From 2010 to 2014 Richard Cobbett (opens in new tab) wrote Crapshoot, a column about rolling the dice to bring random games back into the light. This week, a trip back in time to the days when we chose our own adventures.
Pardon my heresy, but I've been playing and enjoying Sorcery! (opens in new tab) on the iPad for the last couple of days—a really fun remake of Steve Jackson's text adventure of the same name, which is Sorcery! It keeps the adventure, but adds graphics, music, sound and spells to create something with the soul of the original, but the flavour of the new. It's worth checking out.
But, I thought, what about another classic slice of interactive fiction that gripped hearts in the '80s? Well, I told myself, only one way to found out.
[Note: Since this article was first written, Steve Jackson's Sorcery! has been ported to PC. You can find the complete four-part collection on Steam (opens in new tab). There has also been a newer Lone Wolf adaptation called Joe Dever's Lone Wolf HD Remastered (opens in new tab), which is frankly not that good, though still probably better than the 2D game from 1991 that Richard Cobbett is about to take to task, as soon as I let him get on with it –Ed]
If you remember the series this is based on, turn to 30. As opposed to turning 30, which you have.
No, no really. See the underlining? That's magic internet technology called 'a hyperlink'. It goes to places. Unless you're on the mobile interface or in an RSS reader, in which case things might be a bit of a problem. Please go to the full page. And while you're there, why not enjoy some ads?
You apologise loudly and profusely, much to the confusion of the gargoyle. There is no way to know whether or not the apology is accepted, or indeed, even perceived, but at least you tried.
Well, the Kai did always say you were your own worst enemy. Weird. You thought it was because you were a jerk. Truly, they were wise people. Not wise enough to survive, obviously, which is why you're the last and by definition the best, but you don't want to be too smug about that. Not unless there's a proper audience.
Yeah, it doesn't seem to matter which way you go. Both ways lead to more ladders in this dark tower, both guarded by Death from Castlevania. He doesn't move to attack, demonstrating that even the Grim Reaper stops work now and again—probably for a Ploughman's Lunch—but that doesn't mean he skimps on the attacks.
"I hope you don't mind me saying this, but you look great," you tell yourself. "What's your secret?"
Your doppelganger pauses. "I don't know," he admits. "Maybe I'm born with it. Maybe it's a ruptured spleen."
You glance down at the blade now sticking out of your gut.
"No Head & Shoulders?" you reply, sinking to the floor.
"As you wish," shrugs the doppelganger, obligingly swinging his sword.
THIS CRAPSHOOT IS OVER. YOUR DANDRUFF PROBLEM IS CURED.
You open your eyes to find yourself in an oddly brightly lit castle, and glance down to see that your mighty man-boobs have been covered up with a steel breastplate. Then you look down further, and sigh. Remembered the breastplate, forgot the trousers. Oh, Lone Wolf. When will you learn?
Almost immediately, danger strikes. A gargoyle on what looks like a ducking stool greats you by spitting at your face from one side, too high to actually hit. From behind, the spirit of Jacob Marley in the door spits into your back. You get an immediate sense that you are not welcome here, and it's probably not mystical Kai Training or anything doing it.
"Oh, look who's back!" gloats the ladder as you begin to climb again. "Wanker. Fool. Imbecile. Quest-monkey. Bard." You pause. So does the ladder. "I'm sorry," it says, "I went too far."
United, temporarily, by disdain for the crappiness of bards, you complete the climb and continue the quest.
Feeling a little wussy, like a mage or something, you consult the instructions. "You are the warrior Lone Wolf, last of the Kai Masters of Sommerlund, and sole survivor of the massacre that destroyed your kinsmen during a bitter war against your ancient enemies—the Darklords of Helga's Dad," it begins.
Ah, yes, that bastard. How you relished stabbing him through the...
Wait, what? "Helgedad." Damn scribes! You make a note to send Helga an apology card.
