Now You're Playing With Super Gladiators

American Gladiators (1992)

I doubt, after the NES edition of American Gladiators that any kid was really hoping for another iteration on the video game franchise. The NES game has certain simple joys, to be fair, but it's also a simplistic and obnoxious game that hardly translates the original series in any proper way. For kids wanting to live out their Gladiators ambitions, the NES game failed to deliver on those promises.

American Gladiators

Still, a year later a 16-bit version was released for the SNES, Sega Genesis, and Amiga platforms. This game was set to answer many of the complaints fans had about the NES edition. It was truer to the source material, looking more authentic in the process. It had games that better realized the basics of the TV series. It was setup to feel like you were in the competition and not just playing a video game vaguely related to the series. And while it did manage all that it somehow, in the process, failed to capture any kind of fun.

The basics of the game mirror the NES title. You're one player in the competition, going from game to game as you work your way up through preliminaries into quarter finals, semi-finals, and the finals. You'll play through six mini-games each round, proving your mettle against the Gladiators as you work to score more points than your opponent. Score enough points and you'll move on to the next round while they'll get eliminated. And then the next rounds starts the process all over again. The games in questions are:

  • Assault: This is a lackluster adaptation of the game. While I thought the weird, top-down version on the NES was bad as it barely used the rules of Assault at all, this 16-bit rendition is even worse. You start top-down, running to the first of the zones, while the gladiator lazily shoots a ball or two at you. Once at the zone you switch to a third person view with an aiming reticule off to the side. Position the reticule vaguely right and shoot, hoping to hit the target. Each weapon fired is a point and you get points for hitting the target as well -- 5 on the outside, 10 dead center. Don't worry about the gladiators, though, as they aren't a threat in this event.
  • Atlasphere: Credit where it's due, this game includes Atlasphere, which they didn't bother putting into the NES edition. And it's actually not a terrible little mini-game. You play it top down, as you'd expect, and you have to furiously tap your buttons while aiming your sphere to the scoring zones. The gladiators, meanwhile, roam around and occasionally aim for you. If they tap you, from any side, you lose momentum. And the best part is, unlike some other games in this set, it's played simultaneously against your foe, making it feel even more hectic. This is a good one to play against another human, and it actually makes you wish it was just a little longer. And unexpectedly decent game in the collection.
  • Human Cannonball: The NES version of this game was weird, feeling more like Pitfall than American Gladiators, but it was at least engaging. This version is just boring. You get a first-person view from up on the platform and are presented with two meters. One is power, the other aim, and you quickly tap twice for both. Then the game takes over and gives you a Mode 7 view of your hit. You play just once, and if you take out the gladiator you get 10 points. It's less a mini-game than a tiny Mode 7 tech demo. Note, this game wasn't included in the Genesis version (likely due to Mode 7 being the main effect here), but that is no big loss at all.
  • Joust: Essentially a mini boxing game now. The two foes would face each other, going in for high, low, and special attacks, working to drain the other opponent's health. You aren't trying to knock them off (so no "Gemini Special" one-two hits that end the match in 2 seconds) just completely drain them, like in a fighting game. It's fine, not great at all. This is a mini-game that just exists.
  • Powerball: This is basically a repeat of Atlasphere just with human players instead of little balls. You start at one end and have to grab a ball, and then take it to one of the five scoring pods while the gladiators generally roam around. If the gladiator touches you they will briefly stop you, but you can generally score after even still; it's very rare you actually get tackled and lose the ball. Additionally, it's easy to psyche out the gladiators by roaming far and wide around the field so they get distracted and go back to their defensive zones. Not really as engaging as the Atlasphere version, but it's fine.
  • Wall: This is basically the same kind of experience as the NES version. You start at the bottom of the wall and have to follow the pegs along, furiously tapping to climb. If a gladiator touches you, you lose. If you misplace yourself on the pegs and fall, you lose. One the one hand this is played simultaneously, so it does feel more active. Downside, the mazes of the wall are more realistic to the show but less interesting than the weird, massive wall mazes from the NES. It is, again, fine, but hardly interesting.
  • The Eliminator: Played from a side-scrolling perspective, and run simultaneously, this is a faithful adaptation of the Eliminator from the first two seasons of the game. You start at one end and have to run up a ramp, then navigate the hand-bike, cross a balance beam (while avoiding the medicine bags), all before climbing the cargo net. This is then followed by a trip down the zip-line, and then jumping some hurdles all before pushing past a gladiator to reach the finish line. Every second on the clock is added to your score, like in the early seasons of the game, leading to your final score for the game.

