Friday, 30 March 2012

The Forbidden Gate (Knightmare gamebook 5) by Dave Morris

Once again, Ill be reviewing a gamebook based on an existing franchise.  This time, it is The Forbidden gate, the fifth gamebook based on the Knightmare TV series.  There are six gamebooks and one puzzle book in the Knightmare series.  Dave Morris wrote first one jointly with Tim Child (the creator of the Knightmare TV show) and then wrote the remaining books alone.  The gamebooks (not the puzzle book) are all preceded by a novella about Treguard's adventures which are also very entertaining.

For those of you who don't know about the Knightmare TV show here is the concept:  A team of four children are pitted against a dungeon full of monsters, traps and strange characters.  One of them is the 'dungeoneer' who has to survive the dungeon while wearing a huge horned helmet that obscures their view (this is so that they do not see the blue screens used for the effects backdrop).  The dungeoneer's friends guide them through the dungeon.  Unlike many childrens' TV gameshows it was a very sophisticated game with a high failure rate but that made success all the more sweeter.

It is interesting to read the gamebooks in chronological order as they gradually move away from the format of the TV show where you have to find your way through a three level dungeon to a more open setting where you travel across the land and interact more with people.  I guess that one issue with transferring the format of a TV show to the format of a gamebook means that things will get lost in translation and things that work for TV don't work in the gamebook (thankfully, in the gamebook your vision is not obscured by the helmet of justice.  That would make for boring reading similar to doing the Colossal Cave with no brass lantern).

Anyway, on to the review...

Theme 3/5

The aim of the gamebook is to steal an earth dragon's egg from right under its nose.  Now that's a dangerous task and the reason why you have to go into a dragon's lair and steal its young is not clearly given.  Maybe Treguard wants to train one up for the Knightmare challenge.

However, as in all Knightmare gamebooks, it is the journey which is important and not the destination.  You spend very little time on the dragon's island - most of your adventure involves getting passage on a ship and then surviving the journey.  The ways of succeeding the challenge involve acting as a true knight - with quick wits and chivalry.  So the dragon's egg is really some macguffin to prove to Treguard that you are worthy to be a knight.  It's a bit like the end of Midnight Rogue where the gem is a fake but by overcoming your trials, you have proven yourself to be part of the guild.

As Treguard says:

'The path to chivalry is long and arduous' he says 'Now you must prove yourself worthy.'

Illustration 2/5

The cover illustration, intended for the novella shows a lovely forest with a castle on the top of a hill in the background and Lord Fear's eyes in the sky.  It is a nice picture, but I don't think that the colour scheme befits a Knightmare book (the previous ones all having black as the dominant colour).  It seems more suited to an elvish glade rather than a forbidden gate.  Even the menacing eyes don't seem that menacing as they are a lovely shade of azure and drawn like clouds.

The interior illustrations of the gamebook are all quite small and done well enough - there just aren't many of them.

Gameplay 4/5

Dave Morris demonstrates his skill in this area.  Despite being only 97 paragraphs, Morris manages to stretch it out by having the range of skills and having the player try to find the optimum path for your chosen skill.  Morris has also put situations in the book which could allow you to succeed very well.  for example, you can get an extra skill and a spell in the book if you do particularly well.  There is also a very clever ending situation where if you make the right choices (which appear to be the wrong choices at first), you are able to free some slaves in addition to stealing the dragon's egg, giving the player a kind of bonus ending to work for.

As in previous Knightmare gamebooks, Dave Morris also rewards the player for reading the novella before hand as it is a good idea to know the 'morality' of the gamebook.  There are certain ways of thinking that the gamebook encourages - for example, using weapons is rarely the best way out of a problem.

The tricks that Dave Morris uses do help make the most of a short 97 gamebook and even though it is still too short to get lots of play out of it, it certainly stretches it out and marks should be given for ingenuity.

Exposition 3/5

I have always found Dave Morris's writing very eloquent (sometimes too much so when writing the dialogue for a barbarian).  The world here is one of chivalry, sorcery and roguish opponents.  There are also moments for humour such as a golden malicious apple and the scene where you return to Knightmare Castle by accident to find Pickle and Treguard eating sandwiches and drinking coffee.  It is a good mix of evocative drama with a touch of light heartedness.

