The first thing I noticed about Gauntlet – the new Gauntlet, which is simply called "Gauntlet" as is the standard practice for obligatory reboots of aging or forgotten franchises – is that the Valkyrie is amazing.
I ended up jumping into a four-player match of the Game Developers Conference demo at the last second, and of course all the other (male) players had picked every character except the token female. Since I generally prefer using female characters, that suited me just fine. On the other hand, I wasn't looking forward to being saddled with a cheesy, cheesecake bikini warrior; Thyra the Valkyrie was great in the old-school Gauntlet, but now that I'm a grown man, the idea of controlling a woman plowing through hordes of monsters at fisticuffs range wearing nothing but Red Sonja-style battle lingerie makes me cringe with embarrassment for our favorite medium's juvenile tendencies.
So, it came as a pleasant surprise when the new Gauntlet Valkyrie turned out to be the most heavily armored character in the game. Dressed head-to-foot in plate armor and chain mail, she looks every bit the part that you'd expect a grim emissary of Odin to be. And her look complements her play style: She's every bit as powerful a melee fighter as her male counterpart, the Warrior (who forgot to take a cue from her new sartorial habits and came to the fight wearing nothing but a fur loincloth), but where his special attack consists of a Zangief-style spinning strike that clears his immediate vicinity, hers is a Captain America-inspired shield toss that caroms around the screen.
As such, the Valkyrie proves to be the best all-around fighter in the game. Unlike the fragile Wizard, she has great endurance. Unlike the Elf, whose archery mechanics are complex and demand advanced mastery, she's a no-nonsense brawler. Yet unlike her brother-in-arms the Warrior, she balances her close-quarters skills with ranged abilities and excellent crowd-management.
"The whole point of the game is to create characters that feel badass," says art director Robert Tatnell. "They have to be really, truly awesome characters. I love the Valkyrie. I think she's awesome. She's a badass character. She's someone you wouldn't mess with. That's what we wanted to do, build her into a tough character."
Granted, abusing the term "badass" isn't much better than asking some poor young lady to run around fighting evil in her underthings, but I respect the fact that the new Gauntlet's team seems to value consistency between aims and aesthetics. The whole game calls back to Atari's original 1986 arcade game, foregoing the in-close RPG style of the latter-day Gauntlet sequels in favor of something reminiscent of the classic... or, perhaps more to the point, of Diablo.
"[The camera angle] was something we iterated on a lot," says Tatnell. "We did look at having the camera more at a different angle, at different heights, things like that. It really came down to what felt right and what felt good to play.
"When you've got so much chaos going on, you have so many people running around killing stuff, as soon as the camera starts getting closer, it's easy to lose track of where you are and what's going on. You get a better overview. You can see something like, hey, over there is a hidden room. I wonder how we get over there? You lose that when the camera gets too close."
The high point of view enables a game experience reminiscent of its inspiration. Enemy generators pop up, spewing monsters until destroyed. You can shoot precious food. Locked doors – more like walls, really – come down when unshackled with the keys located at strategic points around the level, and as you draw near the doors you can see throngs of monsters crowding up against them, eager to rush you the second they're able. Unlike the old arcade games, though, Gauntlet employs a very modest puzzle/key element: We had to grab a couple of orbs located throughout the demo stage (approximately the fifth level of the game, I was told) and carry them to pedestals, thereby unlocking the path to the boss.
A more significant difference from the olden days: Gauntlet has no health drain. Rather than racing against attrition and buying in with a quarter drop, the new Gauntlet simply gives you a more limited amount of health and lets you continue by paying gold you find in-game. I actually found it somewhat surprising that in this era of free-to-play games and microtransactions, the franchise that perhaps offers the most classic example of the pay-to-play model hasn't gone that route. Gauntlet will be a paid downloadable title (currently slated for Windows and SteamOS), and the game's design reflects it monetization model.
Which isn't to say that, despite being fairly easy in this demo, the game won't eventually be stacked against the player. "But that's such a big part of the original game," says Tatnell, "to have that absolutely crazy, unfair kind of situation where you just have too much going on. Everything is coming at you. The food just got destroyed by another player, so you can't regen your health. That's one of the key points of the old game, and it's something we're definitely working on.
"The game sort of expands and changes based on how many players are in and things like that. The amount of enemies will reflect exactly how many people are playing. We do ramp stuff up when you get more people in. But that's a big part of the development of the game, making sure that you get that nice balance between everything. Making sure that it feels challenging enough for one person, but it needs to feel even more challenging and overwhelming with more people."
Along with the new look for the Valkyrie, neo-Gauntlet uses a much darker and less vibrant palette than the candy-colored Gauntlet of yore. To compensate, the designers have embellished the visuals with vital identifier elements – for instance, collectibles shine and sparkle, and players characters are surrounded by glowing rings in different colors to help you keep an eye on them in a crowd. And while the monsters don't come as thick and fast as in in the coin-op, they compensate by posing more of a challenge. Mixed in amongst the mindless hordes are plenty of tougher foes that wield devastating weapons and employ ranged attacks. Still, Tatnell says, the team tried to put itself into a retro mindset for more than just the play mechanics.
"Because the game is drawn very heavily from the 1985 arcade game – it's a top-down game, you go through and destroy everything – we wanted to work with that and take the characters and the dungeon into what you were imagining that was when you were playing it," he says. "It's very much based on the era of gaming and the fantasy style of things back then. We wanted to keep things grounded, down-to-earth, as well as a little fantastical. We're not taking things too high fantasy. Just having that really heavy weight of visceral, but not too crazy on the enemies, things like that.
"We were heavily inspired by Frank Frazetta and the awesome artwork he's always done. We also drew quite a bit of inspiration from dioramas and stuff like that. There's a lot of nice work that goes into building these scenes. Everything's kind of chunky. There's a great weight to it. Everything fits together and feels nice. We've drawn various elements together, but it's always been about taking that old-school fantasy feeling from when the game was initially made, Gauntlet and Gauntlet II, and taking that into 3D and modernizing it a little bit."
From the 15 minutes I've played – the GDC demo ended with a cutscene introducing a massive mummy-like boss – Gauntlet definitely recaptures the feel of the classic while seemingly sidestepping the more irritating tics and design tendencies of the original.
"We've made a point of looking most at the oldest games and going from there. Honestly, we haven't looked that much at taking stuff from the era in the middle. We felt that, for us as Arrowhead, that's what Gauntlet is about. That's the thing -- the huge rooms with lots of enemies, the top down side of things. That's what we really wanted to do, was to go back to the original and work from there as a base.
On the other hand, that authenticity could work against it in the long run – Gauntlet wasn't exactly the deepest of games, and everyone I know who actually finished the game did so primarily out of a bullheaded stubbornness to see the end, quarters be damned. It's the kind of game that gave you a rush in the arcade as you raced to reach the final stage before running out of change, and which tends to be kind of pointless in MAME or on compilations where infinite continues reduce the tension to nil. The Gauntlet games of the '90s and '00s may not have been classics, but they did demonstrate a conscious effort to reflect the needs and expectations of a post-coin-drop world. Hopefully the new team has managed to infuse some of that depth into their work, and the game's reimagining proves to be as brilliant as that of its mighty Valkyrie.