You might have heard about the 2008 return of American Gladiators. If not, I can sum it the original show pretty concisely; two male and two female contestants face off in quirky events against a gallery of bodybuilders on payroll as the Gladiators. As soon as I heard AG was returning to the screen, visions of renting this game returned to my head, and I knew I must revisit it as well.
GameTek pounced on the Gladiators license and shotgun-blasted the same basic code to a wide spread of every system available at the time. You’ll see minor differences between the major systems, but generally, the idea and execution are all identical to this version. You and a friend can play in a one-on-one match making up a single episode of the show, or multiple games across a short tournament ladder. Each episode has you playing six events, all of which should be familiar to fans: Assault, Joust, Atlasphere, The Wall, Powerball, and The Eliminator. Each event assigns points based on their own individual rules, and the contestant with the most points at the end of the events moves on down the ladder.
Assault requires you to move between safe zones and fire weapons at a target above the Gladiator, while dodging retaliatory fire from a tennis ball cannon. Joust plays out like a bare-bones 2D fighter. You and a Gladiator stand on opposing platforms and whack each other with padded sticks until someone’s stamina meter depletes. Atlasphere has you rolling around inside color-coded balls and trying to maneuver into score pods around the floor. The Wall replicates a rock-climbing wall, and both contestants attack identical sections with a Gladiator in pursuit. Powerball has you grabbing soccer balls from safe zones and trying to dunk them into scoring bins while avoiding Gladiators. The Eliminator is the final event, and plays in a fashion similar to the Obstacle Course from Double Dare.
That’s the basics, and each event is suitably replicated from the show enough that they will be easily accessible to fans. As a kid, I loved the Assault so much that neighbors and I would recreate the set with various Nerf guns, so I get the appeal of a virtual version. If you were too young (or lumpy) to ever make it on the show, you could at least enjoy the spirit of it in competition with friends here. That goal, the only real goal of a home game, has been somewhat achieved.
The problem lies in the controls. Upon reflection, I don’t like the controls in any of the events, which is just as bad as it sounds. In the Assault, you start with an overhead view of the playfield. You have to run to one of the safe zones and hit B to hide behind it. Why only B? Don’t know, especially since you don’t do anything else from this view. Once you’re behind a zone, the view changes to behind your player. You have to move left and right to reach the gun there, and hit C to pick it up. Once it’s picked up, you’re locked in place and move two lines in a meter in the corner to aim the gun. You can’t see what you’re aiming at, you just have to guess from the view – if the target is up and left, put those lines in the upper left corner of the not-to-scale window. Then you hit B to shoot the gun, and C again to drop it so you can leave the zone. So that’s B, C, B, and C again.
Don’t worry if you’re confused. You can (and will be) hit as you reach for the gun, despite the fact that you’re behind the so-called safe zone. Since you’re locked in place once you grab the gun, you can’t duck back until you fire it and will inevitably get tagged. Fun times.
The Joust is another huge offender. I truly can’t figure out what the controls are, since they seem to change each time you press a button. You can hit Back+A once and get what looks like a parry move, then hit the same again and the guy will do nothing. You can shift from high and low attacks with the D-pad, but the face buttons all seem to trigger the same strike. You’re in luck though. Opponent AI is flawed enough that you can beat them in the face with the same attack at least five times before they respond. So even while struggling with the spastic controls and watching your character do his imitation of the Star Wars Kid, you can still beat the best Gladiators has to offer.
It’s also a bit of a bummer that two players can never battle each other, only the Gladiators. In events like Powerball and the Wall, you are directly competing/racing against each other, but Gladiators are the direct opposition. In the Joust and Assault, one player will make a run, then the other. It’s true to the show, but still just seems to be lacking that extra something by not letting two players fight directly. I’d love to have seen a mode where one player is the contestant, and one player controls the Gladiators in each event. But as it stands, you can only hope you tackle the weak AI faster than your friend does the same.
Some care was put into the graphics, and they replicate the show well. Characters are large when they need to be, and needed details in the courses (like handholds) are obvious. It certainly looks much better than the laughable NES version, and it’s a slight disappointment that the game underneath wastes these assets. Sound, however, has hit rock bottom. Effects are at a minimum, and I really only recall a grunt, the sound of the air cannon in Assault, and the referee’s whistle at the end of each event. The rest of the time is filled with an absolutely awful looping theme. I can’t really describe it. It’s slightly military, slightly futuristic, totally synthesized, and unequivocally shitty. Listening to it every single moment you’re playing the game is just a little bonus.
Overall, this was either rushed or a low-priority project – take your pick. The events are faithfully adapted, but the controls fall clearly short. Even if you were a Gladiators fanatic, I can’t see this lasting more than a couple rentals, or a couple successful tournaments. And that’s being generous.
Represents six of the original show’s events. Tournament mode adds some replay value.
Poor controls, horrible music.