Today's game is Allumer and Taito's 1986 arcade adventure Gladiator, but the title's a little misleading. There's no Colosseum, no sneering emperor pronouncing judgement on the lives of the participants, no animals imported from distant lands. There's fighting, sure, but it's not a fight for the glory of honourable combat or even simply to survive - instead the hero wants to get rich, via the tried-and-true method of stabbing dozens of people. In Japan the game's known as Ougon no Shiro, or Castle of Gold, and that's a much more accurate name. Less a gladiator match, more a gauntlet of traps and enemies. Oh hey, they should have called it Gauntlet! Wait, never mind.
Is this your first time riding a horse, sir? It's okay, equestrianism isn't for everyone. Hopefully we can find you a nice tricycle or something. Maybe even a doctor to fix your neck.
Despite the promise of the title screen, horses do not feature in this game at all. I think that's probably for the best, on this evidence.
Gladiator wastes no time in pitching you into a life-or-death struggle, as you inch through the corridors of a castle while someone or some thing throws a relentless stream of fireballs, bats and knives at you. That makes it sound a bit like a Castlevania game, but it isn't: Gladiator is a side-scrolling test of reflexes where the key is to defend yourself using your sword and shield. The height of your shield is controlled by moving the joystick up and down, and can be positioned either high, low or in the middle to deflect oncoming attacks. Your sword, on the other hand, is controlled by the game's three buttons - one each for high attack, middle attack and low attack. Using your shield as protection has the benefit of being sturdy and dependable (so long as you're holding it at the right height) where as swinging your sword can leave you vulnerable while you're flailing your arms around but allows for added reach and gives you more points for eliminating any projectiles, and points eventually turn into extra lives.
Our hero is called Great Gurianos, by the way, although I feel a little uncomfortable calling him "Great." Greatness has to be earned, and he didn't seem very great when he was wildly swinging his sword at a bat in an attempt to collect the golden shield it was carrying. I think it was supposed to be a devastating overhead strike, but he looked more like he was casting his line during a relaxing fly-fishing trip.
But what's this? After a couple of minutes of corridor-walking, Gladiator suddenly becomes a one-on-one fight as a warrior straight from the Bondage Dimension appears to block Mediocre Gurianos' path! He looks like a Zardoz cosplayer whose mother wouldn't allow him out of the house until he put on some shorts, but thanks to the game's attract mode I have a little more information than that.
His name is Solon, and he is a sword man. Okay, that checks out, he does appear to be carrying a sword. Sure, I think it might be Sailor Moon's Magic Crystal Dream Sword or what have you, but it's definitely a sword. Well, sword-like. Sword-adjacent. Solon's bio also describes him as a "blockhead fencer," which bodes well for my attempts to stab him to death.
Maybe we're both blockhead fencers. Fencing coaches the world over would look at us and slowly shake their heads, tears of frustration welling up behind their beekeeper's masks. It's our fighting stances, you see. They're very top-heavy. Leaning over on your tippy-toes might give you a little extra range, lads, but it's not good for your balance.
As for the combat, it reminds me a lot of Taito's own Great Swordsman, another one-on-one swordfighting game where a single strike can lead to victory or defeat, and the goal is to land a blow on a vulnerable area of your enemy. However, things here are more complicated than in Great Swordsman, for a couple of reasons. One is the inclusion of shields, which allow you to block at one height while attacking at another. You can also reduce your opponent's shield to a measly stump by attacking it repeatedly, although this never seemed to hamper their ability to block my attacks any. You can also shatter their weapon, which is much more useful.
The main difference is armour, though. Both Gurianos and his foes are wearing suits of armour composed of multiple parts - helmet, breastplate, shinguards, that kind of thing - and a successful hit will knock the corresponding piece of armour off. That's why Solon's not wearing his chest-straps any more; it's because I poked him in the chest with my sword, not because he got too hot and removed them or decided that he wasn't into BDSM after all. Once a body part's armour has been stripped off, a subsequent blow to that same area will prove fatal. For a game from 1986 to have such large sprites with visible damage is very impressive, and there's even a bit of sampled speech, so Gladiator is a title that would probably have stood out in the arcades of the time.
Unfortunately for Solon, his title of blockhead fencer turned out to be accurate. I held my shield up high, and all he did was attack my shield over and over like I'd taped a picture of a large spider to it. That left me free to aim for his bare chest. That ended the fight fairly quickly. My reward? Another fight against Solon. Then another. Three Solons in a row, each as thick as the last. Maybe Solon is his surname and they're all brothers. There's a very disappointed Mr. Solon Sr. out there somewhere, regretting not stumping up the cash for a better swordfighting teacher.
Eventually a different challenger appeared before me, resplendent in her bright pink armour. This is Irene, and she is a mighty lady.
See? It says so right there, and who am I to argue? I'm just a shirtless warrior wearing iron pants, I'm not qualified to judge how mighty a lady is. That said, even I noticed that Irene's attacks seemed a little hesitant, and she frequently left herself open if I took a step back and let her swing her sword for a while. Another casualty of over-extending, then, and Irene's lunges towards my rippling adonic chest meant I had lots of opportunity to smash her over the head. Thus Gurianos emerges triumphant from mortal combat with his valour and dignity unsullied.
