

Thanks to Gauntlet's procedural generation, the game often throws cheap setups at you. You can't very well hop over as many logs as possible when they're positioned next to trees. The worst is when you glimpse a field of rocks and think to yourself, "Now that's a thing of beauty." Of course, the instant you leap over one row of them, you land on the adjacent row and watch your health bar diminish. These examples aren't always isolated incidents, either. I've had whole sessions where numerous logs and stones sat next to obstacles. My score, as a result, suffered greatly. I appreciate the game's use of arbitrary object placement, because it forces you to rely on your reflexes rather than your memory. However, rotten luck shouldn't hamper your ability to score this much in a score-attack piece.

Gauntlet (Atari 2600) imageGauntlet (Atari 2600) image

It also doesn't help that stiff control response plagues the experience. Gauntlet requires constant side-to-side motion, though your character doesn't pull it off with due ease. You constantly have to slow the game down or come to a complete stop to survive deadlier segments, robbing the game of its pacing. It's especially irritating when you have to jump diagonally. Our hero doesn't cover as much distance with a diagonal hop, making it difficult to gauge if he can clear the target.

There's no incentive to running at break-neck speed, either. You can plod along and actually survive more effectively, but what's the fun in that? Who wants to play a moderately paced, arcade-style actioner? Of course, you can't mosey about too slowly or hold still for too long, as the game imposes a health penalty for cowardice. Still, speed-based games should give you a reason to crank up the velocity, and even sweeten the reward as you sprint more quickly. This is easily Gauntlet's most disappointing missed opportunity.

I will admit that Gauntlet was somewhat enjoyable for a few minutes. I tried like mad to see if I could break my old score, but got tired of the constant death due to wonky jumping physics and stiff controls. It's far from the worst game Atari 2600 has to offer, but its collection of minor flaws render it a poor way to spend five minutes. It's not hard to see why this title remained in obscurity--and no, I don't entirely blame the arcade game's title appropriation for that.


JoeTheDestroyer's avatar
Community review by JoeTheDestroyer (February 20, 2017)

Rumor has it that Joe is not actually a man, but a machine that likes video games, horror movies, and long walks on the beach. His/Its first contribution to HonestGamers was a review of Breath of Fire III.

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Fiddlesticks posted February 20, 2017:

Sweet review, dude. "Holoween," haha.
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JoeTheDestroyer posted February 20, 2017:

Thank you!

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