Since it was developed by Atari Games and inspired by D&D, I think of Gauntlet as being very un-Japanese — except that I can imagine it being imported into 80s Tokyo culture and gobbled up along with Nike Airs, Indy Jones, and Disneyland.
A lot of Japanese videogames seemed to absorb Hollywood in the 80s. It wasn’t all extra-terrestrials and jean jackets: one of the hugest movie stars was a crime-ridden, gang-ruled, graffiti-strewn exaggeration of New York. As dystopian as such portrayals might have looked to New Yorkers, it must have been both even more horrific and even less real to Tokyoites in their shiny metropolis on the other side of the world. That particular mean-streets trope could be safely digested and recreated in the backgrounds of Double Dragon, Street Fighter, Final Fight, and the like.
And that’s how this all somehow sits together in my head. We have a dirty, lawless, back-streets slum, rebuilt from fibre glass in intricate but only superficial Disneyland-detail, and housed in a modern, air-conditioned, earthquake-proof tower in a relatively spacious Tokyo district. In a corner on the fifth floor is a collection of retro games, and among them this 1985 Gauntlet cab, looking worn, with the front compartment hanging open as if it’s been jimmied for coins.
Gauntlet was apparently first imported and sold by SNK. The button plate on this one has Japanese labels, but there’s nothing else I can see that’s been localised except for the coin slots. Thankfully, the valkyrie’s name, Thyra, is not transliterated, as it is on Japanese Wikipedia, to read “Sheila”.
What happened to co-op?
I’ve never been a huge fan of elves-and-warriors, Tolkien-like fantasy, and so I find it odd and a little irritating that one seemingly rich area of game mechanics appears to have become most firmly associated with that setting. It’s Gauntlet’s evergreen claim to fame: asymmetric multiplayer co-op. It’s seems fundamental — varied character classes are the backbone of a roleplaying party — but you don’t get any depth in that area, still now, outside of fantasy MMOs.
It feels fantastic when things align just right for your skill set and, seeing your chance, you step up and save the party. That thrill seems to be relatively untapped in videogame design, which may be why Gauntlet still appeals today. Certainly, it has some issues with difficulty curves, and it’s as inscrutable as games tended to be back then, but it thrives on encouraging cooperation, treating your team as a single unit, and sharing resources when they’re needed — and, of course, on the freedom to hog all the chicken and laugh at your feeble companions.
Next week, something weirder. Do you like watching cartoons? Do you like punching things? If neither of those, do you like the bizarre and whimsical combination of watching cartoons and punching things? You’ll love this.
(See all postcards from the game centre here.)