When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time with the Choose Your Own Adventure series of books.
For you youngins, these were the ancestors of today’s visual novels and Twine games, where at the bottom of each page, you’d be presented with a choice, and asked to flip to another page when you made a decision. (“To try to bluff your way past the guard, turn to page 71. To try to sneak in the back entrance, turn to page 20.”) Each book had dozens of good endings and dozens of bad endings (including some particularly gruesome ones).
Of course, I can’t remember much of them now. I remember one in which you were stranded at sea, one in which you were in a rally-car race, and one in a near-future American civil war.
There was no real skill involved in these books, and other authors believed that they could make more entertaining game/book hybrids by introducing puzzles. And so, properties ranging from the Super Mario Brothers to Narnia to Marvel Super Heroes became the subjects of gamebooks, which used a combination of luck and skill to guide readers to the good ending. And I do mean ending, singular: unlike CYOA, in which the author could include many different good endings because there were no right or wrong answers to the decisions, these books were generally restricted to a single good ending, the result of solving all the puzzles correctly.
The Internet Archive has collected about a hundred of these books in PDF format, and I thought I’d read through four of them as a representative sample of what you might find if you dug further into the Archive.
Be an Interplanetary Spy #1: Find the Kirillian
by Seth McEvoy, illustrated by Marc Hempel and Mark Wheatley
Be an Interplanetary Spy, they say? Hell yes, I want to be an interplanetary spy! Why, there may be nothing I want more than to be an interplanetary spy!
Seth McEvoy, the author, is also responsible for the Not Quite Human series about a teenage android. (I have vague memories of seeing a TV version starring Alan Thicke.) Marc Hempel and Mark Wheatley are long-time collaborators in the comic industry. They’ve both worked on Heavy Metal magazine, and the book’s visuals really show a Heavy Metal influence (apart from the lack of naked breasts).
Thanks to the concept (interplanetary spy! sweet!) and the good pedigree of the writer and illustrators, I came into this book with high expectations. These expectations began to slip once I started reading and I realized that this book was clearly designed for a very young reader. The writing style resembles something from a Bad Hemingway competition. “Your Mission is to capture this interplanetary criminal: Phatax. He is very dangerous. He is from the outlaw planet, Kirillia.”
Phatax (did you pronounce that in your head like “Fatass?”) kidnapped Prince Quizon, and I have to go and rescue the Prince. So I’m not an interplanetary spy so much as I’m an interplanetary skip tracer.
During the course of my assignment, I travel to the planet Threefax, which is populated entirely by giants, and zip around through the royal palace to find the prince. Then I have to chase down Phatax and recover the crown jewels.
There’s a wide variety of puzzles in this book, but most of them involve analyzing pictures to find matching items.
A typical day at work for an interplanetary spy.
Very few of these puzzles will pose a challenge to the adult reader. The only one that gave me trouble was one in which I had to rotate a perspective drawing in my head. (Don’t the Biotruths guys say I’m supposed to be able to do this?) Nor did I find the writing style anything to write home about. It remains almost insultingly simple throughout the book: “He reaches into a secret pocket in his cloak and pulls out a jewel. ‘Phatax did not get this one,’ he says. ‘Use it to recover the other jewels. It is very special. I wish I could see it again!’”
On the other hand, the artwork is generally imaginative and enjoyable, and the book was clever enough to put the player in a spacesuit (or in heavy clothing) throughout the book so the hero can be either a boy or a girl.
Yeah, well, your face looks ridiculous!
Recommendation: The book says it’s for kids 9 and up, but I would’ve been bored with it at that age. It might be a decent diversion for kids between 7 and 8, or for older children who are learning English as a second language.
Gruesome Death Watch: You’ll have opportunities to be sucked into a giant vacuum and devoured by a robot dog.
Nintendo Adventure Books #1: Double Trouble
by Clyde Bosco, illustrated by clip art
Here’s another book I would’ve read when I was a kid if it had been available at my local library. I loved me some Nintendo. (I had a fan letter printed in Nintendo Power magazine once.) But as an adult, I came into this book with some skepticism. Maybe Clyde Bosco (a pen name for edutainment impresario Russell Ginns) half-assed this assignment, relying upon the Mario name to sell the book.
The plot, as you may have guessed, involves things in the Mushroom Kingdom going pear-shaped and Mario charging in to save the day. (Has anyone written about how the Mushroom Kingdom’s reliance on Mario resembles the old pulp staple of people in exotic lands needing a white guy to show up and save them? If not, good. It isn’t worth writing about.)
The Mushroom Kingdom is more crowded than usual, Luigi is acting weird, and a guy Mario bumps into doesn’t recognize him. Combined with the fact that this book is called “Double Trouble,” can you guess what the problem is? Yup, somebody put video cameras inside of a flower delivery to the castle, then everybody started getting cloned. The first portion seems like something an abusive husband would do. The second portion, I don’t think any abusive husband has ever done. One of the people who got cloned was the king.
MARIO (to Princess Toadstool): Frankly, your Highness, it could be worse. I’ve never seen the king actually do anything anyway.
