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Much like it’s arcade-only stablemate Knights of Valor 2, The Gladiator is a side-scrolling beat ‘em up with a distinct Chinese style that goes under a different name in every region it was released in. The full list of official names is as follows:
“The Gladiator” – English language version
“Shen Jian Feng Yun” (神劍風雲) - Taiwan
“Shen Jian Fu Mo Lu” (神剑伏魔录) - Mainland China
“Tou Gen Kyou/Road of the Sword” (闘幻狂) - Japan
“Singeom Ui Pung Un*” (신검의풍운) – South Korea
*Probably inaccurate pronunciation– please correct me if you’re familiar with Korean!
All versions of the game run on IGS’ PGM hardware, although the Japanese version comes on a dedicated PCB rather than a cart to be used with a PGM motherboard, much like certain Cave shmups – Ketsui and ESPgaluda for example.
The basic gameplay involves up to four people choosing one of six characters and beating the living daylights out of anything and everything they come across. Before each stage starts (including the first one) players are required to choose which level from a choice of up to three they wish play through, with some routes being harder than others and most of them offering different bosses, different hidden items and in the final choice’s case, which end boss and ending you will encounter.
Stages can also have hidden requirements that unlock secret areas or make progress easier, for example reaching a certain point in a stage within a tight time limit or dash-attacking statues to push them across entrances, preventing enemy reinforcements from appearing.
As with the majority of other PGM games, The Gladiator uses a four button setup – A performs standard attacks, B is used for special skills (these consume qi), C jumps and D initiates a defensive dash or air recovery. This simple setup is complicated by a variety of button combos, extra skills, a counter system and “desperation” moves -
Auto/Normal combo – This is the first choice you have to make after picking a character. Auto characters are weaker but they’re easier to use
A+B – Pressing these two together performs a powerful attack, at the cost of some life
A+C – Initiates the same move as the above (and also consumes a portion of the life gauge) but also gives the character a trail of shadows for a short period of time allowing every move to perform multiple hits (much like Street Fighter Alpha’s custom combo system)
B+C – When timed correctly and at the right distance this is used to cancel the special attacks performed by some enemies and bosses. If done correctly the player then has to mash the A button to counter the boss and perform an attack. This move consumes qi.
B+<direction> – Each character can have up to five special skills; some are earned as they level up and some are hidden items found in certain stages. These attacks can also have additional effects such as removing poison or increasing attack speed. If the player finds a skill that occupies the same slot as one they already have they are forced to choose between keeping or replacing the one they have, even if they have other slots free.
Countering – A well-timed A attack at close range may start off a counter – arrows will appear on screen and the player will need to push their joystick in the same directions to perform a counter.
Dashing then attacking, using A+<direction>, and jumping also perform different attacks too.
As with Knights of Valor 2, The Gladiator also has a selection of alternative modes to the standard story game, with some of them only unlocked via button codes.
The other mode that’s available by default from the main menu is a boss rush mode – players can choose which bosses to face in any order they like, completely randomise it, or pick a few and then randomise the rest.
The next has to be unlocked by pressing DDDBBB on the mode select screen (the one after the “How to play” screen). This is another boss rush style mode, but this time instead of choosing which bosses to face the player gets to choose which special skills to equip themselves with before the gauntlet starts.
There are three other button combinations for the mode select screen too – BCBCBC, DCDBCB, and DBDBDB, but to be honest the descriptions online are vague and there’s no obvious immediate difference in play when they’re activated – if you can tell me exactly what these do please get in touch!
I wanted to give a quick comment on the current state of this game’s MAME emulation – it’s certainly playable as intended as far as I can see, but the music is a poor imitation of the real thing. However, even as somebody who does own the arcade original I have to admit that until IGS do the sensible thing and stop making all these incredible side-scrolling beat ‘em ups arcade only MAME is the most practical way to play and it does at least give everyone a chance to experience this excellent game.