Nostalgia Trippe: Gamebooks

Lone wolf 6 coverHello children. Are you comfortable on your Thomas the Tank Engine bean bags? Does anyone need a wee before I start? No? Good, let’s begin.

I want to take you back to a time from my youth. Games came in three formats, floppy disk, cartridge and tape, you could still buy betamax and Tandy was still in business. It is a time when kid’s movies are still scary, cartoons are all extended adverts for action figures. I am 10.

All of my non-school time was taken up by mapping out our local woods as a fictional realm with my best friend (this included us following about a mile of waist deep fast flowing water at one point. We were sticklers for detail), failing to learn to skateboard, reading fantasy and Sci-Fi, and poring over the new issue of White Dwarf.

White Dwarf was (miniature gaming overlords) Games Workshop’s monthly magazine, and my friends and I were big fans of the minis they made. We all had a few Orks, Space Marines and Eldar kicking around our bedrooms but hardly ever played the games. My best friend had a copy of Man O’ War which we occasionally tried, but none of us ever got into wargaming until the nigh incomprehensible mess of Rogue Trader was done away with and replaced with the brilliant second edition of Warhammer 40,000. Now, I could write pages about just the Wargear book of 40k2e but you’ll get that in another Nostalgia Trippe. Instead what I want to illustrate is that I had these great fantasy worlds stuck in my head (still do) but my love of gaming had not yet developed.

What led down the terrfiying road to turbo geekdom was coming across a second hand book. I can’t remember where I bought it, but I do remember why I decided I had to have it:
1) It was called Kingdoms of Terror, which to my young mind was possibly the greatest title ever
2) It had a kick ass (we would have said wicked at the time) monster on the front
3) It promised me that I could ‘choose my own adventure’
Not long after getting this book home I had my weapons in hand; an eraser topped pencil, a packet of crisps, the recollection of a bunch of He-Man cartoons. Ready for adventure I was.

It turned out the book was a revelation. The blurb claimed I was Lone Wolf, the last remaining knight of the Kai order. It was my job to use my skill with both sword and supernatural power to bring back the former glory of my order.

AWESOME!

A few pages in, and Lone Wolf/10 year old me is trying to convince a guard to let me into a town without paying the extortionate toll. Lone Wolf’s silver tongue fails so I decide to try and jump a wagon to gain entry for free. The book tells me to pick a random number from the table at the back of the book then turn to entry 36. I do as I’m told, and I’m presented with this:

LW 6 Guard

‘You are a few feet from the wagon when your horse refuses the jump. It rears up, its forelegs scrabbling at the air. The long day’s ride has taken its toll, and your horse has neither the strength nor will left to clear such a daunting obstacle.

You lurch backwards, falling over the horse’s rump and desperately cling to the tightening reins as it teeters on its hind hooves. Suddenly, the horse falls, pinning you beneath her as she crashes to the ground.

Agonizing pain gives way to numbness as you fight to hang on to life, but it is a battle that you can no longer win.

Your life and your quest end here.’

What the hell? I’m an elite Kai warrior and my horse has just fallen on me. For a couple of seconds I sat in stunned silence. I contemplated throwing the book in a drawer and fogetting it, but then realised that I’ve learned a lesson. I know where I might fail now. Armed with this new insider knowledge I rolled up a new Lone Wolf and started again, but this time taking different skills, get past the guard and always keep my finger stuck in the previous page.

With my new found prescience (finger) I made short work of the book, but it left me completely engrossed. Apparently this was the 6th book in the series, and better yet you could keep your character from previous books! Soon second hand book stalls and John Menzies (that’s an old newsagent/bookshop, folks) had yielded books one to four. I ended up with most of the first two series of books, although where they are now is anybody’s guess. Let’s hope some kid at a jumble sale has picked one up and is reliving my first experiences in the world of fantasy gaming. Do kids still read gamebooks? Not a clue, but they damn well should!

The Lone Wolf books were only a gateway drug, however. Whilst browsing the second hand books at a jumble sale I came across a series of six books which looked similar to the Lone Wolf ones I loved, but at the same time pretty different. These books were called Dragon Warriors, and it turned out they were a lightweight roleplaying game system released by Corgi books as a pocket-money friendly competitor to the expensive D&D Red Box. The intro told you that the books were a way to let you play out your favourite fantasy adventures, like the one in The Hobbit. Play The Hobbit like a game? Sold!

