Released in 1990, Gauntlet II is the sequel to, well, Gauntlet. I had it for the NES, and at the time I had no idea that Gauntlet was in any way famous. None of my friends had ever heard of it, possibly because I was too young to be hanging out in arcades. So, we played Gauntlet II amongst ourselves and thought that we were the only people who knew it existed. Then the internet showed up and shattered that illusion (along with many others). There are some things I love about Gauntlet II. One of them is the title screen:
Magnificent, isn't it? That is probably the single most generic collection of characters in any medium ever. Not one iota of effort has been expended on changing them from their stereotypes, and the negation of ambition required to not put the slightest personal mark on them probably destroyed the designer's very souls. My favourite thing about this title screen, however, is that demon. He doesn't look menacing, hell-spawned, terrifying or even all that interested. He simply looks slightly confused, wondering who the hell this bunch of Tolkein rejects are and pondering how quickly he can dispatch them and get back to whatever it is demons do in their spare time. Infernal cross-stitch, I assume.
As if that title screen wasn't enough of a treat for you, you also get to hear the classic Gauntlet theme tune. No, I'm not being sarcastic, I really do like it. Here is a video of someone playing it on the piano and doing a grand (pun not intended) job:
No title screen can last forever, though, and now it's time to play the game. Gauntlet II is a top-down, uh, shooter, I guess, in a similar vein to Smash T.V. and Robotron, except not as good and without the ability to fire in a different direction to the way you're travelling. You choose to play as one of the cliches pictured on the title screen: Warrior, Valkyrie, Wizard or Elf. They're all slighty different: The Elf has the quickest movement, the Wizard has the best magic, the Valkyrie is a good all-rounder and the Warrior shouts "Bum!" when he gets hit with a fireball. You should play as the Warrior, natch. Your chosen character is then dropped into a maze full of keys, monster generators, Grim Reapers and food, and you have to kill everything and get to the next stage, then kill everything and get to the next stage, then kill everything and get to the next stage about 1,000 times. Okay, maybe not 1,000 times, but a lot.
So, other than the title screen, what do I like about Gauntlet II? Well, there's two main things. The first is the game's apparent desire to cause any and every two-player game to turn into an actual physical brawl. A combination of little things all add up to make stealing the food items in Streets of Rage seem like nothing in comparison. Normally, players cannot hurt eachother, and because of this, you will get along fine in the beginning. Soon, you'll enter a level, and it will proclaim "PLAYER SHOTS HURT EACH OTHER". It is not kidding. So, you end up shooting each other. Tempers begin to fray. A few levels later, you encounter "PLAYER SHOTS WILL STUN EACH OTHER". Having just spent the last level shooting each other, you're low on health, so you dash for a nearby piece of food. Just as you're about to reach it, your "teammate" shoots you in the back, freezing you on the spot so that they can dash ahead of you and steal the food. You grit your teeth and squeeze the pad harder, just to keep your hands busy so you don't throttle your friend. Then comes a level where a small amoeba-like monster appears, and any player that touches the amoeba becomes "It". When you are "It", all the monster on the stage attack you and only you, hunting you down relentlessly and feasting on the very marrow of your bones (probably). The only way to stop being "It" is to touch another human player, thus making them "It". The Elf, being the quickest, has a clear advantage here, so you should instantly distrust anyone who picks the Elf. Combine these things with other minor irritations such as the Warrior being too slow to keep up and people "accidentaly" destroying the magic item you were dashing towards, and it's a wonder this game didn't trigger some kind of nuclear apocalypse. In two player mode, the game only ends if you both die at exactly the same time, so a lot of the time the game finishes when you both begin to loathe each other so much that you cannot bear to be in the same room for a second longer. That kind of commitment to inciting murderous rage is something I can wholeheartedly support in a videogame.
The other thing I love about this game is the sound. Not the music because, well, there isn't any apart from at the title. No, what this game has, and is most famous for, is digitised speech. A lot of things can trigger it, from staring the game to almost being dead. Indeed, the game is probably most famous for the digitised speech saying such gems as "RED ELF IS ABOUT TO DIE" and "BLUE WIZARD SHOT THE POTION!". Here's a .wav of a few of them, and they are brilliant. However, the other sounds are a little overlooked. Some parts of the floor damage you when you walk over them, and doing to produces some sound effects of such terrifying, grinding brutality that you end up being super-careful to avoid triggering them. I think they were discovered when the Army were testing some kind of sonic weapon that induces feelings of overwhelming dread and despair. Listen to some of them here. Finally, there are the noises the characters make when they get hit by certain attacks. Here's a .wav: have a listen and shudder. In order, they are made by the Valkyrie, Wizard, Warrior and the Elf. As mentioned before, the Warrior is clearly shouting "Bum!". The Valkyrie sounds normal enough, and the Elf's "yeow!" perfectly captures the essence of the smarmy, irritating, Link-from-the-Zelda-cartoon git he no doubt is. The Wizard's cries of pain are something a little wonderful, though. What on earth could that noise possibly be trying to express? My little brother used to make that noise on a near-constant basis for several years, you know. I got... kinda irritating. But now I can listen to it and it sounds nice and reassuring, as well as goofy as all fuck.
The actual gameplay is pretty boring, mind you. I wouldn't bother.