If you’ve never heard the 8-bit arrangement of Bill Conti’s iconic American Gladiators theme song (yes, that Bill Conti. The same Bill Conti who penned themes for Rocky and the Karate Kid), you’re missing out.
The 8-bit version of the theme welcomed players to the American Gladiators Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) game released in 1991 by GameTek. At the time, GameTek was the go-to developer for television show adaptations on the NES. They’re the company responsible for home versions of Wheel of Fortune, Family Feud, Double Dare, Jeopardy among several others. In the build-up to release, the American Gladiators game proved to be a financial hit, with the Los Angeles Times reporting that the entire first run of the game sold out to distributors for the ’91 holiday season. However, when American Gladiators was released and played, the critical response didn’t live up to the lofty sales figures. The game was heavily criticized by many reviewers for its clunky controls and simplistic graphics. Me, on the other hand? I’ve loved this game since it was originally released. I frequently find myself coming back to revisit it over and over again.
If you’re not familiar with American Gladiators on the NES, here’s a quick primer:
At first look, American Gladiators may have been inspired by the classic Tron arcade game. After the title card, player select and usual video game pleasantries, the player is greeted by a selection screen where they can choose one of five American Gladiators events: Powerball, Joust, Assault, The Wall, and Human Cannonball. Once the player has completed all five events, they move on to another wave where the same events become more challenging (and the color schemes to all the events changes).
After reaching Level Four and completing all five of the events for the fourth time, the player is automatically kicked into the Eliminator course. Much like its real-life inspiration, the Eliminator is a ridiculously difficult level. It alternates between the player having to bound across Super Mario-like platforms, coordinating their movements on the hand bike, traversing a series of treadmills, and swooping down a switchback zip line to the finish. The player has to navigate this all while Gladiators throw boulders (at least, I think they’re supposed to be foam boulders?) from off-screen. Finish it all, and the player becomes the American Gladiators the grand champion.
I, personally, have never made it to the end of the game on my own. More often than not, American Gladiators came out of the drawer (and still does) at parties or when friends are over. The multiplayer mode pits two competitors against each other and the multiplayer mode is one of the best features of the game. Many a title for “Lord and Master of the Apartment” were won between my roommate and I over a bout of American Gladiators in college.
But, what about the iconic Gladiators themselves? How are they represented? Because the 8-bit sprites fail to read as Laser, Gold, Gemini, and others there are “load” screens that kick off each event featuring the various Gladiators. Each of them sports a saying to either intimidate the player or shoot milk out of their nose because they read so outrageously. I particularly enjoy Gemini’s “I Am the Master Blaster” and Lace’s “Now You’re Playing with Power,” the latter being a pretty obvious homage to Nintendo’s slogan at the time. I love the Power Glove, it is so bad.
Joust on the NES Gladiators game is a bit less of a one-on-one combat scenario as it is on TV and more like a side-scrolling challenge. The player has to progress from one Joust podium to another, knocking down Gladiators who stand in their way. If the player is lucky, a blinking Joust stick will fly through the air, giving the challenger invincible super-strength to knock a Gladiator to the ground below with one blow.
Assault is similar to its on-screen counterpart, as one of the Gladiators is armed with a tennis ball cannon and the player has to reach the finish line without getting hit three times. Or, more simply, use pickup rocket launchers to destroy the Gladiator’s cannon before it destroys the player.
Human Cannonball, which disappeared soon after its introduction to the show because it injured so many people, is one of my favorite event levels on the NES game. Players jump onto a swinging pendulum rope and attempt to knock a Gladiator holding a giant shield off the podium. One of the best features of this particular event is the hilarious sound effects. But more on the sound in a bit.
Powerball is a “stuff all five to stay alive”-style game where the player grabs a ball from the dispenser and tries to slam it into one of five receptacles before a Gladiator swats it out of their hands. Filling all five receptacles resets the game and gives the player a 1-Up, which comes in useful in successive levels where the challenges get far more difficult. Stock up on those 1-Ups as much as you can.
The Wall is perhaps where the developers at GameTek took the most creative liberties. And perhaps one of the most challenging (read: maddening) that may have been where the game took so much criticism. The event is a terrifying Mad Max-style spider climb as the player alternates hitting the A and B buttons to climb a seemingly endless wall as the Gladiators stalk them. The Gladiators do their best to send the player tumbling to the non-existent ground below, all the while defying the laws of physics in what I can only compare to the deleted scene from The Exorcist where a possessed Regan climbs the ceiling.
Sound is really where the American Gladiators game has a personality that shines through. As mentioned earlier, the 8-bit rendition of Bill Conti’s theme is wonderful, as is the rest of the music throughout the game, many of the incidental music cues are among some of the NES’ best earworms. Success in the game is measured by how many sweet guitar licks you hear throughout the game. Finishing a level, picking up a power up, and adding up your score is punctuated with a guitar chord that sounds like a “wow!” When it comes to sound effects, it’s as if the sound design of the game has embraced the kitschy nature of the series and relishes going for a well-timed, hyper-real sound effect. Aside from the Ghostbusters game on the Commodore 64, American Gladiators is one of the first I can remember that tried to replicate human voices. The grunts and screams are so big and so laughable that at one point, I had the Human Cannonball scream as my text alert tone. On further research, the screams and grunts were part of a “Sound Ideas Series 4000” stock sound effect library, that’s been used in a ton of other video games, movie trailers, and animated shows. Chances are you’ve heard at least one or two of these screams in something you love.
But, is American Gladiators actually a great game? Well…..not really. I think it’s safe to say that it won’t be protected by the Smithsonian National Treasures of Popular Culture any time soon. That being said, the simplistic gameplay, the undeniable tinge of late-80’s/early-90’s nostalgia, and the game’s incredible sense of humor and personality shine through to place it among one of my personal favorites.
Be sure to catch the real-life American Gladiators in action, weekdays at 12:30/11:30 c right here on CHARGE!.