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Death, difficulty and the new Gauntlet

"We have some plans for Mr. Death."

Death, the ultimate enemy in the original Gauntlet arcade game, was just one of many iconic elements missing from the modern remake of the title showed off at last week's Game Developers Conference.

But Arrowhead game director Axel Lindberg said the team is very cognizant of those things that made the cabinet such a popular game in pizza joints and arcades in the 80s. And, he promised, they're not done working on the reinvention.

"A lot of that stuff is still in design," he said. "Death was really important in the arcade game because it cost you another quarter. We don't have that. So we're looking at ways to make that important."

I sat down with three other players last week to fight my way through the relatively short demo, first as the Elf and then as the Warrior. The game features both offline and online drop-in, drop-out cooperative play.

As melee-experts, the Warrior and Valkyrie controls are slightly different than the ranged Wizard and Elf characters. The Warrior and Valkyrie rely on button presses for their attacks, while the Wizard and Elf both use the right stick to fire off shots. The face buttons are used for the melee attacks or for special shots. You can also equip relics that will give you special powers that can be used with the shoulder buttons.

The game's perspective has been shifted back slightly so it's no longer a top-down dungeon crawler and of course the graphics have been amped up considerably, giving it a chunky 3D perspective.

In the demo I played, the relics were found inside the dungeon, but Lindberg said that when the game launches on PC and Linux-powered Steam Machines, relics will be things you earn through achievements and equip before starting to play.

"A lot of that stuff is still in design."

While the game has the same basic feel of the original Gauntlet, it's missing some of the constant threat you used to feel playing through the classic. That's partially because a death doesn't mean you have to drop in another quarter, instead you just use some of the gold you found. But it's also because the game doesn't feel nearly as overwhelming as the original did. In my 15 or so minutes playing through the demo I never found myself in a situation where I was so threatened by a swarm of enemies that I needed to back up. There was never a moment of room-filling skeletons, or an accidental door opening into an unwinnable situation.

Lindberg said they're still working on the game, so balance is sure to change. He also pointed out they haven't decided how to handle some things quite yet, like the inclusion of Death.

Where this reboot seems to have boss battles — the demo ended just as one started — the original relied on the sudden surprise visit of Death to shake players up and often wipe them out.

"This is a re-envisioning of that 1985 version of Gauntlet," he said. "We focused on keeping the look and adding some modern touches and Arrowhead sprinkles."

Those "sprinkles" include things like the boss battles, a reworking of some of the heroes, in particular the Valkyrie, and inclusion of special moves for the heroes.

The remake will include both designed and procedurally-generated levels, Lindberg said.

"We have some that are designed that are more adventure floors," he said, "and some that have challenges that are procedurally generated."

The team, also responsible for games like Magicka and Helldivers, is also examining whether to bring back teleporters to the game and have discussed bringing back some "classic situations." For instance, in the original game, players could teleport themselves into a level that was packed with death.

"A lot of what we are hoping to do with the game is capture the nostalgia of the original arcade game," Lindberg said, "the kind of drama that happened around the arcade machine playing with friends, and getting that to happen on the couch."