One of the great joys of videogames is that they allow you to do things you never could in real life - scoring a goal in the World Cup final, flying a space fighter, inhaling small creatures to gain their abilities, that kind of thing. Now, at long last, I can add "hitting a bodybuilder with an oversized cotton bud" to that list, thanks to Imagitec Design's 1992 Genesis title American Gladiators!
I'm sure a great many of you remember Gladiators in some form or another, and I'm extra-sure that British people of a certain age will have many memories of the UK version of the show, which was simply called Gladiators. I'm not sure why the original US version is specifically called American Gladiators, though. Maybe it was an attempt to forestall complaints from viewers who tuned in expecting to see Romans fighting lions. If you did somehow manage to entirely avoid the Gladiators experience, it was a TV show that worked like The Running Man taking place in a kid's soft play area. Competitors engaged in a series of physical challenges, aiming to score more points than their rivals by completing the different events.
My first opponent is called Dave, so I don't think I'll have many problems. However, standing between the competitors and their goal were the Gladiators themselves, bodybuilders and sportspeople with names like Nitro and Lighning and, erm, Wardrobe? Yeah, that sounds about right. The most famous Gladiator in the UK version of the show was Wolf, (who I don't think had an equivalent in American Gladiators,) a pantomime villain who was the "bad guy" of the show and who looked like Fabio's less well-adjusted brother. I bring Wolf up mainly because he has a connection to videogames, appearing as he did on the cover of infamous computer slash-em-up Barbarian.
I've slipped into my skin-tight one-piece leotard, affixed my headguard and done a short piece to camera about who I am and where I come from, so all that remains is to enter into gladiatorial combat. First event: Assault.
I'm not sure exactly what I was expecting, but it wasn't this. I'm running around under a top-down view, trying to avoid the projectiles that are coming from the top of the screen but unable to do anything else, the whole thing feeling like the most awful rip-off of Smash TV imaginable.
Oh, right, here we go. Pressing fire next to each of those piles of blocks switches the camera to this view, where you can pick up a gun and fire a tennis ball at your target. Yes, that tiny target all the way back there.
Not knowing what I was doing or how I might aim this primitive weapon, I accidentally fired my first ball somewhere into the second tier of fans, discovering in the process that you can only use each weapon once. Fire your shot and it's time to go back to the top-down view to dash for the next one.
I'm not sure that firing stance is helping my accuracy any. That's some nice shading work on the buttocks, mind you. They look very... taut.
So, it turns out that you aim your gun using the grid in the top-right of the screen. You can move the crosshair with the d-pad, but as soon as you let go of the pad it's dragged back to its starting position. You have to wrangle the crosshair into the right position and then press fire, and while you might think knowing this information would increase your chances of success it really doesn't and the whole event comes down to blind luck. There's no indication of where you're actually aiming on-screen, the crosshair box doesn't map very well to the target area and because you only have one shot from each weapon you can't find your range by pinging off a few balls and adjusting your aim accordingly. I did this event ten times or so, and I hit the target once. There is one saving grace, however: you get a point for every gun you fire. Therefore, my advice is to forget about hitting the target altogether and just focus on using all the guns and running for the exit. At least that way you'll get some points.
There you have it, folks: the most underwhelming victory I have ever achieved in a videogame, or at least since I was a kid and I was beating my four-year-old brother at Street Fighter II. "You Won, I Guess," the text seems to say. Don't patronise me, American Gladiators. Nobody won here today, and certainly not the noble sport of Assault.
Oh, so I literally didn't win either? Despite the game informing me that I had, in fact, won? Okay, cool. I didn't need those points anyway.
The second event is everyone's favourite: Joust, where the competitor and a Gladiator try to knock each other off a raised platform using the aforementioned giant cotton buds. They're called "pugil sticks," by the way. Apparently the US army uses pugil sticks to train in real life, leading me to yearn for a world where all wars are fought between heavily-padded men waving sponge-tipped sticks at each other.
In this videogame version of American Gladiators, there are two sets of pugil stick moves: offensive and defensive. Hold the B button and press the joypad in different directions to attack, or move the d-pad on its own to block or dodge. If that sounds overly-complicated to you, I have some good news - you can completely ignore the defensive moves, because guessing what attacks the Gladiator is going to use and countering them is pretty much impossible. Sure, it looks cool when they attack your ankles and you jump over their pugil stick, but there's about a 1/1000 chance of that working and you'd be better served using a strategy that really works, like repeatedly hitting them in the face. That's how I won all my Joust matches, anyway.
Oddly, it doesn't seem like it's even possible to knock your opponent off their plinth. You just hit them enough times - again, I just constantly whacked them in the head - to drain their health bar. Then they have to stop and have a little lie down, handing you the victory.
This event is called The Wall, because you have to climb a wall. You get a head-start, and after a while a Gladiator starts chasing you, pulling you off the wall if they catch you. I was trying to think of a way to incorporate the "famous" Gladiators catchphrase "you will go on my first whistle" into that description, but I couldn't. Also, there's no whistle.
Climbing the wall involves tapping the B button and holding the direction you want to move in, which works fine until you reach a corner. Then the controls demand a weird, difficult-to-describe rotary action - you can't just press up on the d-pad to climb up, you have to move the d-pad as though you were doing a fireball motion. I think. Like I say, it's difficult to describe and the biggest problem is that it's very unreliable, with my competitor easily negotiating some corners while hanging motionless, paralysed with either fear or indecision, on others, the whole event having the smooth feel of trying to shove a brick through an s-bend.
