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Chicago Gangsters

Series: Virgin Adventure Gamebooks #1
Author: Gifford, Clive
Release Date: 1986
Length:304 sections
User Summary: At the beginning of the Great Depression, you reach the city of Chicago intent on making your name as a gangster.
Guillermo's Thoughts: This book earned some notoriety after being reviewed by Paul Cockburn in Warlock magazine issue 10 (the same one where he gave the hyper-flawed Trial of Champions a rating of 'amazing' and the thoroughly mediocre The Last Invasion: 1066 a rating of 'good'). His overall impression of Chicago Gangsters was: "I can't actually think of anything to recommend in this book at all, and Derek [the Troll] actually refused to eat his copy in disgust."

Considering Cockburn's overrating streak, and despite my fondness for gangster fiction, I approached this book with a great deal of apprehension, feeling at the same time morbid curiosity for knowing exactly what 'Bleeagh' would mean for this guy. I consoled myself with the thought that nothing in Gamebook Land could be worse than the works of Gary Gygax, Stephen Thraves or Roy Wandelmaier, and that in the worst case scenario the book might make a decent goal-post in a game of street football (The Fire Demon in the Sagard series had already earned its place as the ball). Against the odds, I found myself reading the entire book, being left at the end with a mixed feeling that I've never felt before after reading a gamebook.

The first thing that comes to mind when looking at this book is that the strategy the multi-million transnational company Virgin Records used to enter the then-thriving gamebook market consisted of not being willing to spend more than a single penny for each copy of this print run. An observant reader of Warlock commented in the same issue that the cover artwork used in the second book in this series was a composite directly ripped off from illustrations in a certain Biggles book, and I wouldn't be surprised if something similar had happened in the case of Chicago Gangsters. In any case, both covers are authentic masterpieces when compared to the interior art for this book. The illustrations – if one dares to call them such with a straight face – are the most atrocious crap I've seen in my life, resembling more conversation panels from a cheap English as a Second Language book than something that would actually draw people to a work of fiction. It's no wonder no one seems to be willing to admit to having perpetrated them – Sue Walliker and Dicki Braganza are only credited for "cover and design."

Considering how cheap the production values are, it's really weird that someone actually bothered to include a game system with this book, since it is poorly explained and only rarely used. There does not seem to be a point to keeping track of your 'popularity' in the game, winning a combat more often than not leads to an instant ending, and hit points are never replenished. The main reason for keeping a pair of dice around while reading this book is for taking part in the all-too-frequent rounds of gambling, and you are actually far more likely to gamble than to roll a single attribute check in the whole adventure. It seems the only reason the author included a game system was that without it, the book would not have stood a chance of being picked up by Fighting Fantasy and Lone Wolf enthusiasts. In terms of design, the book resembles more the pick-a-path tradition than the full-system one (and I'm pretty sure this is the main cause for Cockburn's deep hatred of it).

The book is also rife with incorrect 'turn to' instructions and other mistakes (so much it makes the Skyfall series seem proofread). I'm pretty sure that the adventure is missing sections, since a few parts are present with no instructions whatsoever on how to reach them. The cherry on the cake is an option telling you to proceed to paragraph 305, when in fact the book only has 304 paragraphs.

So taking all of this into account, do you still wonder what my verdict on this book is going to be? In one word: brilliant.

I say the above without a hint of irony and not because the book deserves credit for being a jigsaw puzzle like the average Fighting Fantasy or a well-written random number fest like the average Lone Wolf. Quite the contrary. Instead of falling in the category of 'dull' like just any other bad gamebook, this book stops taking itself seriously after the introduction and the rules section end, and provides a lot of fun, most – but not all – of which is involuntary.

How many gamebooks have you read that, instead of having you play a moronic kid or a walking sword, allow you to play a selfish guy who can plot, scheme, betray and kidnap in order to achieve his own ends? There are several choices which allow the reader to behave as a real gangster, and the results make sense a posteriori in rather wicked ways (this despite the fact that, as in any bad gamebook worthy of the name, there are also numerous flaws and the leaps of logic in the story). The interactive element is thus worthwhile. Is not the power of choice, after all, the essential component of branching path literature, instead of the die-rolling? Clearly enough, the material presented here does not follow any kind of Hays Code for gamebooks, an issue which parents may find objectionable but in my case it only generated a sense of guilty pleasure.

I wouldn't be calling this an excellent bad gamebook if it weren't for its comedic elements: it gives the reader plenty of alternatives to try which often have unexpected – and hilarious – consequences. In the end, it doesn't matter if the book does not present a 'challenge' as most gamebook fans expect, since it is light-hearted enough that reaching a bad ending only provokes a laugh and the desire to begin playing again. Furthermore, have you ever seen a gamebook with dialogue like this:

"'Now,' she giggles, 'the business is over, how about pleasure?'"

Or another gem:

"You sit down on a fire hydrant, kicking the rubbish away from your feet.

'Christ. Chicago, what a dump!'"

Priceless.

Overall, I enjoyed this very much and it holds a special place in my collection as the one and only gamebook comedy I'm aware of. I'm not exactly in a hurry to seek out the second book in this series, but the laughs I got from this will stay with me forever. Two thumbs up.

More reviews by Guillermo

Special Thanks:Thanks to Guillermo Paredes for the plot summary and cover scans.
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