It’s heartening to see the multiple-choice adventure gamebook still going strong 30 years on from the genre’s retro heyday. I loved these books in their various guises as a child, and rekindled the flame a few years ago when, travelling the far corners of the Earth, I came upon Joe Dever’s Lone Wolf books in guest house libraries. There wasn’t much sightseeing that week.
This first adventure in the Ultimate Ending series by old-school Dungeons & Dragons veteran Danny McAleese and David Kristoph was written specifically for the ebook format, but time-saving hyperlinks replacing dog-eared page-flicking is its only concession to modernity. It’s otherwise a completely authentic retro throwback in the Stranger Things mould; not trying to outdo its forebears, just doing its best to earn a place alongside Fighting Fantasy and GrailQuest on the shelves of an anachronistic 1985 bookshop.
But apart from being a convincing forgery, is it actually any good?
“North, South, East, West
One Brings Life, The Others Death
Sun and Moon and Stars Bereft
The One Right Way is Not the Left”
Its target audience may be nostalgic kidults, but there’s enough hand-holding (in the early sections at least) and explanation of some of the trickier words that kids whose parents force it upon them should have no trouble getting sucked in too, assuming their attention spans are up to it. There are no overly complex stats to roll and pencil in here, you just need a coin or a dice (or a dice generator app if you want to feel really out of touch with reality) and a way to take notes.
However, being family-friendly doesn’t mean it’s easy or polite. With no molly-coddling save points or in-app purchases, younger readers could gain a new respect for the sadistic entertainment their parents had to put up with in the old days. Especially as the ebook format means they won’t have any idea we used to keep our finger in the previous page, in case we realised we meant to go right instead of left after getting a quick glimpse of what was in store down the bad path. You may find yourself jotting the chapter heading down when you’ve progressed particularly far and you come across an unforgiving fork, it’s nothing to be ashamed of.
“Three Star Jewels, Three Deadly Trials
Before the Walls Will Sing
It Takes Nine Lives
From Six Less Five
To Find the Hall of Kings”
Danny McAleese is a prize-winning author, but this isn’t a genre that demands deep plotting and characterisation, that would only complicate the puzzle machinations and spoil the relatability. It’s a shame they didn’t go with a more gender-neutral name than ‘Donovan’, really.
There are supposedly 26 possible endings to the story, but why even replay when you could move on to the next in the series of seven books (and counting?) If you’re still itching after that, go and see Joe Dever for the harder stuff.