The Snake Becomes The Key

Retro Gaming Humour

Gauntlet: Dungeons, Demons, DEATH and Divorce

Words:Chris Keeley

Gauntlet didn’t just cement my love of games; it scrawled its name in the wet pug with a gleaming broadsword. Battered yet still legible, I can still make out that cracked old signature whenever I catch a glimpse of an elf, warrior, valkyrie or a top down multiplayer videogame. My brother, my next door neighbour and I spent most of the 80’s huddled round a crowded keyboard, casting spells and throwing axes in my dad’s freezing cold study. Homework, Funhouse and the fall of the Berlin Wall all passed unnoticed, drowned out by cries of “Don’t shoot my food” and desperate pleas for covering fire as you neared death and faced the indignity of being turned into a ghost.

The format of the game is simple; Gauntlet plays like a 2D version of a football riot – manic, adrenaline-fuelled mayhem. Instead of fists, bike chains and rabid Stoke fans we have axes, magic, and fire-spitting demons. DEATH, clad all in black, an unstoppable law unto himself, represents a force stronger than an army of riot police made up of Ultimate Fighting Champions. Labyrinthine dungeons and armies of darkness stand between your hero and the exit and you must battle your way through the hordes, collecting keys and power-ups in order to escape. In a way, Doom has a lot to thank Gauntlet for, the premise is the same but the presentation is very different. Like the original, birds-eye view Grand Theft Auto compared to the virtual tour of violence that is San Andreas.

Wogan watched Denmark’s Eurovision entry from the safety of the wall

Of course, there were similar dungeon based games around at the time but Gauntlet had two main features separating it from the herd. Firstly, a multi-player option so engaging that ‘Gauntlet widows’ began citing the game in divorce proceedings. Secondly, a terrifying variety of enemies each with individual traits. Researchers recently concluded that record y-front sales posted by underwear manufacturers at the time can be directly correlated to demon and DEATH related soilings.

Offering the chance for friends to become enemies and enemies to become friends, the multiplayer option allowed for up to four heroes to venture into the dungeons – shoulder to shoulder, squashed into a tiny area, two joysticks, two on the keyboard. Typically, an air of tension grew as you progressed. Your life force continually ticking down, each potion and portion of food becoming more and more important. Could Gauntlet be completed? To this day I’m still not sure and so the focus was on getting to the furthest level possible while amassing more points than your fellow adventurers.

The enemy/friend dynamic came into question depending on the way that you chose to play. You may have wished to unselfishly guard food for a sickly partner, maybe even provide a human shield or fight a path to it for them. Alternatively you could shoot it for a laugh, watch them die and then rob their dead bodies. Of course in the long run this sort of behaviour was never going to help you progress, but it was still undeniably enjoyable. Nowhere was this unchivalrous attitude more fun than in the treasure-room bonus levels, the aim of which was to run around a dungeon littered with treasure and power-ups and collect as much as possible in an allotted time. Pushing your unsuspecting partner into an exit and out of the room allowed you unfettered access to the goodies and also, most likely, a dead-arm. Totally worth it.

Standard sword and sorcery theory dictated the characters you could choose, the Arnie-esque Barbarian, the chick with the metal bra, the predictable old wizard and the sprite-ly young elf. Finding your player on screen was often the Amstrad equivalent of Where’s Wally, minus the stripy jumpered jerk. Grunts, lobbers, wizards, ghosts, demons and the occasional DEATH flooded the monitor, grunts intent on bashing you, lobbers – chucking stuff at you, wizards – using their powers to turn invisible and sneak up on you, ghosts – to provide an annoyance not unlike a swarm of wasps, demons – to look and act much like a Doom cacodemon and DEATH who instilled the fear of God into you and the kind of panic usually associated with getting your head stuck in something. If reading that last sentence was a struggle, imagine seeing that whole lot on screen, surrounding you, closing in on you and generally proving quite detrimental to successful dungeon navigation. Luckily, screen-clearing potions were at hand. At the touch of a button, a screen could be cleared with a satisfying flash in much the same way that a different kind of flash might clear a Girl Guides meeting.

The quarterback was up against it

To continue the cement-aphor started in the first paragraph, Gauntlet not only left it’s mark on me, it also laid some pretty strong foundations for many games to come. If there were a gaming equivalent of the Hollywood walk of fame, Gauntlet’s star would feature prominently. Around it, four sets of handprints all vying for space.


March 22, 2007 - Posted by | Chris Keeley, Hall of Fame


  1. So… you reviewed a good game? 😀

    Although I was never hooked on Gauntlet (perhaps because I never played it multiplayer), I recognise its significance. Moreover, the CPC version is really, really great… Now, if someone could hack it to allow online multi-player through an online emulator… 🙂

    Comment by Gryzor | March 22, 2007 | Reply

  2. A good game indeed. Hmmmn, playing online in multi-player mode…. now there’s an idea. True, the essence of slipping off the keyboard when nudged by your buddy, unplugging his joystick on a treasure room round, or just the smell of grease and acne – would all be missing but it would be fun 🙂

    Comment by Strutter | March 22, 2007 | Reply

  3. Blue Wizard…is about to die…dum dum dum dum

    Comment by Digitizer | June 10, 2007 | Reply

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