Rules 3/5

The rules are vaguely linked to the rules from the TV show.  Your health is measured in Life Force grades.  You start off unwounded with a green grade.  If you lose a grade, you go down to amber and if you lose antoher one, you go down to red.  If you are wounded while on red life force, you die.  You can restore life force by eating food on paragraphs marked with an *.  This makes the idea of resting to eat more realistic than Fighting Fantasy's rule of 'You can't eat when in combat.  You can eat when running, climbing, swimming, talking or falling but not when in combat.'

You are also able to learn spells.  When you are given the chance, you are given the name of the spell which may or may not be self explanatory.  Spells are not items and you may only use them once.

You may carry up to 5 items.  Dave Morris does something very clever with the encumbrance limit towards the end of the book.  If you get into the dragon's lair, you find two different varieties of eggs, but since they both count as 3 items, you may only take one egg.  Nice touch.  You may carry 50 gold pieces as one item.  You also have the choice of one skill to choose from the following list:  Acrobatics, Fisticuffs, Gambling, Seamanship, Swimming, Swordplay, Thievery, Trading.

Those of you who are familiar with the Virtual Reality series of gamebooks will find the last set of rules very familiar.  Indeed, it seems that this book (published in 1993) was a precursor to the Virtual Reality series (published in 1994).

The rules work well enough - however, the short length of the book makes the skills only useful in a few situations.  The only use of some skills is to obtain passage on a ship to the either by getting money or by making your skills useful to the captain of the ship.  However, as the Virtual Reality series has shown us, such a system is very good for longer gamebooks.

Total 15/25

The problem with all of the Knightmare gamebooks is that they are too short to showcase the skill that Dave Morris has.  The Quest for the Dragon's egg quest is the shortest Knightmare quest at only 97 paragraphs and it seems that Dave Morris put a lot of effort into making such a short gamebook replayable.

In tiger terms, is a decent snack. It seems that Dave Morris was given a very small piece of meat and told to make it palatable. He added plenty of other tasty stuff to bulk it out and cooked it as well as he could.  However, it is still a very small piece of meat so it won't satisfy for long.

One good thing about this book is that it may have been an important experiment for Dave Morris which may have led to the Virtual Reality series - this book certainly demonstrates that the game system is a good way of improving gameplay and increasing replayability.  It is a good reminder that gamebooks and other art forms should never be looked at in a vacuum but rather as a smaller part of a larger creative process.  The Forbidden gate did very well as a Virtual Reality precursor and it may have been the deciding factor in bringing us the series.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Stormin' Sonic by Marc Gascoigne and Jonathan Green

It's a testament to the popularitiy of gamebooks in the 80s and 90s that eventually, companies started making spin off gamebooks of their products.  There were gamebooks based on boardgames, gamebooks based on toys, gamebooks based on TV shows, gamebooks based on comics and gamebooks based on computer games so since Sonic the Hedgehog was such an icon to children everywhere in the 90s that it was only a matter of time before he also got his own gamebook series.

There are six Sonic the Hedgehog books written by various authors.  Stormin' Sonic, the sixth and final book in the series was written by Jonathan Green and Marc Gascoigne.  I never played Sonic when I was a little 'un (cue tales of woe involving working twenty seven hours a day down pit) but I wanted to see what I had missed out on.

One interesting thought I had about this book and all gamebooks based on a tie in to an existing product is how much of it is dictated by the product's existing rules and story.  For example, did Jonathan and Marc have to make Robotnik the enemy, include characters from the game and base the game rules on rules from the computer game?  And do such things change a gamebook for the better or for the worse?  I would like to hear peoples' thoughts on this.

Theme 3/5

The weather on Miobius has gone nuts and you need to set it right.  The perpetrator is Robotnik (obviously) and you need to travel to different zones on the planet to collect clues in order to track down your arch enemy and stop him.  This plot invloves the theft of a chaos emerald and the inevitable appearance of Knuckles the echidna and the inexplicable kidnapping of Sally Acorn only to have her disappear just after she is rescued.  I'm sure a weather based story is almost inevitable in any long running adventure series or cartoon series (I'm talking about TV film and games, not just gamebooks) so it is not the most original of themes.  However, the four areas that Sonic and Tails explore are pretty fun with many opportunities for cool things to happen.

An interesting side note is that I think I'm starting to see how certain authors' ideas evolve.  The basic story of Stormin' Sonic is that a crazy individual has created a flying machine crewed by mechanical creatures in order to control the weather and take over large areas of land or even the entire world.  The hero has to explore four areas in order to obtain the means to defeat his opponent by getting on board his ship, defeating him in combat and then trying to excape from the ship before it is destroyed.  Does that remind you of any other gamebooks?