Anyway, it goes on like this. "Already your quest has taken you far from your northern homeland..." "You learn that one of the seven Lorestones can be found in Dessi, hidden high in a forbidding tower stronghold known as Kazan-Gor..." Something about an evil sorcerer called Gorazh. You quickly get the gist though. You're here to retrieve something called a Lorestone from a sealed tower, wherein is a mirror that both contains demons and is capable of reflecting the dark evil within a hero.
"Over the centuries many brave warriors and courageous magicians have sought to recover the Lorestone, but none has ever returned," warns the lore. "Those who had the sense to turn back at the last minute tell chilling tales about the mirror, of how it reflects a powerful magical entity, a being of pure evil that takes on the appearance of its opponent."
How convenient, you think to yourself, that this ancient avatar of ultimate evil should be so easily represented on-screen with palette swapping or something. Quite a timesaver for the artists.
You stride over and unleash the fury against the spitting gargoyle. It ignores it, much as you keep ignoring the poor ladder that just wants a chance to do its job. It could have been anything, you know. It got top marks at Ladder University, which it used to climb over all the other ladders to its pick of the placements. They all looked up at it and were all "Whoa. Meta."
And what did it choose? It chose to be here, at the very start of the game, to give adventurers like you a sporting chance in this epic tale. Where would you be without it, eh? Here. Forever. Being spat on by a gargoyle.
And you didn't even give it a second thought, did you? No. No, you didn't.
If you had the high moral ground, remove it from your inventory.
You feel older than you have any right to, as you think back with warm nostalgia to the land of Magnamund, of wandering the land with the Sommerswerd, and of the surprisingly complicated mix of RPG elements that made things far more interesting than simply bouncing around a Choose Your Own Adventure book. You briefly wonder if those RPG elements will be putting in an appearance here. Check your inventory. If you do not have an inventory, take this as a hint. (You do not have an inventory.)
If you're interested in checking them out again, author Joe Dever made many available for free distribution after the series went out of print via Project Aon (opens in new tab). (They've since been reprinted multiple times.)
As you glance around, you see a gnarled oak tree with a tempting looking hole in the side. Perhaps, you think, this shall contain fantastic gold or treasure with which to start your quest? But do you risk it? And by risk it, I mean risk it by doing something insanely stupid like sticking your head through it instead of poking in a stick to see if there's some kind of schmuck-baiting deathtrap going on.
You emerge on the second screen and immediately a gargoyle spits in your face. A pattern doth emerge. You shrug and press forwards, realising that you must leap carefully if you are to avoid tumbling down the hole.
Roll a dice.
If you rolled 1-3, you fail to make the jump. Go to 36.
If you rolled 4-6, you successfully make the jump. Go to 47.
If you just muttered "It's called a die, moron," go to 49.
Secure in your own masculinity, even dressed like this, you show true inner strength by following your heart and using your brain. A particular section leaps out at you—Kai Skills. It appears that while Mirror Of Death doesn't make a big deal out of this, it's important to choose four of these before entering the game—out of eight. They include Psi Surge, its defensive counterpart Mindshield, Animal Kinship, Invisibility, and Healing. There is also Sixth Sense to point the way, Weapon Skills for... becoming... more skilled with weapons, obviously, and a couple more. All of them seem useful, and you have a worrying feeling that the only way to know which to use is already having psychic abilities of some kind.
Which isn't a million miles off the books at a number of points, so that's a mark in Mirror of Death's favour. You generously announce your confidence that there will be many, many more in the adventure to come.
Choose Four Skills: Psi Surge, Mindshield, Animal Kinship, Invisibility, Sixth Sense, Divinity, Weapon Skills, Healing. Pretend you have a character to sheet to write them on or something.
It does bugger all. What a waste of time that could have been spent learning other Kai skills, like being able to bite your own toenails. The Magnakai level lets you spit them out with the force of a bullet, though not the effectiveness of a bullet, on the grounds that they're toenails. Still, it's a good party piece. As long as you don't expect to be invited to many more parties.