Until he decided to pose over Irene's corpse, that is. Nice work, Gurianos. Real great of you. I know, I know, if I had muscles like that you wouldn't be able to get a shirt on me without a team of a dozen people and some strong tranquillizers, but maybe now is not the time.
Apparently, in the Japanese version of the game you can strip off all of Irene's clothes for some brief nudity, because, well, Japan. So, if you've ever wanted to see what a cartoon nipple looks like when it's shrunk to the size of a single pixel, play the Japanese version. Or I can save you the time: it looks like a single pink pixel. I sincerely hope the very thought of such a thing has not whipped you into a frenzy of sexual excitement.
After Irene, there's another short section of fireball-blocking and bat-chopping, which illustrates the basic flow of Gladiator's gameplay: walk for a while, fight a few people, walk a bit further and hopefully find the golden shield and the crystal ball the restores your damaged armour. This section also provides an insight into Gurianos that you rarely get for other videogames heroes, and that's that his preferred underwear is purple silk briefs. Look, if you're going to be wearing heavy armour all day you deserve at least a touch of opulence, right?
I guess we know where all those fireballs came from: this Karnov wannabe is spitting them out. He's not important enough to get a bio during the attract mode, so this man will forever remain an enigma. We will never know the reason he chose to wear underpants with a big yellow stain on the front, which now I think about it is kind of a relief. Anyway, to beat this guy simply move towards him, blocking his fireballs with your shield, and then stab him somewhere that isn't his shield.
The stabbing was not fatal, although judging by his expression I suspect he wishes it had been.
Walking up some stairs leads Gurianos to stage two and another short path where he must defend himself. Rather than fireballs and bats, he is now beset by bricks - yes, just regular old house bricks - and golden axes. Maybe Taito should have called this game Golden Axe! Wait, never mind. You can also see a sword on the floor that I managed to knock out of the air: if you press down when standing on it you can collect it for bonus points, and collecting several swords will turn your sword red. For a long time I had no idea if there was any benefit to having a red sword beyond the obvious considerations of style, but supposedly if you hit an opponent's shield fourteen times with the red sword Gurianos temporarily becomes invincible. I see Gladiator takes place in an age of unfathomable magic, then.
Here is a man who went to the blacksmith and demanded that he make him a suit of armour so unique and avant-garde that the rest of the gladiators would be struck dumb with envy. The blacksmith, fearing for his life and desperate for inspiration, cast his eyes desperately around his forge before seeing a bunch of grapes he was saving for his lunch. The blacksmith breathed a sigh of relief.
This is Zaid, a club giant. So, what, like Armand van Helden? No, of course not, he's a giant with a club. Except that's clearly a sword he's carrying, not a club. Zaid is a complicated man. He's also "a big good for nothing fellow," which is coincidentally the job description I have on my business cards.
After a couple of regular Zaids you'll fight Super Zaid and hey, he actually has a club this time. He also has armour so visually repellent that when you're fighting him I'd recommend covering one side of the screen with a sheet of paper and hoping for the best. That's easier than it sounds, because all the various flavours of Zaids seem to attack at the same height as you more often than not, meaning that if you hang back and keep attacking at the middle height you'll eventually break their weapon. That makes it a lot easier to get close and finish them off, especially when you bait him into trying to hit you with his tiny sword hilt.
Once Zaid is defeated, punished by the gods of combat for wearing that goddamn armour, you can press down to steal his mace, which replaces your sword. Hang on, is it stealing if he's dead? Looting, I suppose. Pilfering, maybe. Anyway, you can use his mace, and for a while I was confused as to how this was an upgrade. It's the same length as the sword so your reach is the same, and it's not any more powerful because one hit (well, two hits) is all you need anyway. It wasn't until right at the end of the game that the much more aggressive enemies revealed the true power of the mace: it pushes your opponents further back when you hit them, giving you more breathing space. Make sure you collect the mace, then, because it's almost mandatory for the final few enemies.
Pictured above: Gurianos, about to have his silken briefs punctured by a stray arrow. The arrow was fired by this unnamed warrior woman, an Amazon with the ability to lay down a veritable curtain of arrows and, upon closer inspection, a gaping sore where her face ought to be. Her bright pink sandals are presumably intended to distract from the disgusting ruin of her face. Luckily you don't have to see the Amazon for long, because she's not wearing any armour, and just like the fireball spitter all you need to do is block her arrows as you advance and then introduce her to your sword or mace, whichever you're carrying at the time.
Gurianos has made it out into the fresh air, and a relaxing stroll along the castle battlements awaits. It's the same hot object-blocking action as before, only this time you're deflecting boomerangs and strange pulses of energy that look like an illustration of how radio waves work from a junior school textbook. But VGJunk, you cry, you said this was a relaxing stroll and having axes thrown at my face seems like it'd make me anxious and quite possibly dead rather than relaxed!
Well, hectoring voice in my head, I say that because you can hop up onto the ledges in the background, thus avoiding the entire stage and all its attendant dangers unless you forget to press up to jump over the gaps. Personally I was already getting bored of these bombardment stages, so the option to not participate in them is one I will readily and gratefully take.