Here, the Gladiator has caught me. That screenshot would have a much different feel to it if you mistook it for a top-down view.
Atlasphere is next, where the competitors are placed inside big metal hamster balls and must roll over as many targets as they can. It's an very basic event, because all you need to do is move your sphere using the d-pad and remember that they have momentum, but this is also probably the most enjoyable event for the simple reason that it works in a sensible, logical manner. No weird control schemes or hard-to-understand screen layouts here. It's by far the easiest event, too, as long as you remember one golden rule: keep moving. If you miss a target, just roll right along to the next one because turning around and trying again will take longer. If you get bashed by one of the other spheres, don't bash them back or try to break through the ruck, just move on. Do what Gandhi would do if he were placed inside a massive wire-mesh ball, and pursue a path of non-violence. The computer-controlled competitors are too stupid to do this, leaving you to win by a comfortable margin.
From the least aggravating event to the most as the competitors take on Powerball. The rules are simple: pick up a football from the bin and put it into one of the receptacles placed around the arena. You get one point for getting a football in one of the outer baskets and two points for depositing in the inner basket, but good luck getting any two-point shots. The developers decided that the ability to see what you're doing is way overrated and so they gave the player a screen the size of a malnourished postage stamp to work with, and when you move toward the baskets you have no idea where the Gladiators are until you're right next to them, oh look, now they've knocked me to the floor and I have to get another football. I can always see where my opponent is, though, and what a relief that is! Otherwise I'd have no way of seeing all the two-point baskets they're scoring thanks to their knowledge of the Gladiators' positions. Thanks, Imagitec.
While I'm thanking the developers for things in this game, I feel like I should mention the soundtrack. Here it is in full:
Yes, that's the entire soundtrack. There's one piece of music that plays on a constant loop through the whole game, a horribly gloopy audio paste with percussion that sounds like a metal bin being kicked and "bass" noises sampled from someone gargling phlegm. There is no respite from this noise, not even between events. This is one to either play with the sound turned off or a wad of chewing gum rammed into each ear.
As if the tiny play area, the horrendous music and the fact you have to alternate which bin you get your ball from weren't excruciatingly unpleasant enough, if you attempt to drop the ball into a bin and you're not lined up perfectly then you'll miss. You can miss dropping a ball into a bin from inches away. You can't pick the ball back up and try again, either. The system by which they select potential competitors for American Gladiators is in dire need of an extensive overhaul, if you ask me. I'm obviously not fit for the task.
Going into the final round, VGJunk has more points than Dave. Given that I've been terrible at almost every event, I can only assume that "Dave" is actually three children sitting on each others' shoulders under a trenchcoat.
Here is the final round - The Eliminator, so called because it's as exciting as passing solid waste. I hope you're an expert in alternately tapping the A and C buttons, because that's really all you need to do here. Tap A and C to power-walk up an escalator, tap A and C to crank yourself across a gap using a hand-bike, tap A and C to climb up a net, tap A and C to wonder why you're not playing a better videogame than this, a category which includes almost every videogame ever made.
Okay, so there are a couple of sections that are a little different. Here you have to watch the motion of these swinging sandbags so you can figure out the correct timing to dash through them by... tapping A and C. There's also a zip-line that you have to drop off of at the correct moment by pressing B. How exciting.
American Gladiators was released on several formats, including the SNES and the Amiga, so I took a look at the manual for the Amiga version. In the Amiga version, each section of the Eliminator has slightly different controls - waggle the joystick left and right to run, but up and down to operate the hand-bike, that kind of thing. This leads me to think that this Genesis version of American Gladiators is a lazy port. It certainly feels like a lazy port, a slap-dash product with no depth, no finesse and almost no entertainment value.
That said, here's my favourite part of the whole game. Towards the end of the Eliminator, there's a section with hurdles. Now, you could run up to the hurdles and try to jump over them, a tiresome procedure that slows you down as you have to stop tapping A and C for a moment - or you could just run through them. Ignore the hurdles completely. Just run right through them like they weren't even there, because they don't slow you down and there's no penalty for knocking them over that I could see. It is seriously quicker to run through the hurdles than it is to leap over them, which sums up American Gladiators rather nicely.
And thus I won, moving on to a semi-final match against Jim, where you play through the same events again, in the same order, with the only difference being a barely perceptible increase in difficulty. Win that match and you reach the final, which is more of the same, until you emerge triumphant and claim your prize.
And what a glorious prize it is! That's it, that's the whole ending. There isn't even a staff roll, which makes sense to me. I wouldn't want people knowing I was involved in the making of this game, either.
I've played a fair few multi-event sports games for VGJunk over the years, and while American Gladiators isn't the hardest or the most inscrutable (that would be Western Games) it is probably the worst. A tiny selection of games, awkward and unintuitive controls, one of the most painful tunes I've ever heard being puked out of a Megadrive sound chip and barely any attempt to capture the spirits of the show - you never even get to see the individual Gladiators themselves, just the same generic sprites - mean that this is one to be avoided. I would have had a much better time listening to the theme from the UK version of Gladiators on repeat for an hour. Everyone, sing along - "do you feel the power of the Gladiaaaatorrrrs?"