8-Bit Gladiator Action

American Gladiators (1991)

There is no denying that the American Gladiators were a cultural force for a little while there in the 1990s. Not only did the brand create a hugely successful syndicated show, but that then launched a series of international programs, a bunch of clothing and random merch, and even some pretty decent action figures (just to name a few things). The show found a lot of crossover appeal, between twenty-somethings wanting to watch a goofy sports show, to serious competitors, and, of course, kids. Children watching on the weekend, after Saturday morning cartoons, were a big part of the audience for the show, and over time the brand learned to cater to them.

American Gladiators

Early in the run NintendoSince 1983 (with the release of the Famicom gaming system in Japan), Nintendo has proven to be a gaming company dedicated to finding what gamers want, even when the gamers don't know it themselves. From dual-screen systems, to motion controls, to convertible home console/portable consoles, Nintendo regularly proves that the weirdest innovation is exactly what the gaming community needs. got on board with sponsoring the show, and you heard that sponsorship every episode of the series: "Powerball is brought to you by Nintendo, makes of the Nintendo Entertainment System. Now you're playing with power!" And then for the SNES as well, once that took over as the main console from the company. Naturally, with the kids locked in, and a video game brand on board, it was time to bring the Gladiators to the Nintendo Entertainment System. And thus the 1991 American Gladiators video game was born.

As a sports title for the NES, the game is horribly generic and not that interesting. Frankly, most sports games weren't that fun on the system unless you lucked into one that a company really cared about during its development. Not every game could be Tecmo Bowl, though, and American Gladiators certainly falls far from those lofty heights. It's not necessarily a bad game, just unambitious and painfully generic (despite the colorful brand attached). It hardly lives up to the potential of the franchise, that's for sure.

The game defaults pretty much to what you'd expect for a sports competition that's functionally a series of smaller events: a mini-game collection. American Gladiators features five games (very loosely) inspired by the TV show, and players are tasked with navigating those fives games, over and over, until they've played through all the rounds of the competition and reach the finale. Those games are:

  • Assault: This is the easiest and shortest of the games. You have 60 seconds to take out the gladiator. To do that you run up the field, dodging them while the move back and forth horizontally in their hover pod, shooting at you. Grab a weapon, hit the gladiator three times (which you can easily do since you get enough rounds in the weapon to do so) to win the round. Easy peasy.
  • Human Cannonball: The set up for this will remind players of Pitfall. You stand on one platform with a rope swinging back and forth between you and the gladiator on the other end. You have to time it so you jump as the platform comes up and the rope comes towards you. Then you swing across and have to let go at the right time to knock the gladiator off their platform (screaming the whole way down). Do this four times in 100 seconds to win the round.
  • Joust: This plays much more like the original version of Joust from the first season of the television show than what you might expect from the series as it was played when this game was released. You go up against a foe, one-on-one, on a raised platform and have to fight them backwards off their side until they fall off (screaming the whole way). Then, if you succeed, you platform (jumping along) until you get to the next long platform to battle another gladiator (all of whom look like maybe Thunder, maybe Malibu). Do this four times against increasingly more difficult opponents within 100 seconds to win the round.
  • Powerball: This is a really goofy rendition of the game. It looks like Powerball but doesn't really play like it. Each of the three gladiators will stand near one of the five score buckets, not really defending as just being in the way when you have to run across the field. Scoring is easy, getting past them as they bump against you can be a little annoying. With that said, there's no tackling, just a lot of bumping and shoving, so it shouldn't be hard for you to score a bunch of buckets in 60 seconds.
  • Wall: You start at the bottom of a long and maze-like wall and you have to climb up while being chased first by two gladiators at the bottom and then more that will spawn in along the length of the wall. These gladiators can't be knocked off but if they hit an obstacle they will fall off (although the same goes for you as well). Make it to the top without getting taken out, all in 100 seconds or less, to win the round.
  • The Eliminator: Once you've played through all the rounds of the competition (not just all the games, but four full rounds of all the games in the competition) you make it to the finale. It starts with a series of platforms you have to jump up and between, followed by the hand bike over a long chasm, and then platforming along moving conveyors, all while the game auto-scrolls and throws barrage after barrage of medicine balls at you (and if you get knocked off you lose a life). Then you have to navigate a series of zip lines, jumping from one to the next as you pick up more and more momentum (and if you miss one and fall here you go all the way back to the start of the section). But if you make it pas all this you drop to the platform at the end and get crowned the champion.

Fans of American Gladiators (which would have included any kid that bought this back in the day) will note that the game only have five events you play through instead of the standard six on the actual show. It frankly wouldn't have been hard to include one more, say Breakthrough & Conquer, considering that would be a top down game and the pieces for it already existed in Powerball and Assault. It seems a little lazy not committing to the full format and doing a full six mini-games considering that's the whole format off the series.

On that same front, the Eliminator only shows up once. If you're supposed to get the feel of going through the whole series, from qualifiers to playoffs, semis and then finals, you really should have the Eliminator capping each "episode". You only get it once here, and while it's an interesting event unlike anything else in the game, it would have been nice to have more consistent build up for the whole match. Like, I could imagine this game playing kind of like Super Smash TV with cheesy versions of Mike Adamle and Larry Szonka talking about the player between episodes, spurring you on to the next level where things get more difficult and the player has to work even harder. That would have added the right ambiance. This game lacks that.

The weirdest part of the experience for me, and the part that shows the developers didn't really understand who this game was for, is that you don't play against another player. You're just playing against the gladiators. Sure, you can play two-player but it's alternating play, not simultaneous. On the show the players are battling each other and the gladiators are obstacles. Here, the gladiators are the villains and you're playing against them. It's weird, and feels out of character for the franchise.

Is it too much to expect something like that from an NES game? Not really, considering Smash TV made it onto the NES and retained (most) of its style in the transition. NES games, by 1991, were pretty big and could support something far more complex than the ambitions of this title. What we get is a pretty rote and basic interpretation of the American Gladiators format clearly designed to cash in on the success of that series with minimal effort. It does it's job, but only barely.

Consider how repetitive the game is. You play five short mini-games and then "level up" and have to do it again against slightly harder versions of the events. You can get through a single round of all five mini-games in seven minutes or less, and the whole shebang can be done in a half an hour. That's through everything, including the eliminator. That's a short NES game by 1991's standards. Sure, that might have been par for the course back when the NES came out in 1983, but by the time everyone was transitioning over to the SNES, we expected deeper and more involved experiences. Hell, even Super Smash TV took longer to play through and that was a quarter munching arcade experience.

This game really does feel like it came from ma different era. It's punishingly hard up front, with little in the way of tutorials or hints at how to play. You just have to suffer, die, and then suffer again until each game clicks. It's forced difficult to stretch out the initial experience of the game. Once you understand it, though, then it's painfully short. There's no real middle ground. Considering that difficulty, and relative brevity of the experience, the game isn't so much fun as trying. It tries patience more than entertains, and that leads to just a dreadful experience for anyone involved.

I can see how an American Gladiators game could work. Hell, I could even envision a way to turn this version of it into something far more interesting and playable. As it stands, though, this feels like a busted bit of crapware shoved out to grab dollars from unsuspecting little kids. Even by the cheesy standards of the series, this NES game does not measure up.