The Fighting Fantasy gamebooks by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone were blockbusters of the era. Let’s get up into the air… I guess… and fight the Sky Lord! Oh geez this looks bad.
In 1982, Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone, founders of Games Workshop, released the book ‘The Warlock of Firetop Mountain’. Intended as an introduction to tabletop role-playing games of the era, the book’s choose-your-own-adventure format mixed with simple dice-based combat proved massively successful, giving rise to a full series of books – Fighting Fantasy. With over 65 books in the series by a legion of authors and illustrators, the series’ legacy continues to this day. Come along with us as Cybe and co play through each one – with no prior knowledge, no hints or walkthroughs and no cheating!
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I had umpteen chances to purchase this book when I was a kid, and never did. Almost entirely because the cover is just simply so bland, with a strange alien thingy riding what appears to be a flying motorbike. There’s a laser beam and I’d guess it is meant to indicate that the creature is firing at someone, but the angle makes this difficult to tell for sure, and the background is a simple radiant yellow which simply screams lack of imagination. Really, with a cover like that, what kind of adventure is it selling? What lurks within?
It doesn’t start off well. You play as a four-armed alien knight thing from a planet whose name looks like someone’s cat walked across the keyboard. Your planet’s king summons you and tells you that he needs your service, because an evil Generic Bad Guy is doing Generic Bad Things. Our villain of the month is L’Bastin, whose foul plans involve tax evasion.
Let me clarify, L’Bastin wanted to get a whole load of money because he’s evil or something, but because the planet you’re living on hasn’t given anyone a pay raise in two hundred years (so, basically like Earth), L’Bastin asks for a loan. He’s turned down, and instead comes up with a plan to make himself rich. His plan is to replace his entire workforce by creatures grown in test-tubes, and keep their wages for himself. He learned of this idea from Amazon, I believe. The evil fiends other crimes include selling his flatmate’s possessions at the local pawn shop, and glueing a pineapple to the queen’s face. I wish I was joking here. I really do. Seriously, come back Balthus Dire, all is forgiven!
Anyway, I’m promptly shipped off to the bad guy’s space castle (a castle on a planet in space… some things never change, eh?) which is full of mutant cross-breed monsters of various types. So in short, I suspect, it’s going to be just like any other FF book, with nothing really major to differentiate it from the fantasy genre ones. If this pans out to be the case, that’ll mean that the best sci-fi one is Starship Traveller, as disturbing as that sounds… okay, let’s get on with it. The book asks me if I want to start off by making my ship time-warp or light-warp to the enemy’s castle.
I engage the time-warp drive, and after a few minutes of flight I’m told that I notice a ‘fuzzy purple blotch’ on the side of my ship. The text describes this as a space fungus, so I drop out of warp and try to get rid of it, when I’m suddenly attacked by a random space ship, which I’m able to shoot out of the sky without too much trouble. The ship leaves behind a droid robot, which I apparently take with me, before I crash into a random planet and sink my ship in a lake. Just call me Han Solo.
Stumbling out of the lake, the droid starts to toddle off on its own into the distance. I follow along after it, eventually losing sight of it. I walk along a random path, and find an alien spaceship which has landed on the planet. I attempt to board it, but two mutant monsters emerge and try to eat me. I defeat them both, but then apparently lose interest in the ship because I go in another direction entirely. I don’t know why, the book simply tells you that you do this. Frankly, given how many times I’ve said the word ‘random’ at this point, I’m not bloody surprised.
I manage to find the droid and save it from another generic mutant thing, and the droid is so thankful that it takes me to see its master, who lives in a nearby cave. The droid’s master tells me that the planet has been taken over by an evil sprite type thing and an army of mutants, and the droid was sent to save them all because it has some kind of mcguffin that can destroy the sprite’s ship.
The cave-dwelling madman then tells me that he’s just going to go and get my ship back, so he toddles off into the back of the cave. He then emerges a few moments later and tells me that he’s accidently destroyed my ship instead, and stranded me on this planet. The game then ends.
Let me make the record nice and clear though, I don’t dislike sci-fi. But good sci-fi is very hard to write well. I largely think that the age of really challenging sci-fi is a thing of the past now, that we’ve run out of Arthur C Clarkes and Philip K Dicks. Good sci-fi should make us stop and think about ourselves, question who we are and where we are going. Very few sci-fi products do that any more. This… is not one of them. This one leaves me feeling as if I’m standing in a cold dark room clutching my dog-eared copy of William Gibson’s ‘Neuromancer’, hoping for better days.
But yeah, in short, I don’t hate sci-fi, I just think it’s very hard to do it well, and that’s why many writers struggle with it. But, god help me, I decide to give it another shot.