As you can see, the 16-bit version uses the same games as the NES edition, with a bonus sixth game: Atlasphere. It's nice that the game is able to better mirror the series by providing a full compliment of games, but it does still feel like the developer's ambitions were kept surprisingly low. Most of the games feel like little more than glorified tech demos, featuring little in the way of game play or fun. Human Cannonball is an utterly awful rendition of the game here, while Joust and Assault are both barely playable. Plus, these are the only six games you get.

Considering when this game was released, it would have been nice to have a couple of other games thrown into the mix, with some degree of shuffling and randomization for which games you got at any one time. The Maze would be an easy one to add as the developers could have used the same setup from Atlasphere and Powerball, a top down view as the players worked their way through the maze itself. Hang Tough might have been harder but it would have been nice to get maybe a top down view for that one as well, with some back and forth navigation of the rings while the gladiator chased the player. Hell, Breakthrough and Conquer could have used the top-down view for the Breakthrough part, followed by a variant of Joust for the Conquer ring. The engine as it exists could have supported more games and more to do would help keep the title from feeling stale.

And it will get stale, mind you. Despite there being six games here instead of five, and players will also have to do the Eliminator at the end of each round of play, the various rounds of the competition still end up being faster here than on the NES> That can be chalked up to most of these games being much quicker here. You only get one foes to knock off in Joust and Human Cannonball. The Wall only takes 30 seconds to climb here as opposed to the maze like edifice that required up to 100 seconds on the NES. Assault is also over far too quickly, but that's at least a blessing since it's also a bad game. Even with Powerball and Atlasphere being playable they don't add enough padding to make up for the brevity of the package. This game is just too damn short.

I wish the individual rounds were longer, or at least more interesting, because this game had the potential to be a solid party game. The developers put in the option for up to 16 players to go through the tournament, meaning every slot could be populated by human players. Sure, only two players would go at a time, but I could imagine a situation where, if this game were fun to play and to watch, you could see a bunch of people gathered around at a gathering, catcalling and yelling as the various rounds of the tournament went back and forth. The setup for this game's tournament mode is ideal for a rowdy party. The game itself is not.

Even in its basic presentation this game couldn't get its shit together. For starters, the gladiators only show up in the introduction to the game. Once the game actually starts, the colorful gladiators, who are an indelible part of the series, are replaced with nameless, formless white characters (using the same sprites as the players). That removes a lot of the personality from the game with that exclusion alone. The goofy sprites of Thunder and Malibu, the screaming as they were knocked off platforms, all the weird little joys of the NES presentation, that's all gone in this game.

Graphically, the game is pretty sloppy as well. While the sprites at times move fluidly, they are weirdly bulky and often don't look like real humans. The worst game for presentation is Human Cannonball, which uses the Mode 7 effects poorly. You're zoomed out on the action at the start, but by the time you fly in, everything is moving too quickly and the gladiator looks like a mess of pixels. It just doesn't work. The game's design, despite at times trying to use the layout and fonts of the actual series, just can't get it together.

The worst part, though, is the soundtrack. The game features two songs, one of which plays for most of the game (though every transition, menu, score screen, and the like) and a second which plays, for some reason, only during the Wall. Nether of these songs, mind you, are the original American Gladiators theme. That theme song doesn't even show up in the game at all, which is weird as even the NES game had a (crappy) version of the song. All the cool sound effects (like the guy screaming as he falls off a platform) are gone from this title, replaced just by two shitty songs and, well, that's it.

Look, the NES version of this game isn't that great, but it at least has goofy charms that add a certain amount of fun. All of that, the goofiness and the fun, was removed from the 16-bit iteration. This version plays like a flat, tired, awful answer to the NES edition. I didn't think it could be possible, considering how little love I had for the 8-bit rendition, but I think I'd prefer to play the NES version if I had to play some form of an American Gladiators game. It's shocking just how much Imagitec Design and GameTek dropped the ball with this 16-bit version.