No, I'm not referencing one of Ninty's many Legend of Zelda games. This is one of many soundbytes that would ring out In Gauntlet II as the player's life slowly seeped away to nothing. This was the tension raising moment where you knew you needed to find that next lot of food before your onscreen character breathed his or her last.
Gauntlet II is an overhead dungeon adventure of sorts, where you are tossed into a series of dungeons for some reason. Unfortunately the game makes no attempt to actually explain the reasons ingame. You just crawl through dungeon floor after dungeon floor fighting monsters until you retire from the game. This also means that the characters themselves don't present any kind of a backstory or personality. Who is this warrior? Nobody knows, because as far as the player is concerned he's just some tough guy tossing axes around.
Before playing you get the option of picking one of four characters to use. There is the warrior, the valkyrie, the wizard and the elf. Aside from looking different each character also has different stats to the others. The elf is naturally fast but ultimately weak. The wizard excels with magic attacks but suffers in melee combat. Your choice has a mild effect on how you approach obstacles. Simply because the warrior can plough through the danger does not mean the wizard will fare so well.
Each character has a weapon in use, although they all work the same way. You can fire them as a ranged weapon to strike foes from afar, which is really what you'll be doing most of the time. The rate of fire and the power differs between them, but generally combat involves firing at an enemy until they die. You also have the option of going up close, where your character will automatically destroy the enemy after so long. The consequence to this is that the enemy will cause some damage, so it's not an ideal choice.
Magic potions exist as well. Blue potions are screen bombs that will destroy most normal enemies in one use that are on the screen and either severely damage or destroy strong monsters (depending on the magic power of your character). Unlike the standard weapons you only have a limited supply of these, so you must be more careful using them.
A shame that the combat is so basic. The concern here is that 95% of the game's enemies are the same. They'll walk slowly towards you as you hammer the attack button until they die. Many enemies will come from spawn points, so it's simply a case of destroying that to cease the flow of enemies to that area of the current level. The fact that all you're doing is bashing one button to kill most things makes the whole thing pretty repetitive.
There are some enemies that attempt to change things up a bit. Dragons are kinda like boss monsters, where they will launch fireballs at you so these require a bit more thought and skill to defeat without taking too much damage. Death also decides to greet you with a rather cold hug. To be fair Death also moves rather slowly but is not easily killed and often means taking heavy damage to kill him up close or using a potion. Suffice to say, these few encounters don't make battles that much more interesting.
Taking damage from those beasts depletes your life meter, but that isn't the only thing. Your life meter is constantly draining as you play, so in effect you're against a timer based on your remaining life. You can regain health by eating food or drinking certain liquids found scattered around the dungeon floors to prolong your life. It can be quite pressuring too, when you're hunting around for the way to go.
In addition to food items there are a few other pickups around. Poison will drain more health, while you can grab some powerup items. These can increase your attack strength, increase speed or grant temporary combat effects. This is a nice little feature that encourages going off the main path a little.
The goal of every dungeon floor is to find the exit square (conveniently labelled as 'exit') to proceed to the next floor. As well as passing by enemy monsters you also have to deal with the puzzles and the layout itself. Many areas acts as mazes where you have to find the correct path out of many, while some others are open enough to allow multiple paths to the exit.
There are some clever tricks to get in your way though. Doors barracade off certain areas, requiring a key to open. Some trap tiles may bring you harm, but some also cause certain walls to disappear, making it a test of nerve as you determine whether you want to risk it. Teleporters will allow you to travel around the mazes, opening up more pathways.
These challenges are fairly good... at first. The problem here is that Gauntlet II really doesn't have a whole lot of tricks to offer, so it simply reuses the ones it has... excessively. Locked doors and trap tiles are especially common, but even other puzzles find themselves seriously overused. At some point even the levels seem to repeat themselves, so the freshness is quickly lost. The door puzzles have another worrying trait of trapping the player. Run out of keys (which is surprisingly easy to do) and you become stuck. There's a clever trick that causes all walls to turn into exits, but doing so means waiting around for a lengthy period of time, which is not only a problem for your life meter but also quite boring.
As an attempt to break things up a bit there are special events that occur when you enter a stage that affects how things work. You might get shots bouncing off walls, the ability to fire through enemies and instant kill anything or be designated as 'it', which causes all enemies to come after you. These are certainly nice ideas, but few of them really help to make things less repetitive.
The bonus levels are a nice, if equally repetitive, chance of pace. You are dumped into another maze where you grab treasure for points and attempt to exit the stage before the timer runs out. The bonus stages all feel too samey though, especially with the lack of enemies and puzzles to overcome.
The general pacing of the game is also fairly slow. Even the elf barely seems to move at an average speed, and the likes of the warrior doesn't trek along at any reasonable rate. Some enemies can be a pain to kill too, adding to the problem.
There are many levels in the game. I went up to triple digits before I gave up. I'm not sure if there is an actual end to the levels, but even getting up to triple digits is a tedious exercise. Replay value is pretty much nil, aside maybe from the novelty of dragging a friend through the same experience. Going through once is one thing, but there's no value to trekking through more than that.
Up to four players can take part in the same game, with each character assigned a specific colour and their own life meter. As usual, multiplayer gaming boosts the gameplay as players work together to defeat enemies and find the exit. The difference here is that the number of items hasn't increased, so players find themselves also competing for food items to keep themselves healthy. Dying isn't so bad here though, since players can continue at any point, but losing all your items is a real pain. Alas, even bringing other players to the experience doesn't change how samey it all gets.
The graphics are pretty decent. The dungeons have some solid detail, but may appear to be pretty basic at times. The textures all look good and the colours for the dungeon are suitably dark and moody. The character sprites aren't so impressive though. Each one looks rather squished and the player characters are all washed in a single colour based on the player colour. These all seem to lack any real decent animation too, except for the dragon. Why can't I see my character throwing the axe? Where's the arm motion?
The sound itself is a mix. The music is rather bland and follows the overall theme of being repetitive. Sound effects are fairly basic but at least do their job without grating. The voice clips - not exactly common in NES titles - is a nice touch though. It alerts you when health is running low or when you did something as stupid as shooting food.
Unfortunately, Gauntlet II isn't that good. It starts off well enough, if a bit slow, but nothing much changes as you play so the appeal quickly wears thin. With a bit more variety this could have been great, but there's not enough here to really have a great playthrough.