Some lizard thingThe rules were complicated for a young lad, and it took some convincing, but I eventally talked my friends into letting me murder them in different ways using inescapable traps and overpowered monsters, as is the way of the young inexperienced DM. While these rules were OK, I complained for and received a copy of the basic D&D box (the one with the dragon cards rules integrated into the DM screen, the cardboard standees and poster map of Zanzer Tem’s dungeon). This and GW’s output kept us busy for a few years. At A-level I ended up running a one-off AD&D game for about 10 players, but we really got into the White Wolf games Vampire The Masquerade and Werewolf The Apocolypse. Then 3e came out, which had a bit of play but not as much as it deserved.

Now I run a (semi?) regular D&D 4e game, have a massive stash of RPG books and PDFs as well as board games and a penchant for all things gamer-nerd, and it’s all thanks to gamebooks.

Yes I’m a total geek, but gamebooks were an essential piece of my childhood. I’ve not even mentioned the amazing free roaming Fabled Lands books, or the massive range of the Fighting Fantasy series and it’s RPG spin-off. If I’ve tickled your nostalgia sense however, or you just want to see what the fuss is about, it looks like lots of folks are feeling the same way. There’s reissues and RPG conversions abound. Below are some of my favourites if you want to take a look…

The old Lone Wolf books are due to be reissued sometime, but they’re also available for free online (with the blessings of Joe Dever, the author) at http://www.projectaon.org/en/Main/Home

There’s also a reissue of the Fabled Lands books coming out, and a free-app version here: http://sourceforge.net/projects/flapp/

Fighting Fantasy has already seen some re-releases along with an iPhone app and some other bits over at http://www.fightingfantasy.com/

The Calm Before The epic.WEEKEND

Ah, lovely stuff…

And as you tune in, good reader, here I am happily preparing for my weekend’s entertainment. Thursday was my Friday this week, hazzah!! So, instead of working on Kinderday©, I and one other Stupor Ed (plus 20% of our readership, in our mate Owen) will be making the short journey down to a place know primarily for it’s racecourse, the sleepy market town of Uttoxeter. It is to the Racecourse we will go, however not, I hasten to add, to fritter our money away on young fillies, but to fritter our time on this earth away playing in computerised gaming constructs and basically leeching all the files we can get our grubby mitts on from the other sci-fi/fantasy/anime geeks in attendance.

epic.THREE is our destination and we plan on reporting the goings-on live directly to you, fair reader, from the trenches of PC gaming itself.

Yes, between Sappers destroying our grounded F16s with explodey jeeps, me shooting some guy’s face off with a Flak Cannon and Gazz trying to conquer all of Asia using diplomacy, we will endeavour to keep up a “Live Blog”, giving you details of what we observe happening on the front lines of the hardcore gaming community. If it helps, you can imagine it a bit like Twitter, but longer and on a web-page.

Anywho, I’m as organised as ever. I presently have no car (it’s in the garage having it’s head changed), have just installed a 1.5TB hard disc I’ve had for a fortnight (for the leeching mentioned above), am backing up my Steam games to said drive in order to repartition my old drive into one and subsequently reinstalling Windows 7 plus games. All this whilst bunged up with cold, running on a portion of chips with two “brown circles” and three quarters of a bottle of Spitfire.

I have now corrected my introductory statement. Now leave me alone… but be sure to tune in tomorrow for exciting instalments of our fumblings with “The Gamersphere”©.

The Guild Music Video

Okay, we all know Felicia Day is the new hotness thanks to Dr Horrible and Kari Byron getting knocked up but this is just silly.

For the reality impaired, Ms. Day produces and stars in The Guild, a web show about MMO players. The show is remarkable because it bears the title of ‘web show’ and is actually good. All of this of course, is pretence to show you this:

Did I mention the +52 dexterity vest? I’m pretty sure I did.

Mobile Telecommunication for a Flat Earth

The first things that I need to get across are 1)  I am a technophile, more to the point I love gadgets, I have a very real need for new things to play with on a regular basis.  2)  My mobile phone network of choice is Orange, not for any special reason, it’s just that that’s the one I landed on.  3)  My contract is due for renewal in July and I’m in the market for an upgrade.

While trying not to deviate from the righteous path of rant into the dark fields of viral marketing Nokia’s new N97 has me Greasy excited.

It would need to really, considering the last Nokia product I owned was a Gen 1 N95 which was so flaky I nearly ate it.  While in the bath. I eventually had a hissy fit with it in Blockbuster car park, took the battery out and refused to put it back in.  It was at this point I vowed I would never own another Nokia product.

