Co-op Gaming Needed the Original Gauntlet… Badly!
Playing games with friends is great. The community of going on an adventure with your pals and conquering quests too great for one player to handle is a design element that has kept everything from board games to arcades hopping for decades on end. However, it wasn’t always so widespread in the video game industry. Though a turn towards co-op was most definitely inevitable, the often used style in the early ‘80s was for players to take turns at a game rather than playing at the same time. Then, on this day in 1985, the original Gauntlet hit arcades. It may not have been the first co-op game, but it was one of the earliest co-op dungeon crawlers and one of the earliest games to allow four players to play simultaneously.
Development for Gauntlet began in 1983 as a somewhat familial request. Atari game designer Ed Logg attributed his conception of the game to the fact that his son was a huge fan of Dungeons & Dragons and looked to him to create an arcade game similar to the popular pencil-and-paper role-playing game. For the design of the game, Logg was inspired by a previous, but less successful Atari arcade title, Dandy. Dandy featured all of the rudimentary design elements that Gauntlet would contain, including four-player co-op, monster generators, dungeon exploration and ranged attacks. For Logg, it was a matter of taking this system, polishing it and overlaying a distinct fantasy-fiction theme that would appeal to players like his son.
In Gauntlet, players take up the roles of either a warrior, wizard, valkyrie or elf. The game featured a simple two button command of attack (both ranged and melee) and magic and each character had their own strengths. The warrior was better at melee, the wizard obviously has strong magic, the valkyrie had higher armor and the elf was the quickest. As players traversed the dungeon, they would come across swarms of monsters and enemies spawned by generators that needed to be destroyed in order to stop their advance. Locating items such as food, keys and power-ups to succeed, players were tasked with finding the exit to each level and escaping together.
Gauntlet was designed from the ground up with some of the most versatile co-op in mind at the time. Players could insert coins and join other players at any time, which was practically unheard of before Gauntlet. Additionally, though enemies coming in contact with players harms them, health also decreased over time, creating both a timer and a risk/reward factor for players to decide between chasing as many items and power-ups as possible and finding the exit quickly. To counteract this, players could also insert as many coins as they wanted to gain extra credits and increase play time. The ability to play indefinitely without having to start over via extra credits or have friends join you at any part of the adventure was innovative to say the least.
The original Gauntlet sold incredibly well in arcades, with Atari moving nearly 8,000 machine. Its success would inspire ports of the original to numerous other systems as well as sequel upon sequel through generations of arcade and home console systems. Even so, it’s hard to imagine that many of the features in Gauntlet weren’t commonplace before its release because they make so much sense. The practicality of its design was an inspiration generations of games that came after would follow. It may not have been the first, but it was certainly one of the early best.