Author: John Legendoffzelda
With its studio glitz, its recurring bodybuilder characters who called themselves the Gladiators, and its playground environment of red, white, and blue gym pads, the syndicated TV series American Gladiators made sports into a heightened form of escapism. Audiences could tune into an episode and see folks exert their athleticism in an assortment of eye-grabbing events. They could root for the contenders, racing against each other in a race for the most points while also dodging and shoving their way to victory. Alternately they could root for the Gladiators, bronzed men and women with buzzword names like Ice and Nitro who fought the contenders and wore uniforms that prominently showed off their muscles.
The show was unabashed fast-food television: it wasn’t good for you, but it tasted delicious. In their effort to take those pleasures and redo them for the Super Nintendo, GameTek and Imagitec Design Inc., bizarrely, take that same fast food and remove the cheese. And the lettuce. And the fries. The condiments too. Everything is taken away until it’s reduced to a salty, gray beef patty. The adaptation they come up with turns the series into a piece of underdeveloped, disastrous piffle.
The game offers two modes of play, both of which allow the players to reenact the original show; they can play a single episode with the one-on-one mode, or they can go through a whole season by playing multiple one-on-one matches in the tournament mode. As in a regular episode, the contenders earn points by barreling through six regular events plus the Eliminator, a final multiple-component obstacle course that officially determines the victor.
All seven events are based on the more memorable reoccurring parts of the show, among them the dueling turrets of Assault and the famous Atlasphere, where contenders transport themselves around the arena in those giant spherical cages.
The inclusion of these events is where the game begins and ends to ever capture the show’s appeal, and everywhere else it doesn’t even try. It plays grating music that barely even has a tune, a turnaround from the show’s compositions by Bill Conti, the man who made Rocky sound so inspirational. The Gladiators are almost completely absent; they pose for the title screen and they each get a lackluster bio about them, but during the actual gameplay, both they and the contenders are all reduced to the same model of anonymous helmeted figure, distinguished only by what color their uniforms are. If this game wants to overlook that the show had real personalities, or any personality at all, what’s the point in adapting it?
Even getting past the stale absence of charm, when viewed as a game you would be shocked at what an incoherent mess this title is. Throughout all seven events, the controls virtually don’t exist, and the player will often not figure them out until it’s too late. The top-down view given to three of the events at least indicates that they can move freely with the D-pad. But in all other aspects the rest of the buttons are assigned roles that seem to change every time. The absence of any feedback is so strong that it affects the task of taking a ball from a container and putting it in another container, or trying to aim and fire a turret before those sixty seconds end.
The Human Cannonball, meanwhile, depends on filling twin meters precisely enough that the contender can swing across the stage to successfully knock the Gladiator off of their podium; apart from that single instruction, nothing about the scene makes sense. Can the player even control his character while he is swinging? What kind of balance is needed on those meters for the contender and the opponent to connect, anyway? By the time the player will even ask those questions, the next event will have already started, and then he may have even more questions that could only be answered by futile replaying.
The parts of this game with such arcane controls are hopelessly mired in confusion, while those with relatively more understandable controls are merely logy. The Atlasphere, the most manageable of any of these events, becomes the process of moving a heavy and inert boulder across special podiums to earn points while having to deal with the imprecision in crossing those platforms and running into the two spheres operated by the Gladiators. Whenever they get the chance, the Gladiators that are in an event will ruthlessly tag the player, tackling or bombarding them or just not letting them pass. They do this with a fervor that suggests the developers just cranked the AI difficulty to “high” and called it a challenge.
Having to learn how to outwit everybody while figuring out which button does what is neither enjoyable nor the right type of challenge, especially when every event ends before any of these difficulties even sink in. That’s the clincher to these mini-games – their shortness and airlessness. Sixty seconds is far from enough time for the player to digest the rapid information that keeps getting thrown at him, and even if that time limit is fidelity to the show, it doesn’t stop that information from evaporating.
No sense of joy or accomplishment is ever retained from finishing the Joust or the Wall or anything else. The game’s entire programming vacuums those qualities out of every section and, worse yet, trivializes the events here by exposing their routine gimmickry. It’s just cruddy digitized athletes running around and slamming into each other.
But the show knew to transcend its own gimmicks by upholding a rigid physicality; it placed the contenders at the center of very physical situations, and through that setup it could continuously say that they were doing something real. That’s what made the show work in spite of its other features, namely the pro-wrestling flash and the enthusiastically patriotic color scheme. The game has that same red-white-and-blue scheme, but it’s presented in a flat and ugly sort of way. It has no dimension or studio warmth, a flaw that goes all too well with all the aforementioned disgraces to its namesake that this adaptation offers.
Confusing, trashy, and ultimately worthless, American Gladiators is simply one of the worst video games for the Super Nintendo, if not of the 1990s. Playing this game is like watching the original series on a TV with a scrambled reception. Nothing about it is fun and everything about it is strenuous: it’s an exercise that’s detrimental to the muscles and the senses.
One out of five stars.
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