This time, my character reaches for the light-jump, which results in nothing much more than being attacked by a different random space ship. After defeating it, though, I’m informed that there’s a large space station nearby which I could go and visit. I decide to dock in it, and (after blowing up a rather unimpressive drone shuttle) I’m given the bewildering choice of whether I enter the airlock while its vertical or horizontal. There doesn’t seem to be any indication as to which of these might be a ‘wrong’ choice, so I just pick one at random. Horizontal. No obvious difference in my choice either way. Woo. Such a feeling of progress, there.
Once inside the station, I’m given the choice as to if I want to leave the room I’m in, or look at either a plastic tap or a glass tap. I look at the glass tap, and I’m told that I then decide that I don’t want to do anything so just leave the room anyway. Wow. I’m so glad that the book gave me this choice. It added so much to my adventure and WHY AM I DOING THIS? I could be re-playing City of Thieves right now, and enjoying myself.
I wander around the station for a while until I encounter a locked door, and I’m told that lockpicking is a skill I learned at space academy. Let’s consider this for a moment. First up, I studied at a place called Space Academy – not the University of Plegus 3 or anything, but Space Academy. Because we’re in space, don’t you know. Trite. But second, Space Academy teaches lockpicking. Because every student has classes on how to pick a lock, and probably also on general burglary skills. And third, in this distant space station in the far future, locks aren’t bits of computerised digital systems that are unlocked by keycards or anything, but CAN BE PICKED WITH ACTUAL LOCKPICKS I mean god why why why why why why why why why why why why….
So after I pick the lock of the door (urrrrgh) I enter a room with a set of space mopeds in one corner, a la the high-speed carts in the film Space Mutiny. “Put your helmet on, we’ll be reaching speeds of three!” But no time to think about that, because there’s an evil orange blob on the other side of the room. I get on the cart and drive towards the orange blob, hoping that it’ll put me out of my misery. Instead I drive right over it, through the door, and wind up in the hydroponics bay.
Hydroponics bay exists purely to annoy me. I try to examine some of the plants, and I’m attacked by brambles. Brambles, and I mean ‘attacked’ as in they are alive and fighting me. Can you guess how many skill points a bramble has? You don’t have to guess, this book tells you. I’m feeling suitably underwhelmed, so after killing the bramble, the book asks if I want to eat a strawberry. Keen to have some slight sense of pleasure in my otherwise dreary mission, I chew on a strawberry. It was poisoned.
Spitting out the poisoned strawberry (and let me just ask WHAT KIND OF HYDROPONICS BAY IS FULL OF KILLER BRAMBLES AND POISONED STRAWBERRIES?), I decide to just leave, lugging a bag of weed-killer and a shovel with me, hoping that I can find a hole to bury myself in. Sorry, am I getting too bleak here? Let me make this very clear, this is not a good book. Fighting Fantasy has done far, far better. It’s even done better sci-fi books. Bleh. Right, leaving the hydroponics bay of pain, my character seems to decide that he would rather just leave the whole silly station behind. He loads himself into a shuttle and returns to his ship, without even leaving me the chance to decide if I want to or not.
The shuttle is inhabited by a survivor of the station, who is terrified of the orange blob, which has evidently ate all his friends. Like any kindly and noble space warrior, I butcher the terrified old man in cold blood. I take his box of cigars and revolver with me, because why not? And then I’m thrown into a fight with the orange blob. As a ‘fight’, it is actually fairly unique and innovative for this book, as I need to throw things at it, the blob then eats them and I hope that it gets full or poisoned or something. The entire innovation is kinda ruined because when I fail at this, I get a very generic ‘The blob catches up and devours you’ ending. Not even an imaginative description of it devouring your flesh. Feh.
This book is bad. It’s a bad, bad book. It’s not good. Have I made that clear enough? And you want to know why it’s bad? Because it’s lazy. The writing is just so lazy. It has some decent ideas though, deep down. I mean, take the very first choice, if you want to travel with time warp or light warp. That could be a pretty neat idea, a chance to really experience some strange and entirely new type of styles. Instead, the text just tells you that each holds different dangers, but doesn’t give any idea what those might be. Or the death with the orange blob eating you, it’s all presented in such a bland and dull manner.
In short, this book needed more. It has ideas, deep down, but it’s all just performed in such a lazy manner. As if there’s just no love or heart put into it. This book just reads as if someone was told to go and write it, and really didn’t care if what they had at the end of the day was going to be good or not. And if they didn’t care, why should I?
Cause of death: Gelatinous blob.