Growing up during the 80s in what John Leguizamo remembers as "the melting pot of the world," Jackson Heights, stand-alone coin-ops decorated the urban landscape. Mom-and-pop grocery stores, magazine stands, and small shops, in general, supported at least one or two machines. Around the corner from where I lived, (on Roosevelt Avenue) there boasted such an establishment where my friends and I spent countless hours playing classics such as Space Ace, Kung-Fu, and Mat Mania, all the while Salsa music would be blaring in the background (it was a Latino record store). Still, nothing would prepare us for the day when Gauntlet arrived on the scene. This medieval, overhead-view dungeon romp boasted four sets of color-coded controls for, then unheard of, multiplayer cooperative play. Gauntlet was a monster-sized coin-op that grabbed my attention and didn't let go. It was a spectacle in and of itself.
Gauntlet helped usher in a new generation of costly quarter-munchers that literally sucked the money right out of kids' pockets (it was the only game at the time in which you would lose health by simply standing around). The ominous voice used to proclaim 'life-and-death' warnings like "Elf needs food badly." What it really should have said was "kid with glasses here needs quarters badly," as my friends and I risked a life of crime (or at least an butt whuppin' from our parents) to steal the necessary funds in order to survive past a couple more stages.
Now flash-forward to 1999. Not a single arcade game can be found along Roosevelt Avenue. Coin-ops (which should be officially be renamed dollar-ops) are now the size of small trucks and can only be found at "mega malls" and "amusement centers." One out of every ten homes across the United States is in possession of a PlayStation as home console systems gain processing speeds on par with their larger arcade cousins. It's under this current climate that this legendary franchise returns to the scene with a new entry appropriately named Gauntlet Legends. But can a videogame whose success was rooted in the streets now make it in the households?
It can if Midway effectively recreates the arcade experience while adding immersive home console peculiarities. And, apparently with Legends, they have. The original premise of having four human controlled adventurers of different character classes cooperatively questing (a refreshingly rare feature today) through maze-like stages hasn't changed, so the gameplay is still very arcade-like. What this means is that the controls are still old-school basic (mainly utilizing two buttons, one for magic and the other for attack) and the action is fast and furious as hordes of angry beasts and creatures are dying to introduce themselves to you. There's still the trademark omnipresent voice here to announce to us who's dying, remind us of how dumb it is to shoot potions, and generally be an annoying backseat driver.
What has changed, though, are the original, simplistic 2D graphics, which have been updated with real-time 3D models and animation. New music tracks and audio bites have all been updated as well to compete with today's market leaders. I was very impressed with the overall presentation and really felt it brought the whole Gauntlet universe into a new light. Appropriate features have also been added to make the gameplay more attractive towards home players. Stages don't play out quite so linearly and require free exploration and return visits for locating artifacts or switches that may open up other worlds. Characters now have minor role-playing game attributes that can be built up and saved and secret playable characters can now be unlocked via bonus stages. But perhaps the nicest addition is the ability to stockpile power-ups and additional weapons. Unlike the original, which required that you use a power-up immediately for a limited time, Legends allows you to turn off timed or limited power-ups at will and save them for later use. This generated much more strategy in the game as I pondered what weapons and combination of power-ups would be most effective against huge bosses and tougher opponents.
Legends is still not without negatives, as all the apparent depth in the game was not obvious. Dale and I wandered the stages with no understanding of why or what was happening around us. It was only after continuously playing and studying the instruction manual for quite some time, did we finally start to understand how to unlock other worlds and how to build up our characters and manage power-ups. Even after that, there's no way to tell what secrets have been unlocked and where other secrets may still be hidden. That translates to a lot of guess work and tedious backtracking. Another issue is that even with all the worthy new additions, the overall experience of Legends is still heavily action-oriented and can get mindlessly repetitive at times, which is fine if that's what you're in the mood for.
With all that said, despite needing to appeal to two groups of audiences, Legends is still able to stand on its own. Coin-ops need to be easily approachable and need to produce an immediate satisfaction while home games need to have lengthy play-life with a long-term sense of growth and development. Legends manages to be a good (but not great) example of both of these styles of gameplay and have melded them successfully into a neat hybrid. Legends not only reminded me of my coin-op-filled youth growing up in Jackson Heights, but also serves as a very pleasant surprise in the present.
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