Amazing Stories

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These books were released around the time that TSR acquired the rights to Amazing Stories magazine and were designed to also take advantage of the popularity of the NBC television series based on the magazine that was airing at the time. Although they are about the same thickness as some of TSR's more complex gamebooks, they have no rules and, at least on a game level, are as simplistic as the Endless Quest books. In fact, their simple choices are so few and far between that a couple of these books sat in my general book collection for months before I even noticed that they were interactive and decided to pay a little more attention to them!

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 1. The 4-D Funhouse
Authors: Clayton Emery and Earl Wajenberg
Illustrators: Jeff Easley (cover), internal illustrator uncredited
First Published: September, 1985
ISBN: 0-88038-255-4
Length: 219 pages (16 sections)
Number of Endings: 5
Plot Summary: A young man sets out to visit his eccentric, amusement-park-designing uncle and ends up running across the remains of an experiment which lead him to adventures involving dimensions beyond the usual three.
My Thoughts: This book features a somewhat unusual format; it has named chapters (with choices directing the reader to specific page numbers rather than section numbers), and it's written in the first person, past tense. Content-wise, it's very much a good-news/bad-news kind of book. The good news is that it features some of the best writing I've encountered in a gamebook -- the story is original, enjoyable, exciting and clever, the characters are developed and endearing, and even the concepts behind the science fiction elements are handled well. It works as a sort of tribute to Flatland and Dr. Seuss (to whom the book is dedicated), and various pop culture references manage to add flavor without being too jarring. The bad news is that this isn't really much of a gamebook. There's no real game to it -- at times, several dozen pages go by between choices, and there really only are a handful of choices in the book anyway. The choices are of no consequence to the momentum of the plot, with all choices either leading immediately to endings or reconverging at the same point (as this map of the book demonstrates). Only the last decision, which branches off to three different lengthy happy endings, leads to dramatic plot divergence, and since this is at the very end, it doesn't give the book anything that could be described as "gameplay." This is well worth a read, but its interactive elements are superfluous. It's a shame, too, because this could have made quite an intriguing "real" gamebook. I'm also a little sad that no sequels were written -- there's more potential here than was used up in just one tale.

 2. Jaguar!
Author: Morris Simon
Illustrator: Jeff Easley (cover), no internal illustrations
First Published: September, 1985
ISBN: 0-88038-256-2
Length: 222 pages (21 sections)
Number of Endings: 3
Plot Summary: An American linguist gets drawn into bizarre circumstances as a result of researching the ancient Olmec language in a remote area of Mexico.
My Thoughts: This book is quite similar to the previous one in format, though it's written in the third person rather than the first person. Its story isn't quite as original or well-executed as the previous adventure, but it's still more engaging and fun than the average gamebook. As before, though, the improvements in story are offset by a lack of meaningful gameplay. Although there are a few more choices and sections here than in the last book, there's still not a great feeling of freedom, and there's actually less plot diversity since there are only three endings. Different paths reveal different details, but the basic story barely varies (here's my map of the book's paths). Once again, it appears that the author has managed to avoid the normal story pitfalls of the gamebook form by not really writing a gamebook. It's a decent read, but not much of an interactive experience.

 3. Portrait in Blood
Author: Mary L. Kirchoff (credited as Mary Kirchoff)
Illustrator: Jeff Easley (cover), no internal illustrations
First Published: October, 1985
ISBN: 0-88038-258-9
Length: 222 pages (22 sections)
Number of Endings: 7
Plot Summary: An American student visiting England has a strange encounter with a painting at the National Gallery and finds himself haunted by the ghost of a woman who died a hundred years earlier.
My Thoughts: After two largely linear adventures, this is a nice change of pace. Although there's still a lot more reading of linear chapters than there is decision-making, this book features some genuinely meaningful (and sometimes tough) choices which cause substantial branches in the story's plot. The plot itself isn't as original as that of the first volume (being essentially a standard supernatural tale of lust and betrayal), and the writing is a little shaky at times (particularly in the characterization of minor characters), but this book maintains the series' above-average storytelling while sacrificing less freedom of gameplay than its two predecessors. It's still much more of a story than a game, but it's a story worth reading several times in order to play out all of the possibilities. It's well worth a look, especially if you like traditional ghost stories. In case you're interested, here is my map of the story's structure.