But seriously God-damn that’s one awesome looking gadget!

So any way, I’m thinking woot!  awesome new toy just around the corner, let’s have a look at it  on the Orange website.  Hmm, not on the phones coming soon page, strange you’d think they’d have made more of a fuss about such an important product.  So I checked The Feed (Faux corporate blog), one entry, answered with possibly the most insulting, patronising answer a marketing drone could muster. Not the type of coverage you’d expect for a device being hailed as the next big step in mobile technology.

Finally, feeling defeated I turned to google for my answers.  The answer I found has left me disappointed, and will probably lead to my changing my service provider.  Among its many features the N97 has integrated 3G Skype support, meaning it would allow owners to talk for an unlimited amount of time for free, anywhere in the world.  This is no doubt making many mobile service operators tremble as should it catch on it would ultimately negate international call charges.

Using orange as an example, to call Australia using an Orange mobile phone costs a whopping 49 pence per minute!  Any where in the rest of the world other than the US, Australia or Europe costs almost a pound a minute.   At the moment therefore calling abroad from a mobile would only ever be a final option.  Using a Voice over Internet Protocol such as Skype however places all locations under one price-band.  zero pence per minute.  That’s only short term as well.  Should this trend continue, as VoIP phones become more main stream we will eventually see all call charges for become a thing of the past.

This doesn’t really relate to me at the moment.  There is no-one I really need to call livng overseas who I really need to talk to, VoIP isn’t yet so popular that I can abandon regular calling.  That isn’t and should never be the point though.  My point is that a company who I Choose to patronise is refusing to provide me with a product I want, and am willing to pay for because it cannot dictate to me the way the product will be used.

Sports Iterated

The phenomenon of sports games and their complete abuse of and by a numbering system has become something of a pet-peeve of mine. By early October last year I could play FIFA, Madden, NBA, NHL and Tiger Woods ’09.

The Original and Best
The Original and Best

Other than being in the wrong year and having the latest stats, these games always include one new “feature” to utilise during the simulation of your chosen sport. However, this much vaunted ability usually turns out to be both useless and unnecessary. Being a loyal sports fan and playing each franchise annually, I’ve now come to the conclusion that every sports game developer feels the requirement to release one game a year simply due to the numbering system they adopted in the 90s.

How crazy is that??

Our unstoppable rotation around The Sun has lead to useless such additions as “Game Face”, which allows you to put your very face onto a simulated competitor, and ones that essentially break the game such as “Tiger Vision”, which does not fill the screen with honey and bears but tells you exactly where to aim to get any putt in (apart from when it tells you wrong and you throw your controller at the wall in disgust).

The stand out difference from these WAS Pro-Evolution Soccer, which usually went through one normal version (Super Star Soccer X) then its Pro-Evo sequel (basically the same game but with another year’s polish) which would then be followed by a real sequel with N proceeding it (where N=X+1). This was fine, as there was no game without a significant update of the play system. However, this is sadly no longer the case, as Konami have begun to licence player names from individual teams and will soon be using real player names and stats as they acquire the rights.

I can understand a complete update being done for a new system, such as the move from X-Box to 360. Yes, a entirely new engine is needed to make the players look their best for my next thrashing of Arsenal, so I don’t mind paying out £45 for the pleasure of seeing Ledley King’s shiny head in lovely high res. textures for my HDTV. I do mind paying the same amount for the same game but with updated data and the ability control two players simultaneously, so I can make runs, bolted on… honestly, did anyone ever use that??

…apart from my good friend Dave “12 fingers” Chameleon of course…

Finally, all the features I want in a sports game

I’m hoping this situation will end in the near future as developers realise that they can update the stats (which is the only thing customers really want) by use of the internet and micro payments. EA seem to have started down the road this year with their Live Season player update system (you even get one division updated free for a year with FIFA (just like a crack dealer…)) but I still expect FIFA 2010 to arrive in my local independent games retailer by the end of September.

I can understand that they do this so they can make more money out of us all, as we will buy these games simply for the new data sets, irrespective of new game play elements, but why hide behind this feature smoke screen?

It’s so annoying having to learn the slightly altered game mechanics every single time, plus having the yearly brain spurt from the work experience kid thrown in. Surely coming up with a new feature, implementing it and making other arbitrary changes to the game is less economically beneficial than updating the player information throughout a two or three year period and charging us a reasonable fee for this service…