American Gladiators was a sports entertainment game show that started in 1989 and peaked in popularity in the early ’90s. The show pitted contestants against each other in a series of athletic events where they combated muscled-up monsters dressed in patriotic garb. The hulked-up bodybuilders were the stars of the show, with cool names like Ice and Laser, coupled with the ability to regularly whoop your “average Joe” participant. The point-driven events were creative and there were certainly worse things you could be tuning into as a twelve year-old on a Saturday afternoon. Like most entertainment with even a twinge of popularity at the time, American Gladiators was licensed to become a video game. With releases over two years on the NES, Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo, did American Gladiators fare better than its typical over-matched contestant?
American Gladiators on the NES was published by GameTek in 1991 and featured five events from the show. The structure of the game was different than future iterations. You start a one-player game with 5 “lives” (or chances) and you have to complete an event to advance (more on this later). There are four levels in the game, with each event repeated at an increased difficulty before reaching The Eliminator challenge (the main event of the game show) at the end of the game. Here is a breakdown of the events in the NES version of the game:
Joust – You’ve seen this at your local or state fair, only with people usually wearing gigantic padded suits. Here you battle a litany of Gladiators with pugil sticks in this part-platformer, part-fighting game challenge. In between bouts of smashing the up and B buttons to bludgeon your opponent off their stand, you make platforming jumps until you find the next Gladiator. And if you would somehow fall, you lose a chance and have to start over. After traipsing through what seemed like a half mile of padded risers, one has to suspend their disbelief in trying to figure out what warehouse could hold this kind of competition.
The Wall – A fun event where you alternate B and A to race up a wall with Gladiators chasing after you. The walls are decked out with obstacles and gaps where you can no longer find a grip. If you touch either of these you dramatically flop to the bottom and have to start again. The Gladiators are not immune to these either and typically wipe out just as often. This event is way more challenging in video game form than the game show.
Human Cannonball – Purely an event based around timing, you jump to grab one of the fireball obstacles from Contra and release at the opportune time to knock the Gladiator off their stand. There are a ton of ways to miss here and one poor jump to start leaves you handcuffed and facing certain loss. This is not just one Gladiator either, you advance through to face a number of them before completing the event.
Powerball – Here you grab a ball from alternating ends of the court and attempt to muscle your way to different goals, with each ranging in value. This is pretty faithful to the original show and a decent interpretation.
Assault – This event has been slightly modified from the original show. Here you chase a Gladiator in a futuristic hovercraft machine and attempt to murder them with a missile launcher that you pick up along the way. You can take a couple of hits from their own tennis ball machine gun before you succumb and have to start over.
As alluded to earlier, you start the game with five chances. Once these have been exhausted the game is over and you’re back to the title screen. This happens a lot. When you couple in that there are four levels of each stage, the thought of reaching the final Eliminator challenge is incredibly daunting. Fortunately there is a password system and you can pick up at the beginning of levels 2, 3 or 4 with either 5 or 10 (!) chances to see if you can advance. The NES version of American Gladiators, despite crushing difficulty, does have its charm. With four levels, the game is considerably deep and mastering how to advance to the next torture can be gripping. The graphics aren’t great but they did take the time to capture the spirit of game show by including sprites of the Gladiators and a rotating mix of humorous catchphrases. Come on, “I’m the Ayatollah of Smackola” is pretty good.
The Genesis and Super Nintendo versions were released in 1992 and 1993 respectively and featured updated graphics, an additional event as well as an accessible Eliminator challenge. The game modes changed also; now you participated in a tournament bracket (like the show) and attempted to advance past each fictional opponent on your way to winning the final. Each bout featured all of the events and if you failed one, you received zero points and moved on to the next. This is in stark contrast to the NES game and while considerably easier, 16-bit American Gladiators becomes extremely repetitive to the point that once you solve where to shoot or climb, the game loses all challenge and isn’t worth picking up again. With that downer note, let’s explore the new events in the Genesis and Super Nintendo games!
The Joust, Wall, Human Cannonball and Powerball events make a repeat appearance here, with Human Cannonball utilizing Mode 7 on the Super Nintendo as you take a first-person view of swinging at the Gladiators. Also added are the Atlasphere, the real Assault event and the Eliminator.
Atlasphere – Here you navigate inside a caged ball as you attempt to run over the different goals and pick up as many points as possible within the time limit. Much like Powerball, this plays like the game show event and translates pretty well.
Assault – In the real Assault, you attempt to fire different tennis ball weapons at the targets behind the Gladiators while they pelt you with high-powered felt. Figuring out how to operate and fire the guns is a little tricky at first. Once you determine where to aim, as the theme goes with these versions, the challenge is gone with this one.
The Eliminator – Finally, the main event obstacle course can be played without having to pull all your hair out first. Unfortunately this entire event is limited to repeatedly tapping the L and R buttons to go as fast as possible.
As retro gamers we are conditioned to be cautious around licensed games and unfortunately the home experience of American Gladiators takes a great premise and executes it poorly. Where the NES version is quirky and extremely difficult, the 16-bit games are bland, easy and have little to any replay value. I should note that both have two-player modes where you can grab a friend and compete. Sadly this too is more frustration than fun. In the end, while the game (and Gladiators) look great on paper, the gameplay fails to live up to its sports entertainment model. As the old adage goes, American Gladiators looks like Tarzan but plays like Jane.