Unlike the last few Year of N64 games, Gauntlet Legends is one that I spent a ton of time with back in my youth. Or, at least I think that I did. Having played it through again, I’m not sure if it is quite as much of a timesink as I remembered it being.
Gauntlet Legends is essentially a reboot of the Gauntlet franchise long before reboots were a thing. The previous game, Gauntlet III: The Final Quest, came out in 1991, and Legends hit the arcades in 1998. The N64 port didn’t show up until the next year. I’ve only ever dabbled in “classic” Gauntlet games, so I don’t know how much Legends changes the formula, but it brought the franchise into the world of polygons, so that’s a big enough leap for me.
If you’ve never played Gauntlet anything, you’re missing out on a fairly entertaining multiplayer arcade experience. The game has you set up a character from a small roster of classes, then sends you on your way through a couple dozen stages, where you will collect cash and slaughter countless numbers of monsters. The goal of the game is more or less to survive and make your way to the end of each stage, but Gauntlet offers a little more than that.
Enter the “dreaded” RPG elements. You choose your character class, give them a name, and then they gain experience and level up as you play. Level ups increase your stats, and when you hit certain milestones, your character will gain special upgrades, like fancier weapons and a familiar that tags along and adds to your firepower. Each player also has their own inventory for stockpiling items, and can spend their accumulated gold on either items or stat boosts. Items can be useful, but I found that their true value was just selling them at the store so that I could buy the stat boosts instead.
The stages come in four colourful flavours: the mountain, the castle, the town, and the ice domain. Defeating the bosses of each world will unlock a pseudo-final stage in the cathedral, and when you beat that, you unlock the battlefield world. Finally, you will descend into the very depths of the underworld for the final showdown.
So there’s a fairly good variety of levels on display here. Even stages within the same world vary greatly, rather than simply having one default look and a handful of different layouts for example, the mountain world has you start at the lush base of the mountain, then as you ascend, it becomes more barren and rocky. Eventually you find your way inside and have to work your way through a cave, culminating in a stage that takes place on a set of rocky platforms and catwalks suspended above a massive pool of lava.
The stage layouts are usually fairly good too. Almost all of them have twists and turns everywhere, but the critical path is usually not too difficult to follow. It wasn’t until the ice world that the levels started to get annoyingly complex and I found myself wishing that they were about half as long. Most of the stages are huge, and the amount of enemies that populate them is staggering; it’s a wonder that this game didn’t cause the Nintendo 64 to simply melt down. As it is though, there’s not even very much lag considering how many moving objects can end up on screen at once.
While most of the items you find during your adventure are power-ups of varying effectiveness, there are three important collectibles that you need to keep your eyes open for. There are plenty of hints to their locations, but actually sussing them out can sometimes be a hassle. Obelisks are scattered around the first three worlds, and you need to find all of them in one world to unlock the next. There are a total of thirteen Rune Stones to find, and without them all, you can’t enter the final showdown.
Lastly are the boss weapons, one in each of the four main worlds. These are not strictly necessary to complete the game, but they give you a slight advantage in the boss fights. And if you’re playing solo (as I did), you need all the advantages you can find. The bosses are brutal, and when they’re focusing all of their attacks on you, the fights generally just boil down to whose HP depletes first. They aren’t fun, and a solo player will have to grind his or her butt off before they even stand a chance against a boss. This stands in stark contrast to the regular stages, where you’ll generally never have to grind levels to progress.
The final boss, however, is a bit of an exception. You have to fight him twice, and the first time, he is just as bad as the rest. It’s a very difficult fight, but he drops four superweapons when he’s defeated. If you keep one of those weapons until your second fight with him, using it will make the final battle exceedingly easy. If you don’t, it’s basically impossible to win alone. I wanted to do it the normal way at first, so I leveled up to 90 and maxed out my defense stat through the shop. Still I died. So I used the cheap way, because nuts to that.
I should mention that grinding up to level 90 did not take very long. I burned through this game in a week, and it didn’t really seem to overstay its welcome. I remember having maxed out several characters back in the day, and I suppose that it would have been much less tedious because I was actually able to play with other people. I wanted to do this playthrough with my wife, but the fact of the matter is that the control sticks on my spare N64 controllers are almost completely limp, and I really didn’t care enough to buy a new one or attempt a repair.
So there you have it. It’s not a very deep experience, but I still have a pretty strong appreciation for Gauntlet Legends. So much so, that I kind of want to track down a copy of the incredibly buggy sequel (expansion?), Gauntlet: Dark Legacy, to give that a quick playthough. I also sort of want to try out the oft-maligned Gauntlet: Seven Sorrows, but it seems to be so different that it might not be worth the investment. Anyway, Gauntlet Legends was a bunch of fun while it lasted, and I can only imagine that it would go down even smoother with a friend or three to share it with.