You tumble back to the first screen, straight into more gargoyle spit. On the plus side, you're not going to need hair gel for a while. Unfortunately, this realisation comes with a side of searing pain. Oh well.
You begin the epic fight between equals. To your surprise, while your doppelganger is initially happy to let you beat him in the face, it's not long before he decides he's had enough and you have to start changing up the moves a little. Not much, but a bit. He's got a lot of life too, so it takes a while. Soon though, his body lies at your feet, and you have a sad realisation of the briefness of life and your small place in the universe. It is a moment of existential dread unlike any you have ever experienced. No loot though. Cheap bastard. Well, on with the adventure!
You glance up at the many, many rooms of this tower, thinking of all the adventures you'll have. The Kai powers you'll use. The mirror matches yet to fight. The jumping puzzles that will stretch every heroic sinew to their absolute limit. You see it now. Your triumphant exit from this dark place, with the threat of the Mirror of Death forever vanquished. The adoration of your peers. The lamentation of evil. All will bow before you, and you will accept it with the heroic grace of one who knows that the fight against evil is never truly over while its spark continues to flicker in the hearts of men everywhere. For you are the champion. You are Lone Wolf—the last of the Kai, the one hope for Magnamund, the greatest hero ever to wield the Sommerswerd, and it is the darkness that will learn to fear you.
Then you sneeze so hard that your skull flies out and smashes against the wall. Fucking dust allergies.
THIS CRAPSHOOT IS OVER. WHETHER YOU LIKE IT OR NOT.
OK. That hyperlink went somewhere. Congratulations. Can we get started now, Stanley?
You stride confidently over to the giant hole and ram your head inside with heroic purpose. There is no treasure inside it, merely a sleeping golden rattlesnake. You breathe with relief at this rare stroke of luck, taking it as a sign from the gods that your purpose is noble and holy and just. Then a lightning bolt spears down, strikes the tree, and it falls on your head. You open your eyes, surprised to be able to do anything but begin your career as a slowly festering corpse, to see that in a second million-to-one shot, the hole was at exactly the right height for your head to slip in, saving you from any harm. You're not even scratched!
"Blimey. Definite bit of luck, that," agrees the rattlesnake, lunging.
THIS CRAPSHOOT IS OVER. MUCH EARLIER THAN USUAL.
You emerge onto the next floor, confirming your suspicions that things are going to get very repetitive after a while. Instead of a spitting gargoyle though, a bird flies towards you on a mission of death or death-related activity. Oh no!
Oh, sorry, maybe you wanted two dies? Sorry. All out. You just get to die.
THIS CRAPSHOOT IS OVER.
You pause in the introductory clearing, your eyes briefly landing on a suspiciously mentioned-in-the-narrative gnarled tree against the back wall, with a big head-sized hole on the side. As you decide that it's probably nothing, you suddenly become aware of an incredibly cut-down-because-this-is-taking-long-enough précis of this fine series.
Originally published in 1984, the Lone Wolf series was the story of a hero called Silent Wolf, an initiate at a monastery for a group of monks, the Kai, devoted to fighting evil in all of its forms, but mostly the kind with names likes "Darklords". As the only survivor of an attack that obliterates the Kai Monks, Silent Wolf renames himself Lone Wolf and sets out on a whole range of adventures that ranged from retrieving the legendary blade Sommerswerd to destroying the Darklords.
It's fairly stock fantasy stuff, but where Choose Your Own Adventure books were... well... a bit like this, the RPG elements carried the character from book to book and made for an epic continuing story.
If you're interested in checking them out, author Joe Dever made many available for free distribution after the series went out of print via Project Aon (opens in new tab), and they've since been reprinted more than once.
You're right, balls to that. Who wants to read in a Lone Wolf game of all things? You know who read books? Hitler. Hell, he even wrote one. To adventure! To glory! To... one second, let me look it up...
You glance around to see that everything has become incredibly stupid, with a half-hearted reboot from sillies who think it's a good idea to do things like recruit talent by holding contests to draw naked Harley Quinn committing suicide. Ah, wait, I see the problem. Sorry, you've ended up in the festering New 52. You wanted regular 52. It's over there. Try again.