 4. Nightmare Universe
Authors: Gene DeWeese and Robert Coulson
Illustrator: Jeff Easley (cover), no internal illustrations
First Published: October, 1985
ISBN: 0-88038-259-7
Length: 223 pages (13 sections)
Number of Endings: 7
Plot Summary: A science-fiction-writing construction worker stumbles upon a dimensional gateway on a job site and finds himself on an alien world.
My Thoughts: This is an interesting item -- a linear novel which has been converted into a gamebook. According to the title page, "[p]arts of this book were previously published in the novel, Gates of the Universe, by the same authors." Since the copyright notice lists both 1975 and 1985, it can be assumed that the linear version of the story was written ten-years before the gamebook version. Origins aside, this is a fairly typical entry in the series, fairly closely resembling the first book in plot and style, though with somewhat less inventiveness on display. There aren't very many chances for decision-making, with every path through the book being either three or four sections long (see my map of the book to see what I mean). Fortunately, what choices are available do make a significant difference to the unfolding of the plot, and different paths reveal different aspects of the story, making replay worthwhile. This is no classic, but it's another solid adventure.

 5. Starskimmer
Author: John Gregory Betancourt
Illustrator: Doug Chaffee (cover), no internal illustrations
First Published: February, 1986
ISBN: 0-88038-262-7
Length: 222 pages (17 sections)
Number of Endings: 9
Plot Summary: A starship captain and his empathic alien friend look for work and find themselves involved with a new kind of jewel that proves somewhat dangerous to produce.
My Thoughts: This is my least favorite entry in the series so far, though since this is a pretty strong series, that's not to say it's bad. It's a fairly straightforward space adventure, falling somewhere between Star Trek and a spacebound Doctor Who episode in flavor, but generally less charming than either. The presence of a sonic screwdriver seems to suggest that the Doctor Who influence may be stronger, though it might also be a coincidence. Anyway, there are some bits of inventiveness (a flashback to the main character's childhood on an algae farm in the last section of the book, for example, is surprisingly evocative), but for every good idea, there are three or four weak attempts at characterization, implausible turns of the plot and vindictive robot taxis. I'm honestly not entirely sure what the author was trying to do here, but he didn't quite succeed; there is just enough promise on display that I might consider reading some of his short stories, though. Structurally, the book is much like the previous one, with all choices branching outward and revealing different aspects of the same basic plot, though there are longer paths and more choices here. As with the rest of the series, I made a map for your enlightenment.

 6. Day of the Mayfly
Author: Lee Enderlin
Illustrator: Doug Chaffee (cover), no internal illustrations
First Published: February, 1986
ISBN: 0-88038-263-5
Length: 221 pages (18 sections)
Number of Endings: 8
Plot Summary: A sign advertising cheap gasoline lures a young girl into a dangerous situation.
My Thoughts: The author of this book is a self-proclaimed Stephen King fan, and it definitely shows in the writing -- the style and storyline are quite reminiscent of King. Not being much of a fan of Stephen King's work, this didn't impress me very much, but others might feel differently. From a gamebook perspective, I found the adventure intriguing but ultimately disappointing. First of all, the book is written in the first person, but if it had stuck with gamebook-style second person, it would actually have been more powerful and frightening; this is the sort of story that could be quite immersive, but since it is clearly about someone else, its impact is lessened. In any case, my first two read-throughs were by far the most interesting. The first time, I made what I thought were good decisions and ended up getting horribly killed. My demise then cast a whole new light on the previous experiences, giving the second read-through a totally different flavor and showing one of the unique benefits of the gamebook: the ability to learn new things and thus experience different emotions reading the same text. Unfortunately, though, my second read-through also ended in a horrible death under circumstances which contradicted what I had learned the first time around. While most of the inconsistencies on display in the book could be explained away as lies told by various characters, there are more contradictions than there have to be, and in the end, it detracts from the experience. After reaching four or five different endings, I didn't feel I was likely to learn anything new or interesting about the secret of Ashton Falls, and I put the book down and got on with the rest of my life. This certainly isn't a bad book, but I'm disappointed that it failed to make full use of its potential; it could have been quite gripping if it had tried a little harder. As always, here is the obligatory map.

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