STOP YOU FOOL
The puzzles in this book include mazes, word searches, and movement puzzles, more complex than the stuff in Interplanetary Spy. I ended up losing one of the games—a Robo Rally-type movement game—because I thought I was supposed to land on Mario, when I was actually supposed to land on a piranha plant. (But you can’t kill a piranha plant by jumping on it! Everyone knows that!)
The book’s writing style is also more appropriate for older kids, and is occasionally both vivid and imaginative, like the description of the cloning machine. It’s “[m]ore than ten feet tall [and] is covered with giant electronic eyeballs and hundreds of tiny television sets, each displaying a different 1960s monster movie. It crawls across the floor on a combination of wheels, feet, and tank treads that leave a slime trail behind them.” Ginns seems to be pretty hung up on the idea of Mario as a plumber. There are lots of drain-based jokes, and Mario even signs his letters “Driplessly yours, Mario.”
There’s only one good ending, but there’s also a final score based on how many coins you collect. If you take a more circuitous route through the book, you’ll walk away with more coins. I had a relatively low score because I avoided obvious dangers (weird Luigi clone-thing invites me to fly in his flying machine? I think I’ll pass).
Recommendation: I came in with low expectations, but they were definitely exceeded. This book kept me busy for a half hour or so, and I was never tempted to cheat to get through a puzzle. It’ll probably entertain ten-year-olds, and they might even learn a few new words along the way.
Gruesome Death Watch: The Boomerang Brothers might throw you in a sack and take you home to be eaten.
Sagard the Barbarian #1: The Ice Dragon
by Gary Gygax and Flint Dille
These two authors are pretty big names: Gary Gygax was one of the creators of Dungeons & Dragons, and Flint Dille wrote the 1986 Transformers movie. (Dille’s sister, Lorraine Williams, would later buy into Gygax’s company. Ask your local middle-aged fatbeard for his opinions on Williams. Or, rather, don’t.)
I wasn’t much into fantasy literature as a kid. Who wants to be a wizard when you can be a spaceman? But I figured this one was worth a look because of the Gygax/Dille combo. I was on the lookout for famous Gygaxisms such as “milieu” and “ichor” and “doxy.”
This book is set in the world of Yarth, and let’s let Gygax explain further in a 1984 interview:
GYGAX: By the way, action takes place on Yarth, a place somewhat similar to Oerth, the setting of Greyhawk, et al. It has fewer magical properties than Oerth but more than Earth. It is not impossible that additional works will be contracted for in months to come, action being set on Yarth or perhaps another alternate world, Aerth. On Earth, magic is virtually non-existent. On Uerth, dweomers are weak, chancy things. Yarth has a sprinkling of things magical, and Oerth is pure magic.
Everybody got that?
You‘re Sagard, a sixteen-year-old boy from a mountain barbarian tribe, and you’ve got to go on your coming of age quest. If you don’t find something impressive and bring it back to the tribe, you are forever branded as a kwad. You don’t want to be a kwad, do you?
Shortly after you begin your quest, you run into your first fight!
The “skill” portion of the book.
The rules for the fights are explained at the back of the book. I’m sure there’s a very good explanation for why the rules aren’t in the front of the book—possibly involving the world “milieu”—but I don’t want to speculate on what that reason may be. Basically, you roll a four-sided die and hope to roll high so you can whittle away your opponent’s hit points before your opponent whittles away yours.
As another game designer, Sid Meier, once said, “A game is a series of interesting decisions.” The only decisions you’ll be making in this book involve whether to continue a fight or to run away. Heck, you don’t even get to decide whether to rage, like a proper D&D barbarian. The dice-rolling is pure busywork, and really could have been simplified to a single roll for each opponent. Instead, I spent five minutes on the second fight of the game, just rolling my d4 and checking boxes. The hell with that. I cheated from then on.
Nerd sexism in its infancy.
The first part of my quest involved a girl on the same quest, who proved to be fickle and had a real thing for dating losers. Then I had to rescue a valkyrie from a gang of first-level mooks. How the mooks captured a valkyrie, I’ll never know, but the valkyrie gets the most detailed description of anyone or anything in the book:
“She stands before you nearly naked, save for a scanty fur tunic which is cut low at her chest and ends several inches above her knees… You wonder where she had concealed this weapon [a broadsword] when you rode in the wagon, but it is not for you to know such things about the servants of the god Telchur.”
From there, it’s off to the ice caves, where the mysterious ice dragon awaits, along with some of its goons. Said goons include the Yeti, which is “part human, part bear, and part something else,” and kobolds, who attack with “a high-pitched, guttural sound.” I spent several minutes trying to make a high-pitched, guttural sound and just got a sore throat.
Like so many of Gygax’s worlds, this one is built on the ruins of an advanced civilization, and the ice cave turns out to be something else. You’re invited to guess what it is. (I was close, but no cigar.)
There’s only one ending, but you get more points at the ending if you’ve collected a lot of treasure and wiped the floor with a lot of bozos.
As you can probably guess, I was not particularly impressed with the book’s writing style. It’s a rather weak imitation of pulp fantasy: not Eye of Argon bad, just mediocre with a few face-palming moments.