Illustration 2/5

 The many simple, cartoonish illustrations give me the impression that this book is aimed at younger readers; maybe pre-teens.  They are serviceable, pleasant to look at and do not have too many details.

Gameplay 2/5

After an introductory scene where Sonic finds out what is going on, we then move onto a hub where we choose one of four places to go. Once we have enough clues, we can then go on to save Sally Acorn and defeat Robotnik.  This then leads to the final scenario where we face Robotnik and his minions.  Most of the branches lead of to an area where you could get some rings and then return to the main path.  This makes the book quite linear as most of the choices revolve around how you will fight enemies as you will probably have to go to all of the locations anyway, your only choice is in which order you do so.  There is also an annoying section where if you have found Sally Acorn's scarf, you drop everything and end up in the final area without the option of exploring other places.  This caused me to lose my first play through, so I made sure that I went in another direction.

There are also a few occasions where Sonic will not let you take a certain course of action despite you choosing it.  These choices involve you being particularly cowardly.  If you choose them, Sonic will scold you and do the thing you didn't choose to do.  The idea behind this was probably to have someone kids look up to tell them how they should act and to make sure that they don't do naughty things like leave their best friend to roll down a mountain in a giant snowball or teleport back home before you have sorted out Robotnik.  The effectiveness of such a program of moral instruction has yet to be determined.

Who can resist the lure of the
mystery box?

One thing that I liked amongst the options was the occasional option to try 'something else' to overcome the problem.  Intrigued by this option, I had to choose the 'something else' option every time - the mystery box of gamebooks.  I was not disappointed, especially when the option involved Sonic and Tails putting on an ice skating display to impress some robotniks.

Exposition 3/5

The writing sees to be aimed at pre teens and the language takes me back to the 90s.  I'm sure that I would have enjoyed it more as an 11 year old Sonic fan, the targeted audience for this book.  Marc Gascoigne and Jonathan Green write conversationally, informally and sometimes break the fourth wall in order to connect with the reader.  Here is a paragraph from the book to highlight the writing.

As they plod through the sandy wastes, Sonic and Tails suddenly spy on the horizon a large pyramid built from stone blocks.  'Woah!' Sonic exclaims 'Where on Mobius did that come from?'

'I don't know,' Tails admits 'but let's go and explore it.  We might find the treasure of the fairies!'

'That's "Pharaohs" you dweeb!' Sonic sighs.  Should the pair act on Tails' suggestion (turn to 137) or keep on moving (turn to 113).

'Dweeb' is a very 90s kids' word and many others show up in the book such as 'dude' and 'cool' which are used in non ironic ways.

Rules 4/5

The rules system is very simple, has some nice exposition with it and is quite fair.

Sonic's stats are speed, strength, agility, coolness, quick wits and good looks.  You can allocate one of these stats a value of 5, one a value of 4, one a value of 3 and the others a value of 2.  Tasks and combats are resolved in a similar fashion - roll on die and add it to the stat that the book states.  If it is equal to or greater than a difficulty stated in the book (set between 6 and 10) then you succeed.  If not, something bad happens.

In the case of combat, your opponent will have a rating.  If you get equal to or higher than the rating, you beat your opponent.  If you don't, they can take a swing at you by rolling one die and adding it to their rating.  If they obtain a score of higher than 10 you will lose all of your rings or a life (just like in the game).

I found most of the die rolls to be fair and the consequences of failing are never huge.  The worst thing that can happen is that you lose all of your rings or a life.  You start with one of three lives and you may be able to gain more of them if you find one or if you get 100 rings.  There are a couple of instant deaths but they occur at the end of the book if you have not fulfilled all of the tasks.  This means that, with the correct choices and a little luck in combat, you should be able to make it through the book with a minimum of cheating (or even no cheating).

Total - 14/25

I found Stormin' Sonic to be a fine gamebook that hasn't aged well in terms of language and theme.  I may think this because I never was a huge Sonic the Hedgehog player and I am now a lot older than the target audience.  The gaming side of the book is fine with some great scenarios and good use of the rules.  However, the gameplay experience will not differ too much between plays as you will still have to explore every area - the main choice is the order.  In tiger terms, I think the word leftovers is a good way to describe Stormin' Sonic - it would have been perceived as much better by a Sonic the Hedgehog fan in the 90s but it hasn't aged well and so it has gone from being a decent snack to leftovers.