You'll be shocked to learn that Gurianos must fight some knights along the way. This one is green, except the parts of him that are pink. He's a one-man public safety announcement about not falling asleep in the sun or buying your armour from a colour-blind blacksmith.
I'm not really sure how I beat these opponents, you know. While some of the enemies do seem to have definite patterns, with these ones I either couldn't spot it or had lost so much interest that my brain refused to absorb it. Instead, I just kept thrusting my sword at their feet. Their swords broke, their shields broke and then eventually they become so consumed with ennui that they let me stab them in the shin, a fatal blow in the days before penicillin.
There's also version in red armour who is not noticeably different from the others aside from the fact that once you've defeated him, Gurianos stamps on the poor sod a couple of times. So much for Great Gurianos. From now on, I'll call you Kinda Petty Gurianos, or Sore Winner Gurianos.
The end of the stage is guarded by a familiar body with a different head and weapons, who wants to stop Gurianos because... well, I don't know, really. All these lives, all this carnage, all this death with no reason or motive. I know Gurianos is supposed to be collecting some gold so is this guy, what, a ye olde rent-a-cop? Give it up, man. It's not worth dying for, and Violent Psychopath Gurianos will not let anyone stand in his way.
Thanks once again to the intro, we can see that this character is called Agathon and he's a clumsy fighter. If these people have been guarding the treasure, then their boss should probably review their hiring policies. There must be someone out there who isn't a clumsy fighter or a blockhead fencer. Agathon's bio also says that he's a Two Swords Man, which I'm not sure I believe. He's got two weapons, yes, but they don't look like swords to me. Lengths of metal piping in a classic arcade beat-em-up fashion maybe. Rolled up magazines? Sure. But not swords.
Oh, I see. Agathon was hiding his swords inside the rolled-up magazines. Clever, very clever. People think you're going to show them an article about a woman whose cat saved her life by calling an ambulance and then bam, three feet of cold steel is enjoying the brand new sights, sounds and smells of their upper intestine. He may be a clumsy fighter, but he makes up for it in cunning, like a fox with its shoelaces tied together.
This castle must be taller than I thought, because I've climbed up to the final stage and it appears to be the featureless void of space. An Oscar statue has come to life and is very carefully peeling all my clothes off with his sword. Things are getting weird in Gladiator, and they're also getting extremely difficult - the Gold Knight is fast, accurate and relentless. To defeat him you'll need every ounce of your concentration and skill, and even then fifty percent of the time he'll suddenly kill you anyway. If there is a strategy for this fight I couldn't tell you what it is. Prayer, possibly.
Every time I beat the Gold Knight it definitely felt more like luck than judgement - as you can see here, he's done a very thorough job of stripping Gurianos down to his kecks - but I'm realising now that all my victories came via hitting the Gold Knight in the legs. Maybe that's his weakness, he's got delicate ankles.
Your final opponent is a skeleton, and now I'm really disappointed that he's not included in the intro because I want to know what his name is. Zartunak, Consumer of Souls? Skinny Dennis? Fat Dennis (it's an ironic nickname)? Maybe he's Death itself, representing Gurianos' ultimate battle - the battle against his own mortality. No, I'm sticking with Skinny Dennis.
Rather than armour, the skeleton simply loses his bones if you manage to hit him until he's nothing more than a floating skull and one bony arm. Naturally this makes it even harder to hit him, but it doesn't hamper his fighting skills any and I died here over and over again. One of those times I simply gave up: we seemed to become locked in a never-ending cycle where the skeleton would block all my attacks but would only swing for my shield. Ten full minutes this went on for, both of us clanging off each other with no progress made and no end in sight until I decided I'd had enough and purposely moved my shield out of the way. You cannot best Death, after all.
Except you totally can, and in our the next battle I managed to kill Skinny Dennis almost immediately. I think the trick is that you have to attack just as he attacks, in the same spot, and hope that your blow lands first. I gambled, and I won. What did I win? Well, I think I might be the first living person ever to see Hell's unholy cathedral, so that's nice. I can't wait to get the photos developed.
At long last, Gurianos has accomplished his goals and reached the treasure place. You know, the place where they keep the treasure. It's one of those parts of the house that you don't have a good name for, like the junk drawer or the cupboard under the stairs. Yup, the treasure place. Amazing.
Gladiator is a decently-constructed game with impressive visuals and plenty of little flourishes and secrets - I never did manage to produce the magic shield that's supposedly in the game - but ultimately it just left me cold. I don't really know why, and I'm sure Gladiator will have its fans, but the walking stages were repetitive and the combat simply wasn't all that fun to me, despite it being mostly above average. It's certainly not as much fun as Great Swordsman, which felt much more precise and less twitchy, and Gladiator just isn't the game for me even if I really love the vault at the end being called the "treasure place." Someone enjoyed it, though, because it was ported to some home computers under the name Great Gurianos (I'd have to imagine he's even less great on the ZX Spectrum) and even received a pseudo-sequel in 1992's Blandia. Maybe I'll check it out some day, on the off chance it tells me what that skeleton's deal was.