Gauntlet – An ’80s hack’n’slash fest

In the mid-’80s arcades were starting to struggle, the arcade video game craze was beginning to fade due to advances in home video game and computer technology, a struggle which would lead some manufacturers to go on to create more elaborate games, that the operators then would be able to charge more money for, while most players obviously would be resistant to the increase, Atari had a brilliant idea.
This idea was called Gauntlet and with its four-player support, you would earn four times as much with every play. It was a drop-in/drop-out design, if someone died they could immediately rejoin or someone new could join – There was no downtime – the money would keep flowing.
Another choice made specifically to increase the coin drop was to have no end to the game, Gauntlet would recycle levels by flipping them horizontally and vertically once the players had run through all of them.

Gauntlet was directly inspired by John Howard Palevich’s bachelor thesis from 1982 at MIT called Thesis of Terror.
After graduating from MIT, Palevich went to work for Atari in the Atari Research division. It was here while working at Atari, Palevich continued to develop his game, Thesis of Terror was cleaned up for release, the name changed to Dandy and was published in 1983 by the Atari Program Exchange, a division of Atari that distributed software for the Atari 8-bit family of home computers through a quarterly mail-order catalog. The Program Exchange allowed all programmers, amateurs and professionals alike, to submit their programs for commercial distribution – If selected, the program was added to the software catalog along with credits to the programmer. Several of these titles were moved to Atari’s official product line.
Dandy was a top-down maze-like dungeon action brawler featuring ranged combat with bow and arrows, numerous types of enemies, multiple levels, and blocked off sections which only could be unlocked with keys scattered throughout the levels. Dandy was one of the first games to offer 4-player gameplay simultaneously.

Gauntlet was originally called Dungeons, but since the name was already used elsewhere it was renamed to Gauntlet. The game was developed by video game design pioneer Ed Logg. He claimed inspiration from his son’s interest in the paper-based game Dungeons & Dragons and from his own interest in Dandy. The game’s development spanned from 1983 to 1985 and featured some of the most elaborate hardware design up to this date in Atari’s history, anyone who played the original arcade version might remember the narrator’s synthesized voice – it was the company’s first coin-operated game that features a voice synthesizer chip.
Another thing that stood out at the time was the sheer number of enemies on screen.

Gauntlet featured very powerful sprite hardware. According to the specs it could display up to 56 sprites per scanline. 

The enemies were fantasy-based monsters, including ghosts, grunts, demons, lobbers, sorcerers, and thieves – Each would enter the level through specific generators, which could be destroyed.

Atari ad for the 4-player Gauntlet arcade cabinet released in 1985.
Each player had his own joystick and two buttons, one for shooting and one for magic.

The game was critically acclaimed, earning multiple awards and even the Game of the Year title. Atari sold almost 8.000 cabinets.

A year after, in 1986 Gauntlet II was released in the arcades, the sequel added among other things new levels and a new class system.

Both Gauntlet and Gauntlet II were ported to a variety of home computers, published in the United States by Mindscape and Europe by U.S. Gold.

The original US MS-DOS release of Gauntlet and it’s sequel, released in 1988 and 1989.
Both games are true to the arcade versions but unlike the 4-player arcade version, these only support up to 2 players.

Gauntlet – The Deeper Dungeons from 1987 is an add-on for Gauntlet featuring over 500 new mazes. Developed by Gremlins Graphics.

Below a few items from my personal collection, the original C64 port with the add-on and the original MS-DOS release and its sequel.

2 thoughts on “Gauntlet – An ’80s hack’n’slash fest

  1. Great article. i never knew any of this about Gauntlet. All I knew was that it had that strange Tengen cart for the NES.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.