Wiping the painful spit from your face, you fold your arms sternly and stare at the rude gargoyle in the hope of shaming it into treating you with the respect you clearly deserve. Five minutes later, you look like you've spent the morning on the lowest rung of the Japanese porn scene, and it's still not out of slobbering ammo. Nor is the door behind you.
Add the moral high ground to the intangible concepts section of your character sheet.
As you decide that this probably won't work, a heavy pot falls down from the ceiling and hits you on the head, adding injury to the already unpleasant cocktail of insult and injury that has been your quest so far. You decide that as philosophically valid as this passive approach is, it's probably time for some actual action.
None of that actually matters, however, because this 1991 videogame spin-off has very little to do with the books. Sorry for wasting your time there. Its full title is Mirror of Death, and it's an arcade platformer instead of something good.
Being beaten up by fecking birds sucks. This is not what you signed up for when you became a hero, nor something you feel you should have to put up with now. Still, you did, so you do. They join the spitting gargoyles, the spinning things on the walls and vast amounts of other stuff in their own quest to make you fall as far down the tower as possible. When you fall, you get no air control. Luckily, this time, you don't fall. Because this is already getting ludicrously long.
Despite your best intentions, you find yourself whisked away to a mysterious land known only as 63. It is dark here. You are eaten by a grue. If it helps, your smart arse gives it indigestion.
THIS CRAPSHOOT IS OVER.
You hold up the Dark Shard. "You cheating shit!" spits your mirror image. "I'm your evil counterpart, and even I'm disgusted by this flagrancy! I bet you've been using the Back button too!"
"Sorry," you mumble.
"Sorry?" Your shadow-self stares back. "Wolfy, are you kidding? If I'd known you started your day with two Weetabix, we'd have given you a job offer years ago. How about it? Dental, two weeks vacation every year, an asbestos umbrella for when the fire rain starts? What do you say? Partners?"
"PSYCH!" screams your dark doppelganger, stabbing you straight through your open mouth.
THIS CRAPSHOOT IS OVER. EVEN EVIL HAS STANDARDS.
"Arsehole," mutters the ladder, as your boots press down onto its rungs. "Jerk," it continues as you begin your ascent. "Long-haired ponce..." You are relieved when you get to the top, and don't feel quite as bad.
You stand at the edge of your adventure, wielding your mighty sword of power, your shield of strength, and somewhat unfortunately, your sister's Halloween costume. This is what happens when you get dressed in the dark. As you shiver and realise the tactical error of heading into battle with all vital organs completely exposed, you feel a newfound sympathy for female adventurers and the trials they face. On the plus side though, your boobs look great.
Your spirits are further lowered by the generic music playing in the background, and the realisation that when people say that the greatest graphics card is the human brain, they're thinking "Because it's sure as hell not EGA." A world of green and yellow opens out in front of you, and even for the time, a disappointing one. Far from the sprawling fantasy world of the books, this is simply going to be a journey through a tower. Probably a Tower of Death. But even a seemingly simple quest can have subtleties.
Wise. You pretend fight valiantly, but Death has a lot of practice at this kind of thing, and soon wipes you out with a speed that surprises even his not-actually-that-impressive self. As your endurance expires, you collapse to the ground, with just one wish—that as much of an abhorration as this game is, it has the good grace to end with dignity instead of, say, some kind of awful pun to rub a little salt and iodine into your fatal wound.
Still, you can't help but wonder... what if. What if you'd continued the quest to its bitter end? What if you'd been successful, and actually emerged from this adventure the hero that you thought and everyone hoped you could be? What if? What if, what if, what if?
In your last moments, you see a vision. A vision of a possible future, its crappy graphics no doubt the result of some kind of psychic interference that makes everything look like it's on a ZX Spectrum.
You nod weakly, as life and light ebbs away. "Totally not worth it," you croak to yourself.
Good to know, at least.
THIS CRAPSHOOT IS OVER.