Quit with the passive voice!
Recommendation: Even if you’re a fan of trashy fantasy, this one isn’t worth your while. This book is centered on its combat system, which is a total slog.
Gruesome Death Watch: Deaths in combat just tell you to restart the book, with nary a gruesome detail.
Sherlock Holmes Solo Mysteries #1: Murder at the Diogenes Club
by Gerald Lientz
This site describes Gerald Lientz as an old-school gamer: he loved war-games, history, and writing. He had no published works apart from the game books, which were produced in his native Charlottesville, VA. I have no idea how this guy managed to secure a license to write Holmes books, considering Holmes was still copyrighted in the 1980s.
This book uses a combination of skill and dice-rolling to solve mysteries. In this case, it’s two six-sided dice. Success on dice rolls gives you more clues. The clues, however, are usually redundant, so if you whiff on a roll or two, you can still put together the solution. And you will have to put together the solution yourself, so the dice-rolling isn’t a chore like in Sagard.
You can make your own character by distributing six points among statistics (Athletics, Artifice, Intuition, Communication, Observation, and Scholarship). If you don’t put any points in a statistic, you take a -2 to all rolls using that statistic, so I can’t see why you would want to do anything other than one point in all stats unless you felt like role-playing a total meathead of a detective. (Note that Athletics includes the crucial skills of “pugnacity” and “fisticuffs.”)
The book’s introduction explains who Sherlock Holmes was (just in case you hadn’t heard) and gives some background about Victorian London. It warns you that you may have to keep track of money, which, in the interest of historical accuracy, uses pre-decimalization British currency. Hope you can remember how many shillings were in a pound! (Money never comes up in this book, though. Maybe it’s in a sequel.)
The very first page tipped me off that this book isn’t for children. It was full of small text and workmanlike, dialogue-heavy prose. It’s slightly old-fashioned, but a somewhat easier read than Doyle:
HOLMES: “But if you know a wealthy man has an heir desperate for money, you can prevent a crime by a word in the heir’s ear. Or if we should see a notorious gambler bet heavily on a long shot today, we would protect the purity of the turf with a word to the stewards. A man who would make a career of detection must always have his eyes open to everything around him.”
Definitely not a children’s book.
You’re Watson’s cousin, an aspiring detective, and you’re spending the day at the racetrack with Holmes and Watson. Holmes and Watson treat each other as friendly rivals, and I enjoyed the way Lientz lets the two poke fun at each other, such as in the following dialogue when Watson’s horse wins the race:
“So much for science, Holmes,” Watson laughs. “This will make my leg ache feel better on rainy days.” Holmes’ eyes hold something of a disdain as he looks back at the doctor. “Indeed, Watson?” he asks. “Has the bullet moved from your shoulder to your leg again?”
Of course, Holmes’ horse, Irish Star, looked unusually slow, and you’re assigned to find out if the horse was drugged while Holmes heads off to spend the weekend at Baskerville Hall (one of a few references to other Holmes stories you’ll find in this book). When offering your services to the horse owner, Holmes describes you as follows:
HOLMES: “He is young at the trade, but he is no more blind or foolish than the police detectives. You could do worse.”
I wish this had been followed with an option reading, “To ‘accidentally’ kick Holmes in the shin, turn to 442.” (This book uses section numbers instead of page numbers, which is annoying when you’re trying to find the right place to turn to.)
Suspects included a team of gamblers, a crooked bookie, a rival horse owner, and Irish Star’s owner (who might have thrown the race). There were several twists and turns, as all the suspects bet on Irish Star to win.
I had cold dice during much of this mystery, but I was still able to figure out the identity of the saboteur and the saboteur’s accomplice. The key to my success was that I had one of the Irregulars put a tail on a character named John Oliver, who I figured was inherently untrustworthy.
Yes, working-class people will call you “guv” throughout the book, which your auto-correct will change to “guava.”
But where’s the murder, and where’s the Diogenes Club? The racehorse is merely the undercard mystery, and the Murder at the Diogenes Club is the main event. In this case, a much-disliked fellow named Colonel Sylvester died at the Diogenes Club, and damned if Holmes won’t be helping on this case because he’s a witness and a possible suspect. (And is Lestrade ever chuffed about that!)
The most important clue is a note the Colonel received, and when I rolled boxcars to decode it, I knew who the killer was straight away. However, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to gather some more evidence.
There’s actually a mistake in the code.
Once I found out that the Colonel was poisoned by a drug from the West Indies, and my suspect used to live there, I had the means and the opportunity. Once I found out that the suspect’s brother-in-law died under the Colonel’s command, I had the motive. Watson and I tracked down the killer and beat him up before he could escape.
I spent about two hours solving the mysteries in this book, and I found them to be appropriately challenging. I was really stumped for a while on the horse case, but the resolution made perfect sense.
Recommendation: This is a fine mystery for teenagers and adults. I may go back and read some of the other books in this series that are on the Internet Archive the next time I have a long layover.
Gruesome Death Watch: No gruesome deaths, at least not for you. Mostly, Holmes is very, very disappointed in you when you fail. (However, in one ending, Watson straight-